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,” says Sudan’s antiquities chief Salah Ahmed.
The Merowe dam is a controversial hydroelectric 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 within months.
Archaeologists admit that an incalculable amount of information will be forever lost.
But the largest archaeological rescue project since the Nubian campaign began in the 1960s (during the construction of the Aswan dam in southern Egypt) has unearthed a 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,” Mr. Ahmed says.
Sudan’s pre-Christian civilizations built more pyramids than the Egyptians but have received little attention since being defeated by the Egyptian warrior Pharaoh Tuthmosis I (15th century B.C.).
“Of course, there is no Abu Simbel here,” says Mr. Ahmed, referring 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 riverbanks near Merowe for at least five years now and made some significant discoveries.
Some of the artifacts 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 B.C.
“We found very rich Kerma occupation farther upstream, extending the frontiers of this important kingdom by more than 200 kilometers (120 miles),” Mr. Ahmed says.
“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,” says 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 growingreservoir.
The Manasir tribe, whose entire heartland will be submerged, has recently expelled foreign archaeologists whom they accuse of aiding the Khartoum regime in putting an acceptable face on the dam project.
Mr. Ahmed explained that a system had been agreed upon whereby a part of the artifacts 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,” says Mr. Ahmed, 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 artifacts 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,” Mr. Francigny says.
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 artifacts and major Christian-era fortresses. By November 2008 the time the final exhibition retracing years of Merowe archaeological excavations takes place in the Chinese-built hall by the dam “the beauty of the fourth cataract will also be lost forever,” Mr. Ahmed says.
One more thing will haunt some archaeologists, though, 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 nearly 25 centuries ago.
Mr. 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,” he says.
The stone, a basalt tablet bearing inscriptions, provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.