University of Michigan Nubian Expedition—the Kurru Settlement Project: Investigating a Royal City of Ancient Kush (750 BC)

GeoffAbout the author
My name is Geoff Emberling, and I’m the director of the University of Michigan Nubian Expedition. I’m a 47-year-old archaeologist with a PhD in Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan. I was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and museum director at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, before arriving at my current position as a research scientist at the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan. My earlier career focused on ancient Mesopotamia, including an excavation in eastern Syria that I directed until 2004.

I began working on ancient Nubia in 2005 while preparing an exhibit at the Oriental Institute and found it fascinating in many ways—beautiful objects, interesting culture and history, still much too little known, and remarkable opportunities for research. I’m writing here about my current (2013) field project in Sudan.

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February 21, 2013: What have we done?

city wall, final

temple, final

Well stairs, final

The 2013 Kurru season is now officially over, and it’s time to try to figure out what we’ve accomplished. Further apologies for the delay in posting, but the end of season rush overtook us all. This has truly been a remarkable season—some amazing successes, some continuing frustrations, and a great deal of work for the future.

First, we have established that there are truly monumental remains at El Kurru quite apart from the royal cemetery itself.

We found Reisner’s palace well and showed that while the well itself was a significant excavation through solid rock, the stairs around the well were even more monumental, being dug nearly 5 meters (16 feet) underground and descending farther down into a tunnel in the rock. A feature of this scale surely deserves more attention…among other things, we have no clear idea of its date. We would have to destroy the house of Abdullah and his family in order to investigate further—and of course would have to provide him with a new house. So this will take some time to organize.

We located Reisner’s small “mortuary temple”—just the very tops of the walls, but we can expect them to be preserved nearly 3 meters (10 feet) high based on Reisner’s sketch section through the room, which shows two entirely subterranean rooms. Reisner’s idea that this was a temple is not well founded, and I think we have to consider the possibility that this structure was actually a residence. Perhaps Kurru’s ancient inhabitants lived mostly in rock-cut houses.

We also located what appears to be part of Reisner’s 200-meter-long city wall, and then found that all the material directly associated with it was dated to the Christian period (say around 900 AD) Surprising, but not conclusive—the Christian pottery was in an ash dump that was piled against the wall, which wouldn’t have been done if the wall was still in active use as a defensive structure. The wall itself is also constructed of blocks of stone that would be quite unusual for the classic Christian period. So the possibility remains that the wall might relate to the cemetery itself, but this will require extensive excavation to evaluate in more detail.

And finally, the big temple was a major surprise—its state of preservation, the existence of doorways cut into the rock, the “squatter” level that left pots on the floor as well as ancient graffiti. All of this will require years of work to excavate, document, preserve, and finally make accessible to visitors.

So we have not yet solved the “mystery” of the settlements at El Kurru, but we have some promising leads that we can follow next season.

Thank you all for reading along!

February 21, 2013: Pyramid in your Back Yard?

DemonsIt’s interesting to consider how people living in a village that surrounds pyramids think about the ancient past. The answers surprised us this season.

First, there’s a persistent sense that ancient remains are all around them, not just among the ancient burials. Farmers working in the palm groves are continually finding ancient “red brick” (baked brick), and every single one has a story about a place in his or her field where water drains down into apparent voids in the earth. It’s as if there is an entire subterranean world under their feet.

Second, everyone in the village thinks that there are piles of gold to be had from digging, whether in graves or in other areas. It is difficult—no, impossible—to convince them that we are not looking for gold!

There is also a feeling, a little harder to pin down, that some of the remains might be dangerous, inhabited or protected by spirits (djinn). We found a carving in the temple of “demons”—cattle with red-painted human faces—and it didn’t take much suggestion to convince some of the workmen that we had to be careful digging because of these spirits.

We might well think that they would feel pride in what their ancestors had done. But in fact that’s not the case in El Kurru. The group in this part of Sudan that does assert (and feel) a link to the ancient monuments are Nubian speakers. People in Kurru spoke Nubian maybe 300 years ago (Kurru itself is a Nubian word), but they don’t now and no longer identify themselves as Nubians.

What they do feel is a real sense of pride that their village contains historically important remains, even if they are mostly not very knowledgeable about the details. They are hopeful it might lead to some economic benefit for them, and it might very well, at least in the immediate future when archaeological projects plan to continue work around the site.

January 24, 2013: The team

Excavations require such a diversity of skills, and take so much work, that they are always group efforts. The composition of our team has shifted throughout the season, with the Sudanese magnetometry team at the beginning and a switch in our Sudanese archaeological inspector from Murtada Bushara to Mahmoud Suliman (both good friends and great archaeologists). We now have our full complement of foreign staff too.

