Saturday, September 20, 2014

The National Geographic film that will include footage of our season will be broadcast on PBS stations here in the United States beginning on October 1. Check local listings for "Black Pharaohs". DVDs will be available through National Geographic after that, and I assume the program will also be available for streaming, but that remains to be seen.

I haven't seen the film yet, but looking forward to what James Barrat (Producer) and his film crew have come up with!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

End-of-the-season: Final thoughts

This was a challenging and interesting season at El Kurru. We worked long hours, and our work was often physically demanding. We made progress toward our goals of understanding the ancient settlement, but our current results are not yet fully satisfying. We worked on monumental structures that we will hope to finish excavating in the next season, and that we will hope to be able to understand more fully in terms of their date and their function.

We are extremely grateful to our hosts in Sudan. First, to the antiquities department (which is called the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, or NCAM) and particularly to the Director-General Dr. Abdelrahman Ali; the Director of Excavations, El-Hassan Ahmed Mohammed; our inspector Murtada Bushara, who is also the Director of Antiquities for the Northern State in Sudan; and the Sudanese Project Coordinator of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, Dr. Salaheldin Mohammed Ahmed. One of the great things about doing archaeology in Sudan is having such great colleagues to work with.

Murtada at work at El Kurru
We are also grateful to everyone in El Kurru village who made our stay so enjoyable. I worked particularly closely with two men—our foreman Mansour Mohammed Ahmed, who is also one of NCAM’s guards at the site, and Es-Sadeq Mohammed Saleh, another of NCAM’s guards who was also our very helpful and generous landlord.

It was a pleasure to work with James Barrat and the rest of the National Geographic film crew, and we’re looking forward to seeing what they will do with all the footage and conversations we had on site.

Finally, I am happy to thank my excavation team and colleagues, both in the Sudanese team of Prof. Abbas and Prof. Jamal, and in the Copenhagen-based team of Prof. Rachael Dann. I am already looking forward to next season!

Some of the the Nile on a hot day

Thanks to you all for reading along. I'll hope to do this again next year.

End-of-the-season: Objects

Because we spent much of our effort clearing monumental remains whose fills were largely empty, we did not find as many objects as we normally would during the course of an archaeological season. There were, however, several contexts that were rich in nearly whole ceramic vessels.

One of these was a later occupation level in the Temple that was associated with the graffiti. In all, we have found about 20 large jars from this level, all dating to about 100 BC (the Meroitic period). Some of the jars were complete and used for storage, although no clear evidence for what they stored was preserved. Others, though, were found upside-down, with their original bases removed, and containing burned plant material. The traces of burning were not particularly extensive, and it does not seem likely that these were daily cooking features. But they may have been used for special-purpose cooking, or burning of incense, or perhaps even just lighting, as they were found around the edges of the outer rooms of the temple.

Our conservator, Suzanne Davis, re-assembled the pots found in the temple this year. Here are two of them--a beer-jar and an urn with handles.

Another group of pots came from a modest Christian-period house against the city wall. They are all cooking pots dating to somewhere around AD 900.

A single dish also from this general area shows how nice the Christian-period pottery can be. Painted with a design of a fish (a symbol for Jesus), it is well-made and nicely finished. We were disappointed that we did not find the middle of the design, but after excavating the area carefully and even expanding our excavation, we did not recover it. Perhaps the dish was discarded because it was broken in antiquity.

Perhaps our single most interesting object was a metal buckle found at the bottom of the Christian-period deposits. Made of bronze, it had an iron pin that was mostly rusted away. We might have been tempted to think this was a recent piece, but its archaeological context makes it clear that it is over 1000 years old.

End-of-the-season: The Pyramid

We began this season hoping to establish a date for the largest pyramid at El Kurru and perhaps even to find the name of the king buried there. We knew that we would have a challenge navigating the possibility that the underground rooms would be structurally unsound and we had prepared to build support structures that would protect us during our work.

What we did not anticipate was the sheer volume of sand, dirt, and rocks that we would have to remove from the staircase and the inner rooms. We estimate we may have moved 250 tons of debris during the course of this season with a core group of around 20 very strong and very hard-working men from El Kurru village.

