Flying from Ann Arbor to Sudan takes 20 hours. The final plane lands in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital of about five million people. From there, Geoff Emberling (Ph.D. ’95) rides four hours north on bumpy desert roads to a much smaller, dusty village on the Nile River called El Kurru. Emberling, a research scientist with LSA’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, heads to El Kurru to excavate the remains of so-called “Black Pharaohs” hidden under its sand.

Had he arrived unprepared, Emberling would’ve been hard pressed to find any artifacts at all. “My first couple visits to the site were not very promising,” he admits. Usually, Near Eastern archaeological sites are mounds that you can see in the landscape, often scattered with the refuse of an ancient settlement, such as pieces of pottery. At El Kurru, he says, “There’s nothing!” But during his first real field season there two years ago, Emberling was betting that the place contained more than it revealed, because he’d started unearthing clues before setting up camp in Sudan.

A page from one of archaeologist George Reisner’s field notebooks during his expedition to El Kurru in 1919. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Digging Up Old Notes

Prior to that first field season, Emberling paid a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he carefully examined stacks of field notebooks and photographs from a much earlier expedition to northeast Africa. Nearly a century before Emberling visited El Kurru, American archaeologist George Reisner had found intriguing remnants of royalty who ruled the ancient African kingdom known as Kush in northern Sudan: royal burials, crumbling pyramids, and an occasional gold object. Reisner set up camp at El Kurru in 1918 and used innovative photography to document what he found, sketched fragments of the buried city, took copious notes, and reconstructed the lineage of kings and queens in Kush.

What Reisner started to piece together was surprising: Throughout history, the rulers of Egypt weren’t always Egyptian. In about 750 BC, the kingdom of Kush became the 25th dynasty to rule Egypt. The “Black Pharaohs” of Kush had ousted the mighty Egyptian rulers, eventually controlling as much as 750 miles of prime property along the Nile River—that’s more than twice the length of Michigan’s lower peninsula—making Kush one of the largest empires of any ancient African nation. But the relationship between Kush and Egypt, its northern neighbor, was complicated. Both kingdoms held and lost political power in the region until Egypt ultimately reclaimed its empire, leaving few monuments to the Kushite hegemony that, during the 25th dynasty, lasted for 100 years.

These ancient stone statues of Kushite pharaohs who ruled Egypt were reassembled after later conquerors broke them in a symbolic gesture of victory. Photo by Kenneth Garrett

Emberling hopes to resolve some of the mysteries that still surround the rise of Kush—what he describes as “a dark age in terms of our archaeological knowledge of Sudan.” One major mystery is how the kingdom of Kush overturned Egypt’s established dominance, despite initially having few of the trappings that we’d expect of a powerful empire, such as written language, political bureaucracy, or a major urban center. “It’s out of that very low level of wealth, political control, military control, artistic production—that background of historical silence—that Kush emerges,” Emberling says. “That’s the question that I’m interested in.”

Lay of the Land

To get started, Emberling needed to relocate the ancient city. Working from Reisner’s notebooks, Emberling had some idea of what might lie beneath El Kurru. But on viewing the flat expanse of sand and lack of landmarks at the site, he had trouble figuring out where to start. “Because of the geological environment, stuff gets covered up instead of being exposed,” he explains. A hundred years of high Nile floods and windblown sands had reburied most of the structures that Reisner excavated on his previous expedition.

So Emberling turned to modern technologies for help in finding what was buried. Google Earth initially revealed the rectangular shape of a mortuary temple so extensive that, even after two field seasons of work, 35 local men on the dig team have not yet finished excavating it. The temple floor lies nearly three meters (about 10 feet) below the surface, and one of the temple’s four chambers contains 26 tall columns, some etched with ancient graffiti depicting various animals and designs.

A graduate student on the dig team rigged up a kite camera to take this aerial photograph of the mortuary temple in El Kurru. Photo by Kathryn Howley

A pyramid at the site was easier to find, as it stood above ground, although time and the elements had shaved a large portion from its height. Emberling estimated its original height by measuring the angle of its stacked stones and the length of its base, then applying some quick trigonometry to calculate that the pyramid probably extended 34.5 meters (113 feet) when Kushites first constructed it. Today, the pyramid stands at a stunted nine meters (30 feet) tall.

When Reisner first found it, the ceiling of an inner chamber already had collapsed, rendering the structure too unstable for a full excavation. But 100 years later, Emberling had the tools he needed to explore the pyramid safely—he steered a robot camera through the debris to assess the damage and hired Ignacio “Nacho” Forcadell, an architect who has worked extensively with underground structures at Egyptian digs, to build safety beams that support crumbling stone corridors.

Archaeologist George Reisner didn’t finish excavating the largest pyramid at El Kurru 100 years ago, fearing that the structure was too unstable. (Several diggers had died in a pyramid collapse at another of his sites). Today, architect Ignacio “Nacho” Forcadell (pictured) ensures the safety of Emberling’s team by building beams to support crumbling corridors. Photo by Geoff Emberling

By far, the most elusive structure was a buried city wall. The archaeological team knew of its existence but couldn’t narrow down its location. They inquired around town, they used a magnetometer (what Emberling calls “a fancy metal detector”) to probe for hints of buried objects, they dug test pits, all to no avail. “It’s like a game of Battleship, you know?” Emberling laughs. “Sometimes we found nothing.”

At last, with only a week left of their field season, a member of the dig team had the brilliant insight that a barely perceptible ridge snaking along the ground could be Reisner’s old spoil heap—the pile of dirt that Reisner’s diggers discarded as they first unearthed the stone wall. So Emberling’s team dug near the ridge to test the hypothesis. Emberling marvels, “We got three trenches in a row that all had stone architecture; the spoil heap more or less followed the line of the wall.”

This year is Emberling’s third field season at El Kurru. One of his major goals is to preserve the structures they’ve excavated, so that Nile floods and dust storms won’t again hide the cultural artifacts of Kush from future visitors. Every morning, Emberling will rise at 5:45 a.m. as muezzin in mosques around town sing their loud calls to prayer. He’ll sip Sudanese coffee spiced with ginger or cloves, and he’ll begin another day, digging in El Kurru.

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