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ASU bioarchaeologist to lead team in piecing together Sudan's ancient past

ASU bioarchaeologist Brenda Baker poses with her Sudanese field crew
December 11, 2013

Much of the world is familiar with the Republic of the Sudan because of its news-making politics. What many people don’t realize is that the region possesses a rich cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years. It is home to numerous archaeological sites – from monuments to cemeteries – marking kingdoms and communities that rose and fell, or evolved and transitioned.

Sudan is an anthropologist’s dream.

Arizona State University associate professor Brenda Baker has spent decades working to uncover, understand and preserve the relics of past peoples though bioarchaeology, a branch of anthropology. Though she has conducted fieldwork across the U.S., as well as Cyprus and Egypt, her heart is in Sudan.

In 2006, she began co-directing a project to excavate ancient burials from the Fourth Cataract segment of the Nile before construction of the Merowe Dam flooded the area. Through three seasons of fieldwork, she retrieved dozens of skeletal remains and established a collection of Nubian bones and artifacts at ASU that is routinely consulted by osteology and paleopathology students.

Unfinished business

When Baker wrapped up the recovery project and returned to Arizona, she knew she was leaving behind numerous undocumented sites that held the potential to inform the world about the ways in which some ancient peoples lived and died.

Recently, Baker was awarded more than $1 million from the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project initiative not only to pick up where she left off, but also to expand her horizons. The project is conducted in cooperation with the Nubian Archaeological Development Organization and Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM).

In January, Baker will return to the northeast African nation and begin the first of three field seasons checking known sites, and conducting additional survey and excavation to document new sites.

Though Baker’s project title, Bioarchaeology of Nubia Expedition (BONE), makes it sound like she is focused on, well, bones, she has assembled a well-rounded interdisciplinary team, including specialists in rock art and lithics.

The team is composed of American, Spanish, German and Sudanese members, including ASU Regents’ Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Clark, who will be lending his expertise to locate and document Paleolithic and Mesolithic sites. A conservator will be onboard, as Baker calls conservation a key aspect of the project. Also integral to the team is Mohamed Saad, Baker’s previous NCAM inspector, who will continue with the project in 2014.

“As a project director, you want to surround yourself with people with different areas of expertise because you can’t possibly know and cover it all yourself,” Baker says.

Incorporating various perspectives touching on themes like religious shifts and the advent of agriculture will provide a clearer picture of who the past peoples of Sudan were and how they transformed over time. Among the project’s main goals is to understand the dynamics of past population movement in the region through analysis of excavated human remains, as well as landscape and land-use change through the ages.

Baker, who is faculty in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will direct work in a roughly 36-square-mile area along the right bank of the Nile River. The tract includes known sites dating from the Neolithic period (around 5,000 BCE) through the Christian era.

A race against time

For the last few years, Baker and her team have used satellite imagery to locate possible tumuli – raised burial mounds often topped by stones. Once in Sudan, she will use GPS coordinates and “ground truthing” to determine if the locations are actual burials or natural formations.

Spending extended periods in the field and learning from the keen eye of Land Cruiser driver Omar Omar – a valuable team member during the prior project, who will be BONE’s head driver – have given Baker a knack for spotting potential excavation sites. Before leaving Sudan in 2009, she and Omar located a seemingly intact Neolithic cemetery, a rarity in that area. She intended to excavate it upon her return. However, in July, she learned via Google Earth that the site has been plowed.

She is holding out hope that the burials underlie the plow zone.

“Many of these older sites face a number of threats, like looting and expanding agriculture,” Baker explains. “The region is rapidly developing, with power lines and housing springing up, and local people need to have space to live and grow their food, so we lose these vital components of Sudan’s cultural heritage.”

Spearheading the new survey will be the project’s assistant director, Chris Sevara, of the University of Vienna’s Initiative College for Archaeological Prospection. Sevara specializes in landscape archaeology, geographic information systems (GIS) and the use of satellite imagery. He is preparing to create three-dimensional images from data captured in the field, including aerial kite photography.

A group of German researchers affiliated with Humboldt University in Berlin, with whom Baker has collaborated before, will be working nearby on the Nile’s Mograt Island. The teams will again cooperate, with the Germans sharing their knowledge of ancient ceramics and rock art, while Baker’s team will provide bioarchaeological expertise.

Among the German team is rock art expert Cornelia Kleinitz, who has identified a large rock gong that both teams hope to document more thoroughly in the coming seasons. Rock gongs are giant slabs of stone that resonate when struck like drums. They are believed to have served a ceremonial purpose and are often found near rock art sites. According to Kleinitz, the rock gong is the largest yet discovered in the Fourth Cataract region. Investigating the area is significant, as excavations near rock gongs are rare and could yield valuable artifacts and information.

Living the dream

After hours, Baker hopes to renew friendships with many residents of El Ginefab, the small community closest to her camp. She is also excited about checking in on the progress of the children attending two schools that benefitted from her past field sessions. Baker and her crew are committed to investing in the communities where they work. Their efforts provided doors and windows for the new school by the dig house, a loudspeaker for the school by the main excavation site, textbooks and supplies for the children, and more.

Things have come a long way for Baker since her childhood visits to Chicago’s Field Museum to wonder at the fossils. Even in those early days of her life, she knew she wanted to study the past and, in fact, settled on anthropology in her teens. Now she’s living her dream.

“Most fulfilling is the discovery, to learn about cultures and expand knowledge,” Baker says of her work. “It’s amazing to think that you are the first one to see a person in centuries and can learn so much about them – what they ate, what they did in life, what diseases they had, sometimes even how they died.”