To celebrate the opening of the special exhibition Graffiti as DevotionAlong the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan, I’ve chosen a particular group of graffiti for this month’s Ugly Object post. The graffiti of El-Kurru were created by ancient pilgrims to the site’s Kushite temple and pyramid. Images of animals, textiles, boats, and people were carved into the surfaces of the structures’ sandstone columns and blocks, along with hundreds of cupules — or holes — of varying size. This blogroll is all about embracing the seemingly underwhelming, so it felt only natural to take a closer look at these mysterious holes.
The same qualities that make Kurru sandstone so difficult to preserve — it is soft and readily disintegrates into sand — made it ideal for stone collecting. Suzanne and Geoff, who curated the exhibition, believe that pilgrims wanted to take a piece of the powerful temple structure with them as they continued on their journey. I can picture someone rotating a knife into the column surface while a pile of powder grows in their hand. This debris apparently brought protection or healing to whoever possessed it, which helps explain why the temple columns are so … holy. Apparently, a lot of people wanted a piece of that Kurru magic!
Most of the students and faculty have vacated Ann Arbor for the summer break, but it’s always busy here in the Kelsey’s conservation lab! This month we’re hard at work on all kinds of things.
My main work this month is to finish a book and an exhibition with my colleague Geoff Emberling. Focused on ancient graffiti at the site where we work in Sudan (El-Kurru), these projects have been fun. We’ve learned a lot by working on the book, and the exhibition has been an interesting exercise in how to share the story of El-Kurru and its graffiti with people who will probably never travel there.
Many exhibitions can display objects from a far-away archaeological site to tell a story, but in our case, we can’t transport the El-Kurru pyramid and funerary temple to Ann Arbor (although we can try to fake it). So it’s been a big challenge not only for us but for Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, our Kelsey colleagues who are responsible for the exhibition design, installation, and graphics.
Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.
First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.
Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.
A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.
I was hoping to submit this last blog post on my time in Sudan, sharing some of our results, as I left the country on 21 December 2018, but unfortunately some rather significant events occurred and I had to leave the country early. On the 19th and 20th of December, protests erupted across the country with various motives that I will not focus on in this post, but I encourage you to read up about these events here and here. I was on my way to Khartoum during this period and while there I was advised to stay in the hotel and to leave the country on the earliest flight possible. In the end, I had no trouble at all leaving Sudan and saw no signs of the protests or their aftermath on the streets from the hotel to the airport, and I was very glad to arrive safely back home to news from my Sudanese friends and colleagues that they were all safe and in good health. Since I left, other research projects have continued to visit Sudan, such as the Uronarti Regional Archaeology Project, although the protests have continued off and on. These protests have recently resumed after a period of relative calm and I hope that the Michigan team now in Sudan stays safe and out of trouble!
In the image above, you can see the results of this season of geophysical survey and how it relates to the large Temple of Amun, visible in the left center of the image, and to the palm line to the lower right. This season of geophysics at Jebel Barkal was successful in defining a large number of archaeological features of interest, some of which are being investigated more intensively right now by other members of the project team on site. One of these is shown in more detail in the figure below, which zooms in on the center of the larger area of gray results in the larger image. What is most significant are the straight lines and right angles formed by the lighter and darker pixels, which reflect differing magnetic readings across the surface.
More detailed results and analysis of this survey season will be published after thorough analysis, interpretation, and comparison with the excavation results. It was a fantastic field season, even with the hot weather at the beginning and the other obstacles we encountered. At times I didn’t think that we would complete everything we set out to do, but in the end we did even more than we targeted — a rare event in my experience!