We cleared the staircase and the first underground chamber that Reisner has also cleared. The staircase itself was 23 meters long and 8 meters deep—a really impressive structure. The stairs were not well preserved at the top, but toward the bottom where they had remained covered by sediment over the centuries, the steps are still visible.

Reisner always designated the first room of pyramid burial chambers “Room A”. While he had cleared it, he did not note a pattern of 12 postholes cut into the floor that may have supported a kind of canopy over the coffin of the dead king during the burial ritual.

We reached the second chamber, “Room B”, and were able to excavate far further into the room than Reisner had done—in fact, reaching the end of the chamber, which was about 5 meters long. We found that it too had a pattern of postholes in the floor, although they were smaller than in Room A.

Neither room, unfortunately, had any material from the original burial.

We did find evidence that the pyramid was sited deliberately next to the pyramid of Piye/Piankhy, though. In clearing the northern side of our pyramid, we found large blocks that were used to build Piye’s pyramid, and found that the foundation of our pyramid was built to incorporate the edge of Piye’s pyramid—a clear statement of ancestral association with this powerful Napatan king. 

End-of-the-season: The Temple

By the end of the season we had excavated two underground rooms of the building we’ve been calling a temple, following Reisner’s designation of it as a “mortuary temple”—a temple dedicated to the worship of a dead king.

We succeeded in excavating the two outer rooms of the temple, shown here in a nice kite photo that one of our team members (Kathryn Howley) took close to the end of the season. It shows the outer room, entered by a staircase from the east, with its northern wall collapsed by a flood. It also shows the inner room with columns--these rooms are about 15 meters (50 feet) long. Here's another photo, this one taken from the ground by Jack Cheng:

We also excavated most of the inner rooms of the temple—here is a draft plan of the underground spaces and a photo from one of the inner rooms. Unfortunately, these inner rooms were entirely empty of material that would have helped us date the structure or understand its function.

Here's a photo looking out from one of the inner (underground) rooms.

During the excavation we recovered a number of pots from a later level that was occupied perhaps 3 centuries after the construction of the temple (assuming we have the dating correct). I'll talk more about these in a later post. We have also continued the slow process of cleaning and carefully documenting the graffiti that was associated with this later level—it’s still 2000 years old! Here's one graffito that seems to represent cloth or maybe even a carpet:

For next season, we will plan to finish excavation of the two additional underground spaces as well as the “plaza” in front of the first room. We will make a major effort to properly clean, photograph, and catalogue all the graffiti and then to take steps to preserve the very soft sandstone into which it’s carved. Finally, we will begin planning for construction of a protective structure that will protect the temple and make it safe for visitors.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

End-of-the-season: The City Wall

I am finally returning to work after an end-of-season bout of pneumonia knocked me out. Not what you think of when working in the desert, but maybe the hard work, the heat, and the general fatigue caught up with me.

So now I’ll give four final posts that will bring our season to a close. I can’t reveal everything…for the fuller details you’ll have to watch the National Geographic special that is supposed to air on PBS in the late summer or early fall.

The area most directly related to ancient settlement at El Kurru is the city wall. 

By the end of the season, we had cleared about 40 meters of the wall including a gateway. The gateway was used over a significant length of time and was repaired several times. 

An earlier level had a threshold made of a piece of petrified wood and two door socket stones set at different levels. Projections in front and behind the doorway on each side formed a kind of portico, perhaps defensive in nature.

We established that the occupation in at least one area next to the wall was medieval Christian in date (maybe about AD 900).

But we will have at least two puzzling facts to sort out next season. First, the construction of the wall is not like known medieval Christian walls in Nubia. So is it possible that the wall is earlier in date and that elsewhere along its length we may find earlier occupation? Second, Reisner indicated that the wall extended in a straight line about 100 meters on either side of the gateway and then turned a corner toward the desert. We sighted along the wall north of the gateway, and two trenches that we dug in the last week of the season “missed”—we failed to find a continuation of the wall. It’s likely that the wall was not exactly straight, but we may have to simply dig more to be able to follow its course.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Another National Geographic blog post

While I've been sick, another blog post made it on to the National Geographic site:

Apologies for delay

I got sick at the end of the field season--a cold that turned into pneumonia. Slowly getting better, and I promise posts (and responses) when I'm back on my feet.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How tall was this pyramid (answers)

Due to overwhelming demand, I am giving my answer to the question of how tall our pyramid would have been when first built. The angle of the facing stones is about 73 degrees, and if you just do a calculation on that basis (yes, it’s trigonometry), you get a height of about 43 meters.

