An ongoing archeological dig in Sudan conducted by a University researcher may unearth discoveries about an ancient Nubian city.
Geoff Emberling, a research scientist at the University’s Museum of Archeology, began the excavation on Jan. 2 and is working with several Sudanese professors. They are looking to find traces of settlements in El-Kurru, a 3,000 year-old political center in the African kingdom of Kush.
Derek Peterson, professor of History and Afro-American and African Studies, said researching Kush settlements may transform the way scholars approach African history. Historically, scholars have struggled to connect ancient Egyptian civilization to the rest of Africa.
“In the study of Kush we can begin to understand the routes by which ideas, commodities, symbols and people moved from north to south and back again, drawing Egypt into a close relationship with the rest of ancient Africa,” Peterson said.
El-Kurru’s pyramids and burial grounds were excavated in the early 20th century by American archaeologist George Reisner.
Emberling said Reisner’s notes indicate that structures, including a 200 meter-long wall, a rock-cut well and two temples, did exist, though Reisner did not excavate them. The structures are invisible today, likely due to unusually high flooding of the Nile River during the 1980s.
Emberling’s fieldwork is sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Kathleen Picken, a private donor from Chicago.
National Geographic requires Emberling to maintain a blog about his dig, detailing his ongoing discoveries and daily life.
Emberling has made five trips to Sudan, beginning in 2007 after a dam was planned to be built in the Nile that would have flooded 100 miles of the river valley. If archeologists hadn’t intervened, Sudanese artifacts would have been lost.
“It was an international effort,” Emberling said. “You would think that there are no foreigners here, but it’s actually a boom time to archaeology in Sudan.”
Thankfully, the Sudanese government is allowing archaeologists to bring back objects they discover.
“It’s rare to have material to look at and bring back,” Emberling said. “They’re entitled to keep everything. Sudan has been very generous in that way.”
Due to a 20-year-old international sanction, Emberling was required to appeal to the U.S. government for his projects, proving his reasons to work in Sudan were not related to terrorism. Emberling said he didn’t hear back from the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce for over a year.
He noted that he also had some difficulties of traveling around Sudan.
“Sudan’s infrastructure of roads are only very recently up to modern standards,” Emberling said. “Just in the five years since I first came to Sudan they’ve completed bridges and roads.”
New archaeology technologies in Sudan parallel its infrastructure. Subsurface methods like magnetometry, which records variations in the magnetic field resulting from objects up to 15 feet underground, are new in Sudan, despite their prevalence elsewhere.
“Some of the satellite image analysis is quite sophisticated,” Emberling said. “But other parts of our toolkit are really old school: shovels and wheelbarrows, paper and pencil, and tape measure and ruler. At some point we might be all-digital, but we’re not there yet.”
Another tool is as “old school” as it gets: tales from the townspeople. Emberling said though they may seem farfetched, the stories sometimes point to new discoveries.
Tradition and technology work in tandem in Emberling’s fieldwork. A resident pointed out to Emberling where he thought the city wall and the royal bath might be. A magnetometry survey conducted by Emberling’s colleague, Salah el Din Mohammed, confirmed there was in fact an ancient building in the location where villagers recalled the royal bath’s location.
Emberling noted the peculiarity of trying to discover an ancient city in a still-inhabited village like El-Kurru.
“It’s funny digging in a living village. I spent the day digging through a modern garbage pit through razor blades, plastic bags, batteries,” Emberling said. “It wasn’t pleasant but it had to be done.”
Emberling said he will return to Ann Arbor by the end of February after the six-week digging season. If his fieldwork yields results, he will plan for a trip next year to investigate findings more thoroughly.
“For me to have a good season — and it’s looking pretty good — I would have to locate several of these monumental remains, and I would have to dig all the way to the bottom of them, so I’ll know what I’m up against for next year,” Emberling said.
Historians, too, are eager to see what Emberling and the 30-some other archeologists laboring in Sudan will find. Findings of Kush culture proposes that ancient Africa is more complex than previously imagined.
“Thanks to the work of archaeologists like Dr. Emberling, we’re learning that the story is actually much more complicated,” Peterson said. “Kush’s culture, religion and politics were not simply derived from Egypt.”