On Friday, August 23, our new special exhibition, Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan, opened to the public. 

Northern Sudan is mostly desert, but the Nile Valley in this region was once home to a powerful African civilization called Kush. It traded gold and the products of central Africa to Egypt and the Mediterranean world beyond.

The Kelsey Museum's latest special exhibition explores one part of private religious ritual in ancient Kush — the practice of carving graffiti in important and sacred places like pyramids and temples. This practice began during a time when Kush was ruled from the capital of Meroe (300 BCE to 300 CE), a city located along the Nile about 100 miles north of modern-day Khartoum.

For us today, it’s a strange idea that a visitor to a temple would carve a picture into the stone and that this would be an accepted, even valued practice. But in ancient Kush it was common, and graffiti can still be seen at several sacred sites — on the pyramids of Meroe, in a seasonal pilgrimage center called Musawwarat es-Sufra, and in the Temple of Isis at Philae, near the border with Egypt.

Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan explores a series of graffiti newly discovered by a Kelsey Museum archaeological field project on a pyramid and in an underground temple at the site of El-Kurru. The graffiti include clear symbols of ancient Kush, like the ram that represented the local form of the god Amun, and a long-legged archer who symbolized Kushite prowess in archery. There are also intricate textile designs as well as animals — beautiful horses, birds, camels, and giraffes. The most common marks are small round holes gouged in the stone. By analogy with modern practices, these are likely the areas where temple visitors scraped the wall of the holy place in order to collect powdered stone that they would ingest to promote fertility and healing.

Through photographs, text, and interactive media presentations, this exhibition explores the times and places in which Kushite graffiti were inscribed. It also presents the “afterlife” of Kushite devotion at El-Kurru, with reference to continuing use of the site as a pilgrimage destination. Part of the exhibition highlights Kelsey conservators’ work to preserve the graffiti. Using a computer interactive, visitors can manipulate images in order to examine the graffiti under a variety of lighting conditions. This type of documentation, called reflectance transformation imaging, or RTI, is one method archaeologists and conservators use to digitally preserve and study ancient, fragile surfaces like graffiti and rock art. 

Graffiti as Devotion is curated by Geoff Emberling and Suzanne Davis. An illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition. Download a PDF of the complete catalog for free, or preorder the book through our distributor, ISD.