As I write these lines, friends and colleagues are enjoying their last evening in the frame of the 13th International Conference for Nubian Studies, on a boat on Lake Neuchâtel. Traveling to a conference with small children has the disadvantage that evening venues are difficult to follow, but of course children offer the priceless luxury of cozy moments that facilitate tackling the hectic rhythms of a conference – or for everyday life if such a mention is at place here! On the other hand, having to be back at the family base in the evening offers extra time for completing other tasks and, in my case at least, for blogging. And every single day here at Neuchâtel offers more than enough material to write about.
Just think that this morning started with the presentation by Robin Seignobos Rereading the Oriental Sources: Mamluk sources and the History of Late Medieval Nubia that surely it will be remembered as one of the most important contributions during the Neuchâtel conference.
For Robin demonstrated in just half an hour and by using just a couple of passages from a couple of the sources from one period of Arabic historiography that he is examining the vast potential that the revisiting of the corpus of Arabic Sources concerning Nubia has. I feel extremely privileges to be in close collaboration with Robin and I cannot wait to visit him in Paris in December and investigate common topics of interest.
One of these might be linked with the famous story of the kingdom of Al Abwab, and the places where the Makuritan kings were seeking refugee upstream from Dongola. About the localization of the former Robin was asked after his talk by professor Godlewski. And a probable identification of the latter which was one of the hot spots of the second presentation of the day, the paper of Bogdan Zurawski on Nubian Fortifications in the Middle Ages read by Mariusz Drzewiecki, specialist of fortifications.
The overview of the related sites might not have been exhaustive (the medieval period of the fortress on Sai was not mentioned for example), and some of the sites included might not have been fortifications but rather enclosures (as rightly pointed out by Angelika Lohwasser of Münster University who works at the Wadi Abu Dom and had to tackle precisely such enclosed areas that were considered as fortifications but her team’s studies show that they were not), but it surely offered to the audience a most illuminating insight into functions and dates of these structures. The fortresses were set in their historical context, both that of the Late Antique world bringing in confrontation (?) the decaying Meroitic Empire and the rising star of the Christian Kingdom of Dongola; and that of Late Christian Nubia with the above mentioned suggestion that Al Abwab was in the island region of the Fifth Cataract, with the kings of Dongola fleeing to Mograt Island. Very good analysis indeed – but was the target of the fleeing king always the same?
Irrespectively of the target, the base from where they fled was always the same: Old Dongola. The capital of the capitals in the Sudanese past and the oldest archaeological concession in the country, as the chairman, Derek Welsby, informed the audience introducing Wlodzimierz (Wlodek) Godlewski, the third speaker of the plenary session.
The professor of Warsaw University spoke about a topic that few people in the world can have such a complete overview of: The Makurian Church and its Sacral Architecture. If there are any faults in his reconstruction of the history of Makuria on the basis of his interpretations of the architectural marvels that are constantly unearthed at Old Dongola, these are very difficult to pinpoint at such gatherings and with the few moments available for reaction from the moment of the phrasing of an interpretation by the speaker until one can formulate a complete argument. So, those of us who expected to hear him suggesting the organization of a new venue to discuss more closely Christian Nubian topics – as he had promised on Wednesday during the talk with professor Ali Osman – will have to wait for the closing session tomorrow morning when the General Meeting of the ISNS makes it more appropriate to share such ideas or even plans. Nevertheless, there were several questions addressed to professor Godlewski from the audience and it is noteworthy that most concerned the continuity between the medieval and the post-medieval centuries, the Christian and the Islamic eras if you prefer. It seems that this is a topic occupying the mind of lots of our colleagues, surely many Sudanese, and as we’ve showed with various entries from here, also the Medieval Sai Project.
By the end of the discussion, everybody was well-prepared to hear Intissar Soghayroun el-Zein’s paper on Islam in the Sudan, between History & Archaeology, which was mainly an overview of the various types of sites, objects, problems and goals that concern Islamic Archaeology in Sudan.
Her call for more collaboration between specialists of the medieval and post-medieval cultures found me ready to propose to examine closer the possible continuities in traditions of decoration upon book covers/cases, as those that Intissar showed in her presentation and could be reminiscent of medieval specimens.
The afternoon sessions were shorter but some real jewels were still awaiting us today too.
In Session 6, dedicated to Cultural Heritage, Rachael Dann, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, offered an unprecedented to our knowledge presentation for Nubiological Conferences, titled Art, Archaeology and Sensory Knowledge at El Kurru: An Experiment. It is very difficult to describe the meeting of art and science in the experiments she is conducting in the frame of Geoff Emberling’s project at El Kurru, and the reason is not the simple fact that she has invited artists to the fieldwork site in order to comment with their art upon the object of archaeology (literally and metaphorically), but that her presentation itself was a combination of art and science, leaving her audience wondering whether they were called to ascribe to a paradigm-shift, like Yannis Hamilakis suggests in his new book Archaeology and the Senses. She confirmed that the point is not to change the methods of planning fieldwork or the technique of digging, but rather to introduce sensory aspects in our understanding of the objects of our research. Inviting artists then to comment upon the archaeologist’s work, why not. Using new technologies in photography and 3D reconstructions to test the various “angles of the experience” of the archaeological objects themselves, yes. Being ourselves ready to use our senses (and sentiments, then?) to enlarge our apprehension of our discipline, though. Bring it on! Time for debates outside the box!
Luckily, the person who took over the podium afterwards was Friederike Jesse. With her calmness and clarity she brought the audience back to the normal sphere of everyday work by presenting the African Archaeology Archive of Cologne. The link to the webpage is HERE and it is undoubtedly worth exploring for its contents, but also for its potential to serve archival as well as dissemination needs for all African Archaeologists. It is an excellent initiative to make available so much data online and the example should be applied in other disciplines too.
Imagine the work of Joanna Then-Obluska for example. She has been traveling around the world to collect her immense data base of beads from ancient and medieval Sudan and she could have been helped extensively if she could find at least good part of her material in such (an) online archive(s). The time spent for data collection would have been reduced and we would have profited of more of the insightful analyses that Joanna offers us when she speaks or writes about “her” beads!
The last presentation that we followed had a surprise for us, because Michael Zach’s Early Photography and the Ancient Monuments of the Sudan not only was a very informative paper about the earliest photographers (before 1880) reaching upstream from the First Cataract, but also included a couple of photos from a place very well known to us and our readers. And so, a most picturesque manner for closing tonight’s report from Neuchâtel…