International Kurru Archaeological Project — Fieldwork Friday #3

Life in the Field, North Sudan

Street scene in Kurru, Sudan.
The main street in Kurru in the early morning hours before work. Waleed’s shop, where we buy snacks and supplies but most importantly bottled water, is on the left less than 100 meters from our front door, and the barber shop, painted green, is right across the street!

14 December 2018

By Gregory Tucker

The past week has been incredibly busy as we try to prepare the site for the final days of data collection before I leave for Khartoum next Thursday. In next week’s post I will share some of the initial results of all of our hard work here, but this week I will focus on what my life is like in Sudan outside of work.

The International Kurru Archaeological Project stays in the village of El Kurru, near the ancient site, and we are kindly hosted by Sadiq Mohamed Saleh and his family. This month I have been staying in Kurru rather than closer to Jebel Barkal, as it is only a 15–20 minute car ride to the site. It is also where all of my friends from past field seasons live, and where I feel welcomed as a part of the community.

two stucco walls, one painted pink
The front entrance to Sadeq’s house, before (top, 2017) and after (below, 2018) its new paint job!
sparse interior with small bed
My bed (taken the first week of the project — I assure you it is nowhere near this tidy anymore) with equipment charging and my personal effects in the corner.

Part of the feeling of community comes from the fact that our meals are all communal. We share large dishes and eat with our hands, and the meals are always accompanied by bread. The main course is often fuul, a dish made of mashed beans with cheese or sardines or tomatoes or just about anything added to spice it up. We also often eat chicken, liver, a fish paste called fasikh, salad, and much more, and on special days we have fried fish! Last week, while staying the night in Karima, I even had pizza here for the first time, which I can highly recommend to the rest of the team coming next month!

dishes of food
Left: A typical fattur, with fuul, fasikh, tamia, eggs, and a few vegetables, to be shared between four to six people. Right: A special fish lunch.
pizza
Pizza making in progress (left), and our delicious dinner (right).

In past seasons after work I have played soccer with my friends here, in the shadow of the Kurru pyramids, but this year I have had to rest my legs and often opt to either watch the others play in the sunset or cool my feet in the Nile, which is only a five-minute walk from Sadiq’s.

boys playing soccer on a dirt field
The guys playing soccer at Kurru. The pyramid is just behind me as I take this photo.
bare feet in a river
Cooling my feet in the Nile.

In past seasons we have even gone to see the Kurru soccer team play a few official matches, including big games against local rivals in the stadium at Karima. I’m in the field a bit earlier this year so the soccer season hasn’t started yet, but the first match is on Tuesday in Karima, and  I’m looking forward to cheering on my friends from the stands after work!

soccer field with stands
A view from the stands at a soccer match in Karima (2017).

This year I’ve felt even more closely connected with life in the village, attending a few wedding celebrations and just last night an engagement party for Salah Mohamed, one of the guys who works with me at Jebel Barkal. We danced for hours (myself only sparingly) to traditional tambour music, and it seemed as if the whole village came to celebrate with Salah!

In addition to all these larger events, I spend many of my evenings with friends talking under the stars or watching Champions League or EPL soccer while drinking tea, which is ubiquitous here. This season I’ve even picked up a new game to play, Ludo, which is kind of like Trouble and brings out an intensely competitive nature among us! It might be worth checking out the next time you’re looking for an easy game to play with a few friends!

I have less than a week left for in the field, and it is going to go by far too quickly. Check back here next week for a final #fieldworkfriday update from Sudan for 2018!

International Kurru Archaeological Project — Fieldwork Friday #2

Magnetic Gradiometry at Jebel Barkal

Man walking in desert with scientific equipment, pyramids in background
Collecting magnetic data on our first day of survey at Jebel Barkal. Photo by Abdelbaki Salahadin Mohamend.

7 December 2018

By Gregory Tucker

This week for #fieldworkfriday I would like to share with you a bit of where I am and what I’m doing in the field. This month I’ve come to Sudan’s Northern State, to the site of Jebel Barkal, near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, to conduct a geophysical survey in two distinct areas of the site.

Map of Sudan.
Map of Sudan showing the location of Jebel Barkal.

