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 #2

Magnetic Gradiometry at Jebel Barkal

Man walking in desert with scientific equipment, pyramids in background
Collecting magnetic data on our first day of survey at Jebel Barkal. Photo by Abdelbaki Salahadin Mohamend.

7 December 2018

By Gregory Tucker

This week for #fieldworkfriday I would like to share with you a bit of where I am and what I’m doing in the field. This month I’ve come to Sudan’s Northern State, to the site of Jebel Barkal, near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, to conduct a geophysical survey in two distinct areas of the site.

Map of Sudan.
Map of Sudan showing the location of Jebel Barkal.

Jebel Barkal is a small mountain not far from the Nile that was considered by the Egyptians and later the Kushites to be the home of the god Amun. Various temples, palaces, and pyramids were constructed at the site from the Egyptian New Kingdom (about 1500 BCE) to the end of the empire of Kush (about 300 CE), and these have been the targets of extensive excavation in modern times. Jebel Barkal and the nearby sites of El Kurru, Sanam, and Zuma are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

photo of wall of Egyptian temple.
This image, which I took just yesterday, shows the amazing conservation work of the Italian-Sudanese team at the Mut Temple at Jebel Barkal. The image on the left has been cleaned and clearly shows Taharqa, while the image on the neighboring wall on the right is still covered in soot.
White vans at base of mountain.
It’s tourism season in Sudan, as evidenced by the many vehicles bringing tourists to visit the site every day. Seeing this many together is rare, however, even this time of year!

Geophysical survey is one of the most efficient ways to explore a large landscape like that of Jebel Barkal in search of specific features that will help us understand how people lived in the past. The results of this month of survey will help our projects better understand and interpret the built environment of the site, shedding light on how the community at Jebel Barkal lived and how it relates to other sites and their architectural traditions from the region.

This past week we finished up our work for the first project, on the south side of the mountain, where we were working in the desert landscape near the pyramids at the site.  We were invited to survey this area by Murtada Bushara Mohamed of Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) as part of the Qatari Mission for the Pyramids of Sudan (QMPS) project. This project is focused on research, preservation, and presentation of the pyramids at Jebel Barkal, Kurru, Meroe, and Nuri and our contribution will help us better understand the landscape context of these monuments by identifying the location of other structures in this region of Jebel Barkal.

View of pyramids in desert.
The pyramids on the southern side of Jebel Barkal.

Tomorrow we will begin our work on the east side of the jebel, between the mountain and the Nile River, in an area we call the “East Mound.”  This project is an offshoot of Geoff Emberling’s research at El Kurru and the surrounding region, and during preliminary research conducted in 2016 we identified this mound as being a likely location for the settlement associated with the temples and palaces of the monumental core of the site.[1]  We were able to identify buried structures here during a very short period of survey that year, just a couple of days, so we have returned to survey the entire mound and the surrounding area to better define the extent of this settlement.

scientific equipment at base of rock outcrop in desert.
View toward Jebel Barkal from the “East Mound” as we begin to set up our equipment for the survey work in this area.

The type of prospection that I’m conducting can be done with many different instruments, each with its own unique method of collecting magnetic data. In the case of this project I am using a device that must be carried across the landscape and takes readings at consistent intervals.

The most efficient way to use this device is to set up a grid in the area that we wish to cover. Using a total station we establish a 30 x 30 m grid, and within that grid we lay down guidelines that are marked at every meter. Then, wearing the scientific device, I walk up and down along the guidelines, which are there to ensure that I walk straight and at a consistent pace.

By telling the instrument and the processing software the parameters of the survey, the data can be plotted quite quickly to create a map of the magnetic readings at the surface, giving us insight into what may lie buried below. With this particular machine we are limited only by how fast I can walk while maintaining a consistent pace and holding the machine relatively steady, which depends on the surface conditions — sand slows me down quite a lot! — and how well we have established the grid and the guidelines. Below is a short video that gives a first-person perspective of what walking one of these lines is like. (In a typical day I can walk approximately 540 lines!)

Of course, there is slightly more to it than just that, but the bulk of my time here is spent walking along these lines and listening to the machine chirp at me, 30 meters at a time.

I realize that I did not check the comments on my last post to see if there were any questions, but I will be better about that this week, so please comment with any questions you may have or email me at gstucker@umich.edu. I would love to hear from you! And please check in next week for another update from Sudan!

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[1] This research was undertaken thanks to a Waitt Grant from the National Geographic Society for my project: “Defining Settlement in the Nile Valley: Geophysical Prospection in the Region of Jebel Barkal, Ancient Napata.” For more about the results of this work, see 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.

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.

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

 

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.

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.

Fig-1
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.

Fig-2_RTIViewer_Screen_Capture
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.

 

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:

Image

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.

Image

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.

From El Kurru to Ann Arbor: Q&A from the Field

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum

I received a nice note from Julie Donnelly, who teaches at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her 6th-grade students had a bunch of really good questions about the dig and about living in a village in Sudan. It turns out that 6th graders are pretty smart! I’m going to try to answer their questions in several posts over the next week or two.

One group of questions was about life in the village.

Is El Kurru considered to be *modern*? For instance, do people have cell phones, furniture, and computers?
Do they have grocery stores?
Is there a citywide call to prayer, and, if so, how does it affect your team and their work schedule?

Image

There are maybe 1,000 people living in El Kurru village (nobody seems to know for sure). The village is modern in some ways. There are four shops on the main street, including Waleed’s grocery store (above), the barber shop where I got my haircut, and a coffee shop that would amaze you — a woman making the delicious local coffee called jebena on coals that rest on the floor, which is sand. So, not a lot of businesses, but there are a few. People drop by the grocery store all day long . . . women sometimes feel more comfortable shopping through a window on the side of the store rather than going inside.

Nearly everyone here has a cell phone . . . one feature they enjoy is an ability to play the radio out loud on their phone while we are all working in the excavation. In fact, Sudanese went from having a pretty minimal wired phone network to a complete mobile phone network in a very short period of time in the last ten years or so, and it is changing everything about working and living in Sudan.

And yes, there are mosques in the village, and we hear calls to prayer throughout the day (with loud calls to prayer starting at 5:45 a.m.!). The person who gives the call to prayer is called a muezzin, and we all have our favorite ones. This is one of the more observant Muslim places I’ve worked, and many people in the village go to the mosque to pray five times a day.

What is a typical work day for your team?
Do you ever take a day off to rest?

Image

We live in a house in the village — here’s a photo of the outer courtyard, which is really a nice place to have a cup of tea in the afternoon, and we do a lot of work here too as you can see.

It gets light here around 7 a.m. We get ready, have our tea and coffee, and start work at 8 a.m. We have hired around 70 local men to help with the excavation, and most of them prefer to work from 8 to 2 even though it gets hot here in the afternoon (it’s recently been between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoons).

We eat according to a Sudanese schedule: “breakfast” is a big meal at 11 a.m., and we have “lunch” a bit late for Sudan, at about 6 p.m. They would normally have dinner at 9:30 or so, but we are all too tired, so we have just two main meals. We eat a local, organic, and mostly vegetarian diet — lots of fava beans (called fuul), eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers, sometimes pancakes with savory sauces, and bread with everything. And we eat Sudanese style, with our right hand, mostly using little pieces of bread to scoop up the food. My personal favorite is the sweet spaghetti they serve with every meal — hard to eat with your hand!

We work six days per week, with Fridays off. We are a pretty active group, though, so we sometimes catch up on work on Fridays, and sometimes drive off to visit other sites in the area, which is important for us.