Rob Corrie is a PhD student at Oxford specializing in analysis of satellite images, and he’s been working to see if any images might give us hints about the location of settlement features. He’s also started a topographic survey of the area.

Tim Skuldboel is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen. He was one of my students earlier in both of our careers, and we worked together in Syria for a number of seasons. He is here to see if a system of coring might be able to help us identify the ancient settlement. Coring is basically a metal tube that you bang into the ground, and then try to pull out to see what was in that section of the site. Theoretically it can go 5 meters (16 feet) deep, but in practice most soil is too damp or compacted to allow that depth.

Finally, Jack Cheng has his PhD in Art History from Harvard, and he’s here to draw what we find. As it happens, he has a bunch of other useful skills too—photography, videography, database, and planning architecture.

This is a small team by archaeological standards, particularly when we have hired 35 local men to help dig. It’s only possible because so much of what we’re digging is entirely free of objects—pottery, bone, and other small finds. The temple is mostly full of wind-blown sand, which has very few finds, and our excavation of the “palace well” has mostly been full of modern garbage.

January 24, 2013: Latest finds from El Kurru
Kurru temple excavation
This photo shows the cut through the rock that made the “palace well.” What's more visible is the modern house whose wall we cut through to find the well.

I have to apologize to any of you who might have been worried by my radio silence (hi mom!). Work on a dig usually starts slowly, builds as we get an idea of what we might be able to accomplish during the season, and ends frantically as we reach our goals (with most finds usually coming right at the end).  We’re not quite in the frantic stage, but will be next week, which is our last week of excavation before we shut down for the year.

We have made great progress in the mortuary temple, with columns emerging and some late (but still ancient) graffiti carved into the columns. We are still about 2 meters above the floor here and will try at least to excavate along the walls to see what is there before we have to fill back in for the season.

The palace well of Reisner has turned out to be much more dramatic and monumental than his drawing and description would suggest. In addition to a square well, the passageway around the well appears to have been dug straight through solid rock to a depth of 4 meters (13 feet) and we’re still digging down. Even more dramatically, the staircase (if indeed Reisner was right about what was there) enters a vaulted tunnel also dug straight through the rock. It’s apparent that it would take more time than we have this season to fully clear this construction, and we would also have to substantially damage the modern house that stands over the well. We’ll hope to raise funds to relocate the family next year—they are quite willing to get a new house out of the deal!

We’re having more trouble locating Reisner’s city wall…but there is still one more week!

January 18, 2013: Cell phone stories from Sudan

There are regularly stories in the news about the ways that cell phones are transforming communications and economies in Africa and other modernizing regions. Here are some stories from the trenches.

Look carefully at this photo of our driver Mouaz. He has not been doing much during our work day, so he decided to dig with us. Headscarves like the one he is wearing are really useful in a hot and dusty environment—they keep you a bit cleaner, keep the sun off your head, and you can wrap them over your nose and mouth to keep dust out (it also makes you look a bit like a part of a western posse, but it’s a small price to pay). If you look carefully at Mouaz’s headscarf, you’ll see that he’s tucked his cell phone into it so that he can talk to his girlfriend as he’s carrying dirt around the excavation. She is supposed to be studying for exams, but according to some of my friends here, they spend so much time talking on the phone together that the only subject she would do well in is Mouaz.

One of the Sudanese here has three cell phones—one for work calls, one dedicated exclusively to calls from his girlfriend, and one for calls from other girls. Not what you might expect about what goes on in an Islamic Republic, but this is life on the ground in Sudan.

A final story. Another Sudanese (identities are being protected here) gets in trouble with his wife if he leaves his cell phone at home when he goes out. Not because she can’t reach him, but because she answers his phone when it rings, and gets annoyed if he gets calls from other women. So one of these calls came through from a woman, his wife got angry, and then…it turned out the woman was actually his mother, and she was teasing his wife by pretending to be one of his friends. So in-laws can be tough here too.

January 18, 2013: What did you say??

Learning to use a new language in real life situations (rather than in the classroom) inevitably leads to some funny moments. I learned Arabic in rural Syria, and it turns out that dialect doesn’t help too much with Sudanese Arabic, to say nothing of the local Shaigiya tribal Arabic.

My first season produced some memorable mistakes. One day I wanted one of the workmen to excavate an area to the same level as the “base” of a pot. I used a word  that means “base” or “bottom” in Syria but that means something like “booty” or “ass” in Sudan. And they were shocked, shocked, to hear such foul language from a foreigner.