Jebel Barkal is a small mountain not far from the Nile that was considered by the Egyptians and later the Kushites to be the home of the god Amun. Various temples, palaces, and pyramids were constructed at the site from the Egyptian New Kingdom (about 1500 BCE) to the end of the empire of Kush (about 300 CE), and these have been the targets of extensive excavation in modern times. Jebel Barkal and the nearby sites of El Kurru, Sanam, and Zuma are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

photo of wall of Egyptian temple.
This image, which I took just yesterday, shows the amazing conservation work of the Italian-Sudanese team at the Mut Temple at Jebel Barkal. The image on the left has been cleaned and clearly shows Taharqa, while the image on the neighboring wall on the right is still covered in soot.
White vans at base of mountain.
It’s tourism season in Sudan, as evidenced by the many vehicles bringing tourists to visit the site every day. Seeing this many together is rare, however, even this time of year!

Geophysical survey is one of the most efficient ways to explore a large landscape like that of Jebel Barkal in search of specific features that will help us understand how people lived in the past. The results of this month of survey will help our projects better understand and interpret the built environment of the site, shedding light on how the community at Jebel Barkal lived and how it relates to other sites and their architectural traditions from the region.

This past week we finished up our work for the first project, on the south side of the mountain, where we were working in the desert landscape near the pyramids at the site.  We were invited to survey this area by Murtada Bushara Mohamed of Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) as part of the Qatari Mission for the Pyramids of Sudan (QMPS) project. This project is focused on research, preservation, and presentation of the pyramids at Jebel Barkal, Kurru, Meroe, and Nuri and our contribution will help us better understand the landscape context of these monuments by identifying the location of other structures in this region of Jebel Barkal.

View of pyramids in desert.
The pyramids on the southern side of Jebel Barkal.

Tomorrow we will begin our work on the east side of the jebel, between the mountain and the Nile River, in an area we call the “East Mound.”  This project is an offshoot of Geoff Emberling’s research at El Kurru and the surrounding region, and during preliminary research conducted in 2016 we identified this mound as being a likely location for the settlement associated with the temples and palaces of the monumental core of the site.[1]  We were able to identify buried structures here during a very short period of survey that year, just a couple of days, so we have returned to survey the entire mound and the surrounding area to better define the extent of this settlement.

scientific equipment at base of rock outcrop in desert.
View toward Jebel Barkal from the “East Mound” as we begin to set up our equipment for the survey work in this area.

The type of prospection that I’m conducting can be done with many different instruments, each with its own unique method of collecting magnetic data. In the case of this project I am using a device that must be carried across the landscape and takes readings at consistent intervals.

The most efficient way to use this device is to set up a grid in the area that we wish to cover. Using a total station we establish a 30 x 30 m grid, and within that grid we lay down guidelines that are marked at every meter. Then, wearing the scientific device, I walk up and down along the guidelines, which are there to ensure that I walk straight and at a consistent pace.

By telling the instrument and the processing software the parameters of the survey, the data can be plotted quite quickly to create a map of the magnetic readings at the surface, giving us insight into what may lie buried below. With this particular machine we are limited only by how fast I can walk while maintaining a consistent pace and holding the machine relatively steady, which depends on the surface conditions — sand slows me down quite a lot! — and how well we have established the grid and the guidelines. Below is a short video that gives a first-person perspective of what walking one of these lines is like. (In a typical day I can walk approximately 540 lines!)

Of course, there is slightly more to it than just that, but the bulk of my time here is spent walking along these lines and listening to the machine chirp at me, 30 meters at a time.

I realize that I did not check the comments on my last post to see if there were any questions, but I will be better about that this week, so please comment with any questions you may have or email me at gstucker@umich.edu. I would love to hear from you! And please check in next week for another update from Sudan!

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[1] This research was undertaken thanks to a Waitt Grant from the National Geographic Society for my project: “Defining Settlement in the Nile Valley: Geophysical Prospection in the Region of Jebel Barkal, Ancient Napata.” For more about the results of this work, see Tucker and Emberling, “Settlement in the Heartland of Napatan Kush: Preliminary Results of Magnetic Gradiometry at El-Kurru, Sanam, and Jebel Barkal,” Sudan & Nubia 20 (2016): 16–22.

International Kurru Archaeological Project — Fieldwork Friday #1

The International Kurru Archaeological Project is back in the field!

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Jebel Barkal in a photo taken during 2016 fieldwork.

30 November 2018

By Gregory Tucker

Welcome to the first of a series of blog posts that I plan on writing every Friday over the next few weeks for the Kelsey Museum’s #fieldworkfriday series! This happens to coincide perfectly with our rest day in the field, so I thought I could take the time to share with you a bit of what we’re up to this season in Sudan.

