Scratching the Surface… Again

DSC_4255_2I had absolutely no idea that the few words (see my last blogpost Scratching the Surface) I wrote about some named, but yet unknown, 19th century travellers to Sudan would lead down quite such an intriguing path. There is more interest in this topic than I had thought, when I amateurishly shared my somewhat fantastical thoughts on who the rogues were, who scratched their names into the surfaces of ancient monuments in Sudan. This post really serves as an update.
I received lovely comments from people about the blog post and was quite content that a few people had enjoyed my whimsical and light approach to this curiosity. But something was bugging me. Fine, in a way, write your name on a monument and walk away knowing you have indelibly left you name for future visitors to see. This is straight forward and the majority of my rogues did just that; one, in more places than I had thought possible, but we will return to the rogue that is Mr Holroyd later. No it was the elaborate and flamboyant Mr Augusto Diamanti, the Italian, who had concocted quite a complex graffito with his name, the date, a series of seemingly Latin abbreviations and a list of abbreviated words which in my mind was a grammar list of sorts. And this, all framed in a border carved in the manner of a grand architectural monument. This particular example of a graffito seemed to hold more of a story than the others but it was just deciphering that story which was the problem.

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So, nowadays when I have a query, particularly when I think it may involve Latin, I turn to the best and fastest response unit there is – Twitter. I am an archaeologist and have plenty of lovely, generous, and ultimately curious, Classicist followers, that I know one will spot my distress call and help me out. So I put out a gentle cry of help and immediately it gets a decent number of retweets from various people. Good. The word is being spread. Then come the obligatory jokes as to what the graffito may represent: a 19th century takeaway menu was possibly my favourite. And then come the questions. This is definitely a good sign. People are curious and need context so I start replying. Then there is the moment of wishing that Twitter had more than 140 characters to enable the grouping of as many people as possible into the same thread and thus share the thought processes and answers without repeating oneself. But never mind, as hostess of the question I then feel duty bound to try and collate thoughts, pass them around and hope we come up trumps.
Little batches of people are grouping and thoughts and suggestions are being swilled around with a lot of ‘what if’s’ and ‘that can’t be that’s’ and ‘this could stand for’s’. The one thing that we are all acutely aware of is the key to this whole stone carved riddle is Augusto Diamanti himself. This induces a search and while I filter through the obligatory “he is on Facebook” search results, someone else possibly identifies him as “Fr. Augusto Diamanti”. A man of the cloth. Our first possible identification which works as a catalyst and immediately sends us to find him in his 19th century home of…. India. None of us were expecting that. Fr. Augusto Diamanti worked in a Catholic Seminary in Jeppu, India in the 19th century. He had arrived at the seminary in 1879, which made him a very young man in 1849 to have been travelling in Sudan but this was not insurmountable.
Twitter discourse then turned to Augusto being a missionary in Sudan and perhaps the leader of a group of religious people travelling through Egypt and Sudan. Not an impossible theory, but not a particularly plausible one either. Twitter attention was soon concentrated on the fragments of three-lettered words arranged in seemingly two lists. Were they people and places? If so, did the first three letters represent a name which was followed by a three-lettered code for the country of origin? Or were they names and then religious rank? Or were they both three letters of names? In this case, a simple abbreviation of the person’s first and last name. After playing with the options most of the Tweeters were in favour of the last option; the curly brackets grouping families, identifiable by their coded surname. The language we had all agreed, was Italian. There were then, according to this theory, a number of lone travellers and almost certainly they were of mixed sex. SOF can really only be used in SOFia (Sophie) in an Italian name and EDV is most certainly a male called EDVardo (Edward). Looking at the lists in this light we evidently have two large family groups, a couple, and a number of individual travellers all under the auspices of Augusto Diamanti.

But Augusto, despite being our principal cast member, was still an enigma. Well, he was until he had a character transformation. Some bright Twitter spark alerted us to this tiny passage.

Dottore Augusto Diamanti. From Descrittori italiani dell'Egitto e di Alessandria: Memoria by Giacomo Lumbroso 1879

Dottore Augusto Diamanti. From Descrittori italiani dell’Egitto e di Alessandria: Memoria by Giacomo Lumbroso 1879

Suddenly we have Dr Augusto Diamanti travelling in Egypt in 1850 with his friend Michele Lessona who was a zoologist on a quest to find specimens; in particular “electric fish from the Nile”.

Dr Diamanti and his electric Nile fish. From In Egitto, la Caccia della Jena 1883-95 by Michele Lessona

Dr Diamanti and his electric Nile fish. From In Egitto, la Caccia della Jena 1883-95 by Michele Lessona

Augusto Diamanti, also a zoologist had probably worked at the University of Pisa in Italy and was responsible for dissection in the Zoology department. Lessona had worked near Cairo in the hospital of Khankah and we meet Dr Augusto Diamanti again at the moment in 1849 when Lessona leaves Egypt and returns to Italy to work at the University of Turin with Prof. De Filippi to whom Augusto had written the letter of recommendation and provided Lessona with a particular gift to present Filippi – a large and rare collection of lizard specimens.

