Sudan & Nubia 23

Once again with an interval of a year, I return to the presentation of the new Sudan & Nubia volume, No. 23, which arrived at my post-box last week.

There are several reasons to decide writing this blog post these days:

  • As can be seen from the cover photo, the passing away of W.Y. Adams is specially marked, and this was expected not only thanks to Adams’ tremendous contribution to Sudan & Nubian studies, but also because he was the Honorary President of the Sudan Archaeology Research Society that actually publishes Sudan & Nubia. His obituary by Derek Welsby resumes the main stations of Adams’ career within Nubiology and makes also reference to the donation of his archive to SARS, as well as to the creation of the SARS William Y. Adams Library.
  • These last points are of especial interest to myself, since the last two years, I am working at the Special Collections of the University Library of Bergen, where a very important Sudan collection lies among the treasures in our magazines. It was a thus a very nice coincidence when I saw that a couple more articles in vol. 23 of Sudan & Nubia had to do with archives, special collections and their management both tangibly and digitally.
  • Another coincidence, far from happy at all, made it possible for this blog to be written. I am referring of course to the pandemic character that Corona virus took the last weeks, locking many of us out of our places of work, but giving thus ample time for reading and writing from home. It was a rare opportunity to be able to go through the material of interest in this volume of Sudan & Nubia in such a short time and present hereby my thoughts on the journal’s 23rd issue.
  • Finally, among the material in the volume there is stuff relevant both for medieval Nubia and of course for the island of Sai, the primary focus of this blog.

So, let’s see what I have gleaned from Sudan & Nubia No. 23:

1. The contents of the volume are very rich, no. 23 being the largest edition of Sudan & Nubia ever. The material is divided into “reports” and “miscellaneous”, and I am always struck by the fact that, just like in earlier editions, what I would term a “study” is rather deemed as a “report”. The paper by Bishop-Wright “Reconsidering the Lower Nubian “Wine-Presses” and their Leonine Spouts” is an excellent example of a study, just as is the case of the article by Welsby and the response by Bonnet on a special type of architecture with many columns used during the Kerma and Kushite periods. By the way, this was the first-time such an academic “debate” was hosted in in Sudan & Nubia, as far as I can remember. As for the “miscellaneous” articles, they are in fact obituaries.

2. These obituaries commemorate apart from W.Y. Adams (1927-2019), also Manuel Pellicer Catalán (1926-2018) and Rex Sean O’Fahey (1943-2019). While the first two individuals came to Nubia in the framework of the Aswan campaigns, O’Fahey was a historian, active in the field primarily in Darfur. He was for forty years a professor in Bergen and beyond his immense academic output, he left us the legacy of a most extensive archive including, among other materials, unique documents from Sudan, especially from Darfur.

That’s how professor Albrecht Hofheinz from the University of Oslo describes the O’Fahey collection (pp. 213-4):

“Upon his retirement in 2013, O’Fahey donated his huge collection of documents – the largest body of indigenous Sudanese material now in a public collection outside the Sudan, as well as precious material from other parts of Sudanic and East Africa – to the University of Bergen library: material hand-copied, photographed or photocopied from originals in private or public archives, pamphlets, research notes, and grey literature. UiB’s Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is in the process of cataloguing and digitising this material; in the spirit of its former owner, it is made freely accessible to the interested public.”

I hope that both from here and from other venues, I will soon be able to offer updates on the progress of this project at our library, the end result of which will be accessible to everyone through the interface  of the Special Collections of the University of Bergen,

3. Let me insist for a bit more on the topic of archives.

In the obituary for W.Y. Adams, I found out that SARS has also received the archive of Hans-Åke Nordström’s, among the leaders of the Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Nubia in the Aswan Campaign. Hans-Åke would participate in March in a much awaited workshop in Stavanger on ‘Reinvigorating Scandinavian Research in African Archaeology’. Unfortunately, it was cancelled due to the corona virus crisis…

There are furthermore two reports that concern both archival material in Sudan and refer to work done in or organised from Bergen:

