Edges of Bronze and Expressions of Masculinity: The Emergence of a Warrior Class at Kerma in Sudan

By Hafsaas-Tsakos, Henriette | Antiquity, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Edges of Bronze and Expressions of Masculinity: The Emergence of a Warrior Class at Kerma in Sudan


Hafsaas-Tsakos, Henriette, Antiquity


The Bronze Age warrior aristocracy in Europe

Between 1600 and 1500 BC in Bronze Age Europe, so-called warrior aristocracies appeared along an axis from mainland Greece in the south to Norway in the north (Treherne 1995; Kristiansen & Larsson 2005). In the archaeological record, the new warrior aristocracy is identified by graves under barrows containing valuable equipment, including bronze weapons (Kristiansen 1999: 177). The personal equipment of this emerging group centred on four themes: warfare, horse riding and chariot driving, bodily decoration, and alcohol drinking (Treherne 1995:108-109). The development of the sword and the introduction of the two-wheeled chariot represented significant improvements in military practice (Treherne 1995: 109-110). The warriors cared about their physical appearance and distinguished themselves by controlling their hair growth, as indicated by bronze razors and tweezers (Kristiansen & Larsson 2005: 228). A rich variety of ceramic and metal vessels for serving and drinking beverages appears in the archaeological record all over Europe. This has been linked to elite hospitality in the form of male drinking rituals and warrior feasting through which a chief could create and reproduce an armed force of supporters (Treherne 1995:110; Sherratt 1997: 392).

The material culture associated with the European warriors originated in the already ancient centres of the Bronze Age world, namely Mesopotamia and Egypt (Sherratt 1994). However, both the equipment and the practices associated with the warriors were adapted to local traditions (Kristiansen 1999:181). Contemporary with the emergence of a warrior aristocracy on the northern periphery of the Bronze Age world, another such development seems to have taken place on its southern periphery (Hafsaas-Tsakos 2009). In this paper I re-examine monumental burials at Kerma in today's Sudan, and use the occurrence of swords or daggers, razors, and tweezers of bronze, as well as elaborate drinking cups, to demonstrate the practice there of a masculine warrior cult.

Historical context

Between 1913 and 1916, George A. Reisner (1923a, 1923b) initiated the exploration of an extensive urban settlement and a vast burial ground at Kerma in northern Sudan (Figure 1). Excavations were resumed in 1976 by the University of Geneva under the direction of Charles Bonnet (Bonnet 1992: 613). More recent excavations have demonstrated that the Kerma culture can be found upstream along the Nile as lar as Mograt Island (Schulz 2008: 46), and downstream the border of the Kerma culture seems to be in the Bam el- Hajar, although isolated graves and objects have been found further north (Hafsaas- Tsakos 2010: 393). Based on the excavations of several Kerma cemeteries on Sai Island, Brigitte Gratien (1978) has proposed a chronology of the Kerma culture divided into an early, middle, classic, and late phase and spanning a millennium from 2500 to 1500 BC (Table 1). The dates are based on the known age of Egyptian imports in archaeological contexts at Kerma in combination with a limited number of 14C dates (Bonnet 2004: 72).

At the beginning of the middle phase, around 2000 BC, Kerma emerged as one of the major economic and political centres in the Nile Valley. This coincided intime with the rise and prosperity of a political entity called Kush, which is mentioned in contemporary Egyptian sources as both an important trading parmer and an intimidating rival. There is now agreement among archaeologists that Kerma was the seat of the rulers of Kush. According to a boundary stele at the Egyptian fortress at Semna in the Bam el- Hajar, which was the border zone between the two powers, the Kushites were not allowed to travel north of the fortress Iken upstream of the Second Cataract (Breasted 1962a: 293). The rulers of Kush seem to have collected raw materials in their hinterlands, which they then brought to the Egyptian fortresses, where the exotic goods were exchanged for manufactured commodities. …

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