Augusto Diamanti provides a large and rare collection of lizards as way of introduction between Michele Lessona and his future boss, Dr De Filippi

Augusto Diamanti provides a large and rare collection of lizards as way of introduction between Michele Lessona and his future boss, Dr De Filippi

Augusto Diamanti writes a letter of recommendation with accompanying lizards

Augusto Diamanti writes a letter of recommendation with accompanying lizards

Both these quotes come from the Bollettino dei Musei di Zoologia ed Anatomia comparata dell R. Universita di Torino 1886.

These fragments of information tally with the dates of the 1849 graffito with considerably less shoe-horning than our religious Augusto Diamanti needed, but there was still the issue of what Dr Augusto Diamanti was doing with a large group of Italians at the temple in Semna, in the north of modern Sudan, carving their names onto a temple wall.

I wish I had that answer and the answer to who the group were. I think I have exhausted the energy of my simply amazing team of Twitter researchers who have brought me so far along my journey. The possible Latin or Italian one-lettered abbreviations remain undeciphered too. But we do have a likely identity for our graffiti ‘villain': Dr Augusto Diamanti who worked in Pisa, and then in Cairo and we do know precisely where he was, in the company of a group of Italians, on the 28th of October 1849.

Drawing of the Temple at Semna, Sudan in 1835, fourteen years before Augusto Diamanti would change the face of it forever.

Drawing of the Temple at Semna, Sudan in 1835, fourteen years before Augusto Diamanti would change the face of it forever.

I am indebted to the Twitter community for puzzling over this as much as I have, for sifting through the snippets of clues, for not giving up at dead ends, for inspired thinking, for batting ideas around amongst themselves and for tracing further links and glimpses of our rogue, perhaps even in the guise of one of the founders of a series of Italian schools set up in Alexandria in 1899. The story is incomplete and quite frankly there is no evidence Dr Augusto Diamanti is the same as the graffiti artist, but for me, it was more about the joy at puzzling at the riddle with others, spotting links and that great moment when a search pops up with the name you want, in the place you want it, and at the time in history that you’d hoped for. I am walking away for the time being, like an impetuous child with an unfinished jigsaw left on the table but am sure some more fragments will fall into place by the hands of others, or mine, when I find a moment to exercise my curiosity again.

Credit where it is truly due. None of these further ramblings would have come to fruition without the extraordinary help and perseverance of the contributing Tweeters, in particular @GuyChamberland who steered us off the religious path and onto the zoological one. But a huge personal debt of thanks is owed to @Llewelyn_Morgan, @RaphaelCormack, @NGrotum, @ceadela, @richarevans1, @stephenjenkin, @Christine_Mout, @zoe_troy, @Alden_Young, @ale_columbu and @grandma11143 for their patience and intellect as much as for their wit. The wit, it should be noted, came mainly from @BretsTypewriter who provided the takeaway joke.

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After a long note on Augusto Diamanti, a short note on Mr Holroyd is required. He stood out for me as I thought I had two examples of his name: one from Seidenga and one from the temple at Kumma. My passing reference to him caught the eye of one intrepid tweeter, @RaphaelCormack, who instantly alerted me to other another example of his literal handiwork on a monument at Naga and perhaps Aswan too. I was disbelieving until I was showed a photograph of the example from Naga which used the same ‘type font’ as the one seen on the Kumma temple. Unbelievable! My Holroyd rogue was proving to be more villainous than I had thought. And then the same Twitter friend sent me something that suddenly rendered Mr Holroyd still faceless, but totally exposed. Fabulous. And a lovely coincidence that he was a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. Maybe he knew Dr Augusto Diamanti…

The revealing link I was sent can be found here.

Scratching the Surface

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I am sure this title has been used a dozen times in discussion of graffiti but I really mean it. I, along with the ancient graffiti artists, am only scratching the surface and this is not intended as a scholarly investigation on graffiti; just a brief muse on the subject as I have witnessed quite a lot recently, scored onto the surface of ancient monuments in Sudan. Perhaps this is more a name and shame than anything else.

I hate modern graffiti, although I do admit to having an enormous soft spot for the genius of Banksy. I am full of contradiction as I also adore ancient Roman graffiti and have spent time researching the scribbled messages on the walls of the Roman houses in Pompeii that I am studying for my PhD. The often rude and jovial comments etched on the walls of the houses are a wonderful way to connect with the people who once inhabited them. So it’s basically modern spray paint scrawls I disapprove of.

But the abhorrent modern use of ‘tagging’, just as writing your name in full, is a way to leave your mark. Why do any of us feel the need to carve our names onto trees, scratch them onto wooden school desks or spray it on a railway bridge? All we are doing is defacing something and in essence leaving the one clue as to who did it: our names. Why does anyone have an urge to leave a trace of their name for everyone to see and often in a place that will be seen for generations to come? I freely admit that I am guilty of having this urge but I can confess that writing my name in huge letters in a sand dune or scratching it onto the mud section of a trench I dug in Pompeii shortly before it was back filled, feel less permanent than carving a name into stone. The wind blowing over the dune will have erased my name after a few days. But I still did it and I am not entirely sure I can answer why I had a desire to see my name written in a place where others could see it.
It must be something about leaving a mark and wanting others to recognise that you have been there, that you exist and that you will continue to exist in some form as long as the indelible mark is visible. I am sure others have written about this concept in detail but as I said, I am only thinking aloud.

