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.

From the Archives — June 2016

Apologies for the tardiness of this post …

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Though the summer months see a drop in university class visits to the Kelsey, the museum is by no means less busy when classes are not in session. Researchers who are students and professors here at Michigan, or at other universities around the world, take a break from their teaching responsibilities and make their way to the field and museums to continue their research. The Kelsey hosts a fair number of these scholars. Projects we did not have time for during the academic year are saved for the slower summer months.

As to be expected, the site of Karanis garners much attention from researchers. Every year we have numerous people come to study our collections on this Graeco-Roman site, or the archives that still contain a depth of information waiting to be revealed. This summer is no different, as Karanis has been the focus of an ongoing trial investigation by a group of Michigan scholars. Headed by Dr. Arthur Verhoogt (Classics) and Dr. David Stone (Kelsey Museum), a team has been assembled to determine what it would take to finally digitize, in a controlled and consistent manner, the entirety of Karanis holdings. This includes all the artifacts excavated at Karanis and brought to Michigan, but also all the maps, and archives, and photographs. Over the years, we’ve digitized some of the items, but only specific ones and only as requested.

This team, which also included graduate students Alexandra Creola (IPCAA), Caitlin Clerkin (IPCAA), and Lizzie Nabney (Classics), undergraduate students Emily Lime (Classics) and Mollie Fox (History of Art), professors Brendan Haug (Classics) and Laura Motta (Kelsey Museum), staff Sebastián Encina (Kelsey Museum) and Monica Tsuneishi (Papyrology), has decided to approach the site in a new manner. Previous research and publications have focused on material types. We have publications on the coins of Karanis, or the pottery, or papyrus. Instead, Drs. Stone and Verhoogt want to look at the context of the finds. How did the papyrus relate to coins found within the same space? What does a figurine found alongside a spindle whorl tell us about the inhabitants of house C56?

Over the past two months, students Mollie and Emily have been busy finding, cataloguing, and digitizing items from two contexts, C65 and C137. The team decided to focus on these two structures as they seemed of great interest due to their contents, and also because for a two-month trial project, looking at anything more would have been impossible. Mollie and Emily spent time going through the archives and identifying materials that related to these two structures (one house and one granary). They were then pulled, entered into a project-specific database, and eventually scanned or photographed. Among these was a 32-foot-long map that showed a cross section of Karanis which we are excited to finally have scanned!

The project was generously supported by the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory, an endeavor funded by the Office of the Provost that seeks to bring together people from separate departments to work together towards a single goal. Several projects were funded for this summer term, including this Kelsey-Classic-Papyrology project. We hope to turn this trial period into a much bigger one, where the entirety of Karanis materials are digitized and made available to researchers freely. By doing so, researchers can approach the materials in their own way, without hindrance. At the conclusion of the two year project, we will have a better understanding on what we have here in Ann Arbor, a web portal will be in place for ease of research, and there may be publications and an exhibition. While students continue to digitize and catalogue, graduate students and faculty will analyze the materials to make better sense of the spaces and what is possible with what we have on hand.

While it is easy to get excited about what the future will hold, there is equal buzz about what has been found already. Mollie and Emily have scanned the 32-foot map, which is amazing, but they have also found photographs and archival materials we have not seen since the 1930s. There has been closer inspection into the artifacts, what they tell us about the citizens of Karanis, and the decorations found on objects and on walls. A sample of these is shared here, so that we can look anew at a place we members of the Kelsey community know so well, yet we continue to find new ways to see it.

 

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This summer has proven to be busy in the Kelsey Registry. This project has meant a steady stream of people in the office every day. Every computer is occupied, every free space taken up by archives or artifacts. But this busy-ness has generated an energy and excitement about what we can do with Karanis. There are endless possibilities, and we will keep busy this summer thinking about those and working to make them a reality.

Check out the Karanis Collaboratory website for more information about the project: http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/karanis-collaboratory/

From the Archives — January 2016

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Happy New Year, readers. The Kelsey Museum is back in the swing of business, and we are already in the midst of the semester, working with students, classes, and upcoming exhibitions. As it is the Winter term, some people begin planning for fieldwork and being overseas. Some Kelsey staff will be leaving for the field in just a matter of days, while others will wait until May/June/July to be at their respective projects.