If you do a more detailed (and accurate) calculation based on the size of the blocks and the setback of each course, you find that the pyramid had about 72 courses of stone and that it was about 34.5 meters high.

These calculations are remarkable partly because the pyramid has a much lower angle now, and it’s only a bit over 9 meters high. So a very rough reconstruction shows what the profile of the pyramid would have looked like originally:

Is that even remotely plausible? Where did all that stone go??

We looked at some nearby sites, and it seems that it is plausible—there are some pyramids at the site of Nuri from about the same period of time that were built of solid stone and have survived better, and they could have been close to 34 meters high. They also have a profile like the one I’ve reconstructed here.

Pyramids at the site of Nuri

We don’t know where all the stone went…but some of it seems to have been used in the village over the past century or two. 

Conservation in action!

My friend and colleague from the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan, Suzanne Davis, has arrived to conserve and restore our finds, to consult on issues of architectural preservation (our local sandstone is mostly of really poor quality, very soft), and to help us think through our longer-term site management plan.

I haven’t talked much about objects we’ve found this year. It’s been an unusual season since so much of our effort has gone into excavating monumental structures that have mostly been cleaned out. The city wall soundings produced some whole ceramic vessels that had been left in medieval houses—you can see a couple of them being repaired on Suzanne’s table. They have bandages wrapped around them as if they had head wounds… We also have some Meroitic painted pottery from an upper level in the temple that should look nice when it’s put back together. And of course Suzanne does all this much better than we archaeologists would do on our own, so it’s great to have an expert here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How tall was this pyramid?

Here's a real-life math problem: How tall was our pyramid when it was built? You can see that it has some original stones left toward the bottom, but the upper part is all rubble that would originally have been invisible behind a nice stone facing.

We are working on this question ourselves. Here is what you need to know...first, the base is 26.65 meters on each side. The pyramid has one course of stones with a vertical face (called the "plinth course"), then a series of stones with a steep angle--much steeper than the current slope of the pyramid. Here's a drawing that shows the slope of the stones.

Each course of stones is 48 cm high. The angle of the stones is such that if you draw it on graph paper, the top of the course is 11.5 cm back from where a vertical face would have been. (I never knew how hard it could be to write math problems...). This is shown by the triangle with dotted lines above.

In addition, the face of the pyramid was not smooth...each course was stepped back by about 7 cm on average. 

So, you should be able to calculate the original height of the pyramid using all that information. We're working on it too...but let's let the 6th graders (and younger) try this before posting any answers.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

More work of the Sudanese team at El Kurru

The Sudanese team working at El Kurru is directed by Prof. Abbas Sidahmed Mohamed-Ali, with Prof. Jamaal Karfis of the University of Dongola at Karima (pictured here) as field director. We have had a chance to become good friends during this field season. The Karima team is continuing to clean and restore the dramatic tombs of the kings and queens of Kush who also ruled Egypt as its 25th Dynasty.

In this photo, Prof. Jamaal is standing in the tomb of Queen Khensa. At El Kurru, a group of the major 25th Dynasty queens was buried in a cluster to the south of the royal cemetery (another group of probably less-major queens was buried in a cluster to the north).

Khensa was a daughter of king Kashta (whose name means “the Kushite”). Kashta was also father of king Piye (Piankhy), who was the first king of Kush to campaign far into Egypt. And Khensa was the wife of Piye, her brother (or half-brother), which was a common practice in the royal family of Kush.

I have my own connection to Queen Khensa. In an earlier excavation in the 4th Cataract region of Sudan, about 50 km upstream from El Kurru, we found a clay seal for an ancient jar that was impressed with the royal seal of Khensa. We found it on a gold-mining site that we were excavating, and it seems to suggest that the queen herself was involved in supervising extraction of gold from that region.

Friday, March 14, 2014

National Geographic film crew is here!

