Sudan & Nubia, volume 16

In the past, we have had in a couple of occasions the sad duty of reporting the death of an eminent member of the disciplines we are following through our Internet space, and we have always found it very difficult to compose adequate reports or praises for the life and work of any of them.

The last two years have seen the death of a number of leading figures in Sudan Archaeology and Nubian Studies, and naturally the peer-review journal Sudan & Nubia – that is published annually by the Sudan Archaeological Research Society – devoted quite many pages of its 16th volume in the commemoration of six of them: Svetlana Bersina (p. 155), Michel Baud (pp. 155-156), Tomas Hägg (pp. 156-159), Khidir Abdelkarim Ahmed (pp. 159-160), Jean Leclant (pp. 160-162), and André Vila (pp. 162-163).

Given the contribution of all these scholars to Sudan Archaeology and Nubian Studies, the amount of pages seems large only if compared with the richness of the archaeological material and studies that can or should be reported in the pages of such a central publication for the current state of affairs in these fields of study. For the same feelings prevail of course in the case of the authors of the obituaries in the new volume of Sudan & Nubia, in regards to the limitations of one’s ability to condense the euchologion for a venerable professor, a cherished colleague or a dear friend…

This said, the rest of the volume is again very rich indeed in the new knowledge it offers to its devoted public: 18 papers covering almost all the cultural periods of the past of Nubia and the Sudan and including topics such as geoarchaeology and sand forms affecting land use!

The first paper included in the new edition of Sudan & Nubia is as usual The Kirwan Memorial Lecture that was given in 2012 by Dr. Abdelrahman Ali Mohamed, the new Director General of the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums in Sudan. Dr. Abdelrahman, a geologist by his formation in the University of Juba, was awarded a doctorate from the Université Charles de Gaulle-Lille III on Kushite quarries. This very important topic for understanding contacts through the Middle Nile and beyond, technological knowledge among the ancient and medieval inhabitants of the region, and building techniques of both monumental and smaller-scale stone architecture was presented in London on the 9th of September 2012 and occupies the first six pages of the 16th volume of Sudan & Nubia.

This contribution is very well-received, among other reasons, also because it opens a volume that seems to be in dialogue with this ‘main’ paper on five axes:

1. First and foremost, there is the topic of geo-archaeology, where the study by R. Neil Munro, Mohamed Abdel Mahmoud Ibrahim, Hussein Abuzied and Babiker el-Hassan (pp. 140-154) titled “Aeolian sand landforms in parts of the Sudan and Nubia. Origins and impacts on past and present land use” opens really new paths of knowledge and offers new perspectives on the relation between archaeology and landscape in Sudan. At the same time it is a positive surprise (?) that the soil scientist and land use planner R. Munro who has worked for both Lahmeyer and the Dams Implementation Unit re-introduces himself to the world of Sudan Archaeology. We believe that in the future there will be more discussion from here on this paper.

2. The second axis: apart from these two papers there are four more, plus one obituary, that are composed by Sudanese researchers exclusively, or where Sudanese researchers have been involved, namely:

a. “Qalaat Shanan: a large Neolithic site in Shendi town” by Ahmed Hamid Nassr Hamd (pp. 8-12);

b. “Meroitic Building Techniques: a few observations from Dangeil” by Julie Anderson, Salah Mohamed Ahmed and Tracey Sweek (pp. 72-79);

c. “The Archaeological, Ethnographical and Ecological Project of El Ga’ab Basin in Western Dongola Reach: A Report on the First Season 2009” by Yahia Fadl Tahir (pp. 100-108);

d. “Rosieres Dam Heightening Archaeological Salvage Project. The excavations at Azaza Site ROSE 5, Preliminary Report” by Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, Murtada Bushara Mohamed and Mohammed Saad Abdallah (pp. 132-139);

e. The obituary for Khidir Abdelkarim Ahmed by Intisar Soghayroun Elzein (pp. 159-160).

The quality of these works has nothing to envy from the non-Sudanese scholars’ writings, underlining the fact that among Sudanese students and researchers a set of rules of academic production have been learnt, apprehended, and finely applied. Among these five papers, special mention should be made to the Report of the First Season of the Ga’ab Archaeological Project, composed by the Project’s director, Yahia Fadl Tahir, Associate Professor of Environmental Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Khartoum.

