Relics from the Kingdom of Kush & Ancient Nubia

Relics from the Kingdom of Kush & Ancient Nubia

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Kush was a kingdom in North Africa in the region corresponding to modern-day Sudan. The larger region around Kush (later referred to as Nubia) had been inhabited since c. 8,000 BCE, but the Kingdom of Kush rose much later, flourishing between c. 1069 BCE and 350 CE. Kush was influenced by Egyptian culture from its very beginning. Rulers were buried beneath pyramid tombs with Egyptian grave goods, and the Kushite kings became the pharaohs of Egypt's 25th Dynasty while Kushite princesses dominated the political landscape of Thebes in the position of God's Wife of Amun.

Kushite kings based in Meroe later abandoned Egyptian culture and emphasized Kushite tradition. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was discarded in favor of another known as Meroitic which, to date, has not been deciphered. During this period, Kush established a lucrative trade system for the export of gold, ebony, incense, exotic animals, and ivory among other luxury items. Grains and cereals were also exported, along with later iron weapons and tools from Kush's burgeoning metal industry.

Archaeologists Find Artifacts of Oldest Written Black African Language and Rare Ancient Art Depicting Egyptian Goddesses With Black African Features

An ongoing archaeological dig in Sudan has unearthed fascinating Nubian artifacts from sub-Saharan empires where women held power and prestige. The artifacts also contain remnants of the oldest-written black African language and present the first ever depictions of Egyptian deities with black African features.

The artifacts were uncovered by a team led by researchers from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Sorbonne Université as part of the French Section of Sudan's Directorate of Antiquities (SFDAS), which is co-funded by the CNRS and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, a press release on the archaeological site said. The dig first started in 1963 and resumed in 2009. It is expected to continue until 2020.

The site, a necropolis dedicated to honoring the dead in contemporary Sudan, is located in an area known as Sedeinga, not far from the Nile's western shore. The necropolis was once part of ancient Nubia, a region along the Nile and home to Africa's earliest civilizations. The uncovered tombs are from Napata and Meroe, ancient African kingdoms also known as the kingdom of Kush, which thrived from the seventh century B.C. to the fourth century, Live Science reported.

Related: Stone tools found in India resemble those in Africa, changing our theory on ancient human migration

The necropolis was built by the Napata kingdom in the seventh century B.C. and then was added to by the Meroitics five centuries later. Some of the most significant findings include tablets and tombs written in Meroitic, the earliest-known written language of sub-Saharan Africans. The language is still not completely understood, and the new texts may help expand our knowledge of this ancient and mysterious language.

"While funerary texts [in Meroitic], with very few variations, are quite well known and can be almost completely translated, other categories of texts often remain obscure," Vincent Francigny, an archaeologist with the SFDAS and co-director of the excavation, told Live Science. "In this context, every new text matters, as they can shed light on something new."

Related: Out of Africa: 90,000-year-old human finger points to much earlier migration

In addition to the ancient text, the site revealed for the first time a depiction of the Egyptian goddess Maat showing distinctly African features. Other depictions of Egyptian goddesses suggest that women in ancient Nubian cultures were held in high esteem and that unlike the neighboring Egyptians, family ancestry was traced though the maternal line, not the paternal. While the artifacts clearly show that high-ranking women had power in these societies, it's not clear if lower-ranking women were offered the same opportunities and respect.

Ancient Nubian Artifacts Yield Evidence of Earliest Monarchy

Evidence of the oldest recognizable monarctiy in human history, preceding the rise of the earliest Egyptian kings by several generations, has been discovered in artifacts from ancient Nubia in Africa.

Until now it had been assumed that at that time the ancient Nubian culture, which existed in what is now northern Sudan and southern Egypt, had not advanced beyond a collection of scattered tribal clans and chiefdoms.

The existence of rule by kings indicates a more advanced form of political organization in which many chiefdoms are united under a more powerful and wealthier ruler.

The discovery is expected to stimulate a new appraisal of the origins of civilization in Africa, raising the question of to what extent later Egyptian culture may have derived its advanced political structure from the Nubians. The various symbols of Nubian royalty that have been found are the same as those associated, in later times, with Egyptian kings.

The new findings suggest that the ancient Nubians may have reached this stage of political development as long ago as 3300 B.C., several generations before the earliest documented Egyptian king.

The discovery is based on study of artifacts from ancient tombs excavated 15 years ago in an international effort to rescue archeological deposits before the rising waters of the Aswan Dam covered them.

The artifacts, including hundreds of fragments of pottery, jewelry, stone vessels, and ceremonial objects such as incense burners, were initially recovered from the Qustul cemetery by Keith C. Seele, a professor at the University of Chicago. The cemetery, which contained 33 tombs that were heavily plundered in ancient times, was on the Nile near the modern boundary between Egypt and the Sudan.

The significance of the artifacts, which had been in storage at the university's Oriental Institute, was not fully appreciated until last year, when Brace Williams, a research associate, began to study them.

“Keith Seele had suspected the tombs were special, perhaps even royal,” Dr. Williams said in an interview. “It was obvious from the quantity and quality of the painted pottery and the jewelry that we were dealing with wealthy people. But it was the picture on a stone incense burner that indicated we really had the tomb of a king.”

On the incense burner, which was broken and had to be pieced together, was a depiction of a palace facade, a crowned king sitting on a throne in a boat, a royal standard before the king and, hovering above the king, the falcon god Horus. Most of the images are ones commonly associated with kingship in later Egyptian traditions.

The portion of the incense burner bearing the body of the king is missing but, Dr. Williams said, scholars are agreed that the presence of the crown — in a form well known from dynastic Egypt — and the god Horns are irrefutable evidence that the complete image was that of a king.’

Clue on Incense Burner

The majestic figure on the incense burner, Dr. Williams said, is the earliest known representation ‘of a king in the Nile Valley. His name is unknown, but he is believed to have lived approximately three generations of kings before the time of Scorpion, the earliest known Egyptian ruler. Scorpion was one of three kings said to have ruled Egypt before the start of what is called the first dynasty around 3050 B.C.

Dr. Williams said the dating is based on correlations of artistic styles in the Nubian pottery with similar styles in predynastic Egyptian pottery, which is relatively well dated.

He said some of the Nubian artifacts bore disconnected symbols resembling those of Egyptian hieroglyphics that were not readable.

“They were on their way to literacy.” Dr. Williams said. “probably quite close to Egypt in this respect.”

He said it was not known what the ancient Nubian civilization was called at the time but that he suspected it was Ta‐Seti, a name known from Egyptian writings that means “Land of the Bow,” referring to the weapon which, apparently, was deemed characteristic of peoples in that part of Africa.

Dr. Williams said there were accounts in later Egyptian writings of the Egyptians attacking Ta‐Seti some time around 3000 B.C. This is just about the time, according to the archeological record, when a major cultural transformation began in that part of Nubia. Little is known of what was happening in the region between 3000 B.C. and 2300 B.C. when inhabitants were unquestionably governed by separate chiefdoms.

Dr. Williams suggested that, after the Egyptian attack around 3000 B.C., the people of Ta‐Seti migrated up the Nile and settled south of the river's third cataract, near a place known today as Dunqulah.

Their descendents, he suggested, may have developed the Sudanese Kingdom of Kush, based in Kurma, which in later centuries battled the Egyptians for sovereignty and, in fact, prevailed over them for a while.

A detailed monograph on the dicoveries is in preparation, but there is no deadline and publication is expected to be a few years away.

The New York Times/March1. 1979

University of Chicago. Oriental Institute

Images carved in a stone incense burner used about 3,300 B.C. by the Nubians. Both depictions show the images one would see if the cylindrical object were unrolled. Near the

middle is a seated figure wearing a crown known from later Egyptian times. Above royal figure is falcon god, Horus. Concentric rectangles, left, are palace symbol.

Royal tombs

The Kushites’ burial culture had been touched by a synthesis of Egyptian and African religious and cultural practices. Even after relocating south, the Kushite kings continued to be buried in the necropolis at Nuri, near Napata, a center of the cult of the Egyptian god Amun.

Meroë would become the preferred necropolis later, around 250 B.C. There are two main burial areas: the south cemetery and the northern burial ground. The south cemetery was the oldest. When it reached capacity, the northern burial ground was begun. The northern area today contains the best preserved of the pyramids at Meroë. Some of the most impressive tombs here are the final resting places for 30 kings, eight queens, and three princes.

Meroë’s earliest pyramids were step pyramids. Scholars have speculated that cylinders or spheres may have once topped the pyramids, made of materials that have since been destroyed or perished. The later structures, built in the third century A.D., are simpler with smooth, steep sides. In spite of the clear influence of the classic Egyptian design, Meroë’s pyramids are notably smaller and generally lack the pyramidion, a pointed capstone. Their design more closely resembles the chapel pyramids built at Deir el Medina near Luxor. These were built during Egypt’s New Kingdom period (1539-1075 B.C.), a period when many Egyptian customs began to appear in Kushite culture.

The stones were set in place with a shaduf, or shaft, a device used as a lever to raise stone blocks. The outside was faced with brick and then covered with brightly painted plaster.

Steps were carved into the rock to the east of each pyramid leading down to a sealed entrance. Behind it lay underground rooms with vaulted ceilings: three for a king and two for a queen. In the oldest pyramids, the burial chamber was decorated with scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. A wooden coffin, depicting the dead person’s face, was placed in the burial chamber. The sacrificed bodies of animals and, in some cases, of human servants were placed nearby.

Attached to one side of a standard Meroë pyramid was a chapel, its entrance formed by twin tapering pylons. Inside, it was common to place a stela, an offering table, and a distinctive element of Meroë culture: a statue of the ba—the aspect of the human soul believed to give the deceased their individuality—depicted as the body of a bird and a human head.