For those who have never been on an archaeological dig, you are missing out! There is so much to learn, to experience. Being overseas, especially, affords a person the opportunity to interact with different people, eat different foods, and lead life at a different pace. There is also the opportunity to travel, see the sites a country has to offer. And there is, of course, the actual archaeology, what there is to discover that gives us a better understanding of the past. It truly is a magical experience.

But it’s not all fun and adventures. Sometimes being overseas brings with it some hindrances and annoyances that add up to interesting stories, but not exactly a great experience. For those not used to travel, new water and new foods will have an adverse effect on digestive system. Dealing with customs and authorities might be an issue. Many people will miss their family and friends, and the comforts of home.

In other cases, the environment is pestering, quite literally. Working as an archaeologist, one will find themselves outside often. Sun, wind, occasional rain, heat and cold all contribute to grueling days. And in many areas of the world, the flora and fauna of the region pose risks to health and work. Wild animals and overgrown plants get in the way, not caring for the work one is pursuing. Some, like the mosquito, will carry diseases one has to be wary of.

This is a problem that affects the modern archaeologist, but it is not a new dilemma. The papers of Qasr al-Hayr, an excavation headed by Oleg Grabar in the 1960s and 1970s, show how the simple fly was proving to be a nuisance even back then. Professor Grabar reached out to colleagues and experts for resources or suggestions for ways to handle the fly problem. In this month’s “From the Archives,” we see a response from a colleague at the Freer Gallery of Art, along with a pamphlet discussing the household fly from the US Department of Agriculture. The pamphlet makes recommendations, such as traps, screens, insecticides. However, the letter expands on this, noting that the region is rife with flies, and trying to tackle the situation would demand many more resources than realistically available, and any efforts would be lost as flies from surrounding regions would just fill the vacuum created.

QasralHayrFlyLetter001

QasralHayrFlyLetter002
Letter from Qasr al Hayr archives on fly problem in Syria
QasralHayrFlyLetter003
Pamphlet from the Qasr al-Hayr archives on the fly problem in Syria.

Qasr al-Hayr was a medieval Islamic town found between the Euphrates and Damascus. By its placement at the foot of one of the few mountain passes in the central Syrian desert, it commanded a commercial and strategic position of importance between settled and nomadic groups. Those of us who have worked in that area of the world know how prevalent flies are, and any efforts to lessen their numbers seem to be fruitless. They are a constant presence.

Being out in the field is truly a great experience, one many students, staff, and professors look forward to every year. But it comes with a price. Sometimes that price is large, other times it is small, but even those small problems have ways to multiply and cause big headaches.

From the Archives — December 2015

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. As is customary for the University of Michigan, staff at Michigan are given the week between Christmas and New Year’s day off. The Museum is preparing for this break, and the staff will shut down for behind-the-scenes business (don’t worry, the galleries will be open during the break). There is much work to do before we all go away, and much to get accomplished as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii (opening February 2016). This is a frantic time of year, as we catch up on work and projects that were set aside while working with students and classes.

Our predecessors worked hard during this time of year as well. Egypt is an extremely hot country, so the traditional dig season for many archaeologists, North American summer (when classes are no longer in session), is not ideal for excavations there. The extreme heat found in the deserts would be dangerous for the crew members on any dig. Instead, the Michigan team, as do many other projects then and now, opt for a North American winter season. Teams would arrive in Autumn, and due to the long trip to Egypt, they would stay a prolonged period of time. In many cases, the teams would be in Egypt over the holiday break, working from December (or earlier) into the new year and beyond. For the Karanis team, this meant being in Egypt, away from family, on Christmas. But they made the most of it. Pictures show decorations at the dig house as the team made their surroundings festive.

They, and the rest of the team, found other ways to keep entertained during the holiday season. And that is the focus of this month’s From the Archives. While at Karanis, the workers held a fencing contest on Christmas day (KM Neg #676). Unfortunately, our records do not indicate what year this took place, or if this happened every year, but we know that at least once in the life of the excavation, some fun was had with a fencing competition. The archives do not indicate if there was a winner, how many participated, or if this was just a random occurrence between two people having a little fun. The photographer is also unknown, though it would not be a stretch to assume George R. Swain was the man behind the camera.

