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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.