Relics from the Kingdom of Kush & Ancient Nubia - History

Excavations at a city on the Nile reveal the origins of an ancient African power

As the Nile slices through the barren desert of North Africa, it runs straight north, with the exception of one magnificent curve, reminiscent of a giant S. This stretch of the river winds through northern Sudan approximately 250 miles south of the Egyptian border. Known as the Great Bend of the Nile, it marks the southern boundary of Nubia, a region that stretches from Sudan into southern Egypt and has been home to the Nubian people for millennia.

The modern Nubian town of Kerma sits at the northern end of the Great Bend. It is a bustling riverside community teeming with animated produce markets and fishing boats piled high with six-foot Nile carp. At the center of the town rises a five-story mudbrick tower, or deffufa in the Nubian language, which has kept watch there for more than 4,000 years. Consisting of multiple levels, an interior staircase leading to a rooftop platform, and a series of subterranean chambers, the Deffufa once functioned as a temple and the religious center of a Nubian city that was founded there around 2500 B.C. on what was once an island in the middle of the Nile. Also known as Kerma, it was the earliest urban center in Africa outside Egypt.

Below the Deffufa, archaeologist Charles Bonnet of the University of Geneva has spent five decades excavating Kerma and its necropolis. Much of what scholars know of early Nubian history comes from ancient Egyptian sources, and, for a time, some believed Kerma was simply an Egyptian colonial outpost. The pharaoh Thutmose I (r. ca. 1504–1492 B.C.) did indeed invade Nubia, and his successors ruled there for centuries, just as later Nubian kings invaded and held Egypt during the 25th Dynasty (ca. 712–664 B.C.). The ancient history of Egyptians and Nubians is, thus, closely intertwined. But Bonnet’s excavations are offering a markedly Nubian perspective on the earliest days of Kerma and its role as the capital of a far-reaching kingdom that dominated the Nile south of Egypt. His finds there and at a neighboring ancient settlement known as Dukki Gel suggest that this urban center was an ethnic melting pot, with origins tied to a complex web of cultures native to both the Sahara, and, farther south, parts of central Africa. These discoveries have gradually revealed the complex nature of a powerful African kingdom.

Bonnet began working at Kerma in 1976, some 50 years after Egyptologist George Reisner, the first archaeologist to dig at the site, closed his excavations. As the leader of the joint Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, Reisner had spent many years directing excavations at the Great Pyramid of Giza and working in southern Egypt, where he developed an interest in ancient Nubian culture and in connecting its history to that of the Egyptians. “Reisner thought the place to find new Egyptian art would be in northern Sudan,” says Larry Berman, curator of Egyptology at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1913, by request of the Sudanese Antiquity Center in Khartoum, Reisner was directed to Kerma, which, at the time, was only vaguely known to Westerners from the accounts of nineteenth-century European explorers. He was completely unprepared for what was to come. “When Reisner arrived at Kerma, he accidentally discovered a civilization the scope of which was unknown to the Western world,” says Berman.

In his early years at the site, Reisner focused on excavating the giant Deffufa and investigating tombs in the city’s necropolis two miles to the east. Dozens of royal tombs he uncovered there date to between 1750 and 1500 B.C., when the city was at its height. These tombs contained hundreds of human and animal sacrifices, jewelry crafted from quartz, amethyst, and gold, and preserved wooden funerary beds inlaid with scenes of African wildlife fashioned of ivory and mica. In one of the tombs Reisner unearthed a large, elegant granite statue depicting Lady Sennuwy, the wife of the prominent Egyptian governor Djefaihapi, who ruled a district north of Luxor sometime between 1971 and 1926 B.C. Nearby, Reisner found a broken bust of Djefaihapi himself.

Most artifacts Reisner excavated were distinct from what he had seen in Egypt, which led him to determine that the inhabitants of the site were from a different culture, which he named Kerma after the surrounding modern town. Reisner also recognized that different African cultures had coexisted in the ancient city. One of these he called the C-Group, a somewhat enigmatic culture that would become key to understanding the site’s origins. Despite recognizing that Kerma was populated by ancient Nubians, Reisner did not believe that the Kerma people had been capable of constructing such a magnificent site, and assumed that they had received help from the Egyptians. The Deffufa, he thought, was most likely the palace of Kerma’s Egyptian governor.

Of the thousands of artifacts that Reisner discovered at Kerma, the sculpture of Lady Sennuwy in particular cemented his Egyptocentric interpretations. “The statue was, at the time, the most beautiful Middle Kingdom statue that any American museum had ever found, and its discovery reinforced Reisner’s ideas that Kerma was ruled and influenced by Egypt,” says Berman. “Scholars at the time were completely unprepared to admit the existence of an indigenous civilization in Nubia that could rival that of Egypt.”

Bonnet’s work at Kerma quickly showed that Reisner was wrong. His team’s surveys of the city’s necropolis revealed 30,000 burials in addition to those Reisner had excavated, making it one of the largest cemeteries yet discovered in the ancient world. And after unearthing tombs, buildings, and pottery that predated the 1500 B.C. Egyptian invasion of Nubia, Bonnet realized that Kerma was not merely an Egyptian colony, but had been built and ruled by Nubians. “The country was wrongly believed to have only depended on Egypt,” says Bonnet. “I wanted to reconstruct a more accurate history of Sudan.” In addition to determining that Nubians had founded the city, the team began to identify evidence of other African cultures at Kerma. They discovered round huts, oval temples, and intricate curved-wall bastions that were distinct from both Egyptian and Nubian architecture, and instead mirrored buildings archaeologists have unearthed in southern Sudan and regions in central Africa. “We realized that the tombs, palaces, and temples stood out from Egyptian remains, and that a different tradition characterized the discoveries,” says Bonnet. “We were in another world.”

The Swiss team, now under the direction of University of Neuchatel archaeologist Matthieu Honegger, gradually started to piece together the history of that previously unknown world. They found that beginning around 3100 B.C., driven in part by an increasingly arid climate, people began to settle on the island in the Nile where Kerma would rise. These new arrivals lived in small settlements and used red brushed ceramics of a type that their descendants at Kerma would also use, and placed their huts in a distinctive semicircular pattern.

Fortifications that had been unearthed by Bonnet’s team showed that around 2500 B.C., the people of Kerma constructed a large fortress, and that a dense urban landscape quickly grew up around it. The city’s residents built circular huts, larger communal wooden structures, bakeries, and markets. Large ceramic vessels throughout Kerma seem to have provided public drinking water, likely for both citizens and visitors. A small chapel was constructed where the Deffufa would later stand, and the entrance to the city was marked by a mudbrick-and-wood gate built in a style still evident in Nubian houses today. Royal quarters with an elaborate courtyard were constructed near the city center. Around this time, nobles were first entombed in the necropolis to the east of the site. In several ceramic workshops nearby, artisans created a style of ornate dining ware only found in the nobles’ tombs. Bonnet believes these dishes were used during funeral rituals that involved meals held between mourning families and the recently deceased. The discovery of ceramic Egyptian trade seals, faience artifacts, and ivory and jewelry from southern Sudan, shows that Kerma was growing into an important trade center. Farmers contributed to the economy during this time by raising cattle and planting legumes and grain in irrigated ditches surrounding the city walls. Bonnet’s team uncovered well-preserved evidence of this in traces of wooden plowshares, holes dug in the soil for as-yet-unplanted crops, and the footprints of both people and of oxen teams, along with thousands of domesticated cattle prints pressed into the hardened mud as if they had been made only a few weeks before.

In addition to evidence of ambitious building projects and a growing economy, finds dating to early in the city’s history indicate the arrival of the C-Group identified by Reisner, possibly from Darfur in western Sudan or modern-day South Sudan. Their emergence in Nubia, marked by the sudden appearance of incised black-and-white ceramics and distinctive grave decorations, suggests that they immigrated quickly into the region. Shortly after their arrival, these new people rapidly integrated with the local Nubians and began to assimilate into the city’s culture, while maintaining a number of their own traditions.

Some of the best evidence that Nubians and the people of the C-Group coexisted at Kerma has been uncovered by Honegger’s team in the necropolis. They found that graves of Kerma people from this early period were generally small pit burials in which the dead were placed in a fetal position on a mat made from either leather or woven plants. Small rows of cattle skulls were often placed in an arc outside the grave, and additional objects such as ceramic vessels, jewelry, and sacrificed animals were arranged around the body. Most men were buried with an ostrich-plume bow, and most women had a wooden staff in their graves.

Honegger’s team has also discovered that during the necropolis’ earliest phases, graves from the C-Group culture were surrounded by multiple stelas, and those of the Kerma culture were covered in a decorative pattern of black and white stones. Honegger was surprised that the style of ceramics found in the graves did not always correspond to the culture suggested by the decorations on the outside. In several instances, Honegger observed that Kerma pottery was found in graves marked by C-Group stelas, and C-Group pottery was excavated from graves marked by Kerma pebbles. For him, the mixture of funerary styles indicates that the two groups not only coexisted, but probably intermarried, and that upon their death, a person could be buried in a way that honored both traditions. Although evidence shows that the C-Group suddenly disappeared from Kerma around 2300 B.C. and moved north toward Egypt, their brief presence helped establish a multicultural foundation that would endure throughout Kerma’s history.

Some buildings Bonnet has unearthed at Kerma suggest that African influences from outside Nubia endured, and that foreign people continued to live at Kerma even after the C-Group departed. To him, the building styles there represent a conglomeration of cultures, with architecture not only influenced by Egyptian practices, but also inspired by other African traditions. In particular, a courtyard in the southern part of the city surrounded by circular structures and a small fort featuring curved defensive walls allude to African traditions that resemble modern architecture in Darfur, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. Much like the C-Group, however, the precise identity of these later African populations at Kerma remains unknown. Little archaeological research has been conducted in southern Sudan, and there are very few known sites with which to compare Kerma.

