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Discovery, philanthropy and bioarchaeology in Sudan

ASU bioarchaeologist discovers puzzling burial at ancient Sudanese gate.
Bioarchaeologist Brenda Baker working on new journal that aims to bridge gaps.
May 2, 2017

Amidst fieldwork, ASU researcher helps boost local schools and preserve ancient sites

Zalabiyya is a dish of fried dough pieces served with sugar or honey. In Sudan, it’s a common offering at afternoon tea, and Brenda Baker goes to tea in Sudan a lot.

“You get to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh no, I can’t eat any more zalabiyya,’” she said with a groan. But she doesn’t make these trips to learn about the cuisine.

Baker is an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a bioarchaeologist with the school's Center for Bioarchaeological Research, which means she studies how ancient people lived by examining their cemetery sites and bones.

Although much of her research focuses on Sudan’s past peoples, Baker also spends a lot of her time making connections with the country’s current residents. Part of it is just being friendly, but it’s also about working with local communities to preserve the area’s numerous, valuable archaeological sites.

Baker first began working in Sudan a decade ago, in an effort to help record and salvage archaeological data from a region along the Nile before it was submerged by a huge dam. Today, she faces new problems. After the dam was built, the surrounding area experienced a huge boom in agriculture. While some archaeological sites are being now plowed over for farming, others are being destroyed as new neighborhoods, schools and roads expand outward.

She and her team have a lot of ground to cover. Baker’s own project area is around 60 square miles, but includes more than 200 identified archaeological sites, which range from the Stone Age to modern historic times.

“I feel like I’m in a race to try to record as much as I can before it is lost to development,” she said.

For all the team’s work, however, what these sites truly need is a solution for their protection in the long term. Accomplishing that goal requires increasing local awareness, and building trust is the first step.

To be a good neighbor

When looking to rally support, there is often no better place to start than at home, even if it’s your home away from home.

During each field season, Baker and her team rent mudbrick houses in the local community, which requires them to be neighborly. In Sudan, this means giving and accepting invitations to tea, as well as organizing a big party at the end of each trip to thank the community for hosting them. Much like a neighborhood barbeque here in the U.S., the host provides the main course — in this case, a sheep — and the neighbors loan chairs and dishes.

“It takes time away from the work to do that, but I would much rather be a good neighbor and have this kind of outreach to show that we’re not arrogant or trying to take advantage of them,” Baker said. “We want to show them that we’re good people.”

In this way, her team not only gains more opportunities to talk to community members about the value of archaeological sites, but also the ability to benefit from local knowledge. Neighbors often know if there are other sites nearby and are likely tip off the team if they stumble upon a new one.

photo of Baker having tea at a workman’s house

ASU archaeologist Brenda Baker and her team visit a neighbor's home. Tea and bowls of zalabiyya are on the tables in the center. Photo courtesy of Brenda Baker

Baker has also formed close relationships with the local workers that she hires each season. Some of them have worked with her for two or three years, and about five of them have worked with her for more than a decade. In the past, she has helped some of them get access to health care, while they, in turn, patiently help her improve her Arabic.

“We really have friends when we go back, because we’ve grown to know these guys,” she said.

Getting to that point was hard-won in some ways, but fulfilling in the end.

“Several who initially just wanted the work really got interested once they saw the kinds of things we were finding and how excited we were about it,” Baker said. “They became very proud of what they were doing and the knowledge and skills they were developing.”

Many of the workers have developed into skilled archaeologists, and Baker often has them work with new students.

“I tell the students, ‘Follow their lead and you can learn from them,’” she said.

Inadvertently, these workers have become their own form of outreach, as their pride compels them to share their work. Spontaneous mini-lectures to curious bystanders at the dig sites are a frequent occurrence.

“They often want to know if [a skeleton] is a man or a woman and how old it is,” Baker said. People are also fascinated by practical details, like the healed bone of an ancient woman showing that she broke a leg when she was young, but survived the injury.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that they can relate to their own experiences,” she said.

