After the Kushite rule in Sudan began to blossom again, in about the mid-eleventh century BC,1 local cultures expanded and developed
in complexity. The Napatan-Meroitic era is about a thousand
and three hundred years. Unfortunately it would be impossible to cover all the complexities and dynamics of burial practices for such an expanded period of time in such a short article. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide a general and a basic outlook on the burial traditions practiced by the Kushites through the
period as concluded from a wide range of archeological excavations and historical
Bed leg made of wood. From Meroe. In Berlin. Source: Wildung, Dietrich.
Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
During the Naptan-Meroitic period, the Kushite population
grew and expanded demographically along the stretch of
the Nile Valley, from Wadi-Halfa in the north to el-Gezeera region
south of Khartoum.2 The major cemeteries are
located in the big cities, i.e. el-Kurru, Napata, Sanam,
royal burials for the period were uncovered at el-Kurru.
One of the earliest dated royal burials for the period belongs to, probably, a king
(i.e. with an unknown name- labeled ‘Lord-A’), whose
reign is thought to have begun in about 890 BC.3
Many known burial traditions from the Kerma period continued into
the Napatan-Meroitic period. These include bed burials within tumuli
(i.e., often associated with royal burials) and the tradition of
placing the deceased on bed.4 On later periods more variations
in burial traditions came into the scene. The most
popular form of royal burials for the rulers
at el-Kurru were coffins.5
The basic structure of the coffin is usually consisted of wood and,
often, inlayed with gold, ivory, as well as other materials for
decorations. On the other hand, coffins are frequently found in non-royal
Sarcophagus burials (associated with pyramid superstructures) were
excavated dating primarily to the Meroitic period.6 Sarcophagi were
usually made of stone.7 Rich people sometimes built themselves
small pyramids or simply roofed their tombs with stone blocks, sometimes
Shabits of king Senkamanisken from Nuri. Dating to the Napatan
period. Originally courtesy of the Harvard University-MFA
Boston Expedition and the Boston Museum of fine Arts. Source:
Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Cemeteries of the commoners varied greatly in sizes and findings,
depending on the status of the deceased. The practice of mummification
persisted in the Napatan-Meroitic period and was not by any means
limited to the royal class.9 Yet, the majority of the
locals were buried in simple pits.
The deceased were placed on different body orientations
depending on the location and date of the burial ground. For example,
while in Kerma the bodies were usually facing north, in el-Kurru the deceased were normally laid in
an east-west orientation.10 Side-niche pits were made
only to accommodate the body on its side. On other cases the body
was placed on its back. Also, cases in which the bodies were placed
on crouched positions are also abundant.
Various conclusions may be drawn regarding the deceased body orientation
at the period. Excavations suggest that orientation was usually
towards the east as the case with the el-Kurru royal burials, which
supports the popular religious theme of rebirth as connected to
the direction of sun rise.11 The case differs with
other cemeteries, where bodies were found buried with diverse orientations.
Hence, there was no single manner of burial.
According to Kushite beliefs, the dead should be accompanied in
the afterlife by what they possessed in their lifetimes. Accordingly
the deceased were buried along with their important lifetime possessions.
As a result, archeologists discovered treasures and diverse daily
life materials in graves, which enabled us to gain inavaluable indications on the culture and life in ancient Nubia.
The excavated royal graves, including pyramid tomb chambers, contained
some of the ancient world’s finest treasures. The treasures
included seals, furniture, weapons, horse riding implements such
as trappings, jewelry, and personal ornament materials such as kohl
and perfume pots.12
Lamp from Meroe. Made of Bronze. Originally courtesy of the
Harvard University-MFA Boston Expedition and the Boston Museum
of Fine Arts. Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient
Kingdoms of the Nile.
Spherical vessel, squat flask, and spherical vessel. From
Argo Island, Meroe, and Wad Ban Naga. Meroitic period. Originally
courtesy of the Khartoum National Museum, courtesy of the
Harvard University-MFA Boston Expedition and the Khartoum
National Museum, and courtesy of the excavations of H. Thabit-J.
Vercoutter, and the Khartoum National Museum. Source: Wildung,
Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile.
Pottery and ceramics, some of which were rated as some of the ancient
world's finest types, on the other hand, were found in large numbers. Tomb chambers from the Meroitic era also included large
quantities of imported materials from around the Mediterranean world.
One tomb, contained silk from Central Asia, and another contained
an amphora from Roman-Algeria.13
Of special concern are findings that improve our knowledge of
the Kushite religious beliefs. Wall inscriptions and illustrations are an important source of information on religion. The walls of the tomb
chamber of king Tanwetamani's mother (Qalhata) provide details about some basic religious beliefs. They were painted with
motifs that describe the judgment of the deceased in the
after life.14 Religious texts usually inserted within
the mummy’s wrap also help improve our knowledge of Kushite
religion. Objects such as shabits and canopic jars, shed light on
the ritual practices. Jars and containers were discovered in large numbers.
On the other hand, burials of lower classes contained everyday
life materials with different qualities depending on the status
of the deceased. Accompanying pottery and ceramics were personal
ornaments such as kohl, jewelry, and figurines of gods and goddesses.
Offering table, Meroe. Originally courtesy of the Harvard University-MFA
Boston Expedition. Source: Wildung, Dietrich. Sudan: Ancient
Kingdoms of the Nile.
Animal sacrifice seem to have continued in Kushite
traditions. In a royal grave at el-Kurru, twenty-four horses were
found sacrificed in connection with the sun deity represented by
a falcon and a sun disk. Human sacrifice, though uncommon, has continued. Many rich graves contained
carelessly slaughtered persons who seemed to have been servants.15
Almost every grave with a superstructure contained a funerary chapel.
There, fragments of broken pottery were often found. This ritual
of breaking pottery after a funerary ceremony has taken place is a burial tradition that goes back to
the Kerma period.16 This ritual is not limited to graves with chapels.
The quality of the pottery represented the economic status of the
deceased. On rich graves, shreds of fine pottery were discovered,
while in poorer graves the quality of the pottery is much less.17
Animal sacrifices in front of yards of the graves or tomb chambers were
Edited: Jan. 2009.