Kerma continued to thrive after the departure of the C-Group people. Bonnet and Honegger’s excavations in the necropolis show that around 2000 B.C., Kerma’s kings initiated construction of elaborate royal tombs surrounded by thousands of cattle skulls. This signaled the beginning of a new phase in the city’s history as it grew in size and its rulers began to exert their influence across northeast Africa. Bonnet’s analysis of the multiple building stages of the Deffufa shows that it was enlarged from a chapel into a multistory temple and became the city’s religious center. Cults devoted to the sun likely worshipped atop the Deffufa and those dedicated to the underworld practiced rituals in a nearby windowless chapel. Excavations throughout the city show that the number of bakeries, workshops, religious structures, courtyards, and houses increased dramatically at this time. Bonnet also discovered that there was a significant increase in the number of wealthy houses, and that the royal quarters were expanded. The construction of increasingly robust fortifications suggests there were frequent military clashes with Egypt as both powers competed for control of the Nile Valley.

Now firmly established in a fortified capital, around 1750 B.C., the kings of Kerma ordered an even more massive palace to be built. Their royal tombs also became even more lavish. At the southern end of the necropolis, Bonnet and Honegger have unearthed very large tombs, some measuring 200 feet in diameter and each containing more than 100 human sacrifices. An abundance of Egyptian artifacts and the discovery of ceramic trade seals bearing the names of Egyptian pharaohs in Kerma’s necropolis suggest that, despite their military clashes, the two powers maintained close economic connections during this time. According to contemporaneous Egyptian inscriptions, however, this relationship deteriorated for good after a failed invasion of Egypt by Kerma in 1550 B.C. Following that campaign, the Egyptians responded with a series of invasions under Thutmose I around 1500 B.C., and Thutmose II (r. ca. 1492–1479 B.C.) some 20 years later. These resulted in brief Egyptian occupations of Nubia that were subsequently rebuffed by revolts and counterattacks. In 1450 B.C., Thutmose III (r. ca. 1479–1425 B.C.) launched a final campaign into Nubia. He successfully conquered Kerma and established a firm rule over the region. Scholars had long assumed that after the Egyptians conquered Kerma they moved the capital half a mile north to the site of Dukki Gel, where Bonnet and his team have excavated in recent years. The obvious presence of Egyptian buildings at Dukki Gel from the time of Thutmose I and later had always suggested that the city was founded by Egyptians, and that it functioned as a colonial center in much the same way Reisner once assumed Kerma had.

But when Bonnet and his team began digging at the site, they unearthed fresh evidence of African architecture postdating the Egyptian invasion, a find that suggests African traditions continued at Dukki Gel perhaps after Kerma was abandoned. Even more surprising, once the team dug below the Egyptian settlement at Dukki Gel, they uncovered circular African buildings dating to before the Egyptian conquest. These buildings were defended by walls that have no known prototypes in the Nile Valley. Even though ancient cities were rarely built as close together as Kerma and Dukki Gel, for Bonnet the conclusion was inescapable—this was an urban center that dated to the same time that Kerma was at its height.

Bonnet wondered how an entire city built using non-Nubian African traditions and presumably serving a different population could have existed so close to Kerma. He notes that Egyptian sources say that their armies often contended not just with Nubians, but with coalitions of enemies to the south. Perhaps, he suggests, the kings of Kerma occasionally led a kind of federation of Nubians and Africans from farther south against Egypt. Leaders from the south may have brought their armies to Dukki Gel, which they built according to their traditions, and which might have functioned as a ceremonial and military center. Geomagnetic surveys at the site have yielded images of installations that might have been troop encampments, but these have yet to be excavated.

Kerma was only the first capital of what would become the Kingdom of Kush, a Nubian power that reigned across northeast Africa for another 1,300 years. The Kushite kings ruled from the cities of Napata and Meroe farther south. In 2003, while excavating a New Kingdom temple complex near Dukki Gel, Bonnet’s team uncovered a cache of granite statues nearby depicting prominent Kushite kings, such as the great pharaoh Taharqa, (r. ca. 690–664 B.C.) who ruled over Egypt, and one of his successors, King Anlamani (r. ca. 623–593 B.C.). Even though the cache postdates the abandonment of Kerma by 800 years, it is clear evidence that Kushite kings continued to honor the area as the royal site where their ancestors had laid the groundwork for the rise of the Nubian Kingdom.

In fact, some cultural traditions established at Kerma endured throughout the history of Kush—and much longer. Modern Nubians in Sudan still bury their dead on wooden funeral beds in the same style found in Kerma’s necropolis, and graves in the region are still marked with decorative patterns of black and white stones. Public drinking water for thirsty travelers and workers is also provided in large ceramic vessels throughout Nubia, just as it was in ancient Kerma. Archaeologist Salaheldin Ahmed, coordinator of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project, points out that for modern Sudanese, Kerma continues to provide a touchstone. “Kerma culture,” he says, “represents the real roots of Sudanese identity.”

Matt Stirn is a journalist and photographer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Brookline, Massachusetts. To see more images of Kerma and Dukki Gel, click here.


  • Pre-Kerma (c. 3500–2500 BC) No C-Group culture Phase
  • Early Kerma (c. 2500–2050 BC) C-Group Phase Ia–Ib
  • Middle Kerma (c. 2050–1750 BC) C-Group Phase Ib–IIa
  • Classic Kerma (c. 1750–1580 BC) C-Group Phase IIb–III
  • Final Kerma (c. 1580–1500 BC) C-Group Phase IIb–III
  • Late Kerma – 'New Kingdom' (c.1500–1100? BC) 'New Kingdom' [3][4]

By 1700 BC, Kerma was host to a population of at least 10,000 people. [5] Different to those of ancient Egypt in theme and composition, Kerma's artefacts are characterized by extensive amounts of blue faience, which the Kermans developed techniques to work with independently of Egypt, [6] and by their work with glazed quartzite and architectural inlays. [7] [8]

Kerma's cemetery and royal tombs Edit

Kerma contains a cemetery with over 30,000 graves. The cemetery shows a general pattern of larger graves ringed by smaller ones, suggesting social stratification. The site includes at its southern boundary burial mounds, with four extending upwards of 90 metres (300 feet) in diameter. These are believed to be the graves of the city's final kings, some of which contain motifs and artwork reflecting Egyptian deities such as Horus. Generally, influence from Egypt may be observed in numerous burials, especially with regards to material evidence such as pottery and grave goods. For example, Second Intermediate Egyptian ceramics from Avaris, such as Tell el-Yahudiyeh Ware, have been discovered within Kerma burials. [9] In addition, artifacts such as scarab seals and amulets are prolific, indicating extensive trade with ancient Egypt as well as an exchange of cultural ideas. [9] After the sacking of Kerma, the cemetery was used to host the kings of the 25th or "Napatan" dynasty of the Kingdom of Kush from Upper (Southern) Nubia.

Early 20th century Edit

Early archaeology at Kerma started with an Egyptian and Sudanese survey made by George A. Reisner, an American with joint appointments at Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reisner later led these two institutions, the so-called "Harvard-Boston" expedition during three field seasons at Kerma (1913-1916). He worked in Egypt and Sudan for 25 years, 1907-1932. [10]

As one of the earliest sites to be excavated in this region, Kerma and Reisner's contributions to the region's archaeology are fundamental. A basic chronology of Kerman culture was established based on the work of Reisner's Harvard-Boston expedition (1913-1916) this provided the scaffolding for all other findings in the region. Reisner's precise excavation techniques, site reports, and other publications made later reinterpretation of his results possible.

The Lower/Western Deffufa (a massive tomb structure) was found closer to the river (19°36'2"N, 30°24'37"E) the Upper/Eastern Deffufa is a few kilometers away from the river in a cemetery (19°36'15"N, 30°26'41"E). Most burials were slightly flexed, lying on their sides. Reisner saw many links to ancient Egyptian culture through architectural techniques and the dimensions of the base of the Lower/Western Deffufa (52.3 m × 26.7 m, or 150 × 100 Egyptian cubits). [10] He assumed it was a fort. He did not conduct further excavations of the settlement suspected to surround the Lower Deffuffa.

The Upper/Eastern Deffufa was located amidst thousands of low, round graves, with clear stylistic differences between the northern, middle, and southern parts of the cemetery. The most elaborate tombs were found in the southern part of the cemetery. Reisner assumed that the large, quadrangular deffufa structures were funerary chapels associated with the largest mound graves, not tombs themselves. [11] He interpreted these based on his knowledge of ancient Egyptian funerary practices, and since many of the grave goods found were Egyptian, he had no reason to think otherwise.

George A. Reisner fit this archaeology into his understanding of ancient life along the Nile, assuming that Kerma was a satellite city of the ancient Egyptians. It was not until the late twentieth century that excavations by Charles Bonnet and the University of Geneva confirmed that this was not the case. They instead uncovered a vast independent urban complex that ruled most of the Third Cataract for centuries.

Late 20th century to present Edit

For decades after Reisner's excavations, his dismissal of the site as an Egyptian satellite fortified city was accepted. "The patient and diligent work of Bonnet and his colleagues unearthed the foundations of numerous houses, workshops, and palaces, proving that as early as 2000 BC Kerma was a large urban center, presumably the capital city and a burial ground of the kings of Kush". [12] From 1977 to 2003, Bonnet and an international team of scholars excavated at Kerma.

Bonnet's Swiss team has excavated the following types of sites at Kerma: ancient town, princely tomb, temple, residential/administrative buildings, Napatan buildlings, Napatan potter's workshop, Meroitic cemeteries, fortifications, and Neolithic grain pits and huts. Among many other unique finds, Bonnet uncovered a bronze forge in the Kerma main city. "It is within the walls of the religious center that a bronze workshop was built. The workshop consisted of multiple forges and the artisans' techniques appear to have been quite elaborate. There is no comparable discovery in Egypt or in Sudan to help us interpret these remains" [13]

In 2003, black granite statues of pharaohs of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt were discovered near Kerma by Charles Bonnet and his archaeological team. [14] [15] [16] The statues are displayed on site in the Kerma Museum.

