University of Michigan Nubian Expedition
Geoff Emberling, Director
In 2013, the Kelsey Museum began a new field project at El Kurru in northern Sudan that aims to relocate an ancient royal city. Directed by Research Scientist Geoff Emberling, the project has now located a city wall, a large rock-cut well, and a temple with columns and a network of underground rooms. We have also excavated a portion of the largest pyramid at the site.
Ancient Nubia, particularly the culture known as Kush, was one of Africa's earliest centers of political authority, wealth, and military power. Distinctively different from the urban bureaucracy of ancient Egypt—its neighbor enemy to the north—Kush derived its power in part from its control over rich sources of gold and from its role in transporting goods between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean.
Kush was conquered by the Egyptian empire of the New Kingdom beginning in about 1550 BC. With the collapse of Egyptian control in the years after 1100 BC, little is known about Kush, although new excavations are beginning to shed light on this dark age. However, we do know that beginning after 900 BC, a new political center had emerged at El Kurru, where a series of burials beginning with Nubian-style tumuli and developing into Egyptian-style royal pyramids marks the rise of the Napatan dynasty. The kings buried here, who are sometimes known as the “Black Pharaohs,” would conquer Egypt and rule as its 25th Dynasty. They would also fight against the invading Assyrian empire in battles described in the Hebrew Bible.
The rise of the Napatan dynasty remains poorly understood, and as the earliest of its political centers, El Kurru is critical to understanding these developments. The royal burials at Kurru were excavated by George Reisner in 1918-1919. In his notebooks, he referred to a royal city that was adjacent to the cemetery, with features including a 200-meter-long stretch of city wall, a city gate, temples, and a large rock-cut well that he interpreted as belonging to a royal palace. He did not investigate these remains in any detail, and in fact they are not visible on the site today, most likely due to high Nile floods that occurred several times during the 20th century.