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As dam waters rise, archaeologists salvage the remains of a great kingdom

When frequent ARCHAEOLOGY contributor Andrew Lawler reported on the construction of Sudan's massive Merowe Dam on the Nile River at Hamdab, some 220 miles north of the capital Khartoum ("Damming Sudan," November/December 2006), innumerable ancient sites were about to be flooded. The disastrous situation also posed a humanitarian crisis, as those in the water's path were systematically forced from their homes. The following year, University of Chicago archaeologist Geoff Emberling joined an international salvage effort to document sites before they disappeared...


Sudanese workmen clear the surface of Al-Widay, a second-millennium cemetery, now flooded by the construction of a massive dam. (Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition)

I remember standing in the warm late afternoon sun on a barren hilltop in the Nubian Desert of northern Sudan in March 2008. The orange sand stretched away to the green fields and palm trees lining the Nile River in the distance. My colleagues and I had just completed a successful second dig season and we were packing finds and taking our final notes. I went for one last visit to the ancient cemetery where we had been excavating burials of people who lived on the outskirts of the early Kingdom of Kush (roughly 1700-1500 B.C.). The graves and a nearby gold-mining site, littered with ancient grinding stones, had told us a great deal about these people, including something about their kingdom's relationship with Egypt, hundreds of miles to the north.

After making an exploratory trip to Sudan in the winter of 2006, we recognized how our excavations could contribute to the emerging picture of Kush as a powerful kingdom rather than a remote Egyptian outpost, as was once thought. But we were in a race against time. The construction of the Merowe Dam, some 25 miles downstream from where we were to work, was about to flood the Fourth Cataract, a 100-mile-long stretch of the Nile that passes through a narrow valley with islands and rapids. The area had scarcely been documented before archaeological salvage work by teams from Sudan, Poland, England, Germany, and the United States started about 10 years ago. So we joined an international effort to recover what we could before the dam was completed. Over the past decade, work by these teams in the dam area had suggested that the influence of Kush may even have reached beyond the Fourth Cataract, perhaps as many as 750 miles along the Nile--making it a worthy rival to Egypt indeed.

In just two excavation seasons--roughly 16 weeks--we gleaned a remarkable amount of information. Our excavations showed that the power of Kush rested in part on its ability to extract gold from the sands and gravels of the Nile Valley. We also unearthed evidence that has begun to illuminate the connection between Kerma (the capital of Kush) and the distant and peripheral Fourth Cataract, some 130 miles as the crow flies, across particularly harsh desert terrain.


A Sudanese prospector (left) shows archaeologist Geoff Emberling a modern balance for weighing gold. (Bruce Williams)

Kush had been mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts and depicted in artistic representations as both a trade partner and enemy of the Egyptian state, beginning around 2000 B.C. In later periods, gold from Kush was sent as tribute to the pharaohs, as in the painted scenes from the walls of the tomb of Huy, the Egyptian governor of Kush during the New Kingdom (ca. 1330 B.C.).

The Kushites, like other people from Nubia, a culturally diverse region that spans what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, were known to the Egyptians as excellent archers and even served in the Egyptian army. Excavations at Kerma by American archaeologist George Reisner in the 1910s had revealed a town, which we now know was walled, surrounding a monumental mud-brick temple. In a royal cemetery to the east, four massive grave tumuli contained as many as several hundred human sacrificial victims. The remains were surrounded by thousands of cattle skulls, important symbols of wealth to many contemporaneous sub-Saharan people. Reisner originally proposed that Kerma was an Egyptian outpost because of the statuary and scarab seals found there.

Excavations over the past 35 years at Kerma, and over the past 10 years in the Fourth Cataract, began to suggest that the early Kingdom of Kush was larger than previously believed, and that its raids into Egypt in about 1650 B.C. were a serious threat to the capital at Thebes. Compared with other civilizations of the region, such as Mesopotamia, early Kush controlled a vast area and was able to amass significant military power. Yet Kush seemed to lack some of the characteristics of other civilizations: it had only one city of any size (Kerma), did not leave any trace of writing, and did not make extensive use of administrative tools such as seals. Only in the kingdom's latest period were inscribed Egyptian scarab seals used in administrative contexts in the region of the capital.

