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.