As an archaeological conservator I know that, sometimes, you need to travel to where the work is. This was on my mind last month when I found myself flying back and forth across central campus, between our lab at the Kelsey Museum and the Electron Microbeam Analysis Laboratory (or EMAL). EMAL is a shared access research space within the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and it’s home to a range of instruments used for materials analysis.
I had a clear mission: to identify the composition of modern architectural limes and mortars from Sudan. Suzanne acquired the samples during the 2019 El-Kurru field season, with the goal of determining whether they were safe for use in architectural conservation at the two Sudanese archaeological sites where a Kelsey team is working.
I used x-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy to identify the unknown materials, processes that involve careful sample preparation, instrument setup, and data interpretation. It was time well spent since we now know that some of these materials contain gypsum, which poses risks to archaeological stone. This kind of information is crucial for informed conservation decision-making in the field, and will help shape architectural treatment and preservation plans for the El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal heritage sites.
To celebrate the opening of the special exhibition Graffiti as DevotionAlong the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan, I’ve chosen a particular group of graffiti for this month’s Ugly Object post. The graffiti of El-Kurru were created by ancient pilgrims to the site’s Kushite temple and pyramid. Images of animals, textiles, boats, and people were carved into the surfaces of the structures’ sandstone columns and blocks, along with hundreds of cupules — or holes — of varying size. This blogroll is all about embracing the seemingly underwhelming, so it felt only natural to take a closer look at these mysterious holes.
The same qualities that make Kurru sandstone so difficult to preserve — it is soft and readily disintegrates into sand — made it ideal for stone collecting. Suzanne and Geoff, who curated the exhibition, believe that pilgrims wanted to take a piece of the powerful temple structure with them as they continued on their journey. I can picture someone rotating a knife into the column surface while a pile of powder grows in their hand. This debris apparently brought protection or healing to whoever possessed it, which helps explain why the temple columns are so … holy. Apparently, a lot of people wanted a piece of that Kurru magic!
Most of the students and faculty have vacated Ann Arbor for the summer break, but it’s always busy here in the Kelsey’s conservation lab! This month we’re hard at work on all kinds of things.
My main work this month is to finish a book and an exhibition with my colleague Geoff Emberling. Focused on ancient graffiti at the site where we work in Sudan (El-Kurru), these projects have been fun. We’ve learned a lot by working on the book, and the exhibition has been an interesting exercise in how to share the story of El-Kurru and its graffiti with people who will probably never travel there.
Many exhibitions can display objects from a far-away archaeological site to tell a story, but in our case, we can’t transport the El-Kurru pyramid and funerary temple to Ann Arbor (although we can try to fake it). So it’s been a big challenge not only for us but for Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, our Kelsey colleagues who are responsible for the exhibition design, installation, and graphics.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.