The expedition was a significant departure for me professionally. I had been trained in Mesopotamian archaeology and had directed excavations in Syria. More recently, I had supervised the installation of an exhibition at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, where I am the museum director, on ancient Nubia. I was fascinated by the beauty of the region's craft traditions, especially its extraordinary handmade pottery, which can be eggshell thin and beautifully burnished, or made in shapes imitating natural forms such as gourds, or covered with geometric designs. I was inspired to learn more about the people who made it.


Broken, scoop-shaped grindstones litter Hosh el-Guruf, an ancient gold-mining site. They are valuable even today to locals, who use them to grind perfumes and spices. (Courtesy Carol Meyer)

Our team of about a dozen archaeologists and students traveled to the Fourth Cataract in the winter of 2007 and again in 2008, planning to work in a "concession" assigned to us by the Sudanese authorities, an area that stretched 10 miles along the right bank of the Nile and included a large island called Shirri. The group included codirector Bruce Williams, who has published nine massive volumes on the Oriental Institute's previous contribution to salvage archaeology in Nubia--the Aswan High Dam project of the 1960s--as well as students from the University of Chicago, New York University, and the University of Michigan.

It turned out, however, that our concession was within the territory of the Manasir, one of three tribal groups living in the Fourth Cataract. The Manasir were actively resisting the Sudanese government's plans for resettling people living in the region, and refused to allow archaeologists to work in their territory. So we had to move to a backup plan, which was to work within the large concession of a Polish team from the Gdansk Archaeological Museum led by Henryk Paner (whom I came to call "Papa Henryk," not for his age, but because he was so knowledgeable about the area and so generous with that knowledge). The team had been working there for almost 10 years, documenting well over 1,000 sites and excavating sites of all periods. However, the researchers knew there were sites they would not have a chance to excavate, and so they allowed us to work within their concession.

As a Mesopotamian archaeologist, I was used to working on settlements--the large mounds called "tells" that mark ancient villages and cities. It turned out that the Gdansk team had a settlement site to offer us near the village of Hosh el-Guruf, and we went to inspect it together. By Mesopotamian standards, it was not much to look at--a small, mounded, and remarkably rocky four acres, with a scatter of pottery that extended over 25 more. I knew from visiting other sites in the Fourth Cataract that it was a remarkably dense accumulation of cultural material by Sudanese standards, and we were happy to start working there in 2007.

After a few days of collecting pottery from the surface of the site, we began digging. Unlike Mesopotamian tells, where excavation trenches can reach a depth of 30 feet or more, Sudanese sites generally do not have deep deposits of cultural material. At Hosh el-Guruf, we dug no more than two feet before we hit the bedrock, and most of our trenches were even shallower.


Tiny gold beads were found in another burial. (Courtesy Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition)

We found that the site had three major occupations, in between which it had been abandoned: the later Neolithic period (ca. 4000-3000 B.C.), the early Kingdom of Kush (ca. 1700-1500 B.C.), and a smaller occupation during the early part of the Napatan period (ca. 750-600 B.C.). While we still don't have a clear understanding of the Fourth Cataract during the Neolithic period, it is possible that the people were pastoralists and were sedentary only part of the year. The Napatan period, on the other hand, marked the rise of a later dynasty of Kush that began building pyramids for elite burials and ruled Egypt as its 25th Dynasty. The most interesting single discovery from our surface collections was a clay seal impression of a Napatan queen, which suggested some level of royal contact with inhabitants of the site in that period.

We began digging trenches where we had unearthed concentrations of Kerma-period ceramics during our surface collections. Rather than the stratified remains of buildings, we excavated mostly jumbled potsherds of different periods all mixed together, and almost nothing that was clearly left in place. We may have had a fragment of one building--three stones in a kind of curving alignment--and that looked pretty good after three weeks of digging.

Yet we were fortunate to have on the team another expert from the Oriental Institute with long experience working in the area: Carol Meyer, who had directed excavations on a Roman-period gold-mining site called Bir Umm Fawakhir in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. She and Bruce Williams pointed out that there was an interesting pattern across the surface of the site--an unusually large number of big grinding stones, all broken but each originally about three feet long and several hundred pounds. As Carol looked more closely, she found that there were also clusters of smaller handheld stones used for bashing and grinding. The grinding stones were not the kind that would have been used by a family to grind grain; we unearthed fewer, much smaller stones for that purpose. Rather, they were the type discovered at sites in the Eastern Desert of Egypt and Sudan, where gold was mined. Those stones were thought to be remnants of ancient Egyptian gold mines of the New Kingdom (about 1550-1150 B.C.), but here we were amazed to have the first clear evidence that they were not Egyptian in origin, but had been used earlier by the Kingdom of Kush.


