Kerma, 1913

The sands of ancient Nubia, a region over-lapping southern Egypt and northern Sudan, are home to remains of cities, forts, and numerous pyramids. It was to these archaeologically rich sands that the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition headed in 1913. The team, led by George A Reisner, had been investigating sites along the Nile in Egypt over the preceding years, and on 11 February 1913, arrived at the site of Kerma, in northern Sudan. This had been the capital of the Kerma civilisation, which flourished between around 2500 and 1500 BC. Reisner’s plan was to use the site as a starting point, travelling towards the Egyptian border to identify a location to excavate, but he was so impressed with Kerma that he decided to linger there until April, and returned later to conduct further fieldwork.

During their years of work in Nubia, which continued until 1932, the expedition did venture beyond Kerma, and explored other important sites, such as Gebel Barkal, Nuri, Meroë, and the Second Cataract Forts. The fieldwork was recorded extensively in photographs: some 10,000 images have been preserved. At the start of the expedition, Reisner took and developed his own photographs, with assistance in the darkroom from Said Ahmed Said, an Egyptian worker with the expedition, who later took over the photographic work and trained up other Egyptian photographers. Their work, in the collection of the MFA Boston, has been showcased in a book (see below) and was also on view in a 2019-2020 exhibition at the museum.

One man working behind the lens was Mohammedani Ibrahim Ibrahim, who had joined the expedition in 1906 and was promoted to photographer in 1914. It is his photograph we see on the right, taken on 16 December 1913 as an impressive statue emerges from the sands at Kerma.

This statue, an intact life-size seated figure of Lady Sennuwy, the wife of the governor of the province of Asyut in southern Egypt, was recovered from the largest royal burial mound at Kerma. Carved out of grey granodiorite, it dates from 1971–1926 BC (in Egypt’s 12th Dynasty). It is some three centuries older than the tumulus of the king of Kerma, in which it was found, and was probably seized as booty during a Nubian raid on Egypt. The two neighbours frequently engaged in combat over the centuries, and a number of Egyptian artefacts (including a similar sculpture of Sennuwy’s husband, Djefaihapi) made their way to the Nubian site. Today, Sennuwy’s fine statue is among the highlights of the MFA’s Egyptian collections.

Photo: Harvard University Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Unearthing Ancient Nubia: Photographs from the Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition by Lawrence M Berman is published by MFA Publications (ISBN 978-0878468546).