The International Kurru Archaeological Project has been an international project studying the ancient Nubian site of El Kurru in modern-day Sudan near the city of Karima since 2013. As part of this project I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to conduct geophysical survey at El Kurru and the neighboring sites of Sanam and Jebel Barkal, to get a better understanding of the unexcavated areas of these sites without, or prior to, intensive excavation.[1]

In general, geophysical survey attempts to detect features beneath the surface by remotely sensing various properties at, or just above, the earth’s surface. Perhaps it might be useful to think of an x-ray or other medical imagery detecting something within your body without actually touching the bones or other internal body parts; geophysical survey for archaeology works similarly. In the case of this season’s work I will be conducting a magnetic gradiometry survey over two locations at Jebel Barkal. This technique is similar to the one used by metal detectorists who you may have seen at the beach or in parks, but instead of looking for individual objects we are seeking patterns in the subsurface that are indicative of various structures or other features, and our instruments are able to document all of the readings at the surface as I walk across the desert which I then plot them in a map at the end of the day. This technique has proven especially effective in the conditions we are expecting to experience this season at Jebel Barkal and with any luck we will have exciting results once again![2]

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Here I am walking with the magnetic gradiometer at Sanam in winter 2017. Photo by Ibrahim Sidahmed.

Over Thanksgiving and the subsequent few days, I traveled from Sohag to Cairo to London to Doha to Khartoum, leaving another Kelsey Museum project at Abydos, Egypt, to pick up the magnetic instrument that I will be using this season in Sudan from its home in England.

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I actually passed through sunny Leighton Buzzard to pick up the equipment, rather than London itself.

I had traveled through Doha to reach Sudan once before, in 2016, but that was before the route was changed due to airspace issues, and the flight from Doha to Khartoum has now become two hours longer than just two years ago. There was some good news for me though: The longer itinerary meant a low passenger load and a mere handful of us had almost the entire coach section to ourselves!

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“Boarding complete” on our flight from Doha to Khartoum. Don’t worry, I moved to a window seat. I was very thankful for the empty flight the day after Thanksgiving, with so much travel over the prior 48 hours and so much still to go before reaching Kurru.

Once I arrived in Khartoum I collected my belongings, including the magnetic gradiometer, and I made my way to the hotel for the night to rest for the journey to Kurru the following day. In the morning I met with our colleague and friend Sami Elamin, who is assisting my work as our inspector from the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM), and we made the six-hour trip through the desert to Kurru.

This past week has been spent getting started in the field, from arranging logistics related to the work, such as how we would get our breakfast delivered while in the field, to meetings with our colleagues from NCAM and another active project at Jebel Barkal run by the University of Venice, to once again taking part in the vibrant life of the village, for instance by attending a pre-wedding party last night which was open to all and featured a live band and much revelry, at least until the power went out over the entire region for the night.

With the help of my colleagues from Kurru and NCAM we have already collected some very useful data and set out the grid that will guide our work across the landscape.

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Proof of work in the desert (and the heat!) while setting out the grid for our survey work using a total station.

Next weekend (and remember: our rest day is on Friday), I hope to share a bit more about the site of Jebel Barkal and the projects that I am working with this field season.

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1. See our publication on the 2016 season work in Tucker and Emberling, “Settlement in the Heartland of Napatan Kush: Preliminary Results of Magnetic Gradiometry at El-Kurru, Sanam, and Jebel Barkal,” Sudan & Nubia 20 (2016): 16–22.

2. In addition to our 2016 publication we have presented our results at the 2018 Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) annual meeting in Boston and the 2018 International Conference for Nubian Studies in Paris.

April’s news from the Conservation Lab: El Kurru 2018 season retrospective

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Last month, I returned from fieldwork at El Kurru, the Kelsey’s excavation project in Sudan. It was a good season overall, but also a bit odd. It felt to me like a season where almost nothing worked out the way we’d planned. For example, the conservation worklist included stabilization of cracked columns in the funerary temple with a lime-based mortar. I’ve done work like this on many other projects and expected it to go smoothly, but it didn’t. Amaris Sturm — conservation intern this year at El Kurru, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation — ended up testing twenty-six (!) different grout mixtures before hitting on one we were happy with. For other team members, equipment was delayed or couldn’t get through customs, supplies didn’t arrive, and work plans had to be altered mid-season.

In retrospect, it was a season of significant progress on multiple fronts, but at the time … at the time, I often felt like nothing was working and it was seriously frustrating. When I think about it now, my time onsite this year was a small lesson in persistence and a demonstration of the power of kaizen. This philosophy (which originated in the U.S. but became popular in Japan following WWII) advocates continuous improvement by making small changes or taking small steps. In Arabic, people often say, “shwaya-shwaya” to mean, “a little bit,” or “little-by-little.” For me, it was a shwaya-shwaya season, and in the end we accomplished most of what we’d set out to do.