What brought this on was a person called J. Hogg. J. Hogg has not written a seminal paper on the subject, no, they simply carved their name in neat little letters on a perfectly carved stone column drum in the Temple of Tuthmosis III at Soleb in Sudan.

J. Hogg's presence felt in the Temple at Soleb, Sudan.

J. Hogg’s presence felt in the Temple at Soleb, Sudan.

I was busy trying to find an angle to take a photograph and was aware of the delicate reliefs adorning many of the walls of the temple. I wanted one as a foreground object in the shot. This is how I met J. Hogg. Whoever J.Hogg was, they felt the need to emblazon the column with their name and leave it as a sign that they had once stood precisely where I was standing and had patiently scratched away at the stone.

J.Hogg was not alone in this act and there were others who had defaced the temple, in a bizarre way, mimicking the beautiful cartouche of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutmosis III. The classic ‘I woz ‘ere’ statement. The only decent thing J.Hogg did, if we are looking for a positive here, was choose a plain section of the column drum. Small mercies.

On arrival in Khartoum and a visit to the National Museum of Sudan I was struck by the sheer number of recent names that were scored onto the reconstructed temples on display. Given that I am an old romantic at heart, an archaeologist, whose purpose it is to reconnect with past, and as I have said, full of contradiction, there is an inexcusable tiny part of me that gets excited at the connection with, and identification of, another human being. So for a brief moment I find myself captivated by J. Collinson who was evidently at Semna Temple in 1894. I have an immediate simple image in my head of a male traveller (in a totally sexist way I am assuming each of my rogues, are men) wearing a breezy white shirt that has turned a little yellow from the sand and khaki jodhpur type trousers. I am probably not dressing him fashionably correct for 1894, I am giving him a romantic Engish Patient-type desert adventure garb. Oh, he has a pith helmet too. All my 19th century graffiti artists have pith helmets which are usually slumped over their leather satchels whilst they sweat profusely and wipe their foreheads as they carve their names.

J. Collinson 1894 at Semna Temple, Sudan

J. Collinson 1894 at Semna Temple, Sudan

The mental image gets somewhat more complicated when I meet Augusto Diamanti who had spent a fair amount of time at Semna Temple, given the elaborate inscription he carved onto the exterior of the temple on the 28th of October 1849.

Augusto Diamanti at Semna Temple, Sudan

Augusto Diamanti at Semna Temple, Sudan

The name can only be Italian and so is the spelling of October as “Ottobre” so that confirms, that. Being an Italian traveller, I imagine him as more flamboyant than J.Hogg and J.Collinson and certainly his ridiculously complicated carving would suggest his slightly eccentric manner. Perhaps someone can decipher what the exact meaning of his script means but to me it looks as if he is learning words and their endings. A hell of a way to remember them – to spend ages carving them into a Nubian temple. I half want to imagine that he is actually the excavator of the site and this list was meant to last the longevity of a dig season as a constant reminder – hence the elaborate nature of it. It seems a lot of work to casually walk away from.

I was then struck by the number of individuals that had blatantly identified themselves by etching their names, not on blank stones, but across the ancient reliefs. Really quite astounding: the sheer audacity of the graffiti artists thinking that their name, millennia after the stone had been laid, was more important than the delicate carvings that adorned the surface. Yes, Mr Downey, I am looking at you.

W. Downey making his mark felt

W. Downey making his mark felt

And Mr Achmet, you shouldn’t feel too smug either. Single handedly, quite literally, you have ruined this glorious light relief that you must have travelled a fair distance to see.

Achmet single handedly destroyed a great work of art

Achmet single handedly destroyed a great work of art

And that I think is where I have the biggest problem. These travellers ventured out into the wilds of the desert in the 19th century to marvel at the wonders that these temples offered and then thought the best course of action was to deface the beauty they had enjoyed by applying their name to it. I simply cannot marry the desire to visit a site, and one that cannot have been easy to reach, and think “I know, what this monument, with some of the most serene ancient art needs is my name emblazoned across it.”

And I know there there could be more than one Holroyd travelling in Sudan in the late 19th century but I did find his name at Sedeinga and then again on the Temple from Kumma. Different dates admittedly but I would like to think of it as being the same person and that his visit to Sedeinga was brief as his attention to letter formation simply doesn’t have the gravitas given to those in Kumma.

Holroyd in Sedeinga

Holroyd in Sedeinga

Holroyd in Kumma

Holroyd in Kumma

There are plenty of other rogues in my gallery but no point in naming and shaming them all. They are long gone and belonged to a time when the discovery of these sites in the desert must have felt a world away. Perhaps that is why they felt the need to leave their mark – it was a sense of accomplishment at having reached the isolated site that they wanted to share with later travellers. They were essentially treating the stone monuments as a visitors book.

