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.

 

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:

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

Pulled from the Trenches

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum

Back-filled temple at El Kurru

We are in the final preparations to return to the archaeological site of El Kurru in northern Sudan for a second field season. We have obtained our permissions from the governments of Sudan and the United States, raised funds, gathered an international group of about 25 archaeologists, and purchased and packed all our trowels, notebooks, and computers.

The site is well known to archaeologists as the burial site of many of the “Black Pharaohs,” kings of Kush who conquered Egypt and ruled as its 25th Dynasty from about 725 to 653 BC. They are mentioned in the Bible because they helped defend Jerusalem against the invading Assyrian army in battles around 701 BC, but it was ultimately the Assyrian army that drove them out of Egypt. Kush, however, continued as the major political power in the Middle Nile valley for another 1,000 years or so. As a result of its importance, El Kurru was designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage area, “Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region.”

It will be an unusually exciting season. One of our teams, directed by Prof. Abbas Sidahmed Zarroug, is working to preserve and protect the royal pyramids. Abbas is a Sudanese archaeologist who grew up in the village of El Kurru, and he has a unique perspective on this cultural heritage. Another team, directed by Prof. Rachael Dann of the University of Copenhagen, will be working around the currently known royal burials to identify non-royal burials or perhaps even royal burials missed by earlier archaeologists.

My team, based at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, will be working to excavate the burial chamber of the largest pyramid at the site and to uncover a “mortuary temple” (temple for a dead king) with mysterious underground chambers (see photo above). We are also investigating the royal city around the cemetery by following remains of what we think is a city wall. We are grateful for major funding from the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project; from the National Geographic Society, who will be sending a film crew to document our work; and from Ms. Kathleen Picken.

Note: Keep up to date with this year’s season at El Kurru by following Geoff Emberling’s blog posts at:

http://elkurrukush.blogspot.com/