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.