Another time, I had what I thought was a nice conversation with a visitor to our site, and after he left, I had a visit from our Sudanese inspector Mahmoud, who asked me if I had really told the visitor that there were motorboats in 2000 BC, just like there are now. Well, I had meant “boats.” It’s apparently a subtle but important difference.

We had a great moment going the other way today. We’re in the middle of a Sudanese winter heat wave. I was sweating just drawing while standing in the shade. (I always kind of wonder if global warming might be good for places like Siberia or Canada; in Sudan, it will be deadly.) Anyway, one of the young workmen was shoveling sand into buckets and wheelbarrows so it could be taken away, and with every shovelful, he said “it’s boiling”—“sukhanet.” It works in English too, but in a much more aggressive sense. See if you can sound it out. A solid half hour of it had me laughing out loud.

January 18, 2013: Look on my works, ye mighty…: A palace well?

Abdullah's wall

Ku 1400 drawing, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Morning jebena

Palace well

We have also finally succeeded in relocating a large rock-cut well  excavated by Reisner in 1919. As he said, grandly, in his notebook: “Here I take it was the palace of Piankhy.” This is no small claim—Piankhy was the king of Kush who succeeded in conquering Egypt in the years after 750 BC, and obviously discovering his palace would be a major find.

The well itself in Reisner’s notebook was cut into the rock, about 6 meters by 4.5 meters (20 feet by 15 feet) in size, and Reisner dug down 5 meters (16.5 feet) until he hit water. Reisner’s drawing suggests that a staircase outside the well wrapped around it and would have led water carriers down to the level of the water.

People in the village preserved some quite detailed memories of this well and after about a week of conversation, they remembered where it was. Reisner commented that he had to arrange to cut through the wall of a house owned by a man named Gabullah, and it turns out that his descendants still live in the village and could direct us.

Our excavation ironically also required us to dig through the wall of someone’s house, this time a man named Abdullah. He has been remarkably tolerant of the disturbance, even bringing us coffee each morning as we work.

One of the strange aspects of this particular part of the dig has been that we have had to dig through modern garbage heaps as we have excavated. So even if this was part of the palace of Piankhy—and we would have to entirely destroy Abdullah’s house to figure that out—it has become a dump for an amazing variety of plastic bags, dead batteries, cassette tapes, cologne bottles, and other detritus of modern life. It reminds me of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, about the ruin of an ancient pharaoh’s statue: “Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

January 18, 2013: More news from the temple

There are times in every excavation when you’ve started some big project and days go by with not much more happening than lots of earth being moved. So there’s been a delay in my posts as we’ve been in that mode.

In one area, we’re continuing to clear the big mortuary temple. More columns have appeared, and we’ve reached the floor in one area, where the columns have substantially larger bases. The floor is about 3 meters under the level of the sand. That means we have a HUGE amount of sand to move, and sand is really heavy. So that will take some time. But it also means that when we are finished, we will have uncovered a really substantially preserved temple from ancient Kush. Very exciting! We’ve also continued to work through a pile of large fallen stones, which may turn out (who knows?) to be inscribed or decorated in some way. So we are excavating carefully and looking at each face of the stone pieces just to be certain.


January 14, 2013: News from the temple

The first few columns in the temple are emerging from the sand!

Reisner’s notebook drawing showed that there were 26 stone columns preserved, and an old photo suggests they were about 1.5 meters in height. The top of the column is about 70 cm (2 feet) meters below the present surface, suggesting we will have to dig down through more than 2 meters (7 feet) of sand to get to the floor of the temple.

We made another potentially exciting discovery yesterday—a jumble of fallen stones against a stone wall that divides one of the rooms of the temple from the other. What’s important about this is that it suggests that Reisner didn’t actually dig this part of the building. Everywhere he dug was filled back in with sand and silt washed in from the nearby gully (wadi). So this means that although Reisner sketched the building, he may not have excavated it fully, and there may be finds awaiting our further excavation.

The locals have a real interest in what we are doing, and every single one of them who stops by says that there is a door somewhere down there that leads into rooms within the mountain. It’s possible, I suppose. Reisner didn’t note such a doorway, but we now know he didn’t dig at least one part of the structure. I don’t entirely trust the local collective memory either, though—some people said they were sure the doorway down there would connect with the pyramids, or even with more distant sites. More to come!

January 12, 2013: To my family

This is my son’s 22nd birthday. He’s a big guy now and won’t miss me too much, but it is a moment for me to reflect on how much this project depends on the support of my family—my wife Amy, son Jake, and daughter Ruby. I love and miss you all! It’s much better now than it was in my first ever field season in Syria, when we depended on letters that were actively read by Syrian police (sometimes the letters got mixed up and put back in the wrong envelopes, which could be amusing).

