Revelations drawn from desert dust

Sudan - Treasures from Sudan
November 5, 2004

Egyptologist John Baines marvels at some wonders of Sudanese archaeology never before seen outside their original home

Sudan, the largest country of Africa, spans a range of environments from hyper-arid desert, through its great southern swamp, to upland regions in the far west and on the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. From south to north runs the artery of the Nile, offering attractive zones for settlement and a passable but often-difficult route for long-distance contact. The country has a rich archaeological and artistic legacy, from early human presence to today. Much material evidence of this is well preserved, not least because large parts of the country are desert.

Sudan also has a tangled and tragic present. Civil war, which has lasted with interruptions for more than 30 years, has rendered much of the country unsafe for travel and has concentrated visitors and attention in its north-eastern third, adjacent to Egypt, the Red Sea, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

With interruptions, more and more archaeological expeditions have worked and are working in this enormous area, following on from travellers and earlier missions from the 18th century onward. In comparison, southern and western Sudan - most of the country south of Khartoum - remain largely unknown to research. This gap hampers understanding of the direction and spread of human lifeways and of how Sudan in the past related to its broader surroundings.

Sudan is significant for the early history of human development, not least because it is the likely route of anatomically modern people from Africa to the rest of the world about 100,000 years ago. Very little prospecting for Palaeolithic or Middle Stone Age sites has been done in the region, which offers great potential. Much evidence of societies of the early Holocene has been found across northern Sudan. This material is important for understanding early pastoral adaptations and for the discovery of some of the world's earliest pottery, dating from about 8000BC onwards and forming a dynamic tradition that has continued into modern times.

More settled Neolithic lifeways seem to have developed from about 5000BC.

Agriculture was not yet a major source of subsistence. Wheat is not suited to cultivation in this region, whose agricultural exploitation requires the domestication of heat-tolerant crops such as sorghum. For progress in understanding their introduction, access to sites to the south is desirable because the development of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is little known.

From about 2500BC, the Kerma culture, centred upstream of the Third Cataract of the Nile, developed into a powerful, complex society that profited from the long-distance trade in luxury goods from the south and the east, including the Red Sea, and Egypt. This pattern was reversed in the Egyptian colonisation of the region from 1500BC to 1050BC, and again by Kushite expansion from about 850BC, leading to a conquest of Egypt from the south around 730BC and to the continuing local civilisation of Napata-Meroe, which was finally extinguished about AD350. Small successor polities gave way in turn to stable Christian kingdoms from the 6th to the 15th century. Since then, Islam has been the religion of the entire northern Sudan.

This millennia-long sweep of development is unfamiliar to many. One way to counter this neglect is by presenting the extraordinary material record, but this is unlikely to be achieved through tourism so long as Sudan remains politically troubled. In the 1990s, there was a large Sudan exhibition in France and Germany, picking up from "Africa in Antiquity" at the Brooklyn Museum in 1978. The British Museum has now mounted a major exhibition that is expected to travel later to Europe and North America.

All the objects it shows are from the collections of the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum. This is the best opportunity outside Khartoum to see Sudanese archaeological and artistic material. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which houses the other major collection, including great masterpieces, displays only a limited selection.

Whereas the earlier exhibitions were fairly standard art shows, the British Museum's takes a different path. While it presents many visually stunning objects, its intent is primarily archaeological, and it includes many modest artefacts, such as selections of flint tools, that are often found in permanent museum displays but rarely travel. Almost none of the archaeological material has been shown before outside Khartoum, so this is an exciting opportunity to experience a big range of artefacts and cultures. The selection of objects follows the rather random patterning of finds, many from rescue excavations, but still presents persuasively what is known of pre-modern Sudan through material culture.

