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. Download Full Image

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.

‘Shades’ encourages mentoring process at ASU

November 13, 2007

Diverse approaches to education and mentoring may be needed to create the next work force of scientists and engineers, according to the National Science Foundation. One of their primary goals listed in the NSF Strategic Plan 2007-2011 is to reach out especially to students that traditionally have been under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

To this end, the ASU Graduate College has launched “Shades, a Multicultural Mentoring Program,” for under-represented students in STEM fields. The goal is an informal, multiple-level mentoring program that will encourage graduate students to network with each other as well as mentor undergraduates. Download Full Image

“Shades” is the brainchild of Sydella Blatch, a doctoral-degree candidate in the School of Life Sciences.

“I think much of the reason minorities and people of color are under-represented in the sciences is because of lack of information, exposure – and, in various ways, opportunity,” she says. “One thing that we can do on a small scale is to increase the amount of information and exposure under-represented people receive.  And there are some things that just go over better when coming from a peer.”

The program is not intended to replace formal academic mentoring, but rather serve as a community of peers with resources, support and information on multicultural and ethnic issues.

“We are finding that the support many students need to be successful can best be provided by those who have recently encountered similar circumstances,” says Andrew Webber, associate vice provost.  “Oftentimes discussion with peers can provide support and encouragement that is not readily available through formal channels. ‘Shades’ will facilitate students finding the peer support they may need, as well allow experienced students to contribute to the success of their discipline.”

Interested undergraduate students and first-year graduate students are being matched with graduate students within the same program of study. At a recent meeting Allex Osborne, a freshman majoring in actuarial sciences, stated his need for a mentor.

“I’m thinking about my future,” he says. “A mentor could help me find the opportunities and resources that are out there.”

“You can never do it alone,” agrees Telpriore Tucker, a graduate student in chemistry and biochemistry. “I’ve been helped so much and I need to give back and mentor someone else.”

The program’s mentors and mentees gather for lunch meetings every other month, as well as keep informal contact with each other through e-mail and phone. Meetings usually feature panels or guest speakers on topics such as career options in STEM fields, résumé-building and graduate school preparation. A newsletter is planned to announce seminars and workshops of interest, as well as share articles on study tips, and career and professional development.

For more information on the program, contact Debra Crusoe at or Jennifer Cason at"> The Web site for the program is

Michele">"> St George,
(480) 965-5995
Graduate College