Many thanks are due to the many people who made this fieldwork possible. First of all, I want to thank my assistants in the field, Bakri Abdelmonim and Abdelbaqi Salaheddin Mohamend, who I have worked with now for many years and whose experience and expertise make my job significantly easier. Thanks also to Sami Elamin, our NCAM (National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan) inspector, who helped me to organize work on site as well as my day-to-day life while in Sudan, and who invited me to many social events in El Kurru and nearby towns and cities, including me as much as possible in the life of the region. Many thanks to everyone in El Kurru who welcomed me during the month of fieldwork and have always welcomed me — it feels like a home away from home when I am there. I would like to also thank our project’s overall director, Geoff Emberling (University of Michigan), for supporting my work from the very start. Hopefully we’ll make many more discoveries together. Finally, the greatest of thanks are due to Larry and Julie Bernstein for the financial support that made this work possible, we could not have done it without your generosity.
The past week has been incredibly busy as we try to prepare the site for the final days of data collection before I leave for Khartoum next Thursday. In next week’s post I will share some of the initial results of all of our hard work here, but this week I will focus on what my life is like in Sudan outside of work.
The International Kurru Archaeological Project stays in the village of El Kurru, near the ancient site, and we are kindly hosted by Sadiq Mohamed Saleh and his family. This month I have been staying in Kurru rather than closer to Jebel Barkal, as it is only a 15–20 minute car ride to the site. It is also where all of my friends from past field seasons live, and where I feel welcomed as a part of the community.
Part of the feeling of community comes from the fact that our meals are all communal. We share large dishes and eat with our hands, and the meals are always accompanied by bread. The main course is often fuul, a dish made of mashed beans with cheese or sardines or tomatoes or just about anything added to spice it up. We also often eat chicken, liver, a fish paste called fasikh, salad, and much more, and on special days we have fried fish! Last week, while staying the night in Karima, I even had pizza here for the first time, which I can highly recommend to the rest of the team coming next month!
In past seasons after work I have played soccer with my friends here, in the shadow of the Kurru pyramids, but this year I have had to rest my legs and often opt to either watch the others play in the sunset or cool my feet in the Nile, which is only a five-minute walk from Sadiq’s.
In past seasons we have even gone to see the Kurru soccer team play a few official matches, including big games against local rivals in the stadium at Karima. I’m in the field a bit earlier this year so the soccer season hasn’t started yet, but the first match is on Tuesday in Karima, and I’m looking forward to cheering on my friends from the stands after work!
This year I’ve felt even more closely connected with life in the village, attending a few wedding celebrations and just last night an engagement party for Salah Mohamed, one of the guys who works with me at Jebel Barkal. We danced for hours (myself only sparingly) to traditional tambour music, and it seemed as if the whole village came to celebrate with Salah!
In addition to all these larger events, I spend many of my evenings with friends talking under the stars or watching Champions League or EPL soccer while drinking tea, which is ubiquitous here. This season I’ve even picked up a new game to play, Ludo, which is kind of like Trouble and brings out an intensely competitive nature among us! It might be worth checking out the next time you’re looking for an easy game to play with a few friends!
I have less than a week left for in the field, and it is going to go by far too quickly. Check back here next week for a final #fieldworkfriday update from Sudan for 2018!
This week for #fieldworkfriday I would like to share with you a bit of where I am and what I’m doing in the field. This month I’ve come to Sudan’s Northern State, to the site of Jebel Barkal, near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile, to conduct a geophysical survey in two distinct areas of the site.
Jebel Barkal is a small mountain not far from the Nile that was considered by the Egyptians and later the Kushites to be the home of the god Amun. Various temples, palaces, and pyramids were constructed at the site from the Egyptian New Kingdom (about 1500 BCE) to the end of the empire of Kush (about 300 CE), and these have been the targets of extensive excavation in modern times. Jebel Barkal and the nearby sites of El Kurru, Sanam, and Zuma are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Geophysical survey is one of the most efficient ways to explore a large landscape like that of Jebel Barkal in search of specific features that will help us understand how people lived in the past. The results of this month of survey will help our projects better understand and interpret the built environment of the site, shedding light on how the community at Jebel Barkal lived and how it relates to other sites and their architectural traditions from the region.
