Sudan & Nubia 21

After a year of absence, it is time to return to the presentation of one of the most awaited venues for Sudan archaeology and Nubian studies: the annual volume of Sudan & Nubia.

This year’s cover photo shows the fort and town of el-Khandaq and comes from a very informative contribution by Isabella Welsby-Sjöström on the town in the light of some Western pre-modern scholars (pp. 198-203). This is one of the two contributions about post-medieval Sudan, the other being the paper by Valentina Perna on the scarcely known until recently Gergaf culture of Eastern Sudan, dating to the 16th-18th centuries, and examined through its pottery production (pp. 186-197).

These are only two of 28 papers presented in the 21st volume of Sudan & Nubia, i.e. the journal has entered its third decade of existence, and the maturity gained is obvious in various levels: For example, the 228 pages of this year’s issue is a record for Sudan & Nubia. Among this rich material, there was space for a very important school of Sudan studies to be finally (re)presented.

The reference is to “our” school of Bergen, primarily represented by anthropologists, but also by professor emerita of Middle Eastern and African archaeology at the University of Bergen, Randi Haaland, the former supervisor of Henriette. Randi began her studies in anthropology and continued with sociology before finding her call in the field of archaeology. There, she first worked with lithics collected by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition participating in the Aswan High Dam campaign, to start teaching as a lecturer in Khartoum, under the direction of Peter Shinnie. Her role in the formation of the department of archaeology at Khartoum University cannot be overestimated. Both in fieldwork (near Khartoum, on the junction of the Nile with the river Atbara, in Darfur and South Sudan, mainly at sites with interest for prehistory) and in theoretical analysis (especially inside a comparativist model and with focus on ethno-archaeology), Randi’s contributions are priceless and have earned her many important distinctions (we glean her presidency for the Society for Africanist Archaeologists between 2000 and 2002). It was time to be invited to deliver the Kirwan Memorial Lecture, one of the most prestigious academic venues in Sudan archaeology. She traveled to London for that instance last year, and as it has become customary, her talk was published in the Sudan & Nubia issue of the following year.

Professor Haaland’s paper is titled “Nile Valley archaeology and Darfur ethnography: the impact of women on cultural evolution. A personal reflection” (pp. 3-15) In it, she sets to “explore how female identity is manifested in symbolism and activities related to the archaeological remains” (p. 3). Her “clues” (as she calls her empirical data) were pottery from the archaeological inventory and food production and nurturing from Darfur’s ethnography. Randi’s pen creates a very fine collection of academic reflexions that are definitely worth the reader’s time and attention. Here, we will only comment upon two points:

– First, that Randi has indeed dedicated a big part of her career on promoting gender studies (especially by examining the role of women in the societies she was studying), and that she must be happy that she is already the third woman becoming a “Kirwan-lecturer” in the 2010s, after Pamela Rose in 2010 (“Qasr Ibrim: The last 3000 years”, appearing in Sudan & Nubia 15) and Janice Yellin in 2014 (“Meroitic Royal Chronology: the conflict with Rome and its aftermath”, appearing Sudan & Nubia 19), a fact that shows the increasing importance of women in our discipline (three out of eight Kirwan lectures in the 2010s is almost 40%, while this year’s Kirwan lecture was delivered by Mahmoud Suliman Bashir, Pawel Wolf and Alexandra Riedel, keeping up the statistical “balance”). It should also be noted that among the 42 contributors of this year’s Sudan & Nubia, there are as many men as women!

– And second, that she gives a very interesting insight into the Darfur communities she studied that again offers a useful parallel for explaining characteristics that seem particular to medieval Nubia, the focus of this blog. We are referring to her remark in page 3 about the economic independence of Fur women, about which she first learnt from the works of Fredrik Barth (“Economic Spheres in Darfur”, in: R. Firth (ed.), Themes in Economic Anthropology, London 1967, pp. 149-174) and her husband Gunner Haaland (“Beer, Blood and Mother’s Milk: The Symbolic Context of Economic Behavior in Fur Society”, Sudan Notes and Records (New series 2) 1998, pp. 53-76). Often in studies of medieval Nubia, the economic independence of women has been stressed, whether it concerns the ownership of land and churches or the patronage of art and professional specialization. A good overview can be found in Giovanni Ruffini’s book, Medieval Nubia: A Social and Economic History (London 2012, pp. 235-244). Ruffini has also written about another tradition that finds in Darfur important ethnographic parallels, namely the “payment” of scribes and the “rewarding” of witnesses in legal transactions with food and drink, as I also learned from Gunnar Haaland, while typing the meta-data for the photos of both Gunnar and Randi from Darfur that I was digitalizing back in 2010. Glad to see so many of these images nicely presented in Sudan & Nubia. You can see more HERE.

The 21st volume of Sudan & Nubia has more interesting things for the readers of this blog though. We will not refer unfortunately to the bulk of the material, which deals with pre-medieval past from Prehistory and through the Kushite periods until the post-Meroitic. From the reports concerning these periods we will only glean the contribution by Julia Budka on “The 18th Dynasty on Sai Island – new data from excavations in the town area and cemetery SAC5” (pp. 71-81), because of the focus on the deeply missed world of Sai island; and we will comment upon the interesting fact the Mahmoud Suliman Bashir has contributed in no less than three papers, two as co-author and one solo. Randi Haaland was the supervisor of Mahmoud’s thesis and she must be proud of how her Sudanese student is thriving.