It’s funny (kind of) how little this kind of sentiment fits the picture of the adventuring archaeologist. There’s a reason Indiana Jones was single…

January 12, 2013: Food!

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write about food in Sudan, but there’s been so much else to say…

The first thing I should say is that the food is healthy and delicious. Sudanese usually have a very light snack when they get up, and then a serious meal called “breakfast” (futur) at 10 or so. The featured item at futur is usually fuul, or fava beans, that have been stewed, sometimes with spices, sometimes mixed with egg, or sprinkled with a dry piquant cheese like feta. Depending on how elaborate the meal is, there may be other side dishes.

We’ve hired a family in the village to cook breakfast for us this season, and today, the side dishes included fresh tomatoes also sprinkled with cheese, a dish of fresh sprigs of arugula, a really delicious plate of fried eggplant with a dressing of tahini, peanut butter, and lime (the dish is called salatat aswad—black salad; I’m not usually a big promoter of eggplant, but this is my favorite dish here).

The whole thing is eaten with a kind of hearty pita bread…and without forks, spoons, or knives. Using only your right hand, you tear off small pieces of bread, take bits of the various dishes, and pop it in your mouth. I try not to have the area around me be a complete mess when I’m done, but I haven’t mastered the whole thing yet.

Another delicious breakfast dish is called gurasa, which means pancakes—thick wheat pancakes drenched in a sauce that is made with a base of dried okra. I generally feel about okra what I do about eggplant…but this is delicious. And particularly deadly as far as dripping sauce all over yourself is concerned.

I won’t dwell on other meals—we haven’t had the good fortune to have home cooking at lunch or dinner to the same extent, and restaurant meals here are a very poor substitute. But I should mention finally the Sudanese version of coffee, called jebena after the name of the pot it’s made in. The best cups I’ve had have been spicy with ginger or cloves…and completely delicious.

January 12, 2013: Resistivity

We’ve tried two different methods of sub-surface testing at El Kurru this season (both thanks to Mohamed Abdel Wahab of the University of Dongola-Wadi Halfa). I put up some magnetometry images earlier—they were measures of magnetic anomalies under the ground surface, and we’re starting the long process of testing what some of them were.

Dr. Mohamed and his assistant Abdel Halim also did some resistivity measurements. This involves setting up a line of electrodes and passing current through them. Some areas of earth are more conductive, and some are more resistant, and these differences can relate to archaeological structures underground. One disadvantage of resistivity is that it’s much slower than magnetometry, so we ran this test only where there was a magnetic anomaly. One advantage of resistivity is that it gives readings at different levels underground, so it provides a kind of layer cake view.

Here is one of the resistivity charts from one of our grid squares…the darker, redder readings are more resistant, and the bluer readings are more conductive. Dry sand is often quite resistive, so it’s possible that the red readings are pockets of sand. The bluer readings, though, are probably archaeological features of some kind. We won’t know for sure what they are until we dig, but we can tell from the reading that they are about 70 cm below ground.

January 11, 2013: The Language of the Street

“Language of the Street” is a term for a dialect of Sudanese Arabic that I have only briefly encountered. But it also alludes to the difficulty we can have reading the cues that direct natives where they want to go. We all know what a coffee shop or restaurant looks like in our home town or country…but in Sudan things look quite different.

I’ve been thinking about this as I move further toward understanding Sudan, but also understanding the language of its archaeological sites. I’ve previously worked on ancient settlements in Mesopotamia, which are built of mudbrick and which over time usually form mounds called “tells.” Many of these sites are easy to identify, and while excavating them can be technically challenging, it’s a well-understood language of walls, rebuilding, layers, and garbage pits.

There has been relatively little work on settlements in Sudan, and while some are well known, it’s clear that we have not located all of them. So will the scatter of modern garbage mixed with ancient pot sherds on the surface of El Kurru be a signature of a buried settlement? Stay tuned!

January 11, 2013: The Royal Cemetery at El Kurru

The reason El Kurru was so interesting to George Reisner back in 1919 was not the settlement that I’m looking for. It was the royal cemetery that turned out to contain the burials of some of the most important and powerful kings of Kush: Piye (aka Piankhy), Shabaqo, Shebitqo, and Tanwetamani. These were some of the kings that conquered and ruled Egypt from about 750 BC to nearly 650 BC. They fought against the Assyrian army when it invaded Israel and were defeated in Egypt by the Assyrians. The Kurru cemetery also contains burials of numerous royal women, both queens and queen-mothers. For photos of some of the extraordinary finds from these burials, currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, click here

In addition to its importance in the history of these “Great Men,” the cemetery demonstrates some extremely interesting and as yet poorly understood cultural relations between Egypt and Kush. The first burial on the site, placed at the highest point, was of a traditional Nubian form: a round mound of stones piled over a burial pit. And even though it had been looted in antiquity, the remains were incredibly rich, including more than 400 gold beads and pendants. From that point, the burials became progressively more Egyptian, with enclosure walls, chapels to make offerings to the dead, and finally pyramids over the burials. There was even a set of horses, decked out in gold and silver trappings, buried standing up and facing away from the royal pyramids, as if preparing to take their king on a final ride.

