January 6, 2012

Sudan: About the excavation

Since I’ve been digging here three weeks already, I can finally tell
you about the excavation. I will introduce our crew:
Anna, my Italian friend, the other bioarchaeologist; Ruth, an English
archaeologist and PhD student looking at Nubian pottery; Sarah, a
Belgian archaeologist who grew up in Africa; our director, who looks a
bit like Asterix; and his wife, who studies the pottery from Kawa,
another big site nearby. We also have a cook, Mohammed, and an
inspector from the Antiquities department. Every Monday through
Thursday and Saturday we go to the site with 14 workmen from the village,
one of whom speaks English. Friday is their day off, as it’s the
Muslim Shabbat and some of them go to the mosque. (We go to the site without the workmen on Fridays). Although I bought a book and tapes to learn Arabic before I left, the pronunciation is quite different here from the Saudi Arabic in the book.

Our director has been digging in this area for over 20 years, trying
to put together a picture of ancient Nubia. I only know about one
period of Nubian prehistory (it’s “prehistory” up to about 800 BCE
since they didn’t have a writing system), Kerma, which just happens to
be what we’re digging up; I wrote my masters’ thesis on Kerma skeletal material. Kerma is divided into four time periods:
Ancient, Classical, Middle, and Recent. There aren’t specific dates
for each period, but Ancient Kerma starts at 3000 BCE and Recent Kerma
ends at 1500 BCE, when the capital city of Kerma was attacked and the
people became subject to the Egyptian conquest. The city of Kerma is
known in Egyptian texts as Kush, and I believe I’ve heard this word
somewhere in Hebrew as well. Further south was the land of Punt
(Ethiopia), where the Biblical Queen of Sheba came from. We don’t
really know too much about the Kerma people except that they fought
with the Egyptians; the Egyptians believed that naming your enemy gave
them power, so they were left out of historical texts. However, we know that Egypt
definitely traded with Kerma – evidence for this is found all over
Egypt, in the gold, ostrich shells, and animal hides that were traded
for Egyptian wheat and pottery and luxury items (as is the case now,
materials were taken out of Africa, processed elsewhere, and sold back
to them.)

Archaeology is of particular importance when a culture doesn’t have a
writing system. We use the artifacts of people’s daily lives and the
way they treated their dead to understand their lives and beliefs. The
Egyptians (who had a complex writing system), for example, made it
pretty clear what they wanted from death: a smooth entry into the
afterlife, which was filled with offerings to the gods and reunion
with family, and also a monument so that future generations can
remember their grandeur. Others are less simple. For an exercise,
think about your own culture’s burial practices. 20th-century America
has a tradition of elaborate lead coffins, marble headstones, and no
grave goods. Jews, on the other hand, prefer simple coffins and
undecorated headstones. Does this imply a difference in belief? In
social class? In how the individual was viewed by the community? In
belief in the soul, life after death, and the physical body? In recent
years, some poorer young Americans have been buried with modern grave
goods – in many cases, electronics such as an iPod or cellphone. Does
this mean they are more materialistic? Or that they are more connected
to their friends or their passions? The sad fact about analyzing
ancient burials is that we ask the same questions but can barely begin
to answer them. The people in our cemetery were buried in a leather
shroud colored with ochre, sometimes accompanied by a ceramic pot, and
sometimes wearing jewelry. Does this mean they were all equals in
life? Or did the community believe in the equality of death? Graves
from the city of Kerma suggest a social hierarchy, since there are
huge multi-chambered burials, where one “big man” is buried with
sometimes hundreds of other people. Were they his family, deciding to
die along with him? Were they servants, killed at the funeral? What we
glean from this is that the main man must have been some sort of king
or chief who commanded enough respect (or fear) that he could take
hundreds of people to the grave with him.
And here’s where Anna and I come in. We are bioarchaeologists, which
means that we look at bones to assess features of culture that aren’t
visible any other way. When there’s no DNA left, we can look at the
bumps on people’s teeth to see how related they are; we can compare
heights in a population to compare childhood nutrition; and we can
examine a whole cemetery to compose a profile of the population (among
other things). For my thesis, I examined the tibias (shin bones) of
two groups – one Kerma and one Meroitic – to find any differences in
activity, and found that the legs of Kerma men and women were similar
to each other, but Meroitic legs diverged between sexes, indicating
that the Meroitic men were doing a lot more walking/running/jumping
than Meroitic women, but Kermans were more equal.