Baker also developed her own local educational tool — a brochure with photos of sites and artifacts that show the evidence of the area’s ancient history — after discovering that students in Sudan aren’t taught their ancient history until high school, which is an educational level that most never attain.

The brochures were initially just handed out to the schools close by, but soon even the parents were clamoring for copies.

The things that people remember

Interacting with the nearby communities gave Baker greater insight into their needs and presented her with opportunities to make lasting impacts outside of work.

She describes one day during her last field season when her team was invited for tea at the home of an impoverished family. The children in this family had, for three seasons, run out to greet the team as they drove back from their dig sites each afternoon. Yet their current residence was little more than a lean-to structure, and Baker learned from the parents that their house had been destroyed in a bad rainstorm.

“I wanted to help them,” Baker said. “These kids have been waving to us almost every single day. I’ve watched the little boy grow up from a baby to a toddler.”

To the parents’ shock, she decided to give them some of her own money to help them rebuild.

Baker and her team also regularly give supplies to nearby schools. Most recently, they were able to donate a large sum to three different schools for a connection to the new electrical grid. One of these, installed fans and lights in its classrooms so that it can continue to operate during sandstorms. But the school’s use of the leftover funds was a special surprise.

The school, which is visible from the houses where the team stays, was formerly a “brown building on a brown landscape.” So Baker was astonished to walk out one day and find it painted a bright turquoise.

“It gives you some color in a sea of brown,” she said, smiling.

In the future, Baker plans to raise additional funds so school leaders can buy a water tank and build a wall to better protect the building from sandstorms.

A bit of a mystery

When she isn’t investing in nearby communities, Baker continues to make fascinating archaeological discoveries. In the 2015 field season, her team examined a 1960s satellite photo that appeared to show a large structure near the Nile riverbank. On modern satellite photos, however, the structure is invisible, because it’s now surrounded by date palm groves.

When the team went to check things out for themselves, they found an ancient fort known locally as “El-Housh,” or “The Enclosure,” with three of its four walls still standing. The distinctive architecture suggested it was built sometime in the first few centuries A.D. Getting the landowner’s permission to excavate the site was a little tricky, but Baker’s tried-and-true method of having tea and explaining her archaeological work won him over. In describing what the fort had looked like long ago, he mentioned a gateway, providing the key to a baffling discovery.

While searching for the gateway, Baker’s team found a burial underneath an exterior wall of the fort. She describes the remains as having been placed in a foundation trench beneath the gateway — a type of burial that she had never before encountered or heard of in all her time in the region. The reasoning behind its placement is a puzzle, as the individual could have been an offering, an honored member of the community or an enemy doomed to be trodden upon for eternity.

“Obviously, it’s very purposeful, but we have no indication that this person was treated differently in death, other than being in this position and not in a formal cemetery,” Baker said. “It’s a bit of a mystery at this point.”

In the future, Baker and her team will excavate more of the fort and look for a second gateway opposite the one found in 2015 (she believes it’s possible there is another burial there as well). She also wants to submit a bone sample for radiocarbon dating, which will confirm when the fort was constructed. Baker hopes that this discovery will prompt other archaeologists to take a closer look at gateways, as it could be a regional practice that researchers are simply unaware of at present.

Though she will not be returning to Sudan this season, Baker still has plenty to keep her busy in her other place of work: the laboratory. After three field seasons in a row, she has mountains of material from Sudan to process and analyze, including the remains from El-Housh.

Once the spring 2017 semester is over at ASU, Baker will also manage as co-editor-in-chief the publication of the premiere issue of Bioarchaeology International, a new journal that aims to bridge the gap between the archaeological focus on the context of a burial and the bioarchaeological focus on skeletal remains, furthering her work that often starts with tea and plates of zalabiyya.

Learn more about Baker’s Bioarchaeology of Nubia Expedition (BONE) project here.

