First Published: 2007-03-19

 
Sudan archeology flourishes before flood
 

Archeologists work against clock to rescue entire swathe of Nile Valley heritage from rising waters of dam.

 

Middle East Online

By Jean-Marc Mojon - MEROWE, Sudan

Picture of Royal pyramids

Sudan's archaeology is finally stepping out of Egypt's shadow as teams work against the clock to rescue an entire swathe of Nile Valley heritage from the rising waters of a Chinese-built dam.

"The paradox is that, yes, an entire area is being wiped off the map but thanks to the rescue project, Sudanese archaeology is being put on the map," said Sudan's antiquities chief Salah Ahmed.

The Merowe dam is a controversial hydro-electric project - one of the largest in Africa - being erected on the Nile's fourth cataract and due to start flooding the valley over more than 100 miles (160 kilometres) within months.

Archaeologists admit that an incalculable amount of information will be forever lost.

But the largest archaeological rescue project since the Nubian campaign launched in the 1960s during the construction of the Aswan dam in southern Egypt has unearthed heritage that would likely have remained untapped.

"This area was completely unknown to archaeologists, it was a missing chapter in Sudan's history and nobody was planning to go there because it's very hard from a logistical point of view," Ahmed said.

Sudan's pre-Christian civilisations built more pyramids than the Egyptians but have received little attention since being defeated by Egyptian warrior Pharaoh Tuthmosis I (15 century BC).

"Of course, there is no Abu Simbel here," said Ahmed, in reference to the massive temples originally carved out of the mountain under the reign of Ramses II and relocated as part of a monumental transfer when the Aswan dam was built.

But teams of archaeologists from Britain, France, Germany, Poland and a dozen other countries have been relentlessly searching the fertile Nile river banks near Merowe for at least five years now and made some significant discoveries.

Some of the artefacts found in the soon to be flooded area enabled archaeologists to redefine the borders of ancient kingdoms, such as Kerma which ruled part of Nubia between 2,500 and 1,500 BC.

"We found very rich Kerma occupation farther upstream, extending the frontiers of this important kingdom by more than 200 kilometres (120 miles)," Ahmed said.

"We also found for the first time in the fourth cataract area the foundations of a pyramid, with Meroitic ceramics. This gives political importance to the area because it shows someone important was buried there."

Funerary archaeology in the area also benefits from exceptional chronological continuity, offering experts a rare chance to retrace historical developments.

"The fourth cataract is very interesting for the study of transitional periods, which are often shrouded in mystery and uncertainty," said Vincent Francigny, a resident archaeologist at France's Khartoum-based SFDAS institute.

Only a tiny fraction of the vast area has been excavated and archaeologists, currently wrapping up their season, will have little time left to make more discoveries before the waters start rising.

In addition to scorching heat and accessibility problems, there is simmering tension between the government and local communities being evicted by the dam's growing reservoir.

The Manasir tribe, whose entire heartland will be submerged, has recently expelled foreign archaeologists, whom they accuse of helping the Khartoum regime put an acceptable face on the dam project.

Ahmed explained that a system had been agreed upon whereby a part of the artefacts recovered from the Merowe area will be handed to the teams that found them.

"Small samples can leave abroad, especially when an item exists in several copies," Ahmed said, a soft-spoken French-educated archaeologist less accustomed to the limelight than his flamboyant Egyptian counterpart Zahi Hawass.

While Egypt has aggressively promoted the recovery of artefacts housed by museums abroad and continues to play host to bitter rivalries between foreign concessions, Sudanese archaeology is enjoying a golden age of cooperation.

"All the teams work together. Archaeology is not a competition here but more like a family, which got even tighter with the fourth cataract," Francigny said.

The dam's completion will mark the end of an unprecedented period of intensive archaeology in Sudan but the lake will also swallow up countless artefacts and major Christian-era fortresses.

By the time the final exhibition retracing years of Merowe archaeological excavations takes place in the Chinese-built hall by the dam in November 2008, "the beauty of the fourth cataract will also be lost forever," Ahmed said.

One more thing will haunt some archaeologists however when the water covers the area: the thought that sitting under the dam's millions of tons of water and concrete may be a Sudanese Rosetta stone.

However unlikely, a discovery similar to that made by the French in northern Egypt in 1799 would help unlock the mystery of Meroitic, one of the world's few undeciphered scripts, which appeared in the area around 25 centuries ago.

Ahmed explained that fourth cataract finds have so far made no significant contribution to understanding the Meroitic language. "Unless, of course, there is a Rosetta stone. But if I found it, I wouldn't tell anyone."

The stone, a basalt tablet bearing inscriptions, provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

 

Vote or boycott: Grim record of self-serving politicians puts off voters in Tunisia

For Sudan President: Promises are something and re-election is something else

Egypt universities tighten security to avoid new Islamist violence

Rise of Shiite militias challenges government authority in Iraq

How to overcome Qatar heat? FIFA boss prefers winter World Cup in 2022

Protests over IS turn Istanbul University into war zone

Turkey eyes stricter punishment against lawbreakers at protests

Iran returns Abadi to ‘house of obedience’

From traditional military to counterinsurgency force: Syria army grows more capable

South Sudan rivals accept 'responsibility' for civil war

British drones in Iraq also used for Syria surveillance

Turkey launches new wave of wire-tapping arrests

Syria Kurds show impressive resistance to ‘Islamic State’ in Kobane

Iran forces inside Iraq as Abadi rules out foreign ground intervention!

South Sudan rivals meet in new bid to end civil war

From Morocco into Spain: Crowd of African migrants charges to border fence

Deadly suicide attack targets Shiite mosque in central Baghdad

Turkey gives Iraq Peshmerga forces passage to Kobane

Israel to supply Egypt with natural gas despite sabotage

Kerry seeks help of Southeast Asia in anti-Islamic State push

Qaeda inflicts heavy losses on Huthi rebels in central Yemen

US carries out first weapon airdrops to Kurd fighters near Kobane

Benghazi violence kills 75 people in five days

Morocco accuses Algeria of firing on civilians across border

Australia finalises deal for deployment of Special Forces to Iraq

Tunisia calls on Libya authorities to locate missing journalists

Turkey rejects calls to arm ‘terrorist’ Kurdish party in Syria

Western powers threaten sanctions against hostile actors in Libya

New deadly terrorist attack targets Egypt army in Sinai

‘Islamic State’ suffers heavy losses in Syria battleground of Kobane

After full formation of Iraq government, time comes to visit Iran

UN appeals for four-day truce in Western Libya

Gaza tunnel collapses before demolition: At least 3 Egypt soldiers dead

Erdogan begins one-day visit to Afghanistan

After weeks of delay, Iraq gets new security ministers

Diplomats scold Turkey over ambiguous relation with Islamic State

Lebanon pleads for Iran military aid to fight Islamic State

Kurds repulse new jihadist attempt to cut off Syria town

Huthi rebels meet fierce resistance in Yemen Sunni areas

Former Iraqi pilots train IS to fly Syria fighter jets

Two Millstones Drowning America into Premature Oblivion

Iraqi forces launch anti-IS operation north of Tikrit

Ben Ali cohorts planning comeback in Tunisia polls

Battle for Libya's Benghazi heats up

Kurdish fighters still holding out in Syria's Kobane