The Report opens with a well-written introduction that illustrates the knowledgeability of the author in both archaeological research and in related disciplines. A problem detected in the source material is, in our opinion, the identification of the people who sent a delegation to Emperor Justin in Constantinople in the 6th century. Yahia writes about the Germites, while traditionally these peoples are identified with the Garamantes on whose history and culture new archaeological research has in the last years thrown more light (see:

Two points of particular interest for us in the Report from the Ga’ab Project are: first, the mention of the discoveries made in the region by G.Y. Karkanis, a geologist of Greek origin that has been the only Greek we know of (from his mention in the registers of the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum) who has been active professionally in Sudan Archaeology; and second, the reference to the church at El-Laqia with the suggestion of its character as monastery and especially the publishing of a photo from the main monument at the site, which is the first one that we know of appearing to the public.

Another important contribution from local archaeologists is undoubtedly the report from the Roseires Dam project. In fact this belongs also to the third axis of themes in the 16th volume of Sudan & Nubia that is linked with the ‘main’ paper of the Kirwan Lecture by Dr. Abdelrahman.

3. For the new Director General of N.C.A.M. started his career amidst a crisis, namely the threat for the new dams planned to be built along the Sudanese Nile or already in various phases of construction, like it is the case with the twin dam on the Atbara and Setit rivers.

The short notice for the salvage work generated by these dams as well as the financial problems in the countries of origin of most of the archaeologists active in fieldwork in Sudan, but also – for at least some of us – the ethical implications of participating in such salvage campaigns has created the situation according to which the bulk of the work has been, is and perhaps will be conducted by the archaeologists working for the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums. So, although the publication of the report from the Roseires Project run exclusively by Sudanese is most welcome both for its quality and for the actual work that it attempts to summarize, it is at the same time a lamentable case in the history of Sudan Archaeology. The explanations for this critic lies with the fact that from a huge and unknown archaeologically/culturally/anthropologically area (only two references could be included in the bibliography compiled by the three archaeologists responsible for the report in Sudan & Nubia), where 70 sites were recorded, but only one was partially excavated in a total period of fieldwork that did not extend a couple of months…

Rather different was the case of the report by the Czech mission (“Preliminary Report on the exploration of Jebel Sabaloka (West Bank), 2009-2012”, pp. 118-131) doing fieldwork in the area of the Sixth Cataract (Sabaloka) that they identify as part of what they name Sabaloka Dam Archaeological Research Project (SDASP), bringing shivers down the spine to all those who experienced the faults and side-effects of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Research Project (MDASP) (see here for a critic). However, the overall quality of their paper is very good and it even introduces to Sudan Archaeology a method of survey developed by a Czech scholar, namely M. Kuna. It is again a pity that the avid reader does not get information on the finds from any other period of cultural history in the area than Prehistory.

The Third Cataract is also represented in the rich material of the 16th volume of Sudan & Nubia through the paper “Merymose and others at Tombos” (pp. 29-36) by Vivian Davies. He thus adds to the list of publications he has offered us concerning the very interesting Pharaonic inscriptions from the frontier zones between Egypt and Kush – both at Tombos and at Kurgus near the Fifth Cataract.

Even concerning the more downstream areas, around Sai Island, threatened by the plans for the construction of a dam on Dal Cataract, there is some very interesting information coming out from the papers of Francigny (“Preparing for the afterlife in the provinces of Meroe”, pp. 52-59), Rilly and Francigny (“Excavations of the French Archaeological Mission in Sedeinga, 2011 season”, pp. 60-71), and Spencer, Macklin and Woodward (“Re-assessing the abandonment of Amara West: the impact of a changing Nile?”, pp. 37-43). The first paper is an outcome of the doctoral thesis of our friend and colleague Vincent. As he states in the introductory paragraph of his work (p. 52), his thesis was also based on “the latest material coming from new Meroitic excavations started at Sai Island”. The second paper has a special epigraphic interest since Claude Rilly is presenting the edition of an Offering Table and a Funerary Stela in Meroitic discovered in 2011 and adding to the Répertoire d’Épigraphie Meroïtique. The last of these three papers, with its geo-archaeological perspective brings the attention back to the Kirwan Lecture paper and groups with the aforementioned study on aeolian sand landforms in Sudan and Nubia.

Finally, the Fifth Cataract is also the topic of an important contribution, more precisely on the famous fortresses of the region, but this paper is more related to the fourth axis upon which the Kirwan Lecture by Dr. Abdelrahman structures the contents of the entire volume 16 of Sudan & Nubia, namely stone architecture and especially the fortresses of the Middle Nile.