This well-worn Kerma beaker, unearthed from a burial at Al-Widay, features a distinctive ash band below the rim. (Courtesy Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition)

We were also lucky to have a geologist with us, James Harrell of the University of Toledo, who works on archaeological projects in Egypt and Sudan and specializes in identifying quarries. He suggested that the most likely source of gold here was Nile River gravels, worn off the bedrock formations in the middle Nile Valley and deposited across the site during the annual floods. Support for this interpretation of the site came from the widespread knowledge of gold-mining techniques among the people living in the area today. Although gold mining is not a formal industry, we met many who knew how to mine and pan for gold in the Fourth Cataract.

As we developed the gold-working hypothesis at Hosh el-Guruf, some members of our team began excavating a contemporaneous cemetery site at Al-Widay, next to the village where we were staying, which was a two-hour drive from the nearest paved road. The villagers not only worked for the excavation, but provided fresh bread daily, delivered water for washing and cooking, and showed us genuine hospitality.

The cemetery at Al-Widay was interesting in part because it presumably contained the burials of the people who mined the gold at Hosh el-Guruf. When we returned to complete the excavation of more than 100 burials in the cemetery in the winter of 2008, we found the graves were simple pits with piles of stones on top of them. Each of the dead was buried with a standard set of three vessels--cup, bowl, and incense pot--and sometimes with additional pots and beads made of locally available carnelian, ostrich egg shell, or faience. This pattern turned out to be fairly typical of Kerma-period sites throughout the Fourth Cataract.

One thing that was striking about the cemetery was the scarcity of gold--for a community that was connected to gold mining, those who lived there did not appear to have kept much of what they found. There was one burial with 101 tiny gold beads, made from a gold sheet that was rolled and cut into small rings; another contained a single gold bead. A number of the graves had been plundered in antiquity, perhaps by people looking for gold, but others were unlooted, and there was still very little gold in those burials. In fact, very little gold has been found in any of the Fourth Cataract excavations.


Inscribed with the name of an Egyptian army officer, this glazed steatite scarab seal may have been dropped in battle. (Courtesy Oriental Institute Nubian Expedition)

At the same time, there were clearly imported items in the cemetery, such as Egyptian ceramics, scarabs, and some distinctive, polished, black-topped redware vessels with a gray band that were likely made in Kerma itself. One particularly interesting find was a scarab inscribed with the name of an Egyptian army officer, Nebsumenu, found in the burial of a young girl. We do not know how the scarab ended up in this remote area, but its presence raises questions about the connections between cultures at this time. One possibility is that Nebsumenu dropped his seal in battle or in flight from the fortress in which he served. The seal would have become part of the spoils taken by the army of Kush back to Kerma. It could then have been sent by the king of Kush as a gift to a local leader in the Fourth Cataract. Another possibility is that Nebsumenu lost his seal to the Medjay, a well-known band of nomads, whose routes would have taken them to the Fourth Cataract region. In this scenario, the scarab would have been a symbol of success in battle.

Our research seems to have illuminated two ends of an exchange network: gold moving from the Fourth Cataract to Kerma, and a small number of objects moving from Kerma to the Fourth Cataract. It appears to have been an unequal exchange: those at the center of the kingdom were hoarding wealth, while those at the periphery were exploited. But without direct evidence that the gold was moving from this site to Kerma, it remains a hypothesis that attests to the abundance of information that still lies beneath the rocky earth.

As I stood on that hilltop, I thought about the way many of the burials had been disturbed in antiquity, apparently by looters in search of gold jewelry. In our two seasons, we carefully excavated the looters' holes first, and then investigated what remained of each original burial. At the bottom of each robbed grave, we found a stone not bigger than my fist.

I imagined, at the time, that the looters ended their violation of the tombs by placing a stone at the bottom of their pits, as if to keep the spirit of the dead in its place. As I stood there, I decided that this might not be such a bad idea. So I placed a stone in each of the excavated burial pits, to honor a sense of close connection with the past, and as a sort of offering to help the dead rest in peace.

When we left Al-Widay, we dreaded the day that the dam would be completed, the area inundated, and our hosts forced (finally) to move away. And so it has happened. Our entire excavation area, so scarcely documented, is now under water.

Geoff Emberling is the museum director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.