Kerma-ware of Sudan…


Of all the countries of Africa, Sudan is the largest. The northern regions were first settled 300,000 years ago. The oldest Sub-Saharan African kingdom used to be situated here, this was the kingdom of Kush (Circa 2500 – 1500 BC). Between 2800 and 2400 BC in the area to the south of Egypt between the 1st and 4th cataract of the Nile River lived a people whose culture we call Pre-Kerma. This was followed by the Middle-Kerma and Classic-Kerma cultures (2500 – 1500 BC).

 

http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=kerma+sudan&sll=53.800651,-4.064941&sspn=10.810514,28.125&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Kerma,+Dongola,+Ash+Shamaliyah,+Sudan&t=h&z=13
The town of Kerma still exists to this day, on the map just south of the 3rd cataract, but during Classic Kerma period it was a lush place fertilized and irrigated by the Nile River. This part of northern Sudan was rich in natural resources particularly gold, ebony and ivory. The ancient Egyptians were attracted southward to gain control of these resources which often led to conflict. Both the Sudanese and Egyptian rulers sought to control the trade between the nations which was whether at war or peace prolific. Around 1700 BC Kush was the most powerful state in the Nile valley. Thutmose I of Egypt envious of the power, wealth and resources at the disposition of the Kushites invaded between 1504 – 1492 BC. Thus ended the Kerma culture as it was swallowed up by Egypt, the skills of the tradesmen weren’t lost however but used to further those of the Egyptian usurpers.

 

The banks of the River Nile are rich in clay washed and levigated along hundreds of miles of this river. This clay was used during the Classic-Kerman period to make the most exquisite pottery found in the Nile valley. The hallmarks of this civilisation are the bell shaped ceramic vessels known as Kerma Beakers. This is the most common form of pottery from this area during this period and was often used as burial gifts which would usually have been filled with rice or other foodstuffs to sustain the dead during their passage to the underworld.

Kerma beakers stand typically around 10 cm high and are around 14 cm in diameter. They are highly burnished for which it would have been rubbed usually with a polished pebble or some other smooth implement. Usually with a bright red body, black and lustrous around the rim and also inside the vessel, there is sometimes on the better preserved pieces a grey-silver opalescent line separating the black from the red of the body. Finely made from red earthenware clay these delicate, thin walled ceramic vessels show signs of a culture at its height of technology. To make such pieces would require firing in a kiln which was highly controlled in both temperature and atmosphere.

The earlier pieces of Kerma-ware were produced by hand as pinch-pots however as technology improved by the Classic-Kerma period some potters had moved on to use primitive potters wheels. The red of the clay was accentuated by rubbing red ochre into the burnished surface of the pot whilst leather hard. In order to achieve the black lustrous effect on the ceramics these pieces were inverted in combustible material creating a reducing atmosphere while firing. The irregular band of grey silver opalescent glaze like substance is said to have been applied to the pot before firing. I am wondering however whether this discoloration, not visible on all of the pottery, is actually a residue caused by the burning of the wood near the ceramics causing some sort of wood ash glaze effect on it, or maybe a mixture of that and some salts escaping the clay during firing.

Beakers such as these have been found in many tombs of this period and from the other remains in such tombs it can be seen that these vessels were held in great esteem and were very much sought after as objects. Some variants can be found on this design such as this beaker with a spout. There are many examples of work from this area to be found in the British Museums collections.

I am very interested in how these ceramics were created and fired and will attempt to create some pieces similar during the coming term. I will Hopefully attach some photos of this work here when completed.

Useful links…

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/k/kerma_ware_pottery_beaker.aspx

http://wysinger.homestead.com/badarians.html

http://www.ancientsudan.org/burials_03_kerma.htm

http://wysinger.homestead.com/Rapport_2009_Internet.pdf

3 Comments

  1. Hi Johnathan,
    Thanks so much for collecting all of this info/images in one place. I came across some Kerma beakers in the Louvre last month and I was really taken with them. I’ve making a go at creating something similar right now and I’m wondering if you ever got around to trying your hand at them. If so, do you have any advice? I thought your suggestion that the iridescent line is probably a residue from firing was excellent (since it helps account for the irregularity of the effect). I’m fairly new to ceramics so I may be way off, but I was thinking of bisquing the works initially and then half-burying (up to the level where I want the black to begin) and pit firing.
    Thanks again,
    Derrick

  2. Hey Derrick!!

    Yes I think that your method may well work…
    After a few attempts of my own Bisque firing then Re Firing the pieces in Raku before standing them in sawdust I found that by applying a roughly brushed application of wet wood ash around where the line is to be has the required effect…
    Of course its the salts within the wood that create the effect and these vary depending on the wood used…
    Please let me know how your experiments go?
    I’m glad my Blog has been of use to you…
    Take care!!

    Johnathan.

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