Different feelings are certainly aroused by the third “Bergen-liaison” in Bulletin No. 21: As usually, after the “Reports” section, “Obituaries” are added, and this year there are three dear colleagues that the Nubiological world is mourning: Inge Hofmann from Vienna, Karl-Heiz Priese from Berlin, and El-Sayed El-Anwar Abdel-Magid, who enriched like few others the archaeology of Sudan by Sudanese. Anwar was another PhD student from Randi that left us prematurely due to health problems and decided to be buried in Bergen.

The grave of Anwar Abdel Magid at the cemetery of Loddefjord (photo by Dr. Howaida Faisal)

Let us return to the reports though and focus on some remarkable points on the archaeology of Christian Nubia that we gleaned from three of those:

1. Brenda Baker and Sarah Schellinger are among our colleagues who have returned to the Fourth Cataract region and have resumed work in their concession areas, as those had been decided in the frame of the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project (M.D.A.S.P.), but under a new name, in this instance the “Arizona State University (ASU) Bioarchaeology of Nubia Expedition (BONE)”. So, Brenda came back to el-Qinifab and in 2015 discovered a fort site (ASU 15-13). Further fieldwork in 2016 seems to corroborate the idea that this structure does not belong to the chain of the Early Christian fortifications – which were obviously the result of the effort of the Makuritan state to integrate this territory to its realm under a Christian flag – but was rather the expression of the authority of a local ruler who took advantage of the disintegration of ancient state formations during the post-Meroitic period and might even have resisted the Makuritan annexation. As the authors conclude their contribution (p. 176): “Continuing work on this newly recorded site will contribute to a better understanding of the social and political dynamics in the Fourth Cataract region during the late Meroitic and Post-Meroitic periods.” Periods that have been both formative and informative for the beginning of the Christian Middle Ages in Sudan, we would add.

2. Another group that returned to the Fourth Cataract was lead by Claudia Näser, the supervisor of Alexandros’ doctoral thesis at Humboldt. She has recently founded the Archaeological Mission to the Fourth Nile Cataract and has returned to the area of the island-concession of the Humboldt University Nubian Expedition in the frame of the M.D.A.S.P., where among other sites the churches of the islands of Us and Sur were excavated, the latter producing the second-largest cachet of manuscripts discovered at a single site in Nubia (which then became the topic of my PhD). This time fieldwork was conducted on the island of Sherari with the aims (p. 211):

  • to initiate salvage excavations at two highly endangered Kerma burial sites (the danger comes from the presence of the Manasir in the area with inevitable deteriorating effects on the archaeological landscape, which before the flooding of the lower grounds was less accessible).
  • to rebuild the communication with the local residents and start a community project (as is obvious from the above, this is a sine qua non for the protection of the tangible heritage).
  • to launch a study which investigates the impact which the shifting activity zones at the banks of the reservoir have on the surviving archaeological sites and to monitor their condition based on data collected during the MDASP surveys in the years 2004 to 2007.

Unfortunately, visits to the island of Us showed that both mud-brick and red-brick structures associated with the church at site US022 have completely disappeared, and only some stone settings were still at place. Even if this proved to be the condition at the more upstream island of Sur, where the church was located at the most upstream end of the island, there may still remain hope for further discoveries if proper excavation is conducted in the stone structures of the immediate vicinity – a contextualization that in fact we lack for both church sites.

3. Last but not least, special mention should be made to the contribution by Katarzyna Danys and Dobrochna Zielinska titled: “Alwan art. Towards an insight into the aesthetics of the Kingdom of Alwa through the painted pottery decoration” (pp. 177-185); not only because of the long-standing collaboration of Alexandros with these two scholars, but also because of the very high quality of their study of Alwan pottery and its painted decoration. Their contribution in Sudan & Nubia, after invitation by Derek Welsby, constitutes a long-awaited revisiting of the evidence for the culture and society in this least-known of the medieval Nubian kingdoms, on the basis of a systematic effort to contextualize the evidence procured from mainly the excavations at its capital, Soba by Shinnie in the 1950s and Welsby in the 1990s. What Katarzyna and Dobrochna have achieved by a rigorous analysis of ceramological and iconographic data from Soba (the fields of specialty of each respectively) is to show clearly the links of Alwa with the outside world, be that Axum or Makuria, but also a reappraisal of the nature of the art in this kingdom for its own sake. The only negative point in their paper is that the richness of the illustrations provided are of so small size that is more often than not difficult for the reader to appreciate the strength of Danys’ and Zielinska’s arguments and insights. Let’s hope that this was just the beginning of a much deeper study that will open paths of understanding as critical issues as the phenomena of Christianization and Makuritization of the Middle Nile region.

Just as we hope that Sudan & Nubia will continue offering reports from fieldwork in such a short time after they actual realization on the ground; along with studies of the sort that Danys and Zielinska or Welsby-Sjöström offer to the readers of this journal (and thus that a section of “studies” will be re-opened in the structure of the contents).

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