Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Blog questionnaire

A MA student in the Netherlands is doing research on how effectively blogs and other social media communicate about archaeology. I'm interested in her research, so I'm inviting anyone who visits this blog to take a quick survey here: http://goo.gl/forms/z3BAUTyYUL. The survey closes at the end of this month (July 2015).

Offseason work

Our project is in the middle of our offseason; we've written a report on some of our work that will appear in the journal Sudan & Nubia. A little plug for this journal--it's the best way to find out about the latest archaeological work in Sudan, it's in color, and it costs $28 per year. You get it by becoming a member of the Sudan Archaeological Research Society.

But also making exciting plans for this coming season--a focus on the medieval village, some exploration of new buildings that we've identified but haven't excavated yet...stay tuned!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Excavating a Pyramid (film clip)

(guest post by Jack Cheng, our draftsman, artist, and my friend and colleague for almost 20 years!)

In excavating the pyramid at El Kurru, we calculated that about 100 tons of fill had been deposited in just the last room (similar amounts were removed from the first two rooms in last season). Some of the fill would have been washed in from the desert, and some of it would have been rock collapse from the roof of the chamber. 

Digging it out was difficult, and so was removing the dirt from 8 meters below ground to the surface. The workmen organized themselves to move the dirt as efficiently as possible, as you can see in this video:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Our team

We’ve had a great team this season…
(Left to right, sort of: Geoff Emberling, Martin Makinson, Rikke Therkildsen (she's in the back), Nacho Forcadell, Jack Cheng (also in the back), Luis Martín Díaz, Kate Rose, Sebastian Anstis (in the back--he's not really that tall), Carrie Roberts, Suzanne Davis, Martin Uildriks, Sarah Duffy, Naomi Miller, Jacke Phillips, and Mahmoud Suliman (he's not really that grouchy)

It’s nice to be able to highlight some of their work.

One of our projects, directed by my colleague Rachael Dann at the University of Copenhagen, has focused on documenting the painted tombs of the 25th Dynasty at El Kurru. Sarah Duffy has done amazingly detailed photographic documentation in the tombs, both last season and this year. Here she is in the tomb of Tanutamani (photo by Jack Cheng):

She is photographing in part to made 3-dimensional models of the tombs themselves. You can see more of her work at El Kurru here: http://sarahmduffy.uk/2014/06/21/sudan/. Some of her other work doing cutting-edge photographic documentation and modelling of archaeological sites is also on her website: sarahmduffy.uk.

End-of-Season: The pyramid burial chamber

Between the hectic work at the end of the season and the terrible internet connection, I wasn’t able to post about our final results for the season. So in the next few days, I’ll write about where things stand and our plans for next season.

Our most dramatic result was in the burial chamber of the pyramid. After two years of work, and about 250 tons of sand removed by hand, we came down on a big granite slab, about 10 feet (3.3 meters) long that was aligned between the door and the “stele niche” in the back of the burial chamber. 

Granite slab when first cleaned (Jaffar Madani of El Kurru village at left)

Would this be the inscribed stele that would finally give us the name of the king who built the pyramid?

Well, we cleaned off the stone and it was pretty roughly finished. So we thought maybe on the other face…so we looked underneath, but the space was too confined for us to see.

Me and Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, my Sudanese friend and colleague
 (and the project's Inspector from the Department of Antiquities)
trying to see under the stele
So we got all our strongest guys and turned it so it was vertical. 

And that face was unfinished too! Here's what I thought about that:

When we excavated the rest of the room, the granite slab turned out to be resting right on an unfinished sandstone "coffin bench" that was originally intended to support the coffin of the king. But the rest of the room was completely empty, showing that the pyramid burial chamber was NEVER USED! 

Granite slab on top of the coffin bench, with the beginnings of the "stele niche" at the back wall
We had more indications that the pyramid was also unfinished above ground. Next post!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The face of a pyramid

We have decided to remove the fallen rubble from the north face of the pyramid to see if there might be further indications of how and when it was built and how it may have been connected to the pyramid of one of the most important kings buried at El Kurru—Piye (also called Piankhy)—whose pyramid burial is immediately to the north.

This work will also transform the appearance of the pyramid and of the site. The pyramid was built of stone blocks around a rubble core. Right now, it’s mostly the rubble core that’s visible—the upper stone blocks were taken for re-use elsewhere in medieval times, and the rubble simply spilled out over the pyramid stones.

