Sunday, February 22, 2015

The face of a pyramid

We have decided to remove the fallen rubble from the north face of the pyramid to see if there might be further indications of how and when it was built and how it may have been connected to the pyramid of one of the most important kings buried at El Kurru—Piye (also called Piankhy)—whose pyramid burial is immediately to the north.

This work will also transform the appearance of the pyramid and of the site. The pyramid was built of stone blocks around a rubble core. Right now, it’s mostly the rubble core that’s visible—the upper stone blocks were taken for re-use elsewhere in medieval times, and the rubble simply spilled out over the pyramid stones.

We are excited to see how this will develop in the remainder of the season.

Pyramid niche

It continues to be an amazing experience to excavate a pyramid. I went into the innermost burial chamber that we are excavating after the workmen had left for the day, and really experienced what it means to be as quiet as the tomb.

Based on other pyramids of this date in Nubia, we expect to find two features in the inner burial chamber: a coffin bench and a stele niche.

Kings and queens of Kush adopted many aspects of Egyptian burial practice, including burial in coffins. But they retained their traditional idea of being buried on a bed, so around the stone benches in their pyramid burials are usually four holes that would have supported bed legs. Other Nubian royal burials have sometimes contained fragments of the coffin itself that were left after looters smashed them.

The stele niche is a small alcove at the back of the room in which an inscribed stone would usually name the king or queen and inscribe funerary spells. And we have just found the stele niche! Empty, unfortunately…but there remain several possibilities—the stele could have fallen onto the floor, for example. We will know more soon!

Work at the City Wall

I'm back in Karima and can make a few more blog posts...

We continue to expand our knowledge of the massive city wall that separates the palm groves along the Nile from the modern village. We are still looking for evidence that it is earlier than the Christian period, but we haven’t found it yet—so it must have been built around 700 AD. We hope that exposing its entire length may give us further hints about the location of the town of the Napatan period when the royal burials were built. And the city wall itself is really impressive, not just in its massive stone construction, but in its collapse—here is a particularly large section that shows collapse both in stone and in “red bricks”. The upper part of the wall—or a later reuse of the wall—must have been built of red bricks.

The settlement along the wall is also slowly coming into view. Last year we excavated part of a house with preserved ceramic vessels still on the floors. This year, we expanded the area of excavation and found a Christian cemetery with burials neatly laid out in rows.

We are in the process of excavating these, and will then be able to see more of the house below.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Surprise in the temple

We have continued excavating the underground rooms of the mortuary temple—there were two spaces remaining to clear. One was a small, square, featureless storeroom that contained nothing (like the rest of the temple!). The other appeared to be a corridor connecting two rooms with columns on either side. We knew only about the doorways on either side, and we had bets with the workmen about whether there would be additional rooms or whether the two doorways would just be connected by a straight corridor.

Osman Hussein excavating the underground corridor in the temple
As it turned out, none of us was right—the rooms are connected by a corridor with a “dogleg”. You can just see the corner in the photo. Not a room, not a straight corridor. And like just about everything else about this temple, we have no parallels, and no idea why it was built as it is.

We have been digging in beautiful weather. Some days have been at our limit of comfort during the day—upper 90s in the afternoons—but it has always cooled off at night, so the mornings and evenings have been refreshing. Here is a photo that captures the beauty of the setting—sunrise over the Nile.

Sunrise over the Nile. Photo Sebastian Anstis.

Plants at El Kurru

I'm in the town of Karima, buying construction supplies and taking advantage of the internet connection here to make a couple of blog posts. Here's a guest post from our archaeobotanist, Naomi F. Miller:

It has taken several days to get organized, so I have not yet begun to float. But I have walked around in two main directions: west along a wadi (the only place that has any plants on really is dry here!) and east to the Nile, planted in palm groves. There was a small spot that that had flooded and dried with huge cracks, about 20 cm deep; Carola, the geologist said with time and pressure it'd turn to shale, one of the three rock types in the region (the others being sandstone and siltstone). I pinched a little piece, almost hard as a rock, dissolved it in river; I now understand the black mud of the Nile–it looked good enough to eat (like fine chocolate with good mouth feel!), but I didn't.

On one of my wadi walks, young Hasan (maybe 10 years old) joined me; he clearly was primarily interested in my pencil, but I was not prepared to give it up. I let him use my camera to take a few photos, and he did help me collect some seeds and encouraged me to take a photo of a woman on a donkey cart and show it to her...the wonders of digital photography. You ask what about the plants? Well, in the desert there aren't all that many types, maybe 15 or so. Before I left the U.S., I made a folder for downloaded photos of taxa that have been found on archaeological sites in Sudan. Some are so obvious that I am pretty sure I've found them! I recommend you search on the internet for images of Calotropis procera, which grows everywhere (I first saw it in Khartoum).

The palm groves are a revelation! The trees are sort of planted in rows, but because of all the offshoots, some basal and some aerial, the plantings seem a little ad hoc (and there are acacias and other wild-growing trees I don't know scattered about, along with beans, alfalfa, and sorghum).

As for the animals, there are remarkably few, perhaps because there's not much for them to eat. Out in the countryside around here I've seen just a few goats, and donkeys. I've seen only one dog so far (!); it did have that ancient Egyptian look to it. I have noticed a surprising number (less than 10, but more than 3) dead animal parts, including fur...I'm wondering if it is because of a paucity of scavengers. There are a lot of songbirds in the palm groves. (In Khartoum I saw falcons, but not here, at least not yet). In the village there have been a few cats caterwauling. A lizard seems to have gotten zapped by the electricity and fell to the ground at my feet even as I write this. There are lots of crickets, many of whom find their way into the sink. Still no mosquitoes, but there are flies here and there, and a few gnat-like bugs in the groves. So that's what I've seen with my own eyes. And there are bats at the excavation.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Progress in the Pyramid

Excavators in the inner room under the pyramid: El Haj, Ashari, Ghazafi, and Jaffar Madani
The area of massive rock collapse is visible as multi-colored stone;
the brown-yellow stone below is the Nubian sandstone that forms the original back wall of the chamber

We are continuing to have a very difficult internet connection, but this is not stopping us from digging! We have hired 110 local men—this is quite unusual for modern archaeological projects in which detailed recording is important. However our excavations in all areas involve moving large quantities of recent geological sediment—sand washed and blown in to underground rooms, primarily, but also covering ancient settlement.

We are making progress in three areas of Kurru pyramid 1, which is almost certainly dated to about 350 BC—right at the end of what is called the Napatan dynasty in Nubia, and just before the invasion of Alexander the Great into Egypt (and elsewhere!).

The group of workmen in the inner burial chamber have removed a 1-meter-thick layer of rock over the top of the chamber and 2 meters of washed in sand, leaving about 1.5 meters of sediment above the floor of the burial chamber. We’ve found a few potsherds in the upper fill, but not much material. If other royal tombs of this date are any guide, we may find a stone coffin bench in the middle of the floor and a niche that would originally have contained an inscribed stele at the back of the room. Whether we will find these things or any material traces of a royal burial itself remains to be seen!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Digging at the wall

Here's a time-lapse photography experiment by our registrar and photographer Sebastian Anstis showing excavation at the city wall...better at small screen size because of our uploading limitations. Watch out for the face towards the end!