Bioarchaeology Edit

Mortuary practice in Kerma varied over time, and this is visible in the archaeological record. The large cemetery, around the Upper/Eastern Deffufa is arranged with older graves in the north and more recent (and complex) graves and tombs in the southern part. "In the Early Kerma period, 2500-2050 BC, burials are marked by a low, circular superstructure of slabs of black sandstone, stuck into the ground in concentric circles. White quartz pebbles reinforce the structure". [17] Smaller burials are found surrounding the larger tombs of important individuals. Tombs progress from simple mounds to Egyptian-inspired pyramid complexes. This transition does not begin until long after pyramids are out of fashion in Egypt.

Bonnet notes that sacrificial victims appear and become increasingly common in the Middle Kerma period. Because burial chambers can be easily entered, one could question the likelihood of the sacrifice of a wife and/or child when a man dies, without any ethnohistorical evidence to support this in this culture. In fact Buzon and Judd [18] question this assumption by analyzing traumata and indicators of skeletal stress in these "sacrificial victims."

Most remains are found in a lightly contracted or contracted position on their sides. Because of the arid desert climate, natural mummification is very common. Without the normal processes of decomposition to skeletonize the body, soft tissues, hairs, and organic grave goods are still often found (e.g., textiles, feathers, leather, fingernails). Grave goods include faience beads, cattle skulls, and pottery. Skeletal collections, like other archaeological evidence, continue to be re-examined and re-interpreted as new research questions arise. Two recent studies highlight the kinds of questions that bioarchaeologists are asking of the skeletal material excavated from Kerma.

Kendall [10] suggests that large tombs in the Upper Deffufa contained the bodies of dozens or hundreds of sacrificed victims. A later bioarchaeological examination of "sacrificed" individuals from these contexts [18] showed no significant differences between the skeletal stress markers of sacrificed versus non-sacrificed individuals. They drew samples from the "sacrificial corridors" and interments outside of the large tumuli corridors. Accompanying individuals in the tumuli at Kerma are interpreted as wives sacrificed upon the death of the husband, but the bioarchaeological evidence does not support this archaeological conclusion. A prior study noted no difference in the frequency of traumatic injury.

Traumatic injury is viewed through the lens of modern traumatic injury patterns. "Many aspects of the Kerma injury pattern were comparable to clinical [modern] observations: males experienced a higher frequency of trauma, the middle-aged group exhibited the most trauma, the oldest age cohort revealed the least amount of accumulated injuries, a small group experienced multiple trauma and fractures occurred more frequently than dislocations or muscle pulls". Parry fractures (often occur when an individual is fending off a blow from an attacker) are common. These do not necessarily result from assault, however, and Judd does acknowledge this. She does not use the same parsing strategy when considering Colles' fractures (of the wrist, usually occur when falling onto one's hands) may result from being pushed from a height rather than interpersonal violence, and this is not acknowledged. [19]

Nubia and the Noba people

The name Nubia is derived from that of the Noba people, nomads who settled the area in the 4th century, with the collapse of the kingdom of Meroë. The Noba spoke a Nilo-Saharan language, ancestral to Old Nubian.

When discussing the civilisations of the Nile Valley, many histories focus almost exclusively on the role of Egypt. But this approach ignores the emergence further south on the Nile of the kingdom known to the Egyptians as Kush, in the region called Nubia – the area now covered by southern Egypt and Northern Sudan.

Nubia is a region along the Nile river located in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt. One of the earliest civilizations of ancient Northeastern Africa, with a history that can be traced from at least 2000 B.C. onward through Nubian monuments and artifacts as well as written records from Egypt and Rome, it was home to one of the African empires.

There were a number of large Nubian kingdoms throughout the Postclassical Era, the last of which collapsed in 1504, when Nubia became divided between Egypt and the Sennar sultanate resulting in the Arabization of much of the Nubian population. Nubia was again united within Ottoman Egypt in the 19th century, and within the Kingdom of Egypt from 1899 to 1956.

The name Nubia is derived from that of the Noba people, nomads who settled the area in the 4th century, with the collapse of the kingdom of Meroë. The Noba spoke a Nilo-Saharan language, ancestral to Old Nubian. Old Nubian was mostly used in religious texts dating from the 8th and 15th centuries AD. Before the 4th century, and throughout classical antiquity, Nubia was known as Kush, or, in Classical Greek usage, included under the name Ethiopia (Aithiopia).

Historically, the people of Nubia spoke at least two varieties of the Nubian language group, a subfamily which includes Nobiin (the descendant of Old Nubian), Kenuzi-Dongola, Midob and several related varieties in the northern part of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan. Until at least 1970, the Birgid language was spoken north of Nyala in Darfur but is now extinct.

Early settlements sprouted in both Upper and Lower Nubia. Egyptians referred to Nubia as “Ta-Seti.” The Nubians were known to be expert archers and thus their land earned the appellation, “Ta-Seti”, or land of the bow. Modern scholars typically refer to the people from this area as the “A-Group” culture. Fertile farmland just south of the Third Cataract is known as the “pre-Kerma” culture in Upper Nubia, as they are the ancestors.

The Neolithic people in the Nile Valley likely came from Sudan, as well as the Sahara, and there was shared culture with the two areas and with that of Egypt during this time period. By the 5th millennium BC, the people who inhabited what is now called Nubia participated in the Neolithic revolution. Saharan rock reliefs depict scenes that have been thought to be suggestive of a cattle cult, typical of those seen throughout parts of Eastern Africa and the Nile Valley even to this day. Megaliths discovered at Nabta Playa are early examples of what seems to be one of the world’s first astronomical devices, predating Stonehenge by almost 2,000 years. This complexity as observed at Nabta Playa, and as expressed by different levels of authority within the society there, likely formed the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt. Around 3500 BC, the second “Nubian” culture, termed the A-Group, arose. It was a contemporary of, and ethnically and culturally very similar to, the polities in predynastic Naqada of Upper Egypt. Around 3300 BC, there is evidence of a unified kingdom, as shown by the finds at Qustul, that maintained substantial interactions (both cultural and genetic) with the culture of Naqadan Upper Egypt. The Nubian culture may have even contributed to the unification of the Nile Valley.

Toby Wilkinson, based on work by Bruce Williams in the 1980s, wrote that “The white crown, associated in historic times with Upper Egypt, is first attested later than the red crown, but is directly associated with the ruler somewhat earlier. The earliest known depiction of the white crown is on a ceremonial incense burner from Cemetery at Qustul in Lower Nubia”. Based on a 1998 excavation report, Jane Roy has written that “At the time of Williams’ argument, the Qustul cemetery and the ‘royal’ iconography found there was dated to the Naqada IIIA period, thus antedating royal cemeteries in Egypt of the Naqada IIIB phase. New evidence from Abydos, however, particularly the excavation of Cemetery U and the tome U-j, dating to Naqada IIIA has shown that this iconography appears earlier in Egypt.”

Nubia is a region along the Nile river encompassing the area between Aswan in southern Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan. It was the seat of one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa,

Around the turn of the protodynastic period, Naqada, in its bid to conquer and unify the whole Nile Valley, seems to have conquered Ta-Seti (the kingdom where Qustul was located) and harmonized it with the Egyptian state. Thus, Nubia became the first nome of Upper Egypt. At the time of the first dynasty, the A-Group area seems to have been entirely depopulated, most likely due to immigration to areas west and south.

This culture began to decline in the early 28th century BC. George Reisner suggested that it was succeeded by a culture he called the “B-Group”, but most archaeologists today believe that this culture never existed and that the area was depopulated between around 2800 and 2300 when a-group descendants returned to the area. The causes of this are uncertain, but it was perhaps caused by Egyptian invasions and pillaging that began at this time. Nubia is believed to have served as a trade corridor between Egypt and tropical Africa long before 3100 BC. Egyptian craftsmen of the period used ivory and ebony wood from tropical Africa which came through Nubia.

In 2300 BC, Nubia was first mentioned in Old Kingdom Egyptian accounts of trade missions. From Aswan, right above the First Cataract, the southern limit of Egyptian control at the time, Egyptians imported gold, incense, ebony, copper, ivory, and exotic animals from tropical Africa through Nubia. As trade between Egypt and Nubia increased, so did wealth and stability. By the Egyptian 6th dynasty, Nubia was divided into a series of small kingdoms. There is debate over whether these C-Group peoples, who flourished from c. 2240 BC to c. 2150 BC, were another internal evolution or invaders. There are definite similarities between the pottery of the A-Group and C-Group, so it may be a return of the ousted Group-As, or an internal revival of lost arts. At this time, the Sahara Desert was becoming too arid to support human beings, and it is possible that there was a sudden influx of Saharan nomads. C-Group pottery is characterized by all-over incised geometric lines with white infill and impressed imitations of basketry.

During the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 BC), Egypt began expanding into Nubia to gain more control over the trade routes in Northern Nubia and direct access to trade with Southern Nubia. They erected a chain of forts down the Nile below the Second Cataract. These garrisons seemed to have peaceful relations with the local Nubian people but little interaction during the period. A contemporaneous but distinct culture from the C-Group was the Pan Grave culture, so called because of their shallow graves. The Pan Graves are associated with the East bank of the Nile, but the Pan Graves and C-Group definitely interacted. Their pottery is characterized by incised lines of a more limited character than those of the C-Group, generally having interspersed undecorated spaces within the geometric schemes.

