First Human Traces Buried in an Ancient Gold Mine in Eastern Sahara
In an ancient gold mine in the Eastern Sahara, some of the earliest evidence of human existence going back 1.8 million years have been unearthed. Archaeologists from the University of Wroclaw discovered a cache of artefacts from the African variety of Homo erectus, the ancestor of humans (Homo sapiens), around 70 kilometres east of Atbara.
Included among the hundreds of artefacts were massive, almond-shaped cleavers resembling fists, weighing several kilograms, and with chipped edges on both sides forming a pointed tip at the junction.
“In the eastern part of Sudan, in the Eastern Desert, like in many places in the Sahara, a gold rush broke out. People were looking for this valuable ore in makeshift, open-cast mines. While exposing subsequent layers, miners came across several-hundred-thousand-year-old tools.”
By examining layers of soil and sand above the objects using the optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) method the archaeologists were able to determine the age of the tools.
Research project leader Professor Mirosław Masojć from the Institute of Archaeology of the University of Wrocław said: “It turned out that they were about 390,000 years old.
This means that the layers below are certainly older. Based on the workmanship, I believe that the tools may be over 700,000 years old, perhaps even a million years old, like their counterparts discovered further in the south of Africa.”
Previously, Professor Masojć’s team previously had discovered hand axes and other tools, but never ones that were technologically so close to those from equatorial Africa, or that old.
It is now thought that in the place where the artefacts were discovered, there used to be a workshop where tools were made because both finished ‘products, as well as flakes formed during their production, have been preserved.
Masojć added that these are the oldest known human creations with such a well-confirmed chronology from Egypt and Sudan. He said: “Ancient tools are found in deserts, but never before have they come from layers that would allow to safely determine their age.”
So far, researchers have found nearly 200 sites where Palaeolithic stone products have been preserved. Some of them are in mines (these are located about 350 km north of Khartoum).
They find all sorts of tools used by both Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. The age of the tools varies greatly, from over half a million to 60,000 years.
Masojć said it cannot be ruled out that there are even older artefacts in the deeper parts of the mines, but added that accessing them is currently difficult.
He said: “The last research season took place at the end of 2019 when the political situation was very tense, and ultimately there was a coup in Sudan and the long-standing regime was overthrown.
The work was very difficult in terms of logistics: there were fuel shortages, we had to avoid protests, people were dying.”
Researchers from Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Germany and the US were involved in the project financed by the National Science Centre. The research results have just been published in the prestigious journal Plos One
Dozens of ancient pyramids found at a single site in Sudan
At least 35 small pyramids, along with graves, have been discovered clustered closely together at a site called Sedeinga in Sudan. Discovered between 2009 and 2012, researchers are surprised at how densely the pyramids are concentrated.
In one field season alone, in 2011, the research team discovered 13 pyramids packed into roughly 5,381 square feet (500 square meters), or slightly larger than an NBA basketball court. They date back around 2,000 years to a time when a kingdom named Kush flourished in Sudan. Kush shared a border with Egypt and, later on, the Roman Empire.
The desire of the kingdom’s people to build pyramids was apparently influenced by Egyptian funerary architecture.
At Sedeinga, researchers say, pyramid building continued for centuries. “The density of the pyramids is huge,” said researcher Vincent Francigny, a research associate with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in an interview with LiveScience.
“Because it lasted for hundreds of years they built more, more, more pyramids and after centuries they started to fill all the spaces that were still available in the necropolis.”
The biggest pyramids they discovered are about 22 feet (7 meters) wide at their base with the smallest example, likely constructed for the burial of a child, being only 30 inches (750 millimetres) long.
The tops of the pyramids are not attached, as the passage of time and the presence of a camel caravan route resulted in damage to the monuments. Francigny said that the tops would have been decorated with a capstone depicting either a bird or a lotus flower on top of a solar orb.
The building continued until, eventually, they ran out of room to build pyramids. “They reached a point where it was so filled with people and graves that they had to reuse the oldest one,” Francigny said.
