Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.
First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.
Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.
A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.
I was hoping to submit this last blog post on my time in Sudan, sharing some of our results, as I left the country on 21 December 2018, but unfortunately some rather significant events occurred and I had to leave the country early. On the 19th and 20th of December, protests erupted across the country with various motives that I will not focus on in this post, but I encourage you to read up about these events here and here. I was on my way to Khartoum during this period and while there I was advised to stay in the hotel and to leave the country on the earliest flight possible. In the end, I had no trouble at all leaving Sudan and saw no signs of the protests or their aftermath on the streets from the hotel to the airport, and I was very glad to arrive safely back home to news from my Sudanese friends and colleagues that they were all safe and in good health. Since I left, other research projects have continued to visit Sudan, such as the Uronarti Regional Archaeology Project, although the protests have continued off and on. These protests have recently resumed after a period of relative calm and I hope that the Michigan team now in Sudan stays safe and out of trouble!
In the image above, you can see the results of this season of geophysical survey and how it relates to the large Temple of Amun, visible in the left center of the image, and to the palm line to the lower right. This season of geophysics at Jebel Barkal was successful in defining a large number of archaeological features of interest, some of which are being investigated more intensively right now by other members of the project team on site. One of these is shown in more detail in the figure below, which zooms in on the center of the larger area of gray results in the larger image. What is most significant are the straight lines and right angles formed by the lighter and darker pixels, which reflect differing magnetic readings across the surface.
More detailed results and analysis of this survey season will be published after thorough analysis, interpretation, and comparison with the excavation results. It was a fantastic field season, even with the hot weather at the beginning and the other obstacles we encountered. At times I didn’t think that we would complete everything we set out to do, but in the end we did even more than we targeted — a rare event in my experience!
Many thanks are due to the many people who made this fieldwork possible. First of all, I want to thank my assistants in the field, Bakri Abdelmonim and Abdelbaqi Salaheddin Mohamend, who I have worked with now for many years and whose experience and expertise make my job significantly easier. Thanks also to Sami Elamin, our NCAM (National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan) inspector, who helped me to organize work on site as well as my day-to-day life while in Sudan, and who invited me to many social events in El Kurru and nearby towns and cities, including me as much as possible in the life of the region. Many thanks to everyone in El Kurru who welcomed me during the month of fieldwork and have always welcomed me — it feels like a home away from home when I am there. I would like to also thank our project’s overall director, Geoff Emberling (University of Michigan), for supporting my work from the very start. Hopefully we’ll make many more discoveries together. Finally, the greatest of thanks are due to Larry and Julie Bernstein for the financial support that made this work possible, we could not have done it without your generosity.
Happy New Year! My January has gotten off to a good start, because I spent most of December working at the beautiful site of Abydos, Egypt. Abydos is an ancient Egyptian royal cemetery site, and the Kelsey has a field research project there, directed by museum curator Janet Richards. We have a number of special conservation projects at Abydos, and the one I’m most closely involved with focuses on preservation of painted wood artifacts at the site. When they’re excavated, these objects are in truly terrible condition (rotten wood that’s chewed by termites, with bits of paint raining off into piles in the sand), and then the conservation team is responsible for putting them back together, taking care of them, and studying them along with the rest of the research team. It is interesting work, but my favorite thing about work at Abydos isn’t the work, it’s the people I work with.
Although the entire team is great, I’ll specifically call out the conservation colleagues I worked with this year (after all, this is a conservation blog post) — Hamada Sadek and Eman Zidan.
Hamada is a professor of conservation at Fayoum University. He is an incredibly thoughtful and careful conservator. He’s practical and good at bench treatment, but he also does research and publishes, AND he really likes teaching. He is a lot more patient than I am. Our in-lab dialogue is usually like this:
Me: Let’s get this thing done right now!
Hamada: GAH! Slow down! Did you even look at this, Suzanne??
Eman Zidan has worked in conservation and heritage preservation for both the Egyptian Museum and the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, and she’s currently taking some time off so she can finish her master’s degree in preventive conservation. This is her career mission — facilitating and improving care of archaeological collections throughout Egypt, including at places like Abydos. This is an area where I often feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by the scope of the work, but Eman is calm and able to plan for things like termite infestations and pest control (think snakes) in storage areas.
Although I appreciate Eman and Hamada for their unique contributions to the conservation program at Abydos, for me personally they have also been important peer-mentors. I’m especially grateful to the American Research Center in Egypt, whose generous funding has given me the chance to work with them. Thanks, ARCE!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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 email@example.com. I would love to hear from you! And please check in next week for another update from Sudan!
The International Kurru Archaeological Project is back in the field!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.