Ramesses II in his war chariot charging into battle against the Nubians

Nubia and Ancient Egypt
One interpretation is that Nubian A-Group rulers and early Egyptian pharaohs used related royal symbols. Similarities in rock art of A-Group Nubia and Upper Egypt support this position. Ancient Egypt conquered Nubian territory in various eras, and incorporated parts of the area into its provinces. The Nubians in turn were to conquer Egypt under its 25th Dynasty.
However, relations between the two peoples also show peaceful cultural interchange and cooperation, including mixed marriages. The Medjay –from mDA, represents the name Ancient Egyptians gave to a region in northern Sudan–where an ancient people of Nubia inhabited. They became part of the Ancient Egyptian military as scouts and minor workers.

During the Middle Kingdom “Medjay” no longer referred to the district of Medja, but to a tribe or clan of people. It is not known what happened to the district, but, after the First Intermediate Period, it and other districts in Nubia were no longer mentioned in the written record. Written accounts detail the Medjay as nomadic desert people. Over time they were incorporated into the Egyptian army. In the army, the Medjay served as garrison troops in Egyptian fortifications in Nubia and patrolled the deserts as a kind of gendarmerie. This was done in the hopes of preventing their fellow Medjay tribespeople from further attacking Egyptian assets in the region. They were even later used during Kamose’s campaign against the Hyksos and became instrumental in making the Egyptian state into a military power. By the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period the Medjay were an elite paramilitary police force. No longer did the term refer to an ethnic group and over time the new meaning became synonymous with the policing occupation in general. Being an elite police force, the Medjay were often used to protect valuable areas, especially royal and religious complexes. Though they are most notable for their protection of the royal palaces and tombs in Thebes and the surrounding areas, the Medjay were known to have been used throughout Upper and Lower Egypt.

Abu Simbel, The Rock Temple in Nubia, Southern Egypt commemorating Pharaoh Ramesses II and his wife Queen Nefertari, Egypt, Africa

Various pharaohs of Nubian origin are held by some Egyptologists to have played an important part towards the area in different eras of Egyptian history, particularly the 12th Dynasty. These rulers handled matters in typical Egyptian fashion, reflecting the close cultural influences between the two regions.

…the XIIth Dynasty (1991–1786 B.C.E.) originated from the Aswan region. As expected, strong Nubian features and dark coloring are seen in their sculpture and relief work. This dynasty ranks as among the greatest, whose fame far outlived its actual tenure on the throne. Especially interesting, it was a member of this dynasty that decreed that no Nehsy (riverine Nubian of the principality of Kush), except such as came for trade or diplomatic reasons, should pass by the Egyptian fortress and cops at the southern end of the Second Nile Cataract. Why would this royal family of Nubian ancestry ban other Nubians from coming into Egyptian territory? Because the Egyptian rulers of Nubian ancestry had become Egyptians culturally as pharaohs, they exhibited typical Egyptian attitudes and adopted typical Egyptian policies. (Yurco 1989)

In the New Kingdom, Nubians and Egyptians were often so closely related that some scholars consider them virtually indistinguishable, as the two cultures melded and mixed together.

It is an extremely difficult task to attempt to describe the Nubians during the course of Egypt’s New Kingdom, because their presence appears to have virtually evaporated from the archaeological record. The result has been described as a wholesale Nubian assimilation into Egyptian society. This assimilation was so complete that it masked all Nubian ethnic identities insofar as archaeological remains are concerned beneath the impenetrable veneer of Egypt’s material culture. In the Kushite Period, when Nubians ruled as Pharaohs in their own right, the material culture of Dynasty XXV (about 750–655 B.C.E.) was decidedly Egyptian in character. Nubia’s entire landscape up to the region of the Third Cataract was dotted with temples indistinguishable in style and decoration from contemporary temples erected in Egypt. The same observation obtains for the smaller number of typically Egyptian tombs in which these elite Nubian princes were interred.

From the pre-Kerma culture, the first kingdom to unify much of the region arose. The Kingdom of Kerma, named for its presumed capital at Kerma, was one of the earliest urban centers in the Nile region. By 1750 BC, the kings of Kerma were powerful enough to organize the labor for monumental walls and structures of mud brick. They also had rich tombs with possessions for the afterlife and large human sacrifices. George Reisner excavated sites at Kerma and found large tombs and a palace-like structures. The structures, named (Deffufa), alluded to the early stability in the region. At one point, Kerma came very close to conquering Egypt. Egypt suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Kushites.

According to Davies, head of the joint British Museum and Egyptian archaeological team, the attack was so devastating that if the Kerma forces chose to stay and occupy Egypt, they might have eliminated it for good and brought the nation to extinction. When Egyptian power revived under the New Kingdom (c. 1532–1070 BC) they began to expand further southwards. The Egyptians destroyed Kerma’s kingdom and capitol and expanded the Egyptian empire to the Fourth Cataract.

By the end of the reign of Thutmose I (1520 BC), all of northern Nubia had been annexed. The Egyptians built a new administrative center at Napata, and used the area to produce gold. The Nubian gold production made Egypt a prime source of the precious metal in the Middle East. The primitive working conditions for the slaves are recorded by Diodorus Siculus who saw some of the mines at a later time. One of the oldest maps known is of a gold mine in Nubia, the Turin Papyrus Map dating to about 1160 BC.

When the Egyptians pulled out of the Napata region, they left a lasting legacy that was merged with indigenous customs, forming the kingdom of Kush. Archaeologists have found several burials in the area which seem to belong to local leaders. The Kushites were buried there soon after the Egyptians decolonized the Nubian frontier. Kush adopted many Egyptian practices, such as their religion. The Kingdom of Kush survived longer than that of Egypt, invaded Egypt (under the leadership of king Piye), and controlled Egypt during the 8th century as the twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt. The Kushites held sway over their northern neighbors for nearly 100 years, until they were eventually repelled by the invading Assyrians. The Assyrians forced them to move farther south, where they eventually established their capital at Meroë. Of the Nubian kings of this era, Taharqa is perhaps the best known. A son and the third successor of King Piye, he was crowned king in Memphis c. 690. Taharqa ruled over both Nubia and Egypt, restored Egyptian temples at Karnak, and built new temples and pyramids in Nubia before being driven from Egypt by the Assyrians.

Aerial view at Nubian pyramids, Meroe

Meroë (800 BC – c. AD 350) in southern Nubia lay on the east bank of the Nile about 6 km north-east of the Kabushiya station near Shendi, Sudan, ca. 200 km north-east of Khartoum. The people there preserved many ancient Egyptian customs but were unique in many respects. They developed their own form of writing, first utilizing Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later using an alphabetic script with 23 signs. Many pyramids were built in Meroë during this period and the kingdom consisted of an impressive standing military force. Strabo also describes a clash with the Romans in which the Romans defeated Nubians. According to Strabo, following the Kushite advance, Petronius (a Prefect of Egypt at the time) prepared a large army and marched south. The Roman forces clashed with the Kushite armies near Thebes and forced them to retreat to Pselchis (Maharraqa) in Kushite lands. Petronius, then, sent deputies to the Kushites in an attempt to reach a peace agreement and make certain demands.
Quoting Strabo, the Kushites “desired three days for consideration” in order to make a final decision. However, after the three days, Kush did not respond and Petronius advanced with his armies and took the Kushite city of Premnis (modern Karanog) south of Maharraqa. From there, he advanced all the way south to Napata, the second Capital in Kush after Meroe. Petronius attacked and sacked Napata, causing the son of the Kushite Queen to flee. Strabo describes the defeat of the Kushites at Napata, stating that “He (Petronius) made prisoners of the inhabitants”.

During this time, the different parts of the region divided into smaller groups with individual leaders, or generals, each commanding small armies of mercenaries. They fought for control of what is now Nubia and its surrounding territories, leaving the entire region weak and vulnerable to attack. Meroë would eventually meet defeat by a new rising kingdom to their south, Aksum, under King Ezana.

The classification of the Meroitic language is uncertain it was long assumed to have been of the Afro-Asiatic group, but is now considered to have likely been an Eastern Sudanic language.

At some point during the 4th century, the region was conquered by the Noba people, from which the name Nubia may derive (another possibility is that it comes from Nub, the Egyptian word for gold). From then on, the Romans referred to the area as the Nobatae.

Christian Nubia
The crown of a local Nubian king who ruled between the collapse of the Meroitic dynasty in 350 or 400 AD and the founding of the Christian kingdom of Nubia in 600 AD. It was found in Tomb 118 at Ballana in Lower Nubia by the British Egyptologist W.B. Emery

Around AD 350, the area was invaded by the Kingdom of Aksum and the kingdom collapsed. Eventually, three smaller kingdoms replaced it: northernmost was Nobatia between the first and second cataract of the Nile River, with its capital at Pachoras (modern-day Faras) in the middle was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola and southernmost was Alodia, with its capital at Soba (near Khartoum). King Silky of Nobatia crushed the Blemmyes, and recorded his victory in a Greek inscription carved in the wall of the temple of Talmis (modern Kalabsha) around AD 500.

While bishop Athanasius of Alexandria consecrated one Marcus as bishop of Philae before his death in 373, showing that Christianity had penetrated the region by the 4th century, John of Ephesus records that a Monophysite priest named Julian converted the king and his nobles of Nobatia around 545. John of Ephesus also writes that the kingdom of Alodia was converted around 569. However, John of Biclarum records that the kingdom of Makuria was converted to Catholicism the same year, suggesting that John of Ephesus might be mistaken. Further doubt is cast on John’s testimony by an entry in the chronicle of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria Eutychius, which states that in 719 the church of Nubia transferred its allegiance from the Greek to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

By the 7th century, Makuria expanded becoming the dominant power in the region. It was strong enough to halt the southern expansion of Islam after the Arabs had taken Egypt. After several failed invasions the new rulers agreed to a treaty with Dongola allowing for peaceful coexistence and trade. This treaty held for six hundred years. Over time the influx of Arab traders introduced Islam to Nubia and it gradually supplanted Christianity. While there are records of a bishop at Qasr Ibrim in 1372, his see had come to include that located at Faras. It is also clear that the cathedral of Dongola had been converted to a mosque in 1317.