A. The first is authored by Marilyn Deegan and titled “Sudan Memory: conserving and promoting Sudanese cultural and documentary heritage” (pp. 200-206). The report describes how the 2013 call by the Sudanese Association for Archiving Knowledge (SUDAAK) was taken up by Durham University and the Department of Digital Humanities in King’s College, London. Despite the several challenges, “Sudan Memory” continues to date and promises impressive results, primarily with digitisation, but also, to the degree that it is logistically possible, with the tangible collections too. In their span of activities, they have included:

i. The Sudan Film Archive, a project which was first run by the University of Bergen with support from the Norwegian Embassy in Khartoum. The Norwegian project was completed in October 2018 and it is now part of “Sudan Memory”.

ii. The National Records Office, with which the University of Bergen has an open collaboration, since the days that O’Fahey was active in Sudan.

iii. The University of Khartoum, which is the longest standing international collaboration of the University of Bergen.

iv. Collections in other universities (scholars from the University of Bergen are in close collaboration with colleagues from the Red Sea University).

v. The archives of the Ministry of Culture.

vi. The archives of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (a project where the German Archaeological Institute and Humboldt University have played so far pivotal role).

vii. The so-called Bet Lil Turath at Abri, a home for both the archaeological material from the digs at Amara West, as well as a form of repository for private archives of the local population.

viii. Other private archives, among which I was so glad to hear that my dear friend Pawel Wolf has donated his photos to “Sudan Memory”!

ix. The local archives of the city of Atbara, concerning both the history of railways and of the Sudan labor movement.
The last set of collections is not unrelated with the effort to create a module for the recent Sudan revolution setting it into a historical context with the revolutions of the past in Sudan.

All in all, “Sudan memory” is a priceless contribution to safeguarding the memory of Sudan indeed.

B. From such a rich presentation of current archival work in Sudan, the Sudan Archive at Durham University could not be missing. Chloë Ward authored a report on “Archaeology in Durham University’s Sudan Archive” (pp. 188-197), highlighting the potential of the renowned Archive also for such type of research.
Durham and Bergen share the honour of being the largest archives on Sudan outside the country itself and recently, we are seeing again into possibilities of collaboration in the future.
From Ward’s presentation, it is normal in the context of this blog to retain information relevant for Sai Island.
So, in p. 191 and Figure 4, Sai figures in the “List of locations in the Sudan referenced in relation to archaeology or antiquities (those in bold include photographic material).” Although Sai Island is written in bold letters indeed, a research in the webpage of the Archive does not return any photographic material, but what Ward mentions in p. 194, namely that in his 1926 diary, Frank Addison (Lecturer at Gordon College in 1926, later on Chief Inspector of Schools and Conservator of Antiquities in Khartoum) recorded his passage from Sai (see HERE), which he described as .. uninteresting!

4. References to Sai Island appear also among the reports, more precisely in Julia Budka’s “The Munich University Attab to Ferka Survey Project 2018/2019”, where the inspected region is treated as a periphery of Amara West and Sai Island (p. 13).
The MUAFS team worked on the traces of Vila’s survey in the 1970s, who had identified 37,8% of the sites registered in the region as Christian (p. 15) and confirmed that picture with the dating of 34 out of 119 sites to the medieval era (p. 16, Table 1 and Figure 1). This percentage is not particular for this study-region, but a rather characteristic result of surveys conducted all along the Middle Nile.
Nonetheless, from a medieval Sai perspective, it is among these sites that can be identified the internal structure of the bishopric of Sai, its relations with this periphery in the framework of ecclesiastic hierarchy, or the relation between this hierarchy and the settlement patterns (size, population, centres of secular administration). Was, for example, the mudbrick church at Ferka East (site 3-G-9), seen in p. 20 and plate 7, an ecclesiastic institution subordinated to the bishopric of Sai; and, if yes, in what terms?