This past week we finished up our work for the first project, on the south side of the mountain, where we were working in the desert landscape near the pyramids at the site. We were invited to survey this area by Murtada Bushara Mohamed of Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) as part of the Qatari Mission for the Pyramids of Sudan (QMPS) project. This project is focused on research, preservation, and presentation of the pyramids at Jebel Barkal, Kurru, Meroe, and Nuri and our contribution will help us better understand the landscape context of these monuments by identifying the location of other structures in this region of Jebel Barkal.
Tomorrow we will begin our work on the east side of the jebel, between the mountain and the Nile River, in an area we call the “East Mound.” This project is an offshoot of Geoff Emberling’s research at El Kurru and the surrounding region, and during preliminary research conducted in 2016 we identified this mound as being a likely location for the settlement associated with the temples and palaces of the monumental core of the site. We were able to identify buried structures here during a very short period of survey that year, just a couple of days, so we have returned to survey the entire mound and the surrounding area to better define the extent of this settlement.
The type of prospection that I’m conducting can be done with many different instruments, each with its own unique method of collecting magnetic data. In the case of this project I am using a device that must be carried across the landscape and takes readings at consistent intervals.
The most efficient way to use this device is to set up a grid in the area that we wish to cover. Using a total station we establish a 30 x 30 m grid, and within that grid we lay down guidelines that are marked at every meter. Then, wearing the scientific device, I walk up and down along the guidelines, which are there to ensure that I walk straight and at a consistent pace.
By telling the instrument and the processing software the parameters of the survey, the data can be plotted quite quickly to create a map of the magnetic readings at the surface, giving us insight into what may lie buried below. With this particular machine we are limited only by how fast I can walk while maintaining a consistent pace and holding the machine relatively steady, which depends on the surface conditions — sand slows me down quite a lot! — and how well we have established the grid and the guidelines. Below is a short video that gives a first-person perspective of what walking one of these lines is like. (In a typical day I can walk approximately 540 lines!)
Of course, there is slightly more to it than just that, but the bulk of my time here is spent walking along these lines and listening to the machine chirp at me, 30 meters at a time.
I realize that I did not check the comments on my last post to see if there were any questions, but I will be better about that this week, so please comment with any questions you may have or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you! And please check in next week for another update from Sudan!
Last month, I returned from fieldwork at El Kurru, the Kelsey’s excavation project in Sudan. It was a good season overall, but also a bit odd. It felt to me like a season where almost nothing worked out the way we’d planned. For example, the conservation worklist included stabilization of cracked columns in the funerary temple with a lime-based mortar. I’ve done work like this on many other projects and expected it to go smoothly, but it didn’t. Amaris Sturm — conservation intern this year at El Kurru, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation — ended up testing twenty-six (!) different grout mixtures before hitting on one we were happy with. For other team members, equipment was delayed or couldn’t get through customs, supplies didn’t arrive, and work plans had to be altered mid-season.
In retrospect, it was a season of significant progress on multiple fronts, but at the time … at the time, I often felt like nothing was working and it was seriously frustrating. When I think about it now, my time onsite this year was a small lesson in persistence and a demonstration of the power of kaizen. This philosophy (which originated in the U.S. but became popular in Japan following WWII) advocates continuous improvement by making small changes or taking small steps. In Arabic, people often say, “shwaya-shwaya” to mean, “a little bit,” or “little-by-little.” For me, it was a shwaya-shwaya season, and in the end we accomplished most of what we’d set out to do.
For the past several years, I’ve spent part of the winter in the small Sudanese village of El Kurru, and every year I fall a little bit more in love with it. I work there with Kelsey Research Scientist (and Kurru dig director) Geoff Emberling on the excavation and preservation of an ancient royal cemetery. Two years ago, the Kurru project team began to deliberately focus on community engagement as a way to forge stronger links between the local community and the ancient site.