4. Two papers are related to fortresses in the Valley and one more studies a fortress in the areas west from the river, namely:

a. “Fortresses of Sudan Project. Abu Sideir case study” by Mariusz Drzewiecki and Tomasz Stepnik (pp. 96-99). The Polish school of Nubian Studies grew out of the Aswan High Dam Campaigns’ experience and blossomed on the grounds of the discoveries and subsequent studies on the wall paintings from the cathedral at Faras – half of which are nowadays housed at the National Museum in Warsaw (the other half constituting the majority of the murals exhibited in the second floor of the Sudan National Museum in the so-called Faras Gallery). Nonetheless, the Poles did not remain inactive in other fields of Nubian Studies either. Since the MDASP, the discoveries of the Gdansk Archaeological Museum Expedition to the Fourth Cataract on the right bank, as well as the survey of the fortresses at Suweigi by the team led by Bogdan Zurawski, have also offered to the Polish school rich evidence for the elaboration of studies of the fortifications along the Middle Nile. The two scholars from Poznan offer to the readers of Sudan & Nubia an innovative combination of data from fieldwork in the Fifth Cataract region. They set beside each other the quite known fortifications of the area and the rock art that has been found there, and they come up with intriguing suggestions as to the interpretation of their coexistence and interaction: while the fortresses are state monuments aiming at controlling a region, rock art is the creation of (semi-)nomadic populations attempting to mark their territories or illustrate their itineraries. This sort of analysis recompensates for the lack of written records relating to either the region or the phenomenon under scrutiny.

b. “The round structures of Gala Abu Ahmed fortress in lower Wadi Howar, Sudan” by Michael Flache (pp. 44-51). The paper offers very interesting insights into the realities of “life in a fortress of ancient Sudan” expressed in numbers and architectural forms. The example may be followed and applied for the fortresses of other areas in Sudan.

c. “The forts of Hisn al-Bab and the First Cataract Frontier from the 5th to the 12th centuries AD” by Alison L. Gascoigne and Pamela J. Rose (pp. 88-95) is on the contrary mainly interesting thanks to the way archaeology comes to elucidate dark points in the narrative of the written sources. More precisely, the return of Gascoigne and Rose to the site of Hisn al-Bab – that was thought as under the waters of Lake Nasser (the Egyptian part of the artificial lake created by the Aswan High Dam) – on the one hand proves that there are still a few sites that have not been flooded by the lake; and on the other hand strongly suggests the identification of Hisn al-Bab with Al-Qasr, the frontier enclosure where the agreement of the baqt was being implemented. In return, and paradoxically enough, this identification explains the absence of material relating to precisely the period when the baqt was being exchanged, because Al-Qasr should be understood as a place where the only activity was linked with the short period of the agreed transactions between Egyptians and Nubians. This periodic – if not episodic – use of the fortress may explain the preponderance of material from other periods on the surface of the site.

Here, it is fitting to refer to two papers that are related to material that had come out from the works conducted during the Aswan Dam campaigns, namely:

a. “Social Complexity Set in Stone? The A-Group Site of Afyeh” by Alice Stevenson, pp. 13-19 and

b. “Gebel Adda Cemeteries 3 and 4 (1963-1964)” by Richard Huber and David N. Edwards, pp. 80-87.

The study by Alice Stevenson is a reinterpretation of the A-Group site of Afyeh, which is based on a re-examination of the original field records and conversations with Harry S. Smith, who discovered the site during the Egypt Exploration Society’s survey. The site was then fully excavated by an Indian Mission, but Stevenson has not been able to locate the original field documentation of the Indians. The site of Afyeh is remarkable for its stone walls. It was therefore cited by earlier archaeologists  as evidence for a complex social organization among the A-Group people, but this interpretation contradicts with the location of Afyeh between the two important centres of the Terminal A-Group. Maria Gatto has recently suggested that the site could have been an Egyptian outpost on the basis of the published results from the site, but this is also not a convincing hypothesis. It was therefore enlightening to read Stevenson’s article where she argues that Afyeh was an A-Group settlement site as the material uncovered there “does not differ in character from the remains of other known habitation sites” (p. 14) of the A-Group people. Furthermore, the site appears to have been seasonally abandoned, which fits with the semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle proposed for the A-Group people. Another important contribution of Stevenson’s article is the discussion of the dating of the Terminal A-Group phase, where she contributes with new radiocarbon dates of material deriving from the excavations by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition. In conclusion, Stevenson remarks that the complexity and diversity of the A-Group societies are “poorly served by overarching social evolutionary terms such as ‘chiefdom’ or ‘state’” (p. 18). In that connection, we would like to point to the article by Henriette on hierarchy and heterarchy in the A-Group societies (find a PDF here).