Every day we leave at 6:50 am for the site. We drive through the
village, across some small farms, and then out into the desert. It’s
too dark to read in the car in the morning, but I really like to watch
the scenery as the sun comes up. I’ve figured out that on the days
with the most colorful sunrises, it’s going to be particularly windy –
it’s the dust in the air that makes sunrises so beautiful! We always
pass a series of sand dunes at about 7:30, which means we’re getting
close to the site. It’s really just desert out there, no trees, no
bushes, no goats. The site, a mound about 2 meters high and 20 by 20
meters square, suddenly pops up out of nowhere.

The Nile used to have multiple branches in this area, and what is now
desert used to be lush islands. You can still see the dried-up
riverbeds as dips in the desert, and there is still water underground;
all you need to do to have a nice little farm is sink a well. There
are, in fact, two such wells (installed by the government) within 100
meters of the site, which puts it in danger of becoming farmland in
the near future. Under a thin layer of sand is alluvial soil, which is
rich for farming (and makes us very dirty). The mound didn’t used to
be a mound, either – it was ground level! Once the Nile branch dried
up, the wind swept away the alluvial soil to places as far away as
England and placed the sand on top. Since the cemetery was covered in
rocks, the soil was weighted down and didn’t blow away. There were a
few lovely sandstone rings over large graves when we arrived, some
with the stones still standing upright. (Imagine a five-inch tall
Stonehenge.) Unfortunately, I accidentally kicked over some of them
when I wasn’t being very careful. The first few days involved a lot of
drawing, measuring, and clearing away rocks. The workers cleared the
top-sand and Ruth and Sarah jumped in to identify cuts into the soil,
which are softer and a slightly lighter color. I couldn’t find one if
I tried, but they saw them all. Each is circular or oval in shape and
about a meter in diameter. Then the workers began to dig, with the
archaeologists moving around the site identifying more and more pits.
When the workers found bones, they’d stop and let the two really skilled
workers, Omda and Said, clean the bones. Anna and I spent a very boring
first week measuring rocks before we actually got to go into a burial.
They range from less than 20 cm (10 inches) to over 2.2 m (6+ feet) deep, with the average around a meter and a half. Since the edges are fragile and could
collapse if you get too close, we drop a ladder and climb in. This has
recently become an adventure as the sides on some of the bigger pits
collapse more easily, especially when there are mouse holes near them,
so we sort of have to jump onto the ladder, tools in hand.

So now you’re in a deep pit and the ladder’s been removed. What next?
Although the average pit is about a meter wide, some are less. Much
less. And don’t forget that there’s a skeleton to contend with (that
is, not step on, and very carefully sketch, analyze, and remove).The skeletons are buried flexed. The smallest grave I’ve been in was that of a juvenile (age 8-16), and
it was about 70 cm in diameter. That’s enough room to squat with your
back against the side, but you have to keep raising the clipboard in
order to see it to draw. And then to brush it, you have to stand up
and bend at the waist (Paddotanasana, if you’re into yoga). And what
about soil removal? You take one scoop, stand up, and hand it to
someone outside, who empties it and gives you back the hand shovel. It
takes a looong time. In some you have room to kneel just on one knee
until that foot goes numb – I’m sure it must be bad for circulation to
have your feet go numb this many times in a day. On the other hand,
the more spacious ones are really quite delightful. I was in a 2 m
deep pit the other day that was 1.5m wide by 1.7m long, and I had
enough space behind the skeleton to sit cross-legged. Since it was
windy and the skeleton was very delicate, we put a tent over the top.
I sat there bathed in blue light counting and measuring, listening to
music, and relaxing. (When I had finished, Omda asked me why I wanted
to come out instead of taking a nap in the hole.) We put the bones and
any associated pottery or beads (lots of beads!) into well-labeled
bags and then climb out. Later we brush them clean and do a secondary
analysis, and another will be done when they’re back at the museum.
Then we begin to answer some of the above questions – who was buried
here? How old were they when they died? Who was buried with what
artifacts? How is it similar to (or dissimilar from) other Kerma
cemeteries? The answers are never 100% certain, but that doesn’t
prevent anyone writing books on the matter…

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