We’ll be part of a National Geographic film being made about the empire of Kush, and the film crew is here! The producer/director, James Barrat, has been interesting to talk to because he asks creative questions that we haven’t always considered before…and the NGS team has been great to work with. Here, I am getting ready to try using a robot with a camera to look into one of the inner rooms of the temple. I’m getting help from my Sudanese friend and colleague, Mansour Mohammed Ahmed, who is our foreman (he supervises all the local workmen).

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Kings and Queens of Kush

Here’s one more note for the 6th graders in Ms. Donnelly’s class. They asked about what we hope to find in the burial chamber in the pyramid, and whether the kings and queens of Kush were mummified like Egyptians. They also wanted to know if there might be traps waiting for us in the burial chamber.These are pretty complicated questions. First, about traps…we don’t know of any Egyptian or Kushite burials that had traps for robbers, even though the ancient builders knew that robbery was a problem even in ancient times. Instead, they tried different ways to hide the burial, by covering it with sand or rocks, or by building false doors and tunnels. So, we don’t expect to find traps!

We are worried about how stable the underground burial chambers are now, though. I wrote earlier about how George Reisner decided not to excavate this pyramid in 1919 because he thought it was unsafe (and he had a lot of experience at that point with excavating pyramid burials!). Reisner did excavate the outer room, but the second room suffered a big roof collapse. Here’s a photo (above) of the hole in the ceiling of that room. You can get a better idea of the size of this hole from the second photo (right) that shows me and Nacho standing up inside. It’s big enough to represent a big weight of stone that fell down at some point in the past. We’re just to the point of installing a protective structure inside the tomb that will allow us to excavate down to the floor in the next week, at least in part of the room.

Kushite kings and queens adopted many aspects of Egyptian burial practice, including pyramid burial and some parts of mummification (although the burials were so thoroughly looted that it’s difficult to be very precise about it). But they never gave up the idea that they were being laid to rest—even the kings and queens were buried on beds, and we find the holes in the stone for the bed legs whenever we excavate the burial chambers of these pyramids. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Temple update: new capitals

We have continued to work on the mortuary temple that we think was devoted to the cult of a dead king (or maybe all the dead kings and queens in the cemetery). It’s a large building, and we have now nearly excavated the entire outer room with 26 columns. Stay tuned for a photo within the next week.

The temple has a series of underground chambers cut into the rock. You enter this network of rooms through doorways into two rooms that were decorated with stone columns. Each of those rooms has three further doorways (one pair of doorways seems to lead to a passage that connects the two rooms), so we have a network of at least 6 rooms and a passageway. The outer rooms are carved on a nice scale—it’s easy for us to stand up in them, with plenty of head room (I don’t think I could reach the ceiling).

The eastern room is especially fancy—its columns have two different types of capitals. The photo above shows one pair of capitals, which are in the form of palm tree branches. You can also see in that photo what looks like a bite taken out of the lower part of the column. There was a significant erosion event in the rooms at some point later in their history in which the columns and walls were heavily worn at a single level.

You can just see the front pair behind our architect Nacho in this photo—they have five spirals. The column that Nacho is working on was worn so heavily that it broke and slumped down, and one of the stone beams on top cracked. Nacho is working to remove the beams so that they will not contribute to further collapse of the column.

The outermost rooms were essentially empty of objects. We are still hoping for more clues as to the function of this complex of underground rooms…

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Medieval Christian settlement at El Kurru

One of the surprises of our work here at El Kurru has been the discovery of an apparently extensive Christian settlement of about 900 AD. The city wall we have been tracing seems to be of this date rather than the Napatan date of perhaps 700 BC that we had expected.

We have now traced the city wall itself over a length of about 35 meters. We have taken a series of kite photographs that are joined together by photogrammetry software called Photoscan into a 3D model that can be rotated and viewed from any angle. Photos and model by Kathryn Howley of Brown University and Martin Uildriks of the University of Leiden. Here is an early example of a view taken from the digital model of the city wall.
The excavator who has been responsible for most of the work along the city wall, Martin Uildriks has also located and excavated a gate in the wall. The photo shows several door sockets that show that the gate was built and rebuilt. It also shows a massive piece of petrified wood that was used as a threshold during one of those phases. There is a petrified forest out in the desert to the northwest of El Kurru, and although we regularly find large and small pieces of petrified wood in our excavations, this is the first time we’ve seen it used in architecture.