The influx of Arabs and Nubians to Egypt and Sudan had contributed to the suppression of the Nubian identity following the collapse of the last Nubian kingdom around 1504. A major part of the modern Nubian population became totally Arabized and some claimed to be Arabs (Jaa’leen – the majority of Northern Sudanese – and some Donglawes in Sudan). A vast majority of the Nubian population is currently Muslim, and the Arabic language is their main medium of communication in addition to their indigenous old Nubian language. The unique characteristic of Nubian is shown in their culture (dress, dances, traditions, and music).

Islamic Nubia
In the 14th century, the Dongolan government collapsed and the region became divided and dominated by Arabs. The next centuries would see several Arab invasions of the region, as well as the establishment of a number of smaller kingdoms. Northern Nubia was brought under Egyptian control while the south came under the control of the Kingdom of Sennar in the 16th century. The entire region would come under Egyptian control during the rule of Muhammad Ali in the early 19th century, and later became a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium.

Even though the building was built in 1955, its actual occupation as a museum took place in 1971. It is a double storied building where ancient architectural antiquaries are displayed. The antiquaries displayed relate to the history of the ancient Kush kingdom and the Nubia’s Christian period. The artifacts on display are: Stone age relics of the Al Saltan Al-Zarqa era also known as the black sultanate Kush glassware, pottery and statuary frescoes and murals of the Nubia’s period from the 8th to 15th century. The frescoes made in water colour are well preserved and appear bright and clear.

Apart from the exhibits inside the museum, the garden area around the museum has ruins relocated from the submergence area of the Lake Nasser created by the Nasser Dam on the Nile River. These are ruins of two temples namely, the Buhen and Semna built by Queen Hatshepsut and Pharaoh Thutmose III. The Aswan High Dam built across the Nile River in Egypt created a reservoir in the Nubia area, which extended into Sudan’s territory threatening submergence of two ancient temples of 1490 BC period. On an appeal made to the UNESCO to retrieve these temples and shift them to a safer location, the temples and tombs were systematically dismantled from the submergence area and relocated in the garden surrounding the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum.

The exhibits in the museum have been catalogued by fifty leading scholars and published as papers or books. 320 objects have been catalogued listing exhibits unearthed from archaeological excavations and finds by way of stone tools of the Paleolithic period, Pharaonic statues of Pharaohs and ancient Christian wall frescoes and armour of the early Islamic period. The exhibits are of Sudanese culture of their Kerma Kings, graves of the Christian rulers, from the ostentatious temples of the Egyptian pharaohs and also churches and mosques of subsequent periods.


The catalogue on Greek and Coptic inscriptions, produced primarily by the Christian culture of Nubia, displayed in the museum, was the scholarly contribution of Dr Adam Latjar from the Warsaw University in respect of Greek inscriptions and Dr Jacques Van der Vliet of the Leiden University in respect of Coptic inscriptions. Their project work was funded by UNESCO, Polish Centre for Archaeology at Cairo and the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO). The Christian inscriptions contain Nubian funerary inscriptions in the form of funerary epitaphs. The source of these inscriptions are stated to be from Nubian territory in Sudan extending from Faras in the north to Soba in the south. The texts are inscribed on sandstone, marble or terracotta (36 inscriptions, mostly from Makouria ) plaques of generally rectangular shape.

Ancient Kingdoms in Land of War

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Every winter they come and go, like birds migrating south. Most of them nest in downtown Khartoum’s old Acropole Hotel, but they’re not here to rest. They’re here to work in Sudan’s blistering deserts, and the past few years have yielded outstanding results.

For many people around the world, Sudan conjures images of war, instability, drought and poverty. All of those things exist here, often in tragic abundance. But lost in the narrative are the stories of the ancient kingdoms of Kush and Nubia that once rivaled Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Lost to many, that is, but not to the archaeologists who have been coming here for years, sometimes decades, to help unearth that history.

“Sudan is the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that has real archaeology and local teams working,” said Claude Rilly, the director of the French Archaeological Unit in Sudan.

Though its historical importance has long been overshadowed by Egypt, its neighbor to the north, Sudan’s archaeological record is pivotal to understanding the history of Africa itself, experts say, and a wave of new discoveries may be adding crucial new information.

“The history of Sudan can play a role for Africa that Greece played for the history of Europe,” Mr. Rilly said enthusiastically. “People have been living here for 5,000 years” along the Nile, he added. “It is difficult not to find something.”

One overlooked fact is that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, in places like Nuri and Bijrawiyah, though they are smaller and not as old. In the town of Sedeinga in northern Sudan, for instance, Mr. Rilly and others excavated 35 small pyramids in the past few years, a discovery that points to what he called an ancient “democratization of pyramids.”

“Anyone who could afford it built one,” he said. “It was for social distinction.”

The pyramids at Sedeinga are built close together. Made of mud brick, they range in height from under three feet for children to as high as 32 feet for nobles.

Not far from Sedeinga is the town of Dukki Gel, where a Swiss archaeologist, Charles Bonnet, has been working in the area for 44 years. He focuses on the ancient civilization of Kerma — so much so that his friends call him Charles “Kerma” Bonnet — which flourished around 1500 B.C. Mr. Bonnet’s colleagues say that his research has greatly added to the understanding of 1,000 years of Sudan’s ancient history.

“I discovered a Nubian city in Dukki Gel with original African architecture from around 1500 B.C., and in a cache we found 40 pieces of seven monumental statues of black pharaohs,” Mr. Bonnet said. In late 2012, he found what he believes are the city’s walls.

At the height of its military power around 750 B.C., the ancient kingdom of Kush in northern Sudan ruled over Egypt and Palestine, inaugurating what historians call the rule of the 25th dynasty and the black pharaohs.

In the heartland of the Kush kingdom, Richard Lobban Jr., an American archaeologist who has been visiting Sudan since 1970, works mostly in the area of the Island of Meroe, which was added to Unesco’s World Heritage sites in 2011. Along with colleagues from Russia and Italy, Mr. Lobban uncovered an ancient and previously unknown Merotic temple in late 2011.

“The orientation of the temple has the sun directly pouring into the temple twice a year,” said Mr. Lobban, suggesting that it was dedicated to the ancient Egyptian sun god Amun.

Ancient Meroe, known today as Bijrawiyah, was a second capital in the kingdom of Kush from around 300 B.C. to 350 A.D. It was a major center for iron smelting, earning it the nickname “the Birmingham of Africa” by historians. Meroe was often ruled by queens, known by the title “kandake,” and boasts scores of pyramids similar in shape to the one exhibited on a one-dollar bill.

“We hope to excavate further and deeper and find still more of the missing pieces of this ancient puzzle,” Mr. Lobban said.

As fruitful as it may be, archaeology in Sudan faces many challenges, including the difficulty of protecting sites from development projects. There has even been a literal gold rush, in which many young Sudanese head to the desert in search of gold but occasionally find artifacts instead, leading to a rise in illegal trade in relics.

“Someone was arrested recently for trying to smuggle a statue,” says Abdel-Rahman Ali, director general of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums.

Financing archaeological efforts has also been low on the list of priorities for the Sudanese government, but in February the government signed a $135 million agreement with Qatar that would provide money for 27 archaeological missions, the renovation of the Sudan National Museum and the development of tourism projects.

“Archaeology in Sudan is getting ready for a boom,” says Geoff Emberling, an archaeologist from the University of Michigan, who has been working in the town of El Kurru.

The impact of new archaeological discoveries has generated interest beyond the ring of specialists.

Since South Sudan split off from Sudan in 2011, Sudan’s economy has been hard hit because most of the oil is in the south. In January 2012, South Sudan shut off production in a dispute with Sudan. An agreement between both countries now promises to send the oil through the north for a fee, but some in Sudan have been searching for new sources of hard currency, including tourism.

Sohaib Elbadawi is a member of Sudan Archaeological Society and heads a private group working on establishing a five-star resort near the ancient site of Jebel Barkal.

Showing a model of the project in his office in downtown Khartoum, Mr. Elbadawi said that foreigners told him, “ ‘You have a history, but you don’t know how to market yourself.’ ”“There are voices rising in Sudan that tourism should be a source of income for the country after separation,” Mr. Elbadawi added optimistically.

Sudanese archaeologists are also conscious of current opportunities.

“We have been working to illuminate Sudanese heritage through exhibitions held abroad, such as in France and Germany, and we are planning for exhibitions in Qatar, Japan and Korea,” said Mr. Ali of the National Corporation for Antiquities.

Of course, it will take years for Sudan to turn itself into a tourism attraction, if it ever can. The lack of fully developed infrastructure and facilities, United States sanctions that bar the use of major credit cards, a maddening bureaucracy and, above all, political instability stand in the way.

Rediscovering Ancient Nubia in Sudan Before It's Too Late

Long ignored by white archaeologists as a mere footnote, modern scientists are now racing to document what’s left of the ancient African civilisation.

Temple of Amun at Naqa, Nubia (North Sudan), c.1-20 AD. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I n 1905 , British archaeologists descended on a sliver of eastern Africa, aiming to uncover and extract artefacts from 3,000-year-old temples. They left mostly with photographs, discouraged by the ever-shifting sand dunes that blanketed the land. “We sank up to the knees at every step,” Wallis Budge, the British Egyptologist and philologist, wrote at the time, adding: “[We] made several trial diggings in other parts of the site, but we found nothing worth carrying away.”

For the next century, the region known as Nubia – home to civilisations older than the dynastic Egyptians, skirting the Nile River in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt – was paid relatively little attention. The land was inhospitable, and some archaeologists of the era subtly or explicitly dismissed the notion that black Africans were capable of creating art, technology, and metropolises like those from Egypt or Rome. Modern textbooks still treat ancient Nubia like a mere annex to Egypt: a few paragraphs on black pharaohs, at most.

