One of the most-eye catching and distinctive types of pottery in Manchester Museum’s collection are tulip-shaped beakers from the site of Kerma in Sudan, such as this example which is currently on display in the ‘Egyptian Worlds’ gallery (Acc. No. 8556).
The Kingdom of Kush was the first urban society in Sub-Saharan Africa and flourished from 2500 to around 1450 BC. The site of Kerma was the ancient capital of the Kushite kingdom and extensive excavations at Kerma have revealed residential and industrial areas, cemeteries, palaces and two huge mudbrick buildings known as deffufa which are uniquely associated with Nubian architecture and are thought to have had a religious function, perhaps as temples.
Tulip-beakers are a distinctive product of the Kushite kingdom and were produced in large numbers from 1750 to 1550 BC, during the period known as ‘Classic Kerma’. These beautiful vessels were made by hand using red-coloured clay which the potters found in abundance on the banks of the Nile. Before the vessel was fired, the surface was polished, or burnished, with a pebble, thus compacting the clay and making the surface very smooth with a metallic sheen.
Importantly, during firing the tulip-beakers were turned upside-down in the kiln which meant that the rim was fired in a reduced atmosphere (without oxygen) and so appears black, leaving the rest of the vessel red: we call these types of pots ‘black-topped red ware’. The delicate tulip-shape of this beaker highlights the technological skill of the Kushite potters, especially as the vessel is handmade rather than being made on a potter’s wheel. These beakers may have been used for drinking, and several have been found stacked inside each other in the tomb.
This particular beaker was excavated from Kerma in 1913 by the Harvard-Boston expedition led by George Andrew Reisner, an American Egyptologist and pioneer of early scientific archaeology. It subsequently made its way into the Manchester Museum collection in 1926 via the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum, and is a very visible illustration of the sophisticated craftsmanship of the Kushite potters.
A team of Geomorphologists and dating specialists, including Prof. Jamie Woodward from the University of Manchester, have recently revealed results from their investigations of ancient Sudanese river channels proving that the Kerma civilisation was able to flourish due to its proximity to the life-giving River Nile, which flooded every year and deposited fertile silts onto the land next to the river. The Kerma civilisation, which lasted for over a thousand years, finally died out in around 1500 BC when these floods were not quite high enough and a major Nile tributary dried up.