Francigny is excavation director of the French Archaeological Mission to Sedeinga, the team that made the discoveries. He and team leader Claude Rilly published an article detailing the results of their 2011 field season in the most recent edition of the journal Sudan and Nubia.
Among the discoveries were several pyramids designed with an inner cupola (circular structure) connected to the pyramid corners through cross-braces. Rilly and Francigny noted in their paper that the pyramid design resembles a “French Formal Garden.”
Only one pyramid, outside of Sedeinga, is known to have been constructed this way, and it’s a mystery why the people of Sedeinga were fond of the design. It “did not add either to the solidity or to the external aspect [appearance] of the monument,” Rilly and Francigny write.
A discovery made in 2012 may provide a clue, Francigny said in the interview. “What we found this year is very intriguing,” he said.
“A grave of a child and it was covered by only a kind of circle, almost complete, of brick.” It’s possible, he said, that when pyramid building came into fashion at Sedeinga it was combined with a local circle-building tradition called tumulus construction, resulting in pyramids with circles within them.
An offering for grandma?
The graves beside the pyramids had largely been plundered, possibly in antiquity, by the time archaeologists excavated them. Researchers did find skeletal remains and, in some cases, artefacts.
One of the most interesting new finds was an offering table found by the remains of a pyramid. . It appears to depict the goddess Isis and the jackal-headed god Anubis and includes an inscription, written in Meroitic language, dedicated to a woman named “Aba-la,” which may be a nickname for “grandmother,” Rilly writes.
It reads in translation:
Oh, Isis! Oh Osiris!
It is Aba-la.
Make her drink plentiful water;
Make her eat plentiful bread;
Make her be served a good meal.
The offering table with the inscription was a final send-off for a woman, possibly a grandmother, given a pyramid burial nearly 2,000 years ago.
Medieval Church Excavated in Sudan’s Northern State
Science in Poland reports that researchers led by Artur Obłuski of the University of Warsaw have found the remains of a large medieval church in the centre of Old Dongola, Northern State, Sudan.
According to, Assist. Prof. Artur Obłuski, the head of the Dongola expedition and the director of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw (PCMA UW), this discovery changes not only our knowledge about the city itself but also the way we reconstruct the history of the Nubian church.
Dongola was the capital of Makuria, one of the three Christian Nubian kingdoms. Archaeologists from PCMA UW have been working there since 1964, continuing the research initiated by Prof. K. Michałowski after the success of his work in another Nubian centre – Faras, the capital of Nobadia.
Since 2018, work in Dongola has been carried out under the European Research Council (ERC) grant “UMMA – Urban Metamorphosis of the community of a Medieval African capital city”, headed by Assist. Prof. Obłuski.
In 2021, archaeologists cleaned the wall of the church’s apse, together with an adjacent wall and the nearby dome of a large tomb. The structures are located in the very centre of the city.
The walls of the apse, which was the most sacred place in the church, are decorated with paintings depicting two rows of monumental figures. It is the largest apse so far discovered in Nubia: it has a diameter of 6 m, and the width of the church to which it belonged is approx. 26 m.
“If our estimates based on the known dimensions are confirmed, it is the largest church discovered so far in Nubia,” – says Obłuski, adding – “Its size is important, but so is the location of the building – in the heart of the 200-hectare city, the capital of the combined kingdoms of Nobadia and Makuria. Just to the east of the apse, a large domed building was added.
We have a great analogy for such an architectural complex: Faras. There too, the cathedral stood in the centre of the citadel, and to the east of it was the domed tomb of Joannes, the bishop of Faras. However, there is a major difference in the scale of the buildings. The dome over Joannes’ tomb is 1.5 m in diameter, while the dome over the Dongolese building is 7.5 m.”
Archaeologists assume that, just like in Faras, the large church in Dongola served as a cathedral, next to which a tomb of dignitaries, probably bishops, was erected. The confirmation of this hypothesis will have significant consequences for Nubiology.
Until now, another church located outside the citadel was considered to be Dongola’s cathedral, a building whose features would influence the religious architecture of Nubia over the centuries. “If we are right, it was a completely different building that set the trends,” – says Obłuski.