We don’t yet know why kings and queens of Kush adopted these elements of Egyptian burial, but we know that they adopted other Egyptian practices, including writing in hieroglyphs. Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, Egyptian priests fleeing political unrest in Egypt arrived in Kush and instructed the locals. Or perhaps we should consider the possibility that the rulers of Kush were the active agents in this process. In any case, excavating the settlement at El Kurru may help us understand the way that one ancient culture adopted aspects of another.

January 8, 2013: Archaeologists as anthropologists 2

I had two interesting conversations yesterday that helped me understand some ways that Sudanese expectations differ from our own. One concerned the role of fathers and fathers-in-law. We were having the usual joking conversation about whether I had a daughter who might be married off to one of the local guys. I said I did, but that I wasn’t sure she would be interested without having met the guys, at least. One said he would have to start talking to me as if I were his father-in-law, meaning (as he said) that I would be like the sun to him—he wouldn’t be able to look at me directly. Then they all said that my daughter’s opinion shouldn’t have anything to do with who she married—wasn’t I as the father the master of the family? You have to discount a conversation like this that takes place without any women around…they might have a different perspective.

The second conversation had to do with how compliments and complaints are handled in Sudan. I told the Sudanese magnetometry team how much I was enjoying working with them, and Dr. Mohamed told me that Sudanese will discount or disbelieve anything said directly to them. So he didn’t believe me. Both compliments and complaints are best handled indirectly, through a 3rd person.

My friend Michael Fahy, an anthropologist who’s worked in Morocco, had a good way of putting this attitude: “if you have any problem with me, at least have the decency not to say it to my face.” Definitely not an American point of view!

January 8, 2013: A temple!

We’ve been looking for remains of the ancient city that Reisner had found, and we found one of his temples. It appears today as a roughly rectangular cut in the stone. There’s a tree growing in the middle of it.

But in Reisner’s sketch (provided courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the temple had two rooms, one of which contained 26 columns, and which was entered by a stairway. Reisner didn’t find much in the temple—just some potsherds, which he discarded (some may still be there in the piles of dirt from his excavation!), but based on its form and its location between the pyramids and the Nile, he interpreted it as a mortuary temple that served the cult of the king buried in the largest (and latest) pyramid in the cemetery.

And the old photograph from the Museum of Fine Arts’ records shows that the columns are nearly as high as a person!

So we’ll start our excavations tomorrow (finally), in part by re-excavating this temple to the level of the column-tops so that we can map it, verify its orientation (important for understanding whether ritual was oriented to the sun or to the Nile), and know for certain how big it was.

January 7, 2013: First results!

In the midst of all my posts about life in Sudan, we have been doing our magnetometry survey. We’ve spent as much time as possible in the field, and it’s taken a couple of days to find time to pull all the data together. But the great news is that we are getting results!

Dr. Mohammed and his team have finished an area of 76 x 40 meters after about 2 days’ work (after our false start). They lay out grid lines and he walks along each string at a measured pace and with the magnetometer (the white machine in his hand) takes the right number of readings. They then download the data and plot it. The white areas on the plot are areas of no readings (the biggest of these is because of two thorn trees that we didn’t cut down), and the black pixels are high magnetic readings. It’s the differences that are the most important.

We are going to focus our efforts on two particularly promising areas. One is a diagonally oriented building in the lower right corner, and the other is a stronger anomaly in the center left of the plot, which is where the people in the village remember the “royal bath” excavated by Reisner to be. It will be exciting to rediscover this feature, but even more exciting to excavate around it to see what it belongs to.

The apparent difference in orientation is interesting. Everything here is oriented to the Nile. The people in the village even designate north as the direction of the Nile flow. That works pretty well for most of the Nile’s course, but we’re in a stretch of the river where the Nile flows southwest, so it can be confusing. But the edge of the palm grove lines up with the river for the most part, as do the houses and roads in the village. So a different orientation could point to a different historical period when perhaps the Nile course varied slightly. We’ll see!

January 6, 2013: Archaeologists as anthropologists


How many dates does a typical date palm tree produce? How much can you get for a boatload of dates on the international market these days? And what does this have to do with archaeology?