0676
Workmen fencing on Christmas Day. KM Neg #676.

On a Christmas day 90 years ago, the Karanis project team was preparing for their own holiday season just as we are today. They had decorations and games to pass the time. They were finding ways to make their current home as festive and comfortable as their permanent homes. Thousands of miles from Michigan, they just wanted the same comforts we will be enjoying soon.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

From the Archives — November 2015

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Thanksgiving is upon us, and many of us will be flying or driving to see our families in other parts of the country. Highways will be congested and traffic slows down to a crawl at toll booths and highway gas stations. Often times, during these seasonal road trips so many of us venture out on, the price of gas rises to meet demand. “Isn’t there another way to do this?” we wonder.

This debate on alternative energy has been a focus for a number of years on the political landscape. What may be surprising to some people is that this debate is not new. Arguments for different energy sources have been with us for over a century. Early cars ran on both electricity and gas, with gas winning out in the early days.

This month’s “From the Archives” showcases a chance find in the archives. The materials stored at the Kelsey relate to the collections and business of the museum, which includes newspaper articles from the Detroit News written about museum/university matters. In 1924, the University of Michigan set out on several projects: Antioch (Turkey), Carthage (Tunisia), and Karanis (Egypt). The finds at Antioch proved to be exciting enough for the Detroit News to devote a large portion of their newspaper to the project. And, rightfully so, someone decided to save a copy of this for the records of the dig, where it then became a part of the history of the museum.

Newspaper #1-1
Detroit News, Sunday, 21 September 1924, p. 12.

While the original intent of the newspaper clipping was to save the history of this archaeological excavation, often such mementos wind up sharing with the modern audience other bits of history. Below the finds of Antioch we see an image of famous American inventor Thomas Edison. The Wizard of Menlo Park is quoted discussing alternate sources of energy. “Why Worry About Coal? Asks Edison; Says Sun and Sea Will Do Its Work.” Even as far back as the 1920s, people like Thomas Edison lauded alternative energy, cleaner than coal and an endless supply. He speaks as if it is a given, an obvious solution to the problems facing society.

Newspaper #1-1 detail of Edison article
Detail of article on Edison from the Detroit News, Sunday, 21 September 1924, p. 12.

The push for alternative energies, with solar panels going on homes and high-end electric cars hitting the roads, seems to be a modern solution to a century-old problem. The truth is, this debate has been ongoing for much longer. Even America’s Inventor weighed in on the discussion, suggesting it was obvious and easy to harness wind and sun. It is interesting to think what the world would look like now if more attention was given to Edison and his recommendations were followed.

The clipping presents us with a fun aspect of archives. Historians and archivists often go through archival materials looking for specific bits of information. While perusing things such as newspapers, they come across random facts, stories, and articles that were not the focus at the time, but present such interesting history that could easily be overlooked. The past is made even more accessible and fuller, showing us all aspects of past lives. And to think, even more stories await us in the Kelsey archives!

Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project study season

BY DAN DIFFENDALE, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Mt. Mainalon
Mt. Mainalon above the village of Kardara.

I spent the first three weeks of June in Greece, working with the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project. Although the project last conducted fieldwork at the Sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios on Mt. Lykaion in western Arcadia in 2010, we have been busy every summer since then studying the excavated materials. In excavation years, we rent private houses in a village close to the site; during study seasons, we stay in an off-season ski resort in eastern Arcadia, in order to be close to Tripoli, where the artifacts are housed. From Kardara it’s a thirty-minute van ride to our apotheke, or storeroom, where we study the materials almost every day (but never on Sunday). The study seasons witness a wide range of scholars and specialists coming and going as their schedules permit; among others, we have experts in animal bones, roof tiles, coins, and numerous varieties of ancient pottery, including Neolithic, Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman. Of course, this study could not proceed without the heroic efforts of our registrar, who is responsible for the organization of the apotheke and all procedural matters relating to the artifacts, along with her team of assistants, who do whatever assisting needs to be done.

apotheke
At work in the apotheke.