The newly discovered building stands in the middle of the citadel that is surrounded by a wall about 10 m high and 5 m thick.
The excavations have shown that this was the heart of the entire kingdom in the Makurian period as all structures uncovered there were of a monumental character: churches, a palace, and large villas belonging to a church and state elites. Test trenches dug in the building have yielded promising results.
“The sounding in the apse is approx. 9 m deep. This means that the eastern part of the building is preserved to the impressive height of a modern three-storey block of flats. And this means there may be more paintings and inscriptions under our feet, just like in Faras,” – says the archaeologist.
Therefore, among the team members are conservators from the Department of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, working under the supervision of Prof. Krzysztof Chmielewski. Their immediate task is to secure the discovered paintings on an ongoing basis, and in the long term, to prepare them for display. Unlike at Faras, they can be left on the church walls.
“In order to continue the excavations, the weakened and peeling wall plaster covered with painting decoration must be strengthened, and then carefully cleaned of layers of earth, dirt and salt deposits that are particularly harmful to the wall paintings.
When a suitable roof is erected over this valuable find, it will be possible to start the final aesthetic conservation of the paintings,” – explains Prof. Chmielewski, adding that this type of rescue conservation requires the involvement of considerable resources, time, and skilled specialists.
The next excavation seasons in Dongola are planned for the fall of this year and the winter of 2022.
Divers Exploring A 2,300-Year-Old Pyramid Have Found The Underwater Tomb Of A Powerful Pharaoh
Have you ever heard of having to use scuba gear to explore an ancient pyramid? we didn’t either until we came across the story of an archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman. His story involves the study of an ancient race just as advanced as the Egyptians, who shared the same continent with history and culture just as rich and shrouded in mystery.
Get ready as the richest go underwater to explore the tomb of a pharaoh that once ruled the “kingdom of kush“. Before we dive right into our pyramid diving story, let’s back it up a bit and learn a little bit about pyramids first. Enormous architectural wonders were built all over the world, centuries before modern technology.
Pyramids were used by ancient peoples as both places of worship and as monuments and tombs of the dead. It’s estimated that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 pyramids still standing in the world today, they can be found on every continent on earth except for icy Antarctica. The most famous of course is the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt. The largest stands at 455 feet. The ancient Egyptians built these amazing structures as tombs and monuments for their pharaohs.
Over in the Americas, many ancient tribes built step pyramids as temples for worshipping their gods. The famous El Castillo pyramid of Chichen Itza for example was built by the Mayans over eleven hundred years ago in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It was built as a temple to the serpent God Kukulkan.
In ancient Greece the Pyramid of hellinikon was built some 100 years earlier than the Great Pyramids of Egypt, its purpose remains unknown. In China there stands the great white pyramid of XI’AN, we know very little about it as the Chinese government has banned access to the structure but rumor has it that it could be twice the height of the Great Pyramid at Giza.
On the Australian continent there are two possible yet unconfirmed pyramid sites, the Gympie pyramid and Walsh’s pyramid, and as previously mentioned exactly zero on Antarctica, despite a recent debunked story about one the images turned out to be snow-covered pyramidal-shaped mountaintops.
The country that holds the title for the most pyramids still intact is surprisingly not Egypt but its neighbor to the south on the African continent Sudan. Sudan is home to some two hundred and forty pyramids built by the ancient Cushite people. Sudan and the cushites also happen to be at the center of our archaeological story.
The kingdom of kush also referred to as Nubia was located in northeast Africa just south of ancient Egypt in modern-day Sudan and it had close ties to ancient Egypt. Its main cities were situated along the Nile River and two of its main tributaries the White Nile and the Blue Nile. If not for the formation of these waterways and their proximity to gold and iron ore deposits it’s likely humans would not have settled in this dry desert region.
The kingdom of kush lasted for over 1,400 years. First established circa 1070 BCE when it gained its independence from Egypt. In 727 BCE kush took control of ancient Egypt, ruling it until the Assyrians arrived in the next century.