Well, quite a bit. We are not entirely sure when date palm cultivation was introduced to Nubia, but it was certainly there by about 1300 BC, when a painting in the tomb of a Nubian prince shows palm trees and cultivation. So we might be interested in questions of this kind as steps toward understanding the ancient economy.

But more immediately, we might be interested because we might want to excavate under the palm groves that line the Nile at El Kurru, and we would have to compensate the owner of the land for the lost production.

This brings me to my real point—archaeologists working in any community but their own have to be anthropologists in order to work effectively. And cultural knowledge enriches the experience of living in a foreign culture in all kinds of ways.

January 5, 2013: A Nubian house

Here are some photos of the house we are renting in Karima. It has red brick walls and floors, cement plaster on the walls, and it’s painted mostly in a nice mustard color. The outer door preserves a faint memory of older traditions in Nubia, when the outer door and wall would be painted in elaborate designs.

The truth is that even though archaeologists sometimes use the term “Nubia” to describe this region, it’s really a misnomer for several reasons. First, Nubian wasn’t a spoken language (or at least a dominant one) until maybe AD 300. So the culture I’m working on didn’t speak Nubian. Second, the people in this area mostly belong to the Shaigiyya tribe, and they speak Arabic rather than Nubian. Centuries ago their ancestors spoke Nubian, but now they are distinct from Nubians, who live further north along the Nile.

But anyway, the house has two courtyards, the inner one being quite pleasant with a couple of trees, a “salon” (reception room) with beds in it to receive guests in Sudanese style (sitting or reclining on beds), a separate kitchen, and hammams (combination toilet and shower) in the back that have a single convenient drain in the floor.

January 3, 2013: Local knowledge

3 villagers

It’s one thing to get information about the town of El Kurru from an archaeologist’s diary nearly 100 years old; it’s quite another to talk with people who live in the village and encounter remains of the past on a regular basis, while building houses or irrigating their palm trees.

These villagers do not consider themselves Nubian, although their ancestors would have been several centuries ago, and I have not found that they feel a close connection to the remains of the past that surround them. They are quite interested in them, though, and they think they are important. So they have been very happy to show us what they have found. Here are some of the characters we’ve talked to in the past couple of days.

Mansour Mohammed Ahmed is a thoughtful, friendly man in his 40s who worked for a Sudanese archaeologist investigating a rock quarry at the site. He came with me around the village, knocking on doors and introducing me when I wanted to look at a particular area.

Babikir Ahmed Khalifa is the rascally (and very friendly) man on the donkey who said he remembered where the big city wall was found. We’re going to check his memory.

Abdo Halafallah is another man in his 40s who carried around his daughter (2 ½ years old) and showed us places in the palm groves where he had encountered possible archaeological remains—and some of them seem extremely promising, like the stone staircase and the construction of red bricks, but also a series of places that seemed to be deep hollows in the earth.

It’s quite amazing to have such interested and thoughtful collaborators, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do together.

January 2, 2013

Today we began work at El Kurru! I have been interested in the site for 5 years or so, and it’s really exciting to be starting.

The site has been known since 1918 as the location of the first royal pyramid burials in Nubia, which in earlier historical periods had only been built in Egypt. It’s known as El Kurru after the name of the modern village—we don’t know its ancient name (yet).

The pyramids were excavated by an amazing American archaeologist named George Reisner. He was remarkable for the quantity of excavation he did, both in Egypt and in Sudan, and for the quality of his excavation and recordkeeping, which were both excellent for his time.

Reisner wasn’t really interested in settlements, and by the end of his second season working at the site (he was also excavating other royal pyramids in the area), he was tired, and quite sick. His team noticed some remains of a town, including two temples close to the pyramids, a fortification wall over 200 meters long with a double gateway, a rock-cut well with stairs leading down about 5 meters to water, and another segment of stone fortification wall that might or might not be of the same date. Pretty impressive remains by any standards, but Reisner chose not to excavate them more completely and in fact never mentioned them in publications.

It was not until 1999 that Tim Kendall, a curator and archaeologist at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (where Reisner’s records were kept), published these remains from Reisner’s notes. One of the many difficulties was that Reisner did not indicate where any of these features were on the site—there are only the notebook sketches to go by.

I had a chance to look at Reisner’s records in the MFA a couple of months ago, and the head curator Rita Freed allowed me to copy the relevant sections of Reisner’s notes, so I have them with me as we return to El Kurru.

