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Anthropologist digs ancient Sudan bones

November 13, 2007

From the looks of the woman’s skeleton, she might have been in a serious car accident. But, the woman lived sometime between A.D. 300 and A.D. 600, so it was obviously not a crash that killed her.

The woman’s bones are among many recently excavated in northern Sudan – which, in ancient times, was called Nubia – by Brenda J. Baker, an associate professor of anthropology in the School of Human Evolution & Social Change.

Baker, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Nubian material in Sudan, had done a lot of archaeological work in Egypt, but none in Sudan.

She was spurred to action by an announcement in the Paleopathology Newsletter in November 2004 about a dam being built in northern Sudan on the Nile River.

The Merowe dam would mean that the area called the Fourth Cataract would be under water when the dam was completed, and that the opportunity for archaeological work would be gone.

“I started making inquiries, and I tried to get something worked out with someone who already had a project in the area,” Baker says.

She learned that Stuart Tyson Smith at the University of California-Santa Barbara already had a concession, and she made an agreement with him to join the work.

“Then I started writing grant proposals,” she says. “Sudan is a sanctioned country, and I had to jump through a lot more hoops.

“We got a license for three years of work from the U.S. government, but we had to apply for a separate license to get the collection back to the United States.”

Since Sudan has few facilities to study or store archaeological findings, the country was happy to give the collection to ASU on a long-term loan.

Being able to bring the collection back to ASU opens a lot of possibilities, Baker says.

“We now have a graduate student helping supervise the cleaning and processing of the material, and the undergraduate volunteers are also getting a lot of experience,” she says.

The area where Baker is excavating is bordered by the Nile, with groves of date palms on one side and the desert on the other. All of this area will be under water when the dam is built and the reservoir fills in two or three more years.

“In the early 1900s, archaeologists looked at this area as devoid of occupation,” she says. “And, lo and behold, it’s chock full of sites.”

Baker is excavating cemetery sites, one of which is near a school in a village called Ginefab.

As the archaeologists worked at the site, the children lined up to watch, Baker says.

“On our trip in 2006, to lay the groundwork for the subsequent field seasons, Stuart and I learned that the school has 11 teachers for more than 300 students, and that they needed supplies,” she says. “So we took tablets, pens, pencils and even a world map in Arabic.”

Some of the tombs at the site are high and rounded, with rocks on top, and others are nearly level with the ground. Baker hopes to learn whether people with more social status were buried in the higher tombs, and how the people fit into the state-level societies in ancient Nubia.
The Kerma culture flourished in that area from 2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C., before its capital was sacked by the Egyptians, so Baker also hopes to learn whether the people in the Fourth Cataract identified more with the Kerma or Egyptian culture.

In some of the tombs, Baker found goat bones, which indicated that the people were buried with grave offerings. She also discovered a few artifacts, such as a carnelian bead, a few faience beads still strung on cord, ostrich eggshell beads and pottery shards.

Some of the bones still have tissue on them, and there are textile fragments clinging to others.

“Each bone gets an ID number,” Baker says. “We are cleaning them with dry-brushing, using as little water as possible.”

By looking at the condition of the bones, she is seeking to learn “who was there and what was going on.”

“There is a lot of trauma in these skeletons,” she says. But no answers are apparent yet for what killed the traumatized woman.

She has found broken shoulder blades, fractured ribs, dislocated jaws, missing teeth, a broken pelvis and broken femurs. By looking at the ends of the ribs and parts of the pelvis, she can estimate how old the people were when they died. One man’s skeleton still has the end of a metal arrow embedded in the breastbone.

Because of her rushed application process, Baker and her team of 10 were only able to do a month of fieldwork this year, but she plans to “hit the ground running” next season and bring back three times as many remains.