Once the Roman Empire conquered Egypt, the kingdom of kush began to weaken and eventually collapsed sometime in the 4th century CE. The Cushite was very similar to the ancient Egyptians in many ways, sharing a religion, a form of government, and many aspects of culture.
They worshiped Egyptian gods and mummified their dead and entombed them in pyramids. Aside from the Pharaoh and other rulers the highest class in kush were the religious leaders the priests. Much like their Egyptian neighbor’s religion and a strong belief in the afterlife played an important role in the life of the Cushite people.
The pyramids that the Cushite people built to entomb their pharaohs and other important figures looked very similar to the ancient Egyptian structures. They did have a few key differences though for one they differed in size with the average cushite pyramid standing roughly 6 to 30 meters or 20 to 98 feet high while the average Egyptian pyramid was much taller at roughly 138 meters or 453 feet. There was also one other major difference while the Egyptians burial chambers were located inside the pyramidal structure itself the kush burial chambers were located underneath the pyramids buried below the structure.
One such leader buried in this matter was the Pharaoh Nastasen. He ruled the kingdom of kush from 335 to 310 BCE. The little that we do know about this Nubian King is from writings on stone tablets and a more few artifacts. The writings tell us that the highlight of his reign came when the Pharaoh Nastasen defeated an invasion from Upper Egypt and gained many spoils in his victory.
Once Nastasen crossed into the afterlife he became the last cushites, King, to be buried in the royal cemetery and necropolis at nepata. A glorious graveyard spanning more than seven and a half million square feet.
The site of the royal cemetery in the ancient city of nepata is now Karima, Sudan, located about one mile west of the Nile river bank. Seen from the sky one of its most commanding features is an arc of some twenty pyramids built between 650 BCE and 300 BCE. National Geographics Kristin Romy describes this arc of pyramids as a quote “strung together like gems on a delicate necklace”.
There are more than twenty pyramids at the site overall though. At least 60 Nubian kings and queens are buried there among hundreds of other individuals. The most famous resident is Pharaoh taharqa who ruled all of Egypt during the seventh century BCE. The Pharaoh Nastasen’s twenty-three hundred-year-old pyramid tomb the last of its kind stands at roughly thirty feet or 9.1 meters and was erected at one of the lowest points of elevation at the royal necropolis.
This is one of the reasons why Nastasen’s burial chambers are completely underwater. Why exactly? the pyramid’s proximity to the Nile River combined with both natural and man-made climate change has caused the groundwater levels to rise over the centuries. Submerging the tombs that are cut into the bedrock underneath the pyramids. Due to its low elevation nastasen’s tomb is among the most submerged.
Enter archaeologists Pearce Paul Creaseman. Creaseman holds the dual-title of both Egyptologist and underwater archaeologist yes indeed that is a thing, when Creasman first visited the royal cemetery back in 2018 he saw his unique skill set as an opportunity to explore the watery tombs and discover more than what was ever uncovered when the site was first explored nearly a century ago. Back then the water was only knee-deep now the water reached the ceiling of the tomb chambers.
After Creaseman and his team spent the better part of a year digging the staircases leading to nestasen’s tomb out from under sand they put on their scuba gear and headed into the murky waters. Creaseman had to make his way through a series of three chambers. While navigating in water thick with muddy sediment and making vision close to impossible.
When they reached the third and final chamber they discovered a treasure trove of artifacts including gold foil, shabti dolls, funerary figures whom the ancient Nubians believed would accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Also in the chamber the sarcophagus of the pharaoh Nastasen himself. The only problem that ceiling-high muddy water makes excavation and study of these artifacts highly problematic. Creaseman is optimistic though and now packed with experiences and knowing what to expect.
Their aim is to return to the site later in 2020 an attempt to excavate the burial chamber in what they themselves argue is an audacious and logistical challenge. Only then will we know the extent and value of the treasures inside this pyramid and perhaps eventually the dozens of others. Says Christman ” I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here. it’s a remarkable point in history that’s so few know about it. it’s a story that deserves to be told.” So how about you would you take the plunge into those muddy waters to uncover ancient treasures?