Today, archaeologists are realising how wrong their predecessors were – and how little time they have left to uncover and fully understand Nubia’s historical significance.

“This is one of the great, earliest-known civilisations in the world,” says Neal Spencer, an archaeologist with the British Museum. For the past ten years, Spencer has traveled to a site his academic predecessors photographed a century ago, called Amara West, around 100 miles south of the Egyptian border in Sudan. Armed with a device called a magnetometer, which measures the patterns of magnetism in the features hidden underground, Spencer plots thousands of readings to reveal entire neighbourhoods beneath the sand, the bases of pyramids, and round burial mounds, called tumuli, over tombs where skeletons rest on funerary beds – unique to Nubia – dating from 1,300 to 800 BC.

Sites like this can be found up and down the Nile River in northern Sudan, and at each one, archaeologists are uncovering hundreds of artefacts, decorated tombs, temples, and towns. Each finding is precious, the scientists say, because they provide clues about who the ancient Nubians were, what art they made, what language they spoke, how they worshipped, and how they died – valuable puzzle pieces in the quest to understand the mosaic of human civilisation writ large. And yet, everything from hydroelectric dams to desertification in northern Sudan threaten to overtake, and in some cases, erase these hallowed archaeological grounds. Now, scientists armed with an array of technologies – and a quickened sense of purpose – are scrambling to uncover and document what they can before the window of discovery closes on what remains of ancient Nubia.

“Only now do we realize how much pristine archaeology is just waiting to be found,” says David Edwards, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester in the UK.

“But just as we are becoming aware it’s there, it’s gone,” he adds. Within the next 10 years, Edwards says, “most of ancient Nubia might be swept away”.

B etween 5,000 and 3,000 BC, humans across Africa were migrating to the Nile’s lush banks as the Earth warmed and equatorial jungles transformed into the deserts they are today. “You cannot go 50 kilometres along the Nile River Valley without finding an important site because humans spent thousands of years here in the same place, from prehistoric to modern times,” Vincent Francigny, the director of the French Archeological Unit, tells me in his office in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Nearby his office, the White Nile from Uganda and the Blue Nile from Ethiopia unite into one river that flows through Nubia, enters Egypt and exits into the Mediterranean Sea.

Roughly around 2,000 BC, archaeologists find the first traces of the Nubian kingdom called Kush. Egyptians conquered parts of the Kushite Kingdom for a few hundred years, and around 1,000 B.C., Egyptians appear to have died, left, or mixed thoroughly with the local population. At 800 B.C., Kushite kings, also known as the black pharaohs, took over Egypt for a century – two cobras decorating the pharaohs’ crowns signify the unification of kingdoms. And somewhere around 300 A.D., the Kushite empire began to fade away.

Almost nothing is known about what life was like for people living in Nubia during this time. British Egyptologists of the 19th century often relied on accounts from ancient Greek historians who fabricated wild tales, Francigny says, never bothering to go to Sudan themselves. Some details were filled in by Harvard archaeologist George Reisner in the first part of the 20th century. Reisner discovered dozens of pyramids and temples in Sudan, recorded the names of kings, and shipped the most precious antiquities to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. With no evidence and unquestioning condescension, he attributed any sophisticated architecture to a light-skinned race.

In a 1918 bulletin for the museum, he matter-of-factly wrote, “The native negroid race had never developed either its trade or any industry worthy of mention, and owed their cultural position to the Egyptian immigrants and to the imported Egyptian civilisation.” And believing that skin pigmentation marked intellectual inferiority, he attributed the downfall of ancient Nubia to racial intermarriage.

Besides belonging to an overtly racist period, Reisner was a member of an old wave of archaeology that was more interested in recording the names of royalty and retrieving treasures than looking at antiquities as a means to understand the evolution of societies and cultures. Stuart Tyson Smith, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, takes a newer approach when he brushes dust from objects he’s found in Nubian tombs over the past several years. Underground burial chambers hold skeletons whose bones are probed for details about age, health, and place of origin, as well as cultural clues, since the dead were buried with belongings. Smith and his team have been excavating a huge necropolis south of Spencer’s locale, called Tombos, that was in use for hundreds of years before the seventh century BC.

Nubian pyramids. Credit: Wikipedia

Smith gleefully invites me into storerooms in Tombos overflowing with items he and his team have recently found. Our ancestors considered vanity on the journey to the land of the dead: They were buried beside kohl eyeliner, vases of cologne, and intricately painted cosmetics boxes. Smith cradles a clay incense burner shaped like a duck. He’s found one other like it, from a period around 1,100 BC. “They had fads, like us,” Smith says, “Like, you just gotta get one of those duck incense things for the funeral.”

A woman’s skull half coated with termite-riddled dirt rests on a wooden table. Smith beams and locates an amulet the size of his fist that he found beside this skeleton. The amulet is shaped like a scarab beetle, a common symbol of rebirth in Egypt, but the insect bears a man’s head. “This is very unusual,” Smith says. He laughs as he paraphrases hieroglyphics etched into the scarab’s underside: “On the day of judgment, let my heart not testify against me.”

Smith’s colleague, Michele Buzon, a bioarchaeologist at Purdue University, will ship the skull back to her lab in Indiana to analyze the isotopic composition of strontium buried in tooth enamel. Strontium is an element found in rocks and soil, which varies from place to place. Because strontium integrates into layers of enamel as children grow, it signals where a person was born. It will reveal whether this woman was from Egypt, as the scarab suggests, or a local with a taste for Egyptian-like things.

So far, it seems clear that Egyptian officials lived and died alongside Nubians in Tombos between 1,450 to 1,100 BC. Egypt taxed the region, which was a hub for trade, with ivory, gold, and animal pelts transported up the Nile from the south. But by 900 BC., Buzon rarely finds indications of Egyptian roots buried in tooth enamel. Strontium isotopes reveal that people were born and raised in Nubia, although an Egyptian influence remained embedded in the culture. In many ways, it is an early sign of artistic appropriation. “They were creating new forms,” Smith says.

In 2005, he excavated a burial chamber with a male skeleton, filled with Nubian arrowheads, objects imported from the Middle East, and a copper cup with charging bulls engraved within – the cattle being commonplace in Nubian designs. “Although he’s got these traditional Nubian objects, there is also this cosmopolitan stuff that shows he’s part of the in-crowd,” Smith explains.

“This period has been burdened by racist colonial interpretations assuming that Nubians were backwater and inferior and now we can tell the story of this remarkable civilisation,” he adds.

With so little known about life in ancient Nubia, every object that’s uncovered could prove to be invaluable. “We are rewriting history here,” Smith says, “not just finding one more mummy.”

That said, a member of Smith’s group did discover naturally mummified remains at an ancient cemetery near Tombos, called Abu Fatima. Sarah Schrader, a bioarchaeologist now based at Leiden University in the Netherlands, was on her knees in a dirt pit, chipping at mud cemented onto the skin of a disembodied human leg when she brushed away loose sand and saw a lump. “Oh my God, an ear!” she yelled. “Orocumbu!” she called out, using the Nubian word for head – an alert for a few local staff nearby. Trading the trawl for a brush, she exposed a mat of curly black hair. And when she swept away sand lower down, her stomach turned. A plump tongue stuck out below two front teeth. After taking a quick break, Schrader excavated the rest of the head.

Schrader packaged the head carefully, and plans to ship it to a humidity-controlled chamber in the Netherlands. There, she will date the bones and assess strontium from the man’s tooth enamel to learn where he was from. Finally, his fleshiness gives her hope that ancient DNA might be extracted. With genetic sequencing, researchers might determine if modern-day Nubians, Egyptians, or one of hundreds of ethnic groups from the surrounding regions might trace their heritage to this early civilisation.

To find the lost language of ancient Nubia, I sought out Claude Rilly, a linguist specialising in ancient languages, at Soleb and Sedeinga – sites recognised by majestic and crumbling temples and a field of small pyramids. The stretch of desert between those sites and Tombos is post-apocalyptic: scorched, flat earth and sable boulders as far as the eye can see. At a point when sand completely covers the road, I transfer into a rickety motorboat. Rilly is waiting on the riverbank. A towering man with a weathered face and easy grin, he welcomes me by saying, “Here we are in the cradle of humanity – in the place where human beings have the oldest home.”

Unprompted, Rilly begins to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics etched into the sandstone columns of the temple at Soleb. But he is eager to show off his most valuable finds: stele, stone slabs engraved with Meroitic text from ancient Nubia. Based at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, Rilly is one of only a few people who can translate Meroitic text. It’s unrelated to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Rather, Rilly has found ties between Meroitic and a handful of languages spoken today by ethnic groups in Nubia, Darfur, and Eritrea.

To figure out what the words mean, he compares each precious tablet of text to another, searching for commonalities and themes. He lifts a recently discovered stele out of a wooden Dewar’s whiskey box, and squints at the letters. They fall into slants like heavy metal logos. He explains that the inscription begins with an appeal to the gods, and ends with a benediction: “May you have plentiful water, plentiful bread, and may you eat a good meal.” But there is a word in the middle of the gravestone that Rilly does not know. “It is guess work,” he says, “I’m not sure if this adjective means supreme or something else.”

In late 2016, Rilly found a painted stele that had fallen between the bricks of a funerary chapel at Sedeinga and was shielded from sand storms and rain. The top of the stone is decorated with a sun disk encircled by a pair of golden yellow cobras, and surrounded by a pair of red wings. An engraved line separating the illustration from the text is blue – a rare pigment. And the text includes a word Rilly has never before seen. Based on languages spoken in the region today, he suspects it’s a second term for the sun – one for the god of the sun as opposed to the physical sun, the star.