We are excited to see how this will develop in the remainder of the season.

Pyramid niche

It continues to be an amazing experience to excavate a pyramid. I went into the innermost burial chamber that we are excavating after the workmen had left for the day, and really experienced what it means to be as quiet as the tomb.

Based on other pyramids of this date in Nubia, we expect to find two features in the inner burial chamber: a coffin bench and a stele niche.

Kings and queens of Kush adopted many aspects of Egyptian burial practice, including burial in coffins. But they retained their traditional idea of being buried on a bed, so around the stone benches in their pyramid burials are usually four holes that would have supported bed legs. Other Nubian royal burials have sometimes contained fragments of the coffin itself that were left after looters smashed them.

The stele niche is a small alcove at the back of the room in which an inscribed stone would usually name the king or queen and inscribe funerary spells. And we have just found the stele niche! Empty, unfortunately…but there remain several possibilities—the stele could have fallen onto the floor, for example. We will know more soon!

Work at the City Wall

I'm back in Karima and can make a few more blog posts...

We continue to expand our knowledge of the massive city wall that separates the palm groves along the Nile from the modern village. We are still looking for evidence that it is earlier than the Christian period, but we haven’t found it yet—so it must have been built around 700 AD. We hope that exposing its entire length may give us further hints about the location of the town of the Napatan period when the royal burials were built. And the city wall itself is really impressive, not just in its massive stone construction, but in its collapse—here is a particularly large section that shows collapse both in stone and in “red bricks”. The upper part of the wall—or a later reuse of the wall—must have been built of red bricks.

The settlement along the wall is also slowly coming into view. Last year we excavated part of a house with preserved ceramic vessels still on the floors. This year, we expanded the area of excavation and found a Christian cemetery with burials neatly laid out in rows.

We are in the process of excavating these, and will then be able to see more of the house below.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Surprise in the temple

We have continued excavating the underground rooms of the mortuary temple—there were two spaces remaining to clear. One was a small, square, featureless storeroom that contained nothing (like the rest of the temple!). The other appeared to be a corridor connecting two rooms with columns on either side. We knew only about the doorways on either side, and we had bets with the workmen about whether there would be additional rooms or whether the two doorways would just be connected by a straight corridor.

Osman Hussein excavating the underground corridor in the temple
As it turned out, none of us was right—the rooms are connected by a corridor with a “dogleg”. You can just see the corner in the photo. Not a room, not a straight corridor. And like just about everything else about this temple, we have no parallels, and no idea why it was built as it is.

We have been digging in beautiful weather. Some days have been at our limit of comfort during the day—upper 90s in the afternoons—but it has always cooled off at night, so the mornings and evenings have been refreshing. Here is a photo that captures the beauty of the setting—sunrise over the Nile.

Sunrise over the Nile. Photo Sebastian Anstis.

Plants at El Kurru

I'm in the town of Karima, buying construction supplies and taking advantage of the internet connection here to make a couple of blog posts. Here's a guest post from our archaeobotanist, Naomi F. Miller:

It has taken several days to get organized, so I have not yet begun to float. But I have walked around in two main directions: west along a wadi (the only place that has any plants on it...it really is dry here!) and east to the Nile, planted in palm groves. There was a small spot that that had flooded and dried with huge cracks, about 20 cm deep; Carola, the geologist said with time and pressure it'd turn to shale, one of the three rock types in the region (the others being sandstone and siltstone). I pinched a little piece, almost hard as a rock, dissolved it in river; I now understand the black mud of the Nile–it looked good enough to eat (like fine chocolate with good mouth feel!), but I didn't.

On one of my wadi walks, young Hasan (maybe 10 years old) joined me; he clearly was primarily interested in my pencil, but I was not prepared to give it up. I let him use my camera to take a few photos, and he did help me collect some seeds and encouraged me to take a photo of a woman on a donkey cart and show it to her...the wonders of digital photography. You ask what about the plants? Well, in the desert there aren't all that many types, maybe 15 or so. Before I left the U.S., I made a folder for downloaded photos of taxa that have been found on archaeological sites in Sudan. Some are so obvious that I am pretty sure I've found them! I recommend you search on the internet for images of Calotropis procera, which grows everywhere (I first saw it in Khartoum).