Top photo: Baker's team begins working on a cemetery from the Kerma period (2,500-1,500 BC). Photo courtesy of Brenda Baker

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise


Using literature for social transformation

May 2, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Graduating Arizona State University student Alice Hays thinks literature can change lives. Specifically, the Mesa, Arizona resident believes that young adult literature — termed “YA lit” — has uses beyond just book reports. Alice Hays / Courtesy photo A love for adolescent literature led ASU student Alice Hays back to school for her Ph.D. "Ultimately, I want to use my research to demonstrate the validity of young adult literature in the secondary classroom as a means of leading to other significant learning activities," Hays said. Download Full Image

Hays structured her doctoral research around the argument that YA lit has the power to positively influence youth into activism and social consciousness, largely because it promotes empathy in its young readers. She conducted ethnographic case studies to prove her hypothesis, and successfully defended her dissertation, “From Fact to Fiction to Action: Generating Prosocial Attitudes and Behaviors Using Young Adult Literature” on April 14.

Hays credits many mentors, especially English Professor James Blasingame — affectionately known to students as “Dr. B” —with inspiring both her field of study and ultimately, her completion of doctorate in English (English Education) at ASU.

Question: What was your "aha" moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: When I was teaching in the high school classroom, I was trying to identify a theme that I might center my dual credit English 101/102 class around, and decided to focus on activism ultimately. Through this course, I discovered how incredibly powerful and passionate my students can be about issues they care about. Then, when I took ENG 471/540 Teaching Young Adult Literature with Dr. Blasingame before I entered the program, I was completely enamored with this genre of books. I wanted to figure out a way to marry these two loves that I had … supporting students as they became actively engaged in their community and social justice issues they identified, while simultaneously exploring the powerful ways that young adult literature can affect readers. Ultimately, I want to use my research to demonstrate the validity of young adult literature in the secondary classroom as a means of leading to other significant learning activities.

Q: What's something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise - that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Oh my goodness … I think learning how to be a student again was a significant shock to my system. After having been in the classroom as the teacher for 19 years, learning how to ask questions was incredibly difficult, while simultaneously incredibly rewarding. I have shifted my teaching approach as well, in terms of what I value from a student and what sorts of approaches I take with my students. I will also say that I really struggled to see myself as a writer, but the encouragement from people like Dr. B., [assistant professor of English] Dr. [E. Sybil] Durand, [assistant professor of English] Dr. [Christina] Saidy-Hannah and [professor of Education] Dr. [Audrey Amrein-] Beardsley really helped me to realize that I could grow into that definition. I also learned what revision really and truly is throughout this process!

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Honestly, I chose it because it was the school down the street. I have children and I have been a local all of my life. I wasn’t necessarily intending to pursue a PhD at all. Having student teachers from ASU gave me the opportunity to take 12 credit hours from ASU, so I took a couple of poetry classes with Dr. Cynthia Hogue, and I was reminded of how much I love learning. After I took a class with Dr. Blasingame, I was hooked. They wouldn’t let me keep taking classes without pursuing a degree, so I had to apply for the PhD program. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the mentorship and leadership that I had in those early semesters, because it was only their belief in my abilities that kept me moving forward.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: This is a difficult question. This changed pretty constantly, because I feel like I was always trying to figure out the best place to work. I have realized that I need change pretty consistently. I think the one place that made me feel most like a student was the basement of the library. When I was in my third year of teaching, and working on my Master of Arts degree, I used to come to ASU's library to photocopy journal articles from microfiche, and walking into the basement the first time during my PhD program immediately transported me back to that time period. The basement made me feel like any sort of intellectual growth is possible! 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: To find a full time job! I am looking for full time work as a professor teaching English or English education, and I have irons in the fire at multiple places both locally and around the country. If that does not work, I will go back into the high school classroom. I miss the energy of the students, and I feel like I would have an opportunity to correct so many wrongs I’ve learned about over the last four years, and it would be a great opportunity to put my own best practices into use in the classroom.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think that I would invest heavily in politics. I think there are so many problems in the world in terms of climate, women’s rights, and education “reform” (among many others) that my money would be best spent supporting thoughtful, intelligent individuals who could run for office and focus on people instead of profits. Not that $40 million would go all that far in this regard, but it would certainly be worth a shot.

The Department of English is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English