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 #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.

 * * * * *

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.

June’s News from the Conservation Lab: Conference Crunch Time!

by Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, earthlings! Suzanne and I have just returned from two professional conference journeys — and boy, are we tired! The conference I attended was at the Getty Villa, located in beautiful Pacific Palisades, California. The hilltop replica Villa of the Papyri and ocean view beyond served as scenic backdrops for a conference focused on the study of Roman Egyptian mummy portraits. (Sadly, I have no photos from the Villa itself, only the one below from the Getty Center — also beautiful!) The talks were wide-ranging, from discussions about portrait workshops and artists’ materials to imaging techniques and binding media analyses. My own talk explored changes in the green pigment palette during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, while looking at a group of painted shrouds as case studies. The conference brought together mummy portrait enthusiasts from around the world, and planted all kinds of new research ideas in my head. If you are wondering, How can I get my hands on the post prints? — fear not! They’ll be published online in fall 2019.

Suzanne attended the American Institute for Conservation’s 46th Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas. I say attended, but really, Suzanne was program chair and in effect the mastermind behind the conference’s academic program. The theme this year, Material Matters, explored the impact of material studies and issues of materiality on conservation principles and practice. One member-proposed session featured papers that discussed the preservation of cultural heritage through the transfer and transmission of materials and information from one medium to another. In a joint objects-architecture specialty group session Suzanne gave a talk about the preservation of ancient graffiti at El Kurru, Sudan. Suzanne’s research has also just been published in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, which you can read here. I think we both agree that while a conference is a great opportunity to share research and catch up with colleagues, nothing beats a good old-fashioned peer-reviewed publication for getting new information out there.

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One of many ocean views from the Getty Center.
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Amaris Sturm and Suzanne Davis at the conservation graduate programs reunion in Houston.

 

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.

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

 

January’s News from the Conservation Lab: Let’s Destroy Stuff!

By SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Here in the Kelsey Conservation Lab, we started the New Year right by totally destroying a few things. Don’t worry — they weren’t from an ancient artifact or building! For conservation work at the Kelsey’s excavation in El Kurru, Sudan, we wanted to know how much weight the local sandstone bedrock could bear. Enter Bob Spence, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who helped me perform compression or breaking strength tests on samples of the sandstone — by which I mean Bob graciously performed the tests, and I watched the samples be slowly pulverized. A good time was had by all, except maybe the sandstone.

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Bob Spence, engineering technician in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, prepares to crush a sample of sandstone from El Kurru.

 

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.