There is now a follow up to this post where the intriguing identity of Augusto Diamanti is potentially revealed and we learn of the further travels of Mr Holroyd… Scratching the Surface… Again

A Tale of Three Cities. 1. Kawa, Sudan

My Sudan Odyssey, which has been updated daily for the last 5 weeks via my Twitter and Flickr accounts (click here to view my photographs) was a record of my travels and adventures through Sudan working in collaboration with the British Museum at three very different archaeological sites: Kawa, Amara West and Dangeil. Working with my colleagues from The British School at Rome, my task was to conduct archaeological geophysical surveys at each of the three cities. For a description of what I mean by ‘geophysical survey’, see my previous blog post here. For more detailed information on each of these British Museum sites click here.

This is my attempt to give a summary of the three cities, not only in terms of their archaeology but of living at each site for 10 days and getting a brief glimpse of local life from the perspective of an outsider with a tendency to see the romantic side and beauty of Sudan.

Kawa. Temple of Taharqa.

Kawa. Temple of Taharqa.

Kawa lies on the east bank of the Nile near the modern town of Dongola – the main crossing point of the Nile on the journey directly north of Khartoum. My first experience of the site was in 2008 when, en route to another site in Sudan, we stopped off to visit Derek Welsby (Assistant Keeper of Archaeology of Sudan and Egyptian Nubia in the British Museum) and his team. In those days the Nile crossing was by ferry but since then, along with a swathe of tarmac roads, a bridge has been built. Crossing by bridge is over in the blink of an eye and lacks all the sense of adventure of navigating the Nile, but I speak purely as a romantic traveller and not for the needs of the locals whose lives have been made easier by this engineered addition to the landscape.

Kawa is a vast site nudged up against the Nile’s edge. From up on the ridge on which the town sprawls the Nile looks majestic and the green strip of vegetation and trees frame it beautifully. Described as the best preserved archaeological site in Sudan, it will come as a shock and certain disappointment to visitors that the reason it can hold this accolade is because the site is buried under 6m of windblown sand. In archaeological terms the sand is the site’s saving grace and protects it from the ravages of strong winds. In tourist terms, it’s just sand.

The city of Kawa was founded by the Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336) in the 14th century BC and was named ‘Gematon’. The earliest excavated remains on site are those of the Temple of Tutankhamun. Kawa was a thriving city but during the reign of the local Kushite Pharaoh Taharqa the various temples had fallen into a state of ruin and he vowed to build a new one. The dimensions of his Amun temple, which sits overlooking that of Tutankhamun, were vast and the building must have dominated the landscape. Of course, all that is hard to imagine now as only one course of stones mark the outline of the edifice. There are rows of wind eroded column drums and the bulk of their circumference help to conjure up the impression of the scale of the monument. I say one course and the odd column drum are visible, but what the mind must not forget is that what we see are the tops of the remains. Below our feet, smothered in metres of fine sand is the intact temple. It is a bewildering phenomenon to feel so close to archaeology and yet be deprived from walking through the temple and admiring the reliefs on the walls and gauging the scale of the towering walls for oneself. It is hard, even for an archaeologist like myself who has worked at Pompeii and have felt a similar sensation there of the depth of remains below the ground level. Even as a geophysicist working daily with the prospect of looking at buried remains as anomalies on a computer screen, I am sometimes left wanting to see the results revealed and find it hard to imagine how it feels to be standing in the rooms and spaces that I have identified. But it is always a tantalising and exciting thought.

For F.L. Griffith of the University of Oxford, it was all too tantalising and so he excavated it between 1921 and 1939. Supposedly with an army of 400 workman, he emptied the temple of sand to reveal its wonders. A ground plan does little to satisfy the curiosity but evocative photographs, taken at the time of the excavations, immediately cause the jaw to slacken.

Griffiths' excavation of the Temple of Taharqa at Kawa. http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/heathcote/image.php?i=50

Griffiths’ excavation of the Temple of Taharqa at Kawa.
http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/heathcote/image.php?i=50

Griffiths' excavations of Kawa. http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/heathcote/image-lrg.php?i=22

Griffiths’ excavations of the Temple of Taharqa at Kawa.
http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/heathcote/image-lrg.php?i=22

Derek Welsby’s British Museum project has shifted focus away from the grand public monuments and aims to address the rather more intriguing question of how the inhabitants of Kawa lived. The mound that now rises 12m above the Nile serves like a Tell site in the sense that new buildings were continually erected over old ones to combat the incessant build up of sand on the city. Thus there is layer upon layer of mud brick construction spanning the centuries until the city was finally abandoned in the 4th century AD. With a straitigraphy that deep and complex there must be answers as to the changing ways of life – the only challenge being to race against the sand that reclaims the standing remains even within a season of excavation. It is hard to imagine this process until, like me, you have endured a sandstorm on site. Then, it is all too easy to see how quickly windblown sand moves and fills every empty sheltered spot including between the slices of bread of my sandwich. It is a dramatic event to be exposed to and even more so when you are trying to push a rather cumbersome cart containing a ground-penetrating radar across already soft sand. But with gritted teeth, or rather grit in our teeth, we persisted.

