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.

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One thought on “Sudan. What I do on my “holidays”

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Three Cities. 1. Kawa, Sudan | Sophie Hay

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