April cons post_photo
Amaris Sturm at work in the El Kurru funerary temple. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

The El Kurru heritage project

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

For the past several years, I’ve spent part of the winter in the small Sudanese village of El Kurru, and every year I fall a little bit more in love with it. I work there with Kelsey Research Scientist (and Kurru dig director) Geoff Emberling on the excavation and preservation of an ancient royal cemetery. Two years ago, the Kurru project team began to deliberately focus on community engagement as a way to forge stronger links between the local community and the ancient site.

This work has evolved slowly, beginning from plans to present the site to tourists (of which there are a surprisingly large number). El Kurru is an interesting site, with a big pyramid, two beautifully painted subterranean tombs, and a large rock-cut temple. But the site is only a small part of what I love about El Kurru. I love the Sudanese friends and colleagues we have there, the beauty of the Nile, and the family we live with. Tourists to the site, sadly, enter from a desert road and never have a reason to visit the town. As we planned the site itinerary for tourists, we kept saying to ourselves — wouldn’t it be great if visitors could keep walking and go into town, down through the date palm groves, and see the Nile? What if they could drink some Sudanese coffee, hear some music, and eat Sudanese food?

Over the past two years, we’ve worked with University of Michigan colleagues to assemble focus-groups in El Kurru to explore this idea. Not only did village residents think it was good idea — an exciting idea, even — to showcase local culture, they had a clear vision for what visitors should learn about their village and what experiences make El Kurru special. Here are photos of a few.

Mohammed Ahmed Al-Makee, who is in his nineties, is one of El Kurru’s last traditional weavers. His wife dyes and spins cotton into yarn, and from this he weaves scarves, shawls, and bed coverings on a pit-loom in the courtyard of his house. He allowed my colleague Jack Cheng and I to talk with him about his work and to record the sights and sounds of his loom, which he inherited from his grandfather.

2_Musicians
Once or twice a during the field season, we are treated to a riverside concert of traditional music. There is singing and dancing, and the primary instrument is the tambour, a stringed guitar-like instrument. These instruments are made in the village and are often decorated by the town’s henna artist. In this group, the musician I know best is Abdel Bakee, the drummer.
3_Baker
Bread is the backbone of every meal in El Kurru. There are several popular kinds of bread in Sudan, but the one shown here is a pita-type bread made from wheat flour. It is baked fresh every day in multiple village bakeries and is especially delicious right out of the oven. The baker pictured here is Ahmed Ibrahim.
4_Palm groves
El Kurru is an agricultural village focused on date farming. The date palms grow in beautiful gardens along the Nile. Families own a plot of land and work together to irrigate it, care for the trees, and harvest the dates, of which there are many kinds. From the house where we live, we can walk across the street and through this section of trees to get to the Nile. It is about a five-minute walk to the river.

RTI at Kurru!

JANELLE BATKIN-HALL, Graduate Intern in Conservation

I’ve just returned from a fantastic six-week fieldwork experience at the El Kurru archaeological site in North Sudan. There, Kelsey conservator Suzanne Davis and I documented ancient figural and geometric graffiti in a funerary temple at the site. Each day, Suzanne and I would make our way through a maze of mudbrick alleys to the edge of the village, where the funerary temple and several royal burial tombs and pyramids are located in the desert.

We photographed  the graffiti using a process called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) (fig. 1). RTI is an excellent technique for documentation because each pixel records surface texture in addition to color. Since sandstone is subject to ongoing disintegration and loss, the resulting RTI images provide an excellent record of the graffiti’s current condition, as well as a highly detailed image of the column’s surface texture.

Fig-1
Figure 1. Conservators Suzanne Davis (left) and Janelle Batkin-Hall performing RTI imaging at El Kurru. (photo by Walter de Winter)

The Kurru graffiti were documented using highlight image capture where the camera remains fixed and a portable flash is moved at intervals which create a dome of light over the surface.  In a single photo sequence of one object (or in this case, graffito), approximately 48 digital images are taken. Two reflective black spheres are also fixed within the image frame, and the reflection of the flash on these spheres allows the processing software to calculate the light direction for each image. The resulting images are combined with software, resulting in a single file. In this file, the viewer can move the light source across the surface in order to examine the surface details and topography from any angle (fig. 2).  As a result of using this technique, 64 “new” ancient graffiti were positively identified and additional surface details became visible. In a couple of instances, a graffito was initially misidentified. For example, in 2015 a particular graffito was identified as an arrow. After performing RTI, it was clearly a human figure.