When we were not being sand blasted, the working conditions at Kawa were wonderful. A view over the Nile and lunches taken amongst the ruins of Taharqa’s temple were pretty blissful. On the horizon there was the constant movement of Sudanese workmen lugging buckets and wheelbarrows of sand from the excavations and below us the shimmer of the Nile, the constant gaze of an inquisitive camel and the odd passer by.

A passer by looks on.

A passer by looks on.

View of the Nile from Kawa.

View of the Nile from Kawa.

Days were spent pushing the georadar back and forth across the sand aiming to cover a large area and reveal the extent of buildings not visible on the surface. It is a tedious task, I will be honest, but data collection has to be methodical and repetitive to reap the benefits. Thus we relentlessly swap over in order to push our wheeled cart across the site.

GPR survey at Kawa

GPR survey at Kawa

Meanwhile, life back in the dig house was serene. We would arrive back from work at 5:30 to find the pottery and finds people cross legged on the floor drawing and recording decorated pottery or at a bench delicately sticking the sherds of an ancient broken ceramic vessel back together to gauge the nature of the complete vessel. A cat or two would be lazing in the warm glow of the afternoon sun and that scene, framed by the porch, seemed as though it was unchanged since Griffiths’ day.

The finds porch at the dig house at Kawa

The finds porch at the dig house at Kawa

Finds from the excavations waiting to be processed

Finds from the excavations waiting to be processed

The dig house, like all North Sudanese architecture, was a wonderful blend of inside is outside and outside is inside. Life mainly happens on the porches or verandas, and bedrooms have so many windows that they are airy and often feel like you are sleeping outside as the wind ruffles your mosquito net. There is a real inside out feel to the buildings and it works to keep the coolness of air movement coupled with the shade of a roof. Sometimes the inside out sensation is taken to extremes. I basically had a small sand dune in the doorway of my bedroom which seemed intentional but meant flip-flopping back from a warm shower involved careful manoeuvring or else an untimely flip or flop would result in sand being kicked up a damp foot and leg and memories of unsuccessfully leaving a beach after a last swim, flooded back.

Part of the routine of returning from work was the essential buying of a fizzy drink from the local shop. If I went out to get them for the team I, camera in hand, was easily distracted by the local colours, shapes and inhabitants. The village where we were staying had a grace and peace about it. Dappled light lit the streets through the trees and under every tree was a water amphora gently dripping from its underbelly onto a patch of grass beneath. The colours of the doors and windows were mainly hues of cooling blue and soft greens and wide streets, with the mastabas where people sat and talked, all had a gentle relaxed feel. Almost soporific.

The wide sleepy streets of the local village

The wide sleepy streets of the local village

Drinking water amphorae under the shade of a tree

Drinking water amphorae under the shade of a tree

My supposedly short trip to the shop was further delayed by the people of the village who swayed elegantly through the streets insisting you take their photo. “Sura, Sura!” (“photo, photo!”) was their gentle, happy cry and I could only oblige. They would thrust children in front of me and I was to photograph them. They would be all smiles and giggles before and after the photo but posing for the camera they would become upright and sullen faced. Photographs are a serious business. All I could do after the deed was done was show them the tiny image captured on the back of my camera and I wondered what they wanted me to do with it. They would giggle, laugh and point at the image, call their friends over and then elegantly sway off. Children were generally fascinated by my camera and to their credit most of them were simply natural beauties and unknowingly, incredibly photogenic.

Girl in the local village at Kawa

Girl in the local village at Kawa

It may have only been a 10 day stay but in that time, I managed to feel at home on site, in the dig house and in the village where the welcome was most warm. Some home comforts were not unappreciated. A shower and a constant electricity supply were the major two bonuses and their presence gently eased us into our Sudanese life. Next we were going to an island in the Nile where neither of these facilities would be available. The next city to be surveyed was Amara West, further north and only reachable by boat.

Sand storm morning at Kawa

Sand storm morning at Kawa

Sudan. The Acropole Hotel, Khartoum

The brass sign of the Acropole Hotel

The brass sign of the Acropole Hotel

After a restful 3 and a half hours sleep I awoke to a phone bleating in my ear. It was George.

George Pagoulatos is the owner of the Acropole Hotel, the oldest hotel in Khartoum. George runs the hotel along with his 2 brothers, Thanasis and Mike, and now George’s nephew, Pablos. George is Sudanese by birth but of Greek descent and his father, Panaghis, founded the hotel in 1952 after having left his poverty striken homeland of Greece in the last years of World War Two. The hotel started with just 10 rooms and all the furnishings were brought from their own home. Ambitious in the face of adversity, George’s father expanded the hotel and the family businesses while his mother held the family together. In 1970, disaster struck as President Nimieri nationalised Sudanese industry and foreign business abandoned the country and so taking with it, the clientele of the Acropole. The Pagoulatos family stayed. By 1973, the country was facing bankruptcy and the President was soon begging foreigners to invest once more. The lean years were over and the Acropole once more thrived with the return of guests.

After the death of their father the brothers took up the mantle of the running of the hotel. By then it was a 50 roomed establishment with its own liquor store and confectionary shop. It served foreigners with a wide range of professions: journalists, aid organisations, NGOs and even spies according to a friend of the journalist Edward Girardet. The hotel had a roof top terrace where they held regular film screenings and George’s mother, despite her frailty, still organised the running of the kitchen and laundry.

