An Infant Cemetery of the Classic Kerma Period (1750-1500 BC, Island of Sai, Sudan)

Article excerpt


The Kerma civilisation was first recognised by Reisner at the beginning of the twentieth century (Reisner 1923). Since then the works of Gratien (1978) on the island of Sai and Bonnet (1997) on the Kerma city have established its chronology and extent. Supported by an environment favourable to agriculture, the Kerma kingdom endured from 2500 to 1500 BC and stretched over a vast territory between the second and the fourth cataracts of the River Nile (Figure 1). The Kerma culture is conventionally divided into three periods: Early Kerma (2500-2050 BC), Middle Kerma (2050-1750) and Classic Kerma (1750-1500 BC) (Bonnet 1997). Conflicts between the Kingdom of Kerma and Egypt are documented, but also more peaceful contacts as shown by artefacts of Egyptian influence found in the City of Kerma (Bonnet 1997).

Burial practices in the Classic Kerma are well known thanks to excavations at numerous cemeteries (Gratien 1978; Vila 1987; Bonnet 1995), but most of the burials have been those of adults. In 1995 a cemetery dating from the Classic Kerma period was discovered on the island of Sai in Middle Nubia and exhaustively excavated between 1999 and 2001. This site (known as 8B51) is exceptional in that nearly 80 per cent of the buried individuals were stillborn or died shortly after birth. The necropolis was very clearly laid out and the funerary rites were varied according to the age at death.

The necropolis--excavation and study methods

The island of Sai is located in Nubia, about 100 km north of the third cataract (20[degrees] 40N, 30[degrees] 21E) (Figure 1). This 12 km-long (N-S) and 5.5 km-wide (E-W) island has been an important centre of occupation since Lower Paleolithic times (Geus 1994, 2000). Its continuity of use can be partly explained by its geographical position at the far south of the Dal cataract, which acts as a natural barrier for Middle Nubia (Geus 1994). Cemetery 8B51 is situated at the edge of a preexisting Wadi near the east bank of the island, and extends over an area of 150 square metres (as determined by test pits) (Figure 2). The terrain here is alluvium covered by layers of windblown sediment, gravel or silt of irregular depth. The graves were furnished with artefacts that can, without any doubt, be dated to the Classic Kerma period. In particular, the discovery of "tulip" pottery, with a black stripe down the body of the pot, is typical (Gratien, 1978). The [sup.14]C calibrated dating of material from Grave 1 also belonged to the Classic Kerma period (UtC-5118: 1672-1514 cal BC at 95 per cent probability).


The graves contained skeletal remains which were predominately those of children. On the surface, the graves were recognisable by patches of sediment contrasting with the gravel of the bank. The techniques used for the excavation of the graves and bone sampling were those recommended by Duday et al. (1990), combining precise excavation of the bone remains with photographic coverage at each level of definition. Specialist observation in situ allowed the subsequent interpretation of the nature of the deposit and a discussion on the possible post-burial phenomena. The very thin sediment (mainly silt) preserved traces of the anatomy and occasionally filled spaces left by decomposition. This made the definition of the graves easier, particularly regarding the original position of the corpse as well as the primary or secondary nature of the deposit. Most of the bones were articulated, and showed where the skeleton had first formed. Some individuals had undergone desiccation, which is frequent in a desert environment, leading to partial or complete mummification. Mummification ranges from the preservation of the hair to that of the whole skin. To avoid the loss of any information, criteria for estimating age at death were collected during the excavation and subsequently confirmed in the laboratory.

The biological study took into account the estimation of age at death and the metrical characteristics of each skeleton. …