Rilly is desperate to find more text so that he can narrow down the meanings of more words, and decode the stories they tell about Nubian religion. He feels there must be a buried city near the temples, where our ancestors might have left notes on papyrus. This month, Rilly’s team will drag a magnetometer around the region to search for signs of a settlement buried beneath farms along the Nile or the surrounding encrusted land. The boxy machine calculates the magnetic signal at the surface of the ground, and compares it to the signal two meters below. If the density between the spots is different, the point is assigned a medium-gray to black shade on a map of the region, indicating that something irregular lies underground.

Rilly also seeks the remains of a Kushite temple referred to in the stele he’s decoded thus far. “There are at least 15 mentions of Isis, as well as the god of the sun and the god of the moon,” Rilly says. “We know there was a Kushite cult here, and a cult cannot exist without a temple.”

Kingdom of Kush. Credit: Wikipedia

M odern-day Nubians have heard tales about ancient Nubia, passed down through the generations. And whether or not they descend directly from the Kushites, the past is inextricably intertwined with their identity. They’ve grown up amid fallen statues, temples, and pyramids. On holy days, families from the Nile River town of Karima hike up the sandy side of Jebel Barkal, a holy mountain that is distinguished by a 250-foot spired pinnacle that was decorated with etchings perhaps 3,400 years ago. As the sun sets, the view can only be described as biblical, stretching from the green banks of the Nile to a dozen temples in the shadow of the mountain, to pyramids on the horizon.

When ancient Egyptians conquered the region, they identified Jebel Barkal as the residence of the god Amun, who was believed to help renew life each year when the Nile flooded. They carved a temple into its base, and illustrated the walls with gods and goddesses. And when ancient Nubians regained control, they converted the holy mountain into a place for royal coronations, and constructed pyramids for royalty beside it.

There is another holy mountain further north on the Nile, in a town where Ali Osman Mohamed Salih, a 72-year old professor of archaeology and Nubian studies at the University of Khartoum, was born. His parents taught him that God lives in the mountain, and that because people come from God, they too are made of the mountain. This logic links the present with the past, and a people with a place. Salih says it means, “You are as old as the mountain, and nobody can get you out of this land.”

Salih is concerned that three new hydroelectric dams that Sudan’s government has planned along the Nile might do just that – along with drown Nubian artifacts. According to an assessment by Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, the reservoir created by one planned dam near the town of Kajbar would flood more than 500 archeological sites, including more than 1,600 rock etchings and drawings dating from the Neolithic period through medieval times. Estimates from activists in Sudan suggest that hundreds of thousands of people could be displaced by the dams.

Salih has protested Nile River dams before. While passing through Egypt on his way back home in 1967, he was detained in Cairo for his open opposition to the Aswan High Dam near the border of Sudan in Egypt. The dam created a 300-mile long reservoir that submerged hundreds of archeological sites, although the most grandiose were relocated to museums. It also forced more than 100,000 people – many of them Nubians – from their homes. Governments of countries along the Nile justify hydroelectric dams by pointing to a need for electricity. Today, two-thirds of Sudan’s population lacks it. However, history shows that those whose lives are uprooted are not always those who benefit from electricity and the profit it generates.

But there’s little room for negotiation. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, a war criminal according to the International Criminal Court, rules the country with an iron fist. Since 2006, his security forces have shot more than 170 people and beaten, imprisoned, and tortured many others who have protested the dams and other politically charged topics. International archaeologists who wish to continue working in the country dare not speak ill of the dams on record. And most national archaeologists stay mum knowing they could disappear into jails.

Other wonders, such as Jebel Barkal and Tombos, are threatened more acutely by population growth and the desire to live modern lives with higher education and electricity. The mummified head at Abu Fatima was in fact found because of such developments. A few yards away from where it was buried, farmers had hit bone with a bulldozer. After consulting with archaeologists, they agreed to halt while researchers excavated the cemetery. That was lucky, and no one has any illusions of other developments coming to a halt.

Nature is a destructive force as well. Since the 1980s, sand storms have increasingly eroded the intricately carved walls of 43 decorative Kushite pyramids and a dozen chapels at a UNESCO World Heritage site named Meroe. With funding from Qatar, archaeologists have attempted to remove sand accumulating in the necropolis. But a 2016 report on the effort reads, “the volume of the sand dunes by far exceeds all removal capacities.” An archaeologist who works at the site, Pawel Wolf, from the German Archaeological Institute, believes the uptick in erosion is partly due to droughts in the 1980s and 1990s that pushed Saharan Desert dirt northwards. Another reason, he suggests, is that overgrazing nearby stripped vegetation and promoted desertification. And once winds carried sand into the basin where Meroe lies, the sand got trapped within the surrounding mountains, sweeping violently back and forth each season.

These threats and more worry the archaeologist managing Meroe, Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, at Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums. Bashir hesitates to expose the coordinates of sites he’s excavating in northern Sudan – points along a putative ancient trade route to the Red Sea – because of illegal gold diggers penetrating that part of the desert. “People with metal detectors are everywhere,” he says. “It’s crazy and uncontrollable.” Already, some of the tombs have been robbed.

“As an archaeologist, you are always feeling impatient and urgent,” says Geoff Emberling, an archaeologist from the University of Michigan. “There is limited time, limited money, you are always concerned.” Before turning to Nubia, Emberling focused on Mesopotamian archaeology in Syria. He says he would not have predicted that the Islamic State, or ISIS, would eventually raze ancient temples in Palmyra, and execute a Syrian archaeologist, hanging his headless body from a column.

“Syria taught me you can’t take anything for granted in life,” Emberling says, “It could all change overnight.”

S pencer, the British Museum archaeologist excavating pyramids and neighbourhoods buried beneath the sand in Amara West, prepares for loss as he works. The sand starts encroaching every afternoon. If a heavy enough storm comes through, his team’s excavations may be buried once more. And if a dam planned further up the Nile is built, it will submerge Amara West entirely. Standing beside a labyrinth of recently excavated walls just below the surface of the ground, Spencer unfolds a magnetometry map, a blueprint that guides him. He points to a spot on the map outside of the grey lines of the settlements, and then off into an ocean of dunes in the distance. The low magnetic signal in this strip, Spencer says, “indicated there might have once been a river out there.”

Indeed, Spencer has revealed how different the region was about 3,300 years ago. With Optically Stimulated Luminescence – a technique used to determine when sediment was last exposed to light – his team dated the layers of fluvial clay buried beneath quartz in the strip on the map. It reveals that Amara West was in fact an island in the Nile when ancient Egyptians and Nubians inhabited the land. By 1,000 B.C., the Nile’s side channel appears to have dried up and the island became connected with the mainland.

Spencer’s colleague, Michaela Binder, a bioarchaeologist at the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Vienna, has found that bodies buried around this point died young. “Not a lot of people made it past 30,” Binder says. Their bones are often pocked — a sign of malnutrition that Binder believes occurred as farms failed. She has also found signatures of chronic lung disease in ribs — sand and dust had polluted the air. The research suggests that the town did not end through war or poor governance, as some earlier archaeologists hypothesised, but that climate change drove people out.

Amara West is uninhabitable today because of sandstorms. Spencer’s team resides on an island nearby in the Nile. In the frigid wee hours of the morning, he and his team travel to the site by boat under an ocean of stars. They start early because by noon, winds pick up and carry in clouds of sand and small flies. In addition to documenting their findings with notes, drawings, video, and models, the team also flies kites attached to digital cameras above ruins. The camera snaps a shot every two seconds. These photos are then stitched together with thousands of on-the-ground pictures, in a technique called “Structure From Motion” that can be used to create 3D reconstructions.

Back in London, the team can input these models into the same software used to develop first-person-shooter video games. On his laptop, Spencer shows me the results. He navigates through the suburb we had visited earlier that day with the scroll of mouse. The corridors that Spencer virtually walks through are so narrow that his shoulders seem to brush against the walls. He enters a cramped room with a bust of a man with a black wig and a red painted face. It is depicted precisely as Spencer found it.

Spencer exits the virtual room and scrolls down through the floor to expose older houses that the team had discovered buried below the more recent Egyptian-style settlement. A dome appears with a yolk-shaped area sectioned off. He presses another key, and the viewer swoops high into the sky like a runaway kite. Tamarisk and acacia trees stand as they did back then, according to microscopic analyses of charcoal near the dusty banks of the Nile.

The interactive graphics are now preserved on the British Museum’s website so that people can explore them without a trip to Sudan. Digital reconstructions of tombs and pyramids from elsewhere in ancient Nubia are making their way online as well. And many of the archaeologists working in Sudan post their annual finds on blogs – their academic publications following after. The interpretation of relics may shift as well, as Sudanese archaeologists lead projects and perceive the findings through an African, as opposed to European, lens. In the near future, high school teachers might inspire students with stories of ancient Nubia, and endow those relics with all the glory bestowed on ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Perhaps the next generation of students will not think of sub-Saharan Africa as a negative space lacking history, but rather as the birthplace of humans and as home to some of humankind’s earliest metropolises, replete with governance, religion, and art.

But to piece the picture together, archaeologists will need the time and funds required to explore vast territories of arid land. Both are in short supply.

“Archaeology is always a race against the clock,” Francigny, director of the French Archeological Unit in Sudan, says. But Nubia’s losses will be most dramatic because they don’t simply supplement a known history. Instead, the findings form chapters in a new, as yet untold story. “If you want to know about a god worshipped in Nubia, you need to dig up a temple and see the iconography – that’s not like in Rome, where someone has written a three-volume synthesis on all the gods and rituals,” Francigny says.

“Every single finding is valuable because we knew nothing before.”

Amy Maxmen is a staff reporter for Nature magazine. Her stories, covering the entanglements of evolution, medicine, policy – and of people behind research – have also appeared in Wired, National Geographic, and The New York Times, among other outlets.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

Watch the video: The New Find In Egypt That Frightened The Scientists


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