The second paper in this small group is the third report published by Huber and Edwards on the cemeteries from Gebel Adda aiming as the authors state: “Until the surviving site archives are more fully studied, and hopefully published, this brief report […] can provide a few further insights into the fascinating and clearly complex history of the Gebel Adda cemeteries” (p. 81).

Returning to stone architecture and fortresses, we should refer to the report by Angelika Lohwasser on “A Survey in the Western Bayuda: The Wadi Abu Dom Itinerary Project (W.A.D.I.)”, pp. 109-117. She sets the stress on the stone enclosures that can be found along the Wadi Abu Dom, like Umm Ruweim I & II, Quweib, Umm Khafour etc. They are not necessarily identified as fortresses, since the defense elements are largely lacking. Lohwasser attempts to explain them – at least Umm Ruweim I that attracts the focus – as of religious function and this is of interest to the Medieval Sai Project, since we believe that such strong-places are centers of authority in a Makuritan state that was basing its control over its territory via the presence in such enclosed spaces of religiously devoted officials, perhaps even monks.

However, the main focus of W.A.D.I. remains the identification of the vestiges of the recorded in the written sources royal road through the Bayuda linking Meroe to Napata. The absence of related material can be explained in the same manner that Gascoigne and Rose explain the absence of Medieval material from Hisn al-Bad, that is the periodic/episodic character of the human activities there, but Lohwasser also advances an interesting theoretical suggestion: namely to shift from the “mostly interpreted strictly chronologically” term “Meroitic” to a nuanced cultural conceptualization of the related terms, e.g. introduction of the term “rural Meroitic”, the relics of which should be interpreted “not as successive, but contemporary, determined not by a chronological development, but [by] the social background and the way of life outside the centres of the Meroitic kingdom”. In other words, it is not necessary that one finds artefacts distinctive of ‘high Meroitic’ to date a site in the Meroitic period, especially if the area of the finding is outside the centers of this authority. A ‘rural Meroitic site’ may contain material remains of a character that cannot be discerned as the traditionally conceived Meroitic civilization.

Apart from Sedeinga and the W.A.D.I., further new fieldwork at Dangeil throws light on the Meroitic period and its cultural traits. But this paper belongs to the last axis of thematic grouping in the 16th volume of Sudan & Nubia.

5. Results from new fieldwork.

Finally, the papers belonging to this last axis are the following:

1. «The Kerma Ancien cemetery at site H29 in the Northern Dongola Reach» by Derek Welsby, pp. 20-28 and

2. «Meroitic Building Techniques: A few observations from Dangeil» by Julie Anderson, Salah Mohamed Ahmed and Tracey Sweek, pp. 72-79.

The first paper is the report of one of the most revealing discoveries about the early Kerma phase in Upper Nubia and its connections with the early phase of the C-Group people of Lower Nubia. The significance of cemetery H29 lies in the uncovering of several of the (black) incised bowls that are so characteristic for the C-Group, but which also appear in Kerma Ancien contexts. When the full report of the site is published, researchers will have a greater database for disentangling the relationship and connections between the earliest phases of the Kerma people and the C-Group people.

The second paper, already referred to in the list of “Sudanese” contributions, makes a detailed and very informative description of the building techniques of the Meroites. It offers a good lesson of how to combine modern practices and the archaeological record to reconstruct traditions of arts and crafts characteristic of the cultures of the past and the present along the Middle Nile.

These two papers figure under the authorship of the two persons that are the most active agents in S.A.R.S. and therefore in the edition of Sudan & Nubia itself (cfr. p. 167). They can be appraised for producing one of the most interesting volumes in the series, but also criticized for three points:

a. Although they have introduced in the new map of the two Sudans some new features – like the distinction between ancient sites and modern towns or the shading of the areas of a survey or of a concession – they are not consistent with the data input to the map (e.g. the modern cities referred to in W.A.D.I.’s paper) and they offer no legend about the colour choice in the shadings. Moreover, they exclude an important site name like “Roseires”, which in fact craved for the editors’ comment, since in the related paper it is used as “Rosieres”.

b. Moreover, they have allowed for quite some typographic mistakes in comparison with the final result of previous volumes.

c. Finally, in a period when the dams’ crises are shaking Sudan archaeology they have chosen to remain neutral towards these, but – true – in full respect to their continuous strategy in the ethical questions arising for Sudan Archaeology and Nubian Studies.

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2 Responses to Sudan & Nubia, volume 16

  1. JKARKANIS says:

    hello guys! do you have an email adress? i found you looking for my great great grandpa G.Y.Karkanis. I wonder what else you found out about him!
    thanks for your work!

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