In 1983 Islamic Law was imposed and the liquor store was closed. The Acropole ceased to be the distribution centre of Amstel Beer in Sudan and their prosperity was reliant on the success of the hotel. Success came, in the form of a rush of guests to The Acropole; relief workers and journalists tied up with helping and reporting on the drought in Ethiopia and Sudan flocked to Khartoum. The Pagoulatos family were suddenly caught up in the middle of a human disaster and they responded as only they knew how: not only helping their guests but helping the entire relief organisation and distribution of aid to their famine striken country. George and his brothers have evidently inherited the courageous and adventurous nature of their parents. Bob Geldof visited Sudan in the early 1980’s and the Pagoulatos family were there to help. Behind his desk in the hotel office, George has a framed personal note from Geldof humouring the owner as to the future success of the hotel.

George, as ever on the phone organising the next 'rescue' mission

George, as ever on the phone organising the next ‘rescue’ mission

In 1988 the hotel was targeted by a Hamas terrorist attack and Thanasis, the oldest of the brothers, remembers seeing a man run into the hotel and then dash out again. Naturally, Thanasis went to see if the man was ok and at that moment a bomb went off destroying the hotel, killing 7 people and injuring many others. Thanasis has difficulty hearing after the bomb blast but he and his brothers survived. And drawing on their ambition and sheer determination the brothers set up The Acropole Hotel in new premises across the street.

The new premises of the Acropole Hotel

The new premises of the Acropole Hotel

And that is where they are to be found today. Behind an inconspicuous doorway and up a staircase you enter into a haven that is The Acropole. But as an archaeologist travelling to Sudan for the first time in 2008, I felt like I had met George before I had even got to the hotel. I was bringing geophysical survey equipment into the country. A smart black box containing a piece of kit that by virtue of its unfamiliarity with most people looks incredibly suspicious. And in Khartoum airport amidst the simple luggage of others it stood out as looking highly suspicious. But George had sent a contact of his. He scooped us up and started the gentle process of negotiation; oiling the way for me to fill in the gaps with what it was, what it did and why on earth a woman would be travelling with such a odd suitcase. George’s man was cool, and unflappable. It made you feel the same. He had the effect of making you feel safe and reassured which at 4am in a foreign land with unknown protocols was just about the best feeling you could have. George’s reach to make you feel protected had stretched beyond the walls of his hotel. It took time to let us pass, but pass we did and with our kit in tow which was not everyone’s experience. Numerous archaeological missions had had equipment impounded for days. Not us, we were soon all packed into a car and on our way.
On arrival at The Acropole a tall, impeccably presented man with a silver tinge to his hair glided into view. George. To be in his company is to feel like a wave of calm washing over you. He beamed a huge smile and welcomed us. He showed us to our rooms and told us to sleep until whenever we wanted. There was a peace and tranquility to his words that just felt soporific. It worked. We awoke late the next morning and even though breakfast was long finished, George prepared a table on the terrace and slowly a series of turbaned staff began shuffling passed delivering us a four course breakfast with strong coffee. The bustle of the street below us seemingly worlds away.
Then George springs into action. Registration, travel permits, photography permits, travel plans, changing money… All need to be done and suddenly George turns into an efficient machine. This is a far cry from the gentle man that met us the night before but this transition is what he is legendary for. You don’t organise the relief work to save your country by simply having a big smile, a nice demeanour and a calm nature. This effiency, determination, and organisational skill are what accomplishes that.

Returning from the desert The Acropole is a paradise of home comforts and George resumes his gliding calmness to welcome you back. He figuratively dusts you down from your adventures and allows you to stop thinking and relax. I was flaked out on one of the sofas in the lobby of the hotel when George swooped in with a tray and handed me a chocolate ice-cream. How did he know that to tuck into a rich, cold, sweet chocolate dessert was the most perfect thing that could have happened at that precise moment? His experience and understanding is immaculate.

But his capacity to make you feel like you are cushioned in a comforting world that cannot be touched is not his only strength. Where he thrives is dealing with challenges. To him a challenge is “fun” and in essence is what keeps him going.
I think the following quote from Wikipedia succinctly sums up what I getting at:

“When notorious filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s helicopter crashed in the Nuba mountains, the Pagoulatos brothers found her a Sudan Airways captain and plane to rescue her and the crew, and had an ambulance waiting at the airport.”

Need I say more? Probably not necessary. George and his brothers have done so many personal favours to so many that I am sure everyone leaves The Acropole feeling as if they have had special treatment. And they would be right in thinking that. We may not all need rescuing from a plane crash but in each individual case, the Pagoulatos family will have made their guests feel like they have been saved in whatever way was personal to them.