January 2, 2013

At the beginning of the season I am working with Prof. Mohamed Abdel Wahab of the University of Dongola at Wadi Halfa, who will be doing a magnetometry survey of the site to try to help us re-locate the town wall and the possible palace well. We are also really lucky to have help from Prof. Abbas Sidahmed, a Sudanese archaeologist who teaches in Saudi Arabia, but who grew up in the village. He arranged our house and car, and I think I’ve been on the phone with him every day since I arrived in Sudan.

It was a bit of an edgy moment when we showed up in the village to start our work. There was understandable wariness—how would you feel if four people with machines showed up to “check” your back yard? There is the added complication that Sudanese antiquities law allows the government to appropriate any land that is found to contain archaeological remains. But fortunately the people in El Kurru were not concerned, and we were able to start our search without difficulty.

Magnetometry is like a fancy metal detector—it records variations in the magnetic field that can be the result of archaeological features as much as 5 meters (15 feet) underground. In a previous visit we had identified an area of the site where village tradition recalls a “royal bath,” so Mohamed and his assistants laid out string and started surveying.

In the meantime, we were all talking with people in the village, and two older men separately came up to tell us they recalled the royal bath, and one also remembered Reisner’s city wall. Luckily, they were not under modern houses but rather in open spaces where we may be able to work. So we have a chance!

Unfortunately, we had a setback with the magnetometer—the battery that controls its memory lost power, so we lost half a day’s work, and Mohamed will return to Khartoum to get a replacement. More tomorrow.

January 1, 2013: One step closer—to the house

Kullu senna wa intu tayibeen—Arabic for happy new year to all of you! I’ve left Khartoum for the 4-hour drive across the stark Bayuda desert to get to Karima, where my Sudanese colleague and co-director Abbas Sidahmed Zarroug has arranged a house for us to rent. We passed a series of watermelon sellers in the steppe, with beautiful melons stacked inside old tires.

When I first came to Sudan in 2006, this paved road had just been built, and the Sudanese have recently completed the first paved road to connect Khartoum with its northern border. I hear stories from archaeologists about the old days (like before 2004) when this drive could take 36 hours bumping over the rough and dusty desert, where cars could break down and be stranded until the next car came along.  Archaeological discoveries have been made during extended breakdowns in the desert!

The road across the desert—it’s a toll road, by the way—finally reached the Nile. It was marked by a line of palm trees extending across the desert, and it was a relief to reach it.

In 2007, a bridge across the Nile was finished near Karima, which meant no more need to wait for hours in a long line of cars and trucks waiting for the ferry. And during my last excavation in Sudan, in a remote area called the 4th Cataract, we were there (also in 2007) when they turned on the first cell phone towers. The local men we were working with took their phones out when we were finished digging for the day and made their first calls from their village.

Sudan is changing fast, and there’s been a lot of investment in infrastructure (much of it built by Chinese companies). It’s hard to convey what paved roads mean, but being in a truck that breaks down and having to wait in the cold desert night for the next one to come along (as we were in 2007) showed me how much this can mean for people here.

January 1, 2013: Home away from home

We’ve arrived at the house we’ll be staying in…a nice place with 10 beds, electricity, and running water (well, at least cold running water). This is the most luxury I’ve ever had on a dig!

Karima is a nice little town, maybe 20,000 people or so, and it’s a market center so a surprisingly wide variety of things we need are available. Food in the market is fresh, grown locally, and almost certainly organic…

It’s also quite a devout Muslim town judging by the number of mosques, each with beautifully and colorfully painted minaret-towers that will broadcast the call to prayer 5 times a day, starting around 4:30 am, and then again at 6:30 or so. It can make sleep elusive—that’s the point, I guess—particularly when there are lots of mosques and they time the call differently, so the voices of the mu’ezzineen echo in conversation across the dark town seemingly for hours at a time.

Muslim countries vary quite a bit in their degree of observance of prayer times. Not naming any names…but Sudan is among the more devout countries I’ve been in.

The weather has been great—highs close to 90 in Khartoum, but only briefly that hot, lows in the lower 60s. Beautiful, clear sky, dry air. It’s a bit cooler here in Karima, but still quite nice. Dust storms can start in February, so we’ll see how that goes.

But the mosquitos have been out, both in Khartoum and Karima. We’re in the malaria zone, so we’ll sleep with netting and take malaria pills.

And then there are the flies…another thing we forget about it modern cities. But everywhere I’ve been in rural places, the flies can be swarming and a real nuisance. That’s why ancient Nubians (and Egyptians) gave fly-shaped amulets in gold or ivory to successful warriors.

December 31, 2012: Friends and colleagues

One of the things I like the most about Sudan is the community of Sudanese and foreign archaeologists working here. They are excellent in the field, nice and collaborative colleagues, and it seems like most of them are in Khartoum right now.