Another excavator working in this area is Dr. Tim Skuldboel of the University of Copenhagen. One of his soundings against the city wall gives us a glimpse of the Christian settlement—part of a small house, with a hearth in one room. In a later phase, the house collapsed and was used as a location to dump trash, and finally, burials were dug into the deposits. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Life on the dig

Another installment of answers to Ms. Donnelly’s 6th grade class that have to do with life on the dig….

We live in a house in the village—here’s a photo of the outer courtyard, which is really a nice place to have a cup of tea in the afternoon, and we do a lot of work here too as you can see.

It gets light here around 7 am. We get ready, have our tea and coffee, and start work at 8 am. We have hired around 70 local men to help with the excavation, and most of them prefer to work from 8 to 2 even though it gets hot here in the afternoon (it’s recently been between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoons).

We eat according to a Sudanese schedule: “breakfast” is a big meal at 11 am, and we have “lunch” a bit late for Sudan, at about 6 pm. They would normally have dinner at 9:30 or so, but we are all too tired, so we have just two main meals. We eat a local, organic, and mostly vegetarian diet—lots of fava beans (called “fuul”), eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers, sometimes pancakes with savory sauces, and bread with everything. And we eat Sudanese style, with our right hand, mostly using little pieces of bread to scoop up the food. My personal favorite is the sweet spaghetti they serve with every meal—hard to eat with your hand!

We work six days per week, with Fridays off. We are a pretty active group, though, so we sometimes catch up on work on Fridays, and sometimes drive off to visit other sites in the area, which is important for us.

I’ll write more later about the physical process of digging!

Geology and El Kurru

I’ve encouraged the team to write guest-blog posts too. Here’s a note from our geologist/geophysicist, Dr. Carola Stearns, along with a photo of the area she’s working in—the mortuary temple:

The landscape around El Kurru is one of remarkable contrasts: dry vs. wet. We are here in the dry season. The temperatures are slowly rising and the air is very dry. There is absolutely no hint of rain in the atmosphere nor water in the dry wadis (creek beds). Yet in the excavation of the outer room of the temple we uncovered spectacular evidence that a single flood of the adjacent wadi was powerful enough to breach a large section of the outer wall of large, cut sandstone blocks. This must have happened shortly after the original inhabitants abandoned the site. Over time the outer rooms of the temple were filled with almost 2 meters of wadi sediments. Flooding last year deposited sediments all the way into the interior rooms of the temple.

We are situated on the southern edge Nubian plateau where all that remains of formerly extensive outcrops of Cretaceous-aged fluvial  (riverine) sandstones, conglomerates and siltstones are occasional small jebels (mesas). These are small erosional remnants in a landscape in which water has played a strong role in the past. Although erosion is continuing today, the pace of the denudation has slowed considerably. Most of the scenery is an unvegetated, slightly undulating bedrock surface with a thin veneer of gravel and, in places, windblown sand. Just north of the village, a petrified forest crops out. Large (> 2 foot) diameter trees felled and then were buried in sediments and then turned to stone by percolating silica-rich waters. Today, the only vegetation is the palm trees and crops in the irrigated lands adjacent to the Nile. It is a sharp contrast to imagine the lush, forested floodplains of the Cretaceous rivers in the same location of the barren desert landscapes of today.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Pyramid update

It’s been a very busy week on the dig, and I haven’t had so much time to write. But I can give an update on the pyramid now.

We had completed excavating the stairs a bit over a week ago, and opened up the door block that we had put in over the hole that looters cut into the stone.

I should say something about looting here since I’ve had questions about it…all the royal tombs of Nubia that have been excavated so far have been looted, often soon after the burial. Looters were after gold objects mostly, and they often leave behind many things that are of interest to archaeologists. So excavating a burial that we expect has been disturbed is still worthwhile.

The looter’s tunnel seemed to lead into an outer chamber that George Reisner had excavated, and from there, we could move into the inner chamber that may have been the actual burial chamber if there are not doorways leading further under the pyramid (Reisner seems to have thought that there are 3 chambers in all).