Fig-2_RTIViewer_Screen_Capture
Figure 2. Screen capture of bull graffito using CHI’s RTIViewer software.

For me, this was a great experience because I was able to use a technique I recently learned in graduate school. Being able to apply it onsite and share the results with our colleagues was very rewarding.

 

Identifying pottery in the field: Sad Handle Ware at Omrit

BY CAITLIN CLERKIN, PhD student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

clerkin1
Pottery reading in the Omrit registry.

One step in studying pottery involves identifying what archaeologists call wares. The term “ware” refers to a particular way of preparing the fabric (the material that makes up the vessel: clay, natural mineral inclusions, added temper) to create a specific range of shapes or forms. This kind of grouping is defined by a combination of characteristics of production process, material, and shape/appearance. (See here for another definition of ware, and other terms associated with studying ceramics.)

I spent the first three weeks of June studying excavated pottery at the Omrit Settlement Excavation Project. Omrit is a site in northern Israel’s Upper Galilee, set at the foothills of the Hermon Range; it is the location of a Roman temple and a late Roman settlement (on which the current excavation focuses). I work with one of the project directors, Dr. Jennifer Gates-Foster (UM/IPCAA alumna!), of UNC-Chapel Hill, on the excavated pottery: as part of our work, we sort, identify, and record the different wares we find in each excavated unit (as well as a range of other data about the pottery). This means both identifying known wares and keeping an eye out for shared characteristics amongst sherds of unknown fabric or wares. Sometimes, with enough reoccurrence, these groups of unidentified sherds become identifiable as a new ware; sometimes, we add to what we know about previously identified wares when we spot new shapes or characteristics.

At Omrit, we aim for total recovery of cultural materials. To this end, the excavators sift all excavated dirt (pouring it through 1/4-inch mesh screens). The resulting volume of pottery is large (I don’t yet have final tally for 2015, but, in the 2014 season, we “read”—sorted, analyzed, and recorded—48,678 sherds, and 848.33 kg of pottery, plus part of a backlog from 2013), which is absolutely wonderful for the data set but can sometimes lead to what I call “sherd shock.” While in the midst of a sherd shock fit this season, I came across this diagnostic sherd:

clerkin2
Sad Handle Ware?

“Diagnostics” are what we call rims, bases, and handles of ceramic vessels: examination of these pieces can usually help us identify what the larger vessel shape or type was. Given a reasonably sized piece of a rim, ceramics specialists can usually identify the sherd as coming from a bowl rather than a jar. Additionally, rim shape can tell us what kind of a bowl a given sherd once belonged to. For example, the photo below shows, from a single context, 32 rims of a single type of bowl (with a very distinctive rim) called a “Banias bowl,” named for a nearby site where the bowl type was first identified. (I call this quantity a Banias Bowl Bonanza.) Having a small portion of each rim (as seen in the photo) is enough to identify the type of bowl.

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A Banias bowl bonanza!

Anyway, back to that funny diagnostic sherd (in the photo with the pink 5-cm scale): that sherd is a vessel handle. But what kind was it? It seemed very strange, and it was not a handle shape that was familiar to me from published literature on the region.

Through consultation with other archaeologists at Omrit, such as field director Dr. Ben Rubin of Williams College (also a UM/IPCAA alumnus!), we determined that, while the handle looked oddly like a finger, a more appropriate name for the group to which this strange, unknown handle belonged would be “Sad Handle Ware” (because it was the saddest looking handle we had ever seen).

clerkin4
Not Sad Handle Ware → Hawarit Ware!

Closer examination of the handle’s fabric and surface treatment ultimately allowed me to identify it as Hawarit Ware, a cooking ware produced at a kiln (at modern Khirbat el-Hawarit) just up the slopes of Mt. Hermon from Omrit. Hawarit Ware is our main cooking ware at late Roman Omrit and is the group to which most of our cooking pots, casserole pots, and many other vessels belong. This shape was unfamiliar, but everything else about it matched Hawarit Ware. So much for a new ware! (Alas, I will never be famous for identifying Sad Handle Ware … because it is not a Thing.) This funny little handle, however, was a reminder that we sometimes come across new vessel shapes in known wares — and that our examination of pottery at Omrit will do more than just tell us about activity, consumption, and chronology at Omrit; it will also feed back into the pool of knowledge about ceramics in the region, adding to what is known about local and regional ceramics for ceramic specialists after us.