My experience of being saved by George came only once I had returned to Rome after a 2 week season of archaeological survey work on Sai Island in the north of Sudan. As I waited for the luggage to come through at Fiumicino our bags arrived but not our equipment. A trip to outsized luggage offered no reward and suddenly the onset of panic filtered through my system. First stop was the airline help desk where, unable to pick a photo matching the description of the lost box from a series of identikit images of regular suitcases, I had the sensation this was a lost cause. That, and the fact the member of staff “helping” me was more intent on the conversation she was having with a friend on her mobile than she was me, who was clearly in the early stages of blind panic.
I was given a number to phone and they would find the case. 2 days of phoning and no sleep through worry and anxiety and more importantly no success by the airline to retrieve the case and there was only one person who could possibly help me. A hotel owner in Khartoum.
I phoned George and just hearing his voice reassured me something would be done. Quite unlike any sensation I had in Rome airport. He called back a few hours later. He had personally gone to Khartoum airport and used his charm and basically magic powers and had located my case which was still sitting in a hanger at the airport. He had overseen its carriage on the next flight to Rome and all was in hand. Of course it was. This was George. I am not sure I can ever express the relief and joy of those words filtering through my phone whilst on a tram in Rome. I just burst out crying much to the surprise of my fellow travellers. A weary and stressed archaeologist had just been rescued by a man who owns a hotel in Khartoum.

I owe a debt of thanks to George and his brothers, not only for reuniting me with my survey equipment but for every softly spoken word of reassurance, for everything they fix without any sign of being ruffled, for the timeliness of an ice cream, for the warm welcomes and for doing it all without a second thought as if it the most natural thing in the world. When I consider the hardship they have endured without complaint, all I can do is hope that one day I can help them.

Edward Girardet’s friend also told him “you’ve got to go to the Acropole Hotel… it really is the only place to stay”. It sounds like a friendly traveller’s tip but what lies behind that statement is far more.

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Sources:
Edward Girardet:
http://www.csmonitor.com/1985/0708/okhart.html

Elizabeth Rudin
http://www.bidoun.org/magazine/07-tourism/khartoums-hotel-acropole-by-elizabeth-rubin/

Alaa Shahine
http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/11/07/us-sudan-hotel-idUSTRE4A65Z220081107

Sudan. What I do on my “holidays”

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After having provided an absurdly detailed account of how we got to Sudan, it seems prudent to explain why we are actually here.

The British Museum has a long history of excavations in Sudan and there are currently a few projects underway stretched out between the second and fifth cataracts on the Nile. Far from being just a sight disorder, cataracts describe the phenomena along the Nile where the flow of water is disrupted by rock and boulder-filled areas. The water becomes shallow and rapids can result. There are 6 of these transitional zones along the Nile and the word cataract derives from Greek and means ‘down-rushing’ or ‘waterfall’.

Nubia is filled with archaeological remains but are less famous and certainly less visited than the similar remains in Egypt. We shall be working at three sites: Amara West, Kawa and Dangeil.
For more information on all these sites see the British Museum web pages here.

We will be doing geophysics in the form of ground-penetrating radar survey to find the remains of the settlements and cemeteries at these sites.
For those of you who I lost at “ground-penetrating”, our piece of equipment, often referred to as simply ‘georadar’, is a machine that emits radio waves into the ground from an antenna and measures the time it takes for that wave to bounce back to the reciever on the same piece of kit. If there is nothing buried in the ground the wave will simply keep travelling down, slowly attenuating (disappating) with depth and never bounce back to the reciever. If however there is a buried feature such as an ancient wall (I chose that example as I am an archaeologist who spends most of their life looking for ancients walls) the wave will hit the surface of the wall and bounce back to the reciever. The time taken for this process is measured and will have a different reading from those areas where the wave failed to be returned to the machine. All we are doing is viewing the relative difference between where there are buried remains and where there are none. We can then visualise the data in plan form or in vertical sections through the earth so we can not only establish the shape and form of the buried feature but also its depth below the surface of the ground.
To many, the equipment looks like a lawn mower when we use it outside in a field and resembles a Hoover should we be surveying the interior of a building, say a church. We are used to comments relating to both descriptions and have resigned ourselves to the fact we get mocked.

Amara West is directed by Neal Spencer (Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum) and I have blissfully happy memories of working at this site. It lies to the west of of the Nile near Abri and the settlement was once the administrative capital of Upper Nubia known as Kush.
I have done two seasons of geophysics at this site with stunning results.
Click here for more information on the geophysical survey

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The town of Amara West with satellite suburbs. (Picture courtesy of The British Museum)

Magnetometry or gradiometry, is another geophysical survey technique. Our kit looks a little like something out of Star Wars and measures tiny changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. Everything has a small magnetic value even us humans. Material that has been fired, such as brick and tile have high magnetic values whereas limestone has a very low value. Ferrous material has an inordinately high value. Again, all we measure is the relative changes of these magnetic values as we walk across the site. In the example above from Amara West, the results show the lines of high readings (black) which denote the presence of mud brick walls surrounded by low readings (light grey) of wind blown sand. The contrast is stark and are perhaps some of the best conditions for magnetic surveys.

So what I do on my “holidays” (however hard I try to explain that when I visit far flung locations I am actually working, people refuse to believe I am on anything other than a holiday) is walk up and down in lines across a potential archaeological site in search of buried buildings. To the passer by I look as if I am simply walking in a empty field, or in the case of Sudan, an empty desert, as often nothing can be seen on the surface. But when results reveal a buried past you begin to appreciate that you may never look at a seemingly empty field in the same way.