The palm groves are a revelation! The trees are sort of planted in rows, but because of all the offshoots, some basal and some aerial, the plantings seem a little ad hoc (and there are acacias and other wild-growing trees I don't know scattered about, along with beans, alfalfa, and sorghum).

As for the animals, there are remarkably few, perhaps because there's not much for them to eat. Out in the countryside around here I've seen just a few goats, and donkeys. I've seen only one dog so far (!); it did have that ancient Egyptian look to it. I have noticed a surprising number (less than 10, but more than 3) dead animal parts, including fur...I'm wondering if it is because of a paucity of scavengers. There are a lot of songbirds in the palm groves. (In Khartoum I saw falcons, but not here, at least not yet). In the village there have been a few cats caterwauling. A lizard seems to have gotten zapped by the electricity and fell to the ground at my feet even as I write this. There are lots of crickets, many of whom find their way into the sink. Still no mosquitoes, but there are flies here and there, and a few gnat-like bugs in the groves. So that's what I've seen with my own eyes. And there are bats at the excavation.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Progress in the Pyramid

Excavators in the inner room under the pyramid: El Haj, Ashari, Ghazafi, and Jaffar Madani
The area of massive rock collapse is visible as multi-colored stone;
the brown-yellow stone below is the Nubian sandstone that forms the original back wall of the chamber

We are continuing to have a very difficult internet connection, but this is not stopping us from digging! We have hired 110 local men—this is quite unusual for modern archaeological projects in which detailed recording is important. However our excavations in all areas involve moving large quantities of recent geological sediment—sand washed and blown in to underground rooms, primarily, but also covering ancient settlement.

We are making progress in three areas of Kurru pyramid 1, which is almost certainly dated to about 350 BC—right at the end of what is called the Napatan dynasty in Nubia, and just before the invasion of Alexander the Great into Egypt (and elsewhere!).

The group of workmen in the inner burial chamber have removed a 1-meter-thick layer of rock over the top of the chamber and 2 meters of washed in sand, leaving about 1.5 meters of sediment above the floor of the burial chamber. We’ve found a few potsherds in the upper fill, but not much material. If other royal tombs of this date are any guide, we may find a stone coffin bench in the middle of the floor and a niche that would originally have contained an inscribed stele at the back of the room. Whether we will find these things or any material traces of a royal burial itself remains to be seen!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Digging at the wall

Here's a time-lapse photography experiment by our registrar and photographer Sebastian Anstis showing excavation at the city wall...better at small screen size because of our uploading limitations. Watch out for the face towards the end!

Guest post: Martin Uildriks

We have a great team working at El Kurru and I've invited them to post to the blog. Here's the first post, from Martin Uildriks, who worked at the City Wall last season and has returned this year.

Continued excavations at the Great Wall at El Kurru

City gateway (2014 photo)
In his field notes from 1919, the American archaeologist George Andrew Reisner described a large wall on the perimeter of the modern village at El Kurru. Based on his description, IKAP [the International Kurru Archaeological Project] rediscovered the wall in 2013 and continued exploration in 2014, exposing a large portion of the wall including a distinguishing and significant gate-construction. At present we continue systematic excavation on top and along what we call the Great Wall, to uncover its full length and get a clear idea of its extent.

City gateway detail with large log of petrified wood (2014 photo)
Quite likely, the Great Wall enclosed a settlement, perhaps of Christian or earlier date. And in addition to determining its magnitude, we hope to soon locate the homes of the people who built it. We expect that their houses will shed more light on their daily lives and the need for the wall itself, as its functions, use, reuse, and abandonment within the history of the area still remain a mystery.

First day of work--Martin Makinson in green shirt

Currently, Martin Uildriks (locally known as Columbus) is in the process of opening up two areas to also explore the settlement. Martin Makinson (without local name as of yet) opened up two squares directly on top of the wall to expose the fuller length of the structure. Meanwhile, our other specialists are setting up to analyze our excavation results to reconstruct the Great Wall’s geological, archaeobotanical, and chronological setting.

Return to El Kurru: City Wall

By contrast to the situation in the temple and pyramid, our very simple covering of the city wall was in great shape. We had taken old shawwal (burlap sacks for dates), opened them up, draped them over the stones of the wall, and covered them with about 15 cm of sediment. Everything remained in place, and there is no sign of displacement or vandalism.