Today I visited the Sudanese department of antiquities, called NCAM, to discuss my plans for the season with some of my Sudanese colleagues. Everyone was busy with all the field projects starting, but I drank tea and talked with the new Director-General, Dr. Abdelrahman Ali, the Director of Excavations El-Hassan Ahmed, and Dr. Salah el Din Mohammed, the Director of an exciting new archaeological collaboration between Qatar and Sudan called the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project. They are great to work with.

I needed to get travel permits, which were relatively easy, and a license to excavate at the site (called a concession). That was more complicated, but finally worked out toward the end of the day, just before New Year’s festivities began.

Another great part of the archaeological community in Sudan is the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum, run by three Greek brothers—George, Makis, and Thanasis Pagoulatos. There is, surprisingly, a sizable Greek population in Khartoum. But the Acropole is great because of the Pagoulatos family, who are just extraordinarily efficient and welcoming. The hotel is a refuge, whether you’re arriving on a flight that arrives in the middle of the night, or returning from a hot and dusty trip somewhere outside Khartoum.

I’m not sure how they divide up the work, but George seems to be the one who fixes any problems that arise for guests. It’s partly because he’s so good at it, and has so many connections, that most archaeologists maintain connection with the hotel. So we all meet at the Acropole.

December 31, 2012: Archaeologists in Sudan

Just to give an idea of the kinds of people and projects in Sudan at the moment, I could mention:

  • Derek Welsby of the British Museum, who has made incredible contributions to archaeology in Sudan over the past 25 years or so, was in town giving a lecture before heading up to work on a salvage project to investigate sites that will be flooded by a new dam being built on the Nile.
  • Bogdan Zurawski of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who has also done an incredible quantity of survey, excavation, and publication on Sudanese archaeology for at least 25 years, will be working mainly on a medieval Christian church at Banganarti (subject of a recent article in Archaeology), but will also do some scouting for salvage work.
  • Bruce Williams of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, who has published 9 huge volumes from the 1960s Aswan Dam campaign and is working on another volume, is photographing and drawing objects in the Khartoum museum. He’ll go to work at Tombos, a site founded during the Egyptian expansion into Nubia around 1500 BC where Egyptians and Nubians lived and worked together.
  • The Tombos project is being directed by Stuart Tyson Smith of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is arriving in a few days.
  • Simone Wolf from the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, who is documenting the “royal baths” at Meroe, the capital of Nubia from about 300 BC to AD 300 (these dates, like many I may mention, are subject to disagreement among scholars!).
  • Matthieu Honegger from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland is working at prehistoric sites near the city of Kerma (and Charles Bonnet, who has worked at Kerma since the 1970s, had just passed through Khartoum).
  • Neal Spencer, the new head of the Egypt and Sudan department at the British Museum, who is headed up to excavate an ancient Egyptian town in Nubia called Amara West.
  • And Chris Grzymski, excavator of the city of Meroe (among others) from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, was visiting a range of sites.

I’m sure I didn’t meet everyone who was in town. But the list shows the diversity of people, places, and institutions working on archaeology in Sudan today, and also the range of subjects and concerns that are the focus of the field’s attention.

December 30, 2012: Khartoum, Sudan

I arrived yesterday evening in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. It’s a name that evokes the British empire or exotic Africa. My flight from Ann Arbor took 20 hours (Lufthansa, brief layover in Frankfort), but the trip is really too short to bridge the vast cultural, environmental, and personal differences that it spans.

Khartoum is a sprawling, dusty, bustling city, three cities really, where about 5 million people live, with an incredible diversity of languages, physical appearance, cultures, and clothes, from business suits to men in white robes and turbans and women in colorful dresses and full Islamic hijab. The city isn’t very old—the earliest standing buildings belong to the British colonial administration of the late 19th century—and most of the buildings are relatively low. It’s right at the junction of the Blue Nile and the White Nile.  The waters join and then travel through steppe and desert until reaching the Mediterranean over 1000 miles to the north.

In the past 5-10 years, new wealth from oil production has led to a construction boom in Khartoum, so there is dense traffic in the city as a lot more Sudanese can afford cars. At the same time, the city’s population has grown massively as refugees have fled conflicts in Sudan, primarily the long civil war with the south (1983-2005) and fighting in Darfur starting in 2003.

These conflicts are what we  hear most about in the news, and there is no denying that some parts of the country can be dangerous, or that some people in the country are suffering. But Khartoum itself is safe and stable, and the northern region where archaeologists have been working more and more intensively over the past 30 years has remained calm. That’s where I’ll be headed on January 1, 2013, after just a few more meetings.