Kawa is directed by Derek Welsby (Assistant Keeper, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum). With a history of settlement since the 14th century BC Kawa is one of the best preserved sites in Sudan. In conjunction with the Sudan Archaeological Research Society, the British Museum team has been excavating widely within the town with a focus on understanding what was life like in Kawa 3,000 and 2,000 years ago.

Dangeil is directed by Julie Anderson (Assistant Keeper (curator), Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum). Focusing on the settlement and cemeteries of the Late Kushite period (3rd century BC -4th century AD) the project is aiming to re-evaluate the life of this well preserved site.

Sudan. Day 1. Getting there

I knew we were going to have problems at the airport with our geophysics kit. No trip that I have done to Khartoum has passed without some stressful moment at Khartoum airport dealing with customs at 4am. It’s always just at the moment when travel weariness is setting in and the sudden adrenaline rush to deal with the situation is like a drug that bounces you back to life. I am prepared for it. In a way it’s just become wrapped up with arriving in Sudan. What I was not prepared for were the problems in Rome airport.

I should start by thanking the Egypt Air staff profusely for rallying around to help me. The problems I was facing were all self-inflicted. Transporting a piece of valuable geophysical equipment means you want to do you utmost to protect it in transit. So you buy a massive box to pop it into and are helpfully told the box’s weight so you can spend ages packing and weighing every last detail to stay within the airline guidelines of weight allowance. Good. Perfect even, unless of course the weight of the box is actually about 10 kilos heavier than the specifications indicated and that this is only made apparent at the airport, standing over some scales with an official watching you. In these instances you are screwed. I was certainly screwed.

I had a box containing some expensive kit and the only way to get the lot on board a plane was to empty the box and send the costly and delicate kit separately. A truly moronic situation for which I take the blame although I will forever regard the weighing scales at the BSR as incapable of doing the one function they were designed for: namely that of accurately weighing items placed on them. It took 2 hours of discussion, trips back and forth to the scales (conveniently at the far end of the airport to the check-in desk), smiles, looks of utter despair, head grasping, seeking alternatives, more despair and a lot of discussions with a lot of kind members of staff before they summoned the big boss of the world, or so it seemed by the way they spoke of him.

He appeared as a huge, slow-moving figure of a man boasting more width than height, although he was very tall too. He was shaking his head before he had even greeted us. He needed to authorise the transit of an enormous box that weighed too much. Empty. I was soon informed that the box was also too big (not that they specify on their website, nor when you phone them up and ask, what the maximum dimensions are for outsized luggage).
The boss was shaking his head at the large box and I was busy shaking my head at the equipment which was now in disarray on the floor of the airport without the protection offered by the box. I turn from smiley face to desperate despair face. And then I remember a change in the facial expression of one of the officials when he had asked me what we were doing in Sudan and I had responded “working with the British Museum”. He had suddenly made himself a little taller and smiled a smug smile. “Ahhh the British Museum” he replied “very good. Very important”. I am not one for *ahem* name dropping but when in desperate circumstances… So I name drop to the boss that we are working for the British Museum in Sudan and suddenly the shaking head turns into a nodding one. Suddenly he was fishing out ‘fragile’ stickers, slapping them on our kit and sending us on our merry way.

I say merry… I have paid for an empty box to journey with us and simultaneously placed the critical, expensive equipment in the hold covered in green wrapping, offering the protective strength of clingfilm. If this works it will be a miracle. If it doesn’t I’m screwed even more than I was.

I owe a debt of thanks to the British Museum for being such a globally respected institution that the mere mention of its name has the effect of transforming a situation impossible to one that is more than possible. Thank you.

Arriving in Khartoum to that almost sickly sweet smell as you walk off the plane is actually reassuring. Luggage all arrived and on inspection customs were interested in 4 of our bags which they mark with a cross. Unsurprisingly the georadar, magnetometer and monitor are all of interest. What was slightly surprising was their interest in our empty box. Maybe because it seemed implausible that anyone would travel with a huge empty trunk of a box so I will give them credit for being suspicious or just thinking us plain barmy. You can try and do paperwork in advance of your trip and I certainly specified every serial number of every piece of electronic kit we have. But, should you give these numbers to a succession of others a form of Chinese whispers begins and the end result bears precious little similarity to what you began with. Hence 3 hours of discussing the equipment, trying to explain the slightly odd spelling of all the technical names and attempting to brush over small detail that every serial number differed. With the help of a local set by George* from the Acropole we convinced the confused officials and now everyone in Khartoum airport has a fairly decent idea of how to undertake a geophysical survey of archaeological remains. My coup was haggling the price for the deposit. Being British I am not supposed to be good at haggling and the Monty Python beard and gourd scene from Life of Brian haunts me. But at 5:30am apparently my haggling skills come into their own and the deposit I left for the kit was considerably smaller than the one initially proposed. So, slightly down in pocket, tired of negotiating but chuffed that my few words in Arabic seem to amuse airport officials we, with all our kit left the airport. No mean feat. A short taxi ride later and we arrived at the haven that is the Acropole Hotel.

*more about the legendary George anon.

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