Unfortunately, I will have to address a criticism to the use of one specific term in this report from the latest issue of Sudan & Nubia:
In p. 21, the study-region is identified as part of the kingdom of Nobadia. However, this kingdom had ceased to exist after the 7th century at latest, and Nobadia became part of Makuria for most of the medieval era. The MUAFS project surely understands the term “Christian” as “medieval” rather than “Late Antique” or eventually “Nobadian”.

5. Makuria controlled also the region where NCAM under the auspices of the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project conducts a systematic survey. I am referring to the report by Abdelhai Abdelsawi titled “Dam-Debba Archaeological Survey Project (QSAP 14): Five seasons of archaeological activities”. The survey has registered so far 238 sites  and has concluded that “Medieval and historic sites were situated on Nile banks and old flood plains, covered by Nile silts and clays.” (p. 95).

Two discoveries relevant for the Makuritan world are:

A. The registration of a medieval fort at site DS 74 at Al-Hitana (p. 99).

B. At Usli Wasa, site DS206, “some Christian graves were found in the western part of the <Napatan> site; excavations have been officially paused due to a problem with local citizens” (p. 95)…
I will return to this last intriguing remark below.

On a different note, the NCAM mission began work at the Bet Al athar, “the house of antiquities” at Merowe (opposite Gebel Barkal), the oldest museum of the country. Next to this important monument of cultural heritage policy in contemporary Sudan, the museum of the Fourth Cataract has already been established and it was high time that something was done with Bet Al athar too, both for its proper history and for the other antiquities of the region that cannot be served only by the museum of Barkal on the opposite bank with its minuscule storerooms and the threats of looting that it has received even in the recent past.

6. The topic of looting is the focus of the short report by Marcel Marée “The Circulating Artefacts project: A platform against the looting and trafficking of illicit antiquities (CircArt database by the BM)” (p. 198-199), which is organised by the British Museum and run by employees of NCAM. Definitely a most welcome intervention for the protection of the Sudanese cultural heritage.

7. Staying in the field of museums, there is some interest for medieval Nubia among the “Nubian Materials in the Collection of Tokai University, Japan” by Tsubasa Sakamoto and Kyoto Yamahana (pp. 169-171). This concerns some Christian pottery fragments shown in Plates 1, 2, 4, and 5 of the short report. The material arrived in Japan after Hachishi Suzuki (1926-2010) participated in the Aswan campaigns. Could this material inspire and enliven teaching of Sudan archaeology in Japan?

8. There is one more section of the volume that is of interest for our blog, already referred to – but in negative terms – in Abdelhai’s report: The role of the local communities in the archaeological work conducted in Sudan.
Here, two more reports are of relevance:
A. Tomomi Fushiya and Katarzyna Radziwilko’s “Old Dongola Community Engagement Project: Preliminary report from the first season” (pp. 172-181) and
B. Nuha Abdel Hafiz Abdel Aziz’s “New Perspectives on Meroitic subsistence and settlement patterns: an ethnoarchaeological study of contemporary Naqa society” (pp. 182-187).
To different degrees and in different manners, both approaches are important for the understanding of the medieval past:

Quite often in Sudan, modern settlements develop close to the medieval ruins, be they destroyed, buried or still visible and partly in use.
And in some cases the lifestyles and subsistence patterns have changed very little, offering unique insights into how life was organised in the past as far back as even before the Meroitic era.
On both levels, the study of contemporary communities can help the archaeological and historical research.
But there is always the flip side of the coin:
No archaeological project is legitimised if not anchored in the local communities’ views of their past, wishes for their present, plans for their future. Archaeologists and historians can help raise the awareness of the local populations; and cannot do without their consent and support.
Those working in the field in Sudan have experienced both the positive and the negative sides of such issues. And we are becoming wiser, both in the ways we work there and as it can be seen in the amount of relevant material published in the main venues of Nubiological research, like Sudan & Nubia.

The volume shortly presented here is an exemplification of the veracity of the last observation, as well as of the richness and variety of projects running currently in Sudan – and in fact beyond the field of archaeology, which has been dominating Nubiology for more than half a century. And it also illustrates how the passing away of the founding fathers of the discipline and the repositories of knowledge they have left us mark the path that the future generations may follow.

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