We had at least 3 problems…the first is the seemingly simple act of removing all the sand that had accumulated in the outer chamber since Reisner’s time. Fortunately, we have on our team an architect who has worked on tombs in Egypt, Ignacio Forcadell (everyone calls him Nacho—he’s in the red helmet in this photo), and he immediately began designing a platform to support a system of ropes, pulleys, and buckets that has more than tripled the speed at which we can move sand out of the chamber.

Our second problem was the fact that the ceiling of the inner chamber has collapsed, and that there is danger of further rockfall—this is why Reisner didn’t excavate the second chamber. Nacho is working on a plan to protect against further collapse.

Our third problem is the overpowering smell of bat guano. Really unbelievable—when we first got into the chamber, even holding our breath was not enough, and our eyes watered.

More on these problems soon!

Life in the village

I received a nice note from Julie Donnelly, who teaches at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her 6th grade students had a bunch of really good questions about the dig and about living in a village in Sudan. It turns out that 6th graders are pretty smart! I’m going to try to answer their questions in several posts over the next week or two.

One group of questions was about life in the village.

There are maybe 1000 people living in El Kurru village (nobody seems to know for sure). The village is modern in some ways. There are four shops on the main street, including Waleed’s grocery store (above), the barber shop where I got my haircut, and a coffee shop that would amaze you—a woman making the delicious local coffee called jebena on coals that rest on the floor, which is sand. So, not a lot of businesses, but there are a few. People drop by the grocery store all day long…women sometimes feel more comfortable shopping through a window on the side of the store rather than going inside.

Nearly everyone here has a cell phone…one feature they enjoy is an ability to play the radio out loud on their phone while we are all working in the excavation. In fact, Sudanese went from having a pretty minimal wired phone network to a complete mobile phone network in a very short period of time in the last 10 years or so, and it is changing everything about working and living in Sudan.

And yes, there are mosques in the village and we hear calls to prayer throughout the day (with loud calls to prayer starting at 5:45 am!). The person who gives the call to prayer is called a muezzin, and we all have our favorite ones. This is one of the more observant Muslim places I’ve worked, and many people in the village go to the mosque to pray 5 times a day.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Work of the Sudanese Team at El Kurru

We are fortunate to be working at El Kurru with a group of 5 professors of archaeology from the University of Dongola at Karima. Led by Prof. Abbas Sidahmed Mohamed-Ali, with funding from the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, they are working to restore and protect portions of the royal cemetery excavated by George Reisner nearly 100 years ago, with the eventual goal of presenting the site more clearly for visitors. But the process of cleaning and in some cases re-excavating these burials is providing some new information about the royal burials of the Dynasty of Napata.

The field director for the project is Prof. Jamaal Jaffar Abbas, and I will hope to show his work in a future post. For now, I am posting a photo of Prof. Jamaal Babikir el-Ghali, who supervised the re-excavation of the tomb of Shabaqo, one of the powerful kings of Kush who also ruled Egypt in the years around 700 BC. I will leave detailed description of the new findings for a publication by the Sudanese team. But for now, visitors to the site can see these tombs clean as they have not been since 1919.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Entrance to the pyramid burial chamber

On Thursday, we reached an amazing moment in our exploration of Kurru Pyramid 1: we uncovered the doorway to the burial chamber.

In the pyramids of the kings and queens of Kush, the ancient builders cut a staircase into the rock that led down to two or more burial chambers. The staircase was open to the sky, but the burial chambers were entirely underground, cut into the rock itself.

All of the royal burials were looted, and the looters took different paths into the tombs. Sometimes they dug through the sediment that filled the staircase, reached the stones that blocked the entrance, and entered the tomb that way.

In Kurru Pyramid 1, they didn’t dig 7 meters down to reach the original doorway, but only about two meters under the surface, where they just dug through the rock and broke into the top of the outer room, which had a ceiling about 5 meters high.

You can see where things stood for us on Thursday—the tall and narrow original entrance, the bricked-up looter’s tunnel, and the remains of the layer of sand and trash that had accumulated in the pyramid staircase since Reisner’s excavation. We have lots of work ahead of us.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

City wall!

One of our three areas for excavation this year has been a city wall discovered by Reisner (but like all his settlement finds, never published). His notes say that it was 200 meters long with a gate in the middle of it. We thought we had found it last year, and we’ve been delighted this season to find that it really is the wall described by Reisner.