The catalogue's editors assemble contributions by more than 50 scholars, most of them involved in relevant fieldwork. The areas covered include all those outlined at the beginning of this review. In addition to groups of objects arranged in chronological order, concluding sections cover ceramics and burial provision, which are the two constant features of the record from the Neolithic onwards, as well as the current rescue programme upstream of the Fourth Cataract, where dam construction will flood hundreds of sites. The only significant area of research that I missed was the Neolithic of the inland Gash Delta near Kassala in the east, a region that is significant both intrinsically and for its contacts with the Red Sea and the Ethiopian uplands.

The catalogue includes colour photographs of all the objects exhibited, as well as generous illustration of the introductory sections, with photographs of sites, maps and plans. The images of sites give a valuable context for what is exhibited, even if too many replace the traditional "human scale" with the still more anachronistic "four-wheel-drive scale".

Aerial photographs give a sense of the land's vastness and of the relatively slight impact of human presence on much of it.

Each major section is introduced by a brief general essay and by shorter treatments of sites and survey regions. The latter, together with the entries on the objects displayed, present much European scholarship that is little known in the Anglophone world. Occasionally language difficulties result, as with the phases of the Kerma culture, which are given the French designations Kerma Ancien , Moyen and Classique , when Early, Middle and Classic Kerma are adequate equivalents (and adopted in the small, lavishly illustrated exhibition book Treasures from Sudan ). In other cases, there are minor misunderstandings in the English, but such problems are few, and the editors have succeeded in harmonising the contributions. The book is very up to date, with many references to publications of the past couple of years, and will be an excellent bibliographical source.

The essays vary in quality, quite apart from their huge temporal and topical range. Probably the most important group relates to the Kerma culture, which receives its first substantial presentation in English. The core material derives from the city of Kerma and its cemeteries, but find-spots extend downstream and upstream into the Fourth Cataract region.

Since material culture is no guide to political allegiance, the Kerma state may have controlled areas much farther afield. The chronology of Kerma and pre-Kerma runs from about 3000BC to after 1500BC and encompasses a vast process of development.

As Charles Bonnet, the long-standing excavator of Kerma, puts it, at its peak the Kerma state "pushed to the limits of demographic possibility" the practice of human sacrifice accompanying royal burials, where hundreds of victims have been found - perhaps no more than in ancient China, but with a smaller population base. Almost more impressive is the earlier burial mound of a leader, on the south side of which were found 4,000 skulls of cattle arranged by age and sex, perhaps tokens of a burial ceremony that involved tribute, in more than one sense, from throughout a realm whose extent remains uncertain. In today's environment, suitably vast herds could be maintained only hundreds of miles to the south, in the savanna lands of Kordofan inhabited by the Kababish and Baggara; in antiquity, herds were probably kept nearer to Kerma, perhaps in the then less arid desert regions to the west.

Another crucial section is by Irene Vincentelli Liverani on Hillat el-Arab near Jebel Barkal. Her finds demonstrate the resilience of local elite culture during the Egyptian domination from about 1200BC onwards and promise to fill the present chronological gap between the Egyptian withdrawal around 1050 and the rise of the Kushite state about two centuries later. This site, which lies beneath a modern village, exemplifies how much can be lost even in a relatively sparsely populated country such as Sudan.

"Sudan: Ancient Treasures" makes a major contribution to its subject and I urge all who can to visit the exhibition. The catalogue also is very valuable. My chief criticism is that some contributors address themselves more to the group of specialists than to the wider exhibition public. The catalogue would have been enhanced by a larger synthesising essay with a similar brief, of a sort common in comparable publications. Such an addition could also have shifted the focus a little from the "recent discoveries", which make this enterprise highly topical but deprive it slightly of intellectual depth and of location in the history of scholarship. Nevertheless, all involved are to be congratulated on a most impressive and timely achievement.

John Baines is professor of Egyptology, Oxford University. "Sudan: Ancient Treasures" is at the British Museum until January 9.

Sudan: Ancient Treasures

Editor - Derek A. Welsby and Julie R. Anderson
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 336
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 7141 1960 1

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