This season I have been assisting one of the project’s directors in the study of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age pottery, as well as preparing a final report on the stratigraphy of one of the project’s trenches on the peak of Mt. Lykaion. One of my goals this season has been looking for matches or “joins” between the tens of thousands of broken pieces of pottery from the trench. Although it is inherently satisfying to find such joins, a successful outcome is by no means guaranteed; it’s like playing a puzzle without a box-top picture to compare to, and with most, if not all, of the pieces missing. Despite the frequent frustration, it’s an important activity; knowing if there are pieces of the same pot scattered in different parts of the trench helps us to understand the formation processes of the site. If ancient people deposited a whole pot on the mountaintop, but we find broken pieces of it in different areas of our excavation, we deduce that it must have been broken and had its pieces scattered by one or more subsequent events. These events might be later human activity, animal disturbance, natural phenomena like earthquakes or frost heaves, or some combination of these. Given that the altar where we excavated has evidence for human activity spanning some three thousand years or more, from the Neolithic to the Hellenistic period, or from before 3000 BCE down to the 1st century BCE, followed by the two thousand years from then to now, it’s not surprising that things got so mixed around!

Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project website:
http://lykaionexcavation.org/

Mt. Lykaion preliminary reports:
http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2972/hesperia.83.4.0569
http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2972/hesperia.84.2.0207

Camping and Kanka Cola: Life at Labraunda

BY CHRISTINA DIFABIO, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

The BULP 2014 Team and the Monumental Fountain House, photo courtesy of Liam Dean-Johnson.
The BULP 2014 Team and the Monumental Fountain House, photo courtesy of Liam Dean-Johnson.

My fieldwork experience was crucial for my decision to apply to graduate school. During my junior year at Brown University, I had the opportunity to become involved in a new archaeological project directed by Prof. Felipe Rojas, who is at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown. Since 2013, I have been part of the Brown University Labraunda Project (BULP). BULP is concerned with the rural sanctuary of Labraunda in ancient Caria, now modern southwestern Turkey, and is part of the greater Labraunda Archaeological Project directed by Dr. Olivier Henry.

In antiquity, Labraunda was a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Labraundos, and people from cities to the north and south came to worship the local deity at an annual festival. The sanctuary is known for its monumentalization by local satraps under the Persian Empire in the mid-4th century BCE: Mausolos (most famous for his Mausoleum, a wonder of the ancient world, located in Halikarnassos, now modern Bodrum) and his brother Idrieus. The current objective of the project is to study a monumental fountain house that lies just outside of the sanctuary. Before our studies, the fountain was largely overlooked because it does not conform to traditional classical architecture, even though its importance is clear due to its position between the two entrance gates to the sanctuary. Our studies suggest that the fountain was built in the mid-4th century BCE and used in some capacity through the Christian period. It is the largest fountain house at Labraunda, and it would have provided rest and refreshment for visitors after a long journey.

I enjoy the intellectually stimulating (and physically tiring) research, but even more so I love learning and living in the Labraunda community. Multiple groups work at Labraunda at a time. In addition to our Brown team, I interact with Turkish, French, and Swedish scholars on site. During the week, we camp about a five-minute walk from site, so we do not have the same accommodations we would have if we were staying in a hotel in the closest town (i.e., we have limited electricity and two working toilets). When I tell this to people, they often describe it as “roughing it,” but with such great company and views of the mountains and stars, I can’t complain at all. I have also enjoyed working with local Turks in the trenches. Language is often a barrier, and I am on my way to learning Turkish. However, we often find things to chat about, mostly the weather (Bugün hava çok sıcak — Today the weather is very hot!), and we have fun as we work together. Some of the younger workers have affectionately dubbed our team members kankalar, similar to “bros” in English, and we have named our daily soda breaks “Kanka Cola.”

When I first heard about this project, I never could have imagined where it would lead me. Now as a first-year student in IPCAA, I plan to specialize in Western Anatolia and continue fieldwork in Turkey. The excavations of the monumental fountain house are almost complete, but I look forward to seeing where BULP’s future studies at Labraunda will go.