Return to El Kurru: The Pyramid

The condition of the burial chamber of Pyramid 1 was better than the temple, fortunately. We had blocked the door into the pyramid burial chambers with a door that was in two parts—a lower part that roughly matched the original doorway, and an upper part that attempted to fill in the looters’ cut above it, both covered with mesh. The upper section was down when we arrived.

One of our workmen claimed it was blown in by wind, but this is dubious at best as there was a rope left dangling into the space left by the fallen section. There could be no damage to the burial chambers themselves because we had left a considerable quantity of sediment in the outer two rooms (using them to contain fill from the innermost room), and the innermost room retained its massive fill of 4.5 m of sediment capped by 1 meter of stone.

Photo by Yvonne Richter (visitor to the site)

However, the opening was inviting to bats and they have reoccupied the pyramid, leaving a thin scattering of droppings…not nearly as noxious as at the start of excavation last year.

Return to El Kurru: The Temple

We arrived in El Kurru having heard that there was some new graffiti in the funerary temple we had excavated last year, and I was concerned about my first visit to see the damage. Our small brick wall to reduce water erosion had worked well despite heavy rain, and the small barbed wire fence was still somewhat in place.

But I was shocked when I visited the temple the morning after we arrived—two columns had been toppled over, and the soft Nubian sandstone of two of the column drums had just shattered. A punch in the gut. Apparently the columns had been pushed over just the previous night—associated with our arrival, but seemingly from all we can find out not aimed at us. Certainly people in the village have been extremely friendly as before.

Thankfully, we had made detailed photographic records of all the columns last season, and particularly the intricate ancient graffiti on them. The photos can’t replace for the shattered columns, but they are much better than nothing.

By comparison, the 10 episodes of graffiti in the temple were not nearly so destructive, as they were all placed in non-decorated parts of the columns and walls, although we clearly have to figure out a solution to stop this for next year. For the moment, we’ve set up a tent for the police next to the temple site and they will provide 24-hour security.

In Khartoum

Internet access in El Kurru village has been extremely slow this year. I’ve come down to Khartoum to resolve some banking problems—the grant from Qatar has finally arrived! It’s just in time for payday—I was starting to have mental images of an angry mob chasing me for money that I didn’t have (although my friends in the village would be patient with us).

This gives me a chance to catch up on posting some blog entries.

Our season began with our arrival in a delightfully warm and calm Khartoum—at 3:30 am on a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul. We stayed at the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum, as usual, as we waited for some of the jet lag to wear off, and tried to buy the supplies that will not be available up north.
Building materials in Khartoum

This year, our architect-engineer Luis Martín Díaz spent several days in the suq (Arabic for market) finding supplies of structural steel and other building materials that we can use in the beautiful cover to the entranceway of our pyramid once we’ve finished excavation. Difficult to find, and it would have been entirely impossible for us to negotiate the markets without the help of George Pagoulatos, one of the owners of the Acropole Hotel. But everything got purchased, and we enjoyed some Sudanese street scenes on the way.

Luis Martín Díaz inspecting rope
photo Naomi Miller
Khartoum street scene
photo Naomi Miller

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Return to El Kurru!

It can be really difficult to get an excavation project into the field. You have to find funding, gather a group of good people, buy supplies, anticipate issues that might arise...and if it all comes together at the right time, the project can go forward.

We are ALMOST there. Because of some complexities of grant administration, we have an agreement that we will be funded, but the funding has not yet arrived. So I have used credit cards and have put a bunch of my own money forward to get the project into the field. We have assurances that the grants will come through, but this is a bit scary.

We're planning an exciting season--finishing work in Kurru pyramid 1 by excavating the large third burial chamber; finishing work in the underground rooms of the funerary temple nearby; and making a big effort to dig into the town around the city wall down toward the Nile. 

For some introduction to the project, you can read my 2013 blog here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/kelsey/fieldwork/currentfieldwork/elkurrusudan/2013sudanblog_ci. 

You can also read earlier posts from the 2014 season on this site.

You may also want to watch a National Geographic/PBS special called "Rise of the Black Pharaohs" that featured our 2014 work. It's online for US viewers here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVESd1XeNXs. You can buy a DVD here: http://www.pbs.org/program/rise-black-pharaohs/.

We’ll plan to post 2 or 3 times per week, and this season I’m hoping to have more guest posts from members of the team. Stay tuned!