News from the Conservation Lab — Conservation at El-Kurru, Sudan

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

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.

two women mixing mortar
Conservation architect Kelly Wong (left) and I mixing test batches of mortar. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman brushing stone blocks of pyramid
Kelly at the Ku. 1 pyramid, preparing a joint for a mortar test. Photo by Suzanne Davis.


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.

Three people at base of ruined pyramid
Filming Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim in front of the Ku. 1 pyramid. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Two men
Anwar and Bakri, in a still from the video. Photo by Suzanne Davis.


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.

Two women baking bread
Marwa Mahajoub supervises as I shape bread for baking. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman baking bread
Marwa pulls freshly baked bread out of her home oven. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

From the Field: How Tall Was This Pyramid?

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum, blogging from his fieldwork site at El Kurru, Sudan

Due to overwhelming demand, I am giving my answer to the question of how tall our pyramid would have been when first built. The angle of the facing stones is about 73 degrees, and if you just do a calculation on that basis (yes, it’s trigonometry), you get a height of about 43 meters.

If you do a more detailed (and accurate) calculation based on the size of the blocks and the setback of each course, you find that the pyramid had about 72 courses of stone and that it was about 34.5 meters high.

These calculations are remarkable partly because the pyramid has a much lower angle now, and it’s only a bit over 9 meters high. So a very rough reconstruction shows what the profile of the pyramid would have looked like originally:


Is that even remotely plausible? Where did all that stone go??
We looked at some nearby sites, and it seems that it is plausible — there are some pyramids at the site of Nuri from about the same period of time that were built of solid stone and have survived better, and they could have been close to 34 meters high. They also have a profile like the one I’ve reconstructed here.


We don’t know where all the stone went … but some of it seems to have been used in the village over the past century or two.