This is not the world’s best photo of our wall (although I do like the shadow from the dom-palm tree), but it shows a stretch of about 15 meters of a stone wall that is more than 2 meters wide. We have just exposed the top, but we know that it is preserved about a meter high. And we have just discovered the gateway—photos of that to come (we are still working to excavate and clean it).

Of course the wall is not as simple as Reisner’s plan suggested. There seem to be some walls extending toward the river from our main wall, which would be strange for a fortification wall unless they were towers or bastions. And as we found last season, most of the pottery associated with the wall is Christian period in date (about 9th century AD) when we would expect from the wall construction that it would be Napatan or Meroitic (say 5th century BC). We think the wall may have been used in both periods, but it will take further excavation to find out.

The wall is important for its own sake, but also for what it tells us about the location of a possible settlement around the royal cemetery of El Kurru. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Village on the Nile

This photograph was taken by Kathryn Howley, a graduate student at Brown who is a member of our team. She’s using a variety of advanced photographic techniques to document our work, including using software called PhotoScan to stitch together lots of kite photographs to produce 3-D models of the landscape around El Kurru. I’ll put up other examples of her work during the season.

For now, though, this single photograph really captures the feeling of El Kurru village. It’s a relatively small section of what is a nearly continuous band of settlement along the Nile in Sudan. You can see the Nile in the background, a band of palm (and mango) trees that are irrigated by diesel pumps from the Nile, and then the village, which is on the desert fringe.

It’s interesting that life goes on now without much direct contact with the Nile. Travel is often easier along roads further out in the desert, and with wells and pumps, we don’t even see the river most days.

In ancient times, of course, the relationship to water would have been much more direct. Before about the 1st century BC, irrigation was only possible using a shaduf (a bucket on a pole with a counterweight), and this meant that the band of irrigable land here would have been much narrower. The introduction of waterwheels in the later Meroitic period made possible an expansion, but even in 1919 when Reisner came to El Kurru, there was only a thin band of trees along the Nile here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

New doorway underground

Last year (, I wrote about the building that may be a “mortuary temple”—a temple devoted to the cult of a dead king. At the end of the season last year, we filled in what we had excavated, and covered up two doorways to underground rooms cut into the rock. These rooms are interesting and mysterious, because there is only one other building that has them, and since they were excavated by Reisner, we have very little information about them.

During the off-season, there was a big rainstorm out in the desert, and the wadi that runs past the temple overflowed, filling the temple with mud, removing our blocking on the doorways, and even getting into the underground rooms. The photo we took at the beginning of the season shows all the plants growing in the temple.

In fact, this flood didn’t do any significant damage, but when it went into the inner room, it exposed another doorway that must lead to a room deeper in the rock! You can just see one corner of it behind the mud in this photo. We are working hard to get into position to excavate that area this season. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Excavating a pyramid!

We’re digging a royal pyramid burial this year! There’s nothing that can prepare you for the feeling of digging something this big.

This particular pyramid is one of the largest in Sudan. It must have been built by a powerful king, but we don’t know which one—it might even be a king that we know nothing about.

The pyramid itself is almost 90 feet on a side (26.65 m, to be precise) and it’s now over 30 feet high. Even more impressive, the staircase leading down to the burial chambers is cut through solid rock to a depth of about 25 feet.

The staircase and outer chamber of the pyramid were excavated by George Reisner when we worked at the site in 1919, but the second chamber was blocked by a large rockfall. Reisner got in that far, looked up and realized he could see the base of the pyramid, and decided to “consider the situation” (as his notebook says). He evidently decided there was no way to clear the burial chamber safely, so he didn’t excavate that chamber or a possible 3rd chamber.

A Spanish architect, Ignacio Forcadell, who has worked to support rock-cut tombs in Egypt, is joining us in a week and will work to devise supports that will make it possible for us to remove the fallen stones safely. In the meantime, the National Geographic film crew that will arrive in March is hoping to bring robots with cameras attached that will give us a look behind the rockfall and help us prepare to remove it.

Although all the royal tombs of ancient Kush found so far were looted in antiquity, we can hope that this rockfall has either made it impossible for looters to get into the tomb, or perhaps has “protected” part of the burial offerings by falling on top of them. We hope to find out either way!