This work has evolved slowly, beginning from plans to present the site to tourists (of which there are a surprisingly large number). El Kurru is an interesting site, with a big pyramid, two beautifully painted subterranean tombs, and a large rock-cut temple. But the site is only a small part of what I love about El Kurru. I love the Sudanese friends and colleagues we have there, the beauty of the Nile, and the family we live with. Tourists to the site, sadly, enter from a desert road and never have a reason to visit the town. As we planned the site itinerary for tourists, we kept saying to ourselves — wouldn’t it be great if visitors could keep walking and go into town, down through the date palm groves, and see the Nile? What if they could drink some Sudanese coffee, hear some music, and eat Sudanese food?
Over the past two years, we’ve worked with University of Michigan colleagues to assemble focus-groups in El Kurru to explore this idea. Not only did village residents think it was good idea — an exciting idea, even — to showcase local culture, they had a clear vision for what visitors should learn about their village and what experiences make El Kurru special. Here are photos of a few.
Mohammed Ahmed Al-Makee, who is in his nineties, is one of El Kurru’s last traditional weavers. His wife dyes and spins cotton into yarn, and from this he weaves scarves, shawls, and bed coverings on a pit-loom in the courtyard of his house. He allowed my colleague Jack Cheng and I to talk with him about his work and to record the sights and sounds of his loom, which he inherited from his grandfather.
JANELLE BATKIN-HALL, Graduate Intern in Conservation
I’ve just returned from a fantastic six-week fieldwork experience at the El Kurru archaeological site in North Sudan. There, Kelsey conservator Suzanne Davis and I documented ancient figural and geometric graffiti in a funerary temple at the site. Each day, Suzanne and I would make our way through a maze of mudbrick alleys to the edge of the village, where the funerary temple and several royal burial tombs and pyramids are located in the desert.
We photographed the graffiti using a process called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) (fig. 1). RTI is an excellent technique for documentation because each pixel records surface texture in addition to color. Since sandstone is subject to ongoing disintegration and loss, the resulting RTI images provide an excellent record of the graffiti’s current condition, as well as a highly detailed image of the column’s surface texture.
The Kurru graffiti were documented using highlight image capture where the camera remains fixed and a portable flash is moved at intervals which create a dome of light over the surface. In a single photo sequence of one object (or in this case, graffito), approximately 48 digital images are taken. Two reflective black spheres are also fixed within the image frame, and the reflection of the flash on these spheres allows the processing software to calculate the light direction for each image. The resulting images are combined with software, resulting in a single file. In this file, the viewer can move the light source across the surface in order to examine the surface details and topography from any angle (fig. 2). As a result of using this technique, 64 “new” ancient graffiti were positively identified and additional surface details became visible. In a couple of instances, a graffito was initially misidentified. For example, in 2015 a particular graffito was identified as an arrow. After performing RTI, it was clearly a human figure.
For me, this was a great experience because I was able to use a technique I recently learned in graduate school. Being able to apply it onsite and share the results with our colleagues was very rewarding.
BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum, blogging from his fieldwork site at El Kurru, Sudan
Due to overwhelming demand, I am giving my answer to the question of how tall our pyramid would have been when first built. The angle of the facing stones is about 73 degrees, and if you just do a calculation on that basis (yes, it’s trigonometry), you get a height of about 43 meters.
If you do a more detailed (and accurate) calculation based on the size of the blocks and the setback of each course, you find that the pyramid had about 72 courses of stone and that it was about 34.5 meters high.
These calculations are remarkable partly because the pyramid has a much lower angle now, and it’s only a bit over 9 meters high. So a very rough reconstruction shows what the profile of the pyramid would have looked like originally:
Is that even remotely plausible? Where did all that stone go??
We looked at some nearby sites, and it seems that it is plausible — there are some pyramids at the site of Nuri from about the same period of time that were built of solid stone and have survived better, and they could have been close to 34 meters high. They also have a profile like the one I’ve reconstructed here.
We don’t know where all the stone went … but some of it seems to have been used in the village over the past century or two.