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!
Chapter one outlines the history of ancient Kush and provides some historical and archaeological context for the graffiti at El-Kurru. Then, seven richly illustrated essays by international scholars explore the phenomenon of graffiti in ancient and Christian-era Sudan, as well as an overview of Nubian rock art and a look at graffiti at Pompeii.
Some questions that are tackled in this book include:
What the heck, Meroitic pilgrims. Why are you eating the temple? (chapter 2)
Man, some people really love to carve pictures of boats. A whole lotta boats. (chapter 3)
Can’t we just rebury it all? Really, it’s for the best. (chapter 4)
Beneseg, it would have been great if in the graffito you left on the church wall in Banganarti you could have gone into a little more biographical detail and expanded on your personal ambitions and especially your trip to Nubia from France instead of just saying hi to the Archangel Rafael, thanks. (chapter 6)
Were “rock gong” concerts more like Chopin’s nocturnes or an Iggy Pop show? (chapter 7)
Graffito 1: Dude, did you see that gladiator match?! Graffito 2: OMG bro, that was off the chain!! (chapter 8)
While not exactly a fluffy summer beach read, Graffiti as Devotion is nonetheless written to engage non-specialist readers. And anyway, there are a lot of pictures. So go ahead! You’ve got nothing to lose! Download the PDF (did we mention that it’s free?) and have a look.
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.
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.
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.
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.