Shaigiya haircut

The people in El Kurru belong to the Shaigiya tribe. They trace their ancestry back to an ancestor (Shaig) who lived several centuries ago. They are mentioned in European travelers accounts of the 19th century, when they sometimes raided caravans. In times before Shaig, people in this area were likely speakers of Nubian languages, but they speak Arabic now and in fact hold many of the high positions within the Sudanese government.

To the casual observer, there is not much to distinguish Shaigiya from their tribal neighbors like the Manasir. But they take pride in their distinctiveness in dialect, in musical rhythms, and apparently even in haircuts, as I found out when I visited Ali Jaffar, the village barber in El Kurru.

My Arabic works well for some things here, particularly the kinds of things that a dig director needs to do, like coordinating work on the site or shopping for food and supplies for the team. But I am handicapped by having learned in Syria, where vocabulary and pronunciation can be completely different, and it’s never clear to me in advance when I’m going to have a problem.

I thought I had been clear with Ali the barber that I just wanted a bit of hair removed, but the first crunch of his scissors through my hair showed that we had had a failure to communicate, and by then it was too late—I was getting a Shaigiya haircut. It turns out to work well here, so I’m not complaining. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

First temple graffiti of the season

We arrived in the village of El Kurru on Friday, slept without blankets due to an oversight, and started excavation the next day in our 3 areas: pyramid, temple, and city wall. We have hired about 40 local men to help us, and that number will increase in the weeks to come.

Our first find came in the temple. Last year, we excavated an inner room of the temple that was surrounded by 26 columns. This year we are excavating the outer room of the temple first so that if it contains graffiti or relief carvings, we’ll be able to record them using a sophisticated photographic technique called RTI (more on that later). On our second day of digging, we found a row of graffiti including animals and the seated person shown here, who seems to be holding a staff or ritual rattle (although either would be unusual for a seated figure). A good omen for finds to come, perhaps.

Running in Sudan

I tried something I’ve never done as an archaeologist: I went running while in the field. It was glorious and strange. I got up in the dark and started just as the morning star faded. I was almost completely alone the first morning: nobody out of their houses, no cars on the road, not even more than a dog or two chasing me. Just the sound of shoes crunching on compacted sand.

It was a little more crowded the second day. I passed two older men walking on the road, and one of them said “mashallah” in a tone that could only have meant “oh, god”. Then I ran past a camel on my back to our house in the village.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is Sudan safe??

Everyone I talk to about our excavation asks whether it’s safe to be in Sudan. There’s sometimes a veiled look as people suggest that we should “stay safe”, and I’m sure what some are really thinking is that we're just crazy to be going to a place that many people know only for its wars and devastation.

For the moment, though, Sudan is relatively calm, and northern Sudan where we are working is entirely peaceful. The international news has reported extensively about the current conflict in South Sudan, with fighting between political factions over control of the government and a significant displacement (and worse) of people there. This is extremely unfortunate for South Sudan. But since it is a struggle entirely within South Sudan, it has had little effect on life in Sudan. In fact, given current tensions in Egypt to the north, Sudan is one of the more stable places in the region.

On a personal level, though, it’s always a pleasure to return to the really warm welcome of colleagues and friends here. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Arriving in Khartoum

It turns out to take about 30 hours to get from my house in Ann Arbor, Michigan to the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum. My colleague Carola Stearns and I flew together to Frankfurt, waited 7 hours, then flew to Cairo (where we met another member of our team, Martin Uildriks. We waited 5 hours in Cairo, and then flew to Khartoum, arriving at 3:30 am local time (although by that point our bodies were completely confused on the subject of time—it’s 8 hours later in Khartoum than on the East Coast of the US).

We arrived in a warm Khartoum night and moved through the somewhat slow but orderly process of getting our visas, having our carry-on bags scanned, picking up our luggage, and having customs agents inspect whatever looked like high technology (in our case, a battery-powered drill that our architect is planning to use to build supports inside our underground excavations).

Then on to the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, perhaps, but it feels like a home base to me (and to many archaeologists who work in Sudan), partly because the Pagoulatos family that runs it is so friendly and efficient.