The lost city in the sands: Inside the ancient citadel of the Black Pharaoh’s which has pyramids to rival Egypt.
This is the lost city of Meroë in Sudan, with beautifully maintained pyramids as impressive as their more famous counterparts in Egypt. However, unlike the famed pyramids of Giza, the Sudanese site is largely deserted.
The pyramids at Meroë, some 125 miles north of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, are rarely visited despite being a Unesco World Heritage site.
Sanctions against the government of longtime President Omar al-Bashir over Sudan’s long-running internal conflicts limit its access to foreign aid and donations, while also hampering tourism.
The site, known as the Island of Meroë because an ancient, long-dried river ran around it, once served as the principal residence of the rulers of the Kush kingdom – one of the earliest civilizations in the Nile region – and known as the Black Pharaohs.
Their pyramids, ranging from 20 feet to 100 feet tall, were built between 720 and 300 B.C. The entrances usually face east to greet the rising sun.
‘Egypt doesn’t have the monopoly on pyramids,’ said Eric Lafforgue, a photographer who travels the world documenting tribes.
‘Sudan has many of them and discovers new ones regularly. The most beautiful and impressive pyramids form the Meroë Necropolis.’
The Unesco World Heritage website describes the site as: ‘The heartland of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D.’
It explains that the property consists of the royal city of the Kushite kings at Meroe and the nearby religious site of Naqa and Musawwarat es Sufra.
Meroë and others bear the marks of more recent history, with many marked out by their flat tops – the result of being dynamited by Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini, who is 1834, came and pillaged the site.
The pyramids bear decorative elements inspired by Pharaonic Egypt, Greece, and Rome, according to Unesco, making them priceless relics.
However, overeager archaeologists in the 19th century tore off the golden tips of some pyramids and reduced some to rubble, according to Abdel-Rahman Omar, the head of the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum.
Tourists are few and far between in the forgotten pyramid village of Meroë in Sudan, with around 15,000 visiting a year
The ruins of a kiosk discovered in Naga, a religious site near to the ancient Kush city of Meroe, where the rulers were one of the earliest civilisations in the Nile region
Naga, where this sculpture of a ram was one of many discovered dating back to the first century B.C., forms part of the Unesco world heritage site with Meroe and religious site Musawwarat es Sufra
On a recent day, locals reported just a few tourists and white camels roaming the site, watched by a handful of security guards.
Sudan’s tourism industry has been devastated by economic sanctions imposed over the conflicts in Darfur and other regions.
Al-Bashir’s government, which came to power following a bloodless Islamist coup in 1989, has struggled to care for its antiquities.
Qatar has pledged $135 million to renovate and support Sudan’s antiquities in the last few years. But Mr Omar said Sudan still receives just 15,000 tourists per year.
Carving on 5,000-year-old Sudan rock shows world oldest Place name
Wadi Al-Malik is the bed of an extinct river in Sudan that is rarely explored by archaeologists, but a recent dig has uncovered an incredible discovery – the world’s oldest ‘place-name sign.’
A team with the University of Bonn deciphered four hieroglyphs carved more than 5,000 years ago on a large stone that read ‘Domain of the Horus King Scorpion.’
What makes this inscription unique is the circular symbol toward the top right that indicates the rock was a marking of a ruler’s territory.
Archaeologists note that such writings in a remote area were unusual for those living in the fourth millennium BC, but it highlights the process of internal colonization in the Nile River.
Egyptologist Prof. Dr Ludwig D. Morenz from the University of Bonn, said: ‘This ruler called ‘Scorpion’ was a prominent figure in the phase of the emergence of the first territorial state in world history.’
A team with the University of Bonn deciphered four hieroglyphs carved more than 5,000 years ago on a large stone that read ‘Domain of the Horus King Scorpion, making it the world’s oldest place name same
Morenz continued to explain that Scorpion lived around 3070BC, but the team has yet to determine the dates and length of his reign.
He told DailyMail.com in an email: ‘Around 3100 there started something completely new in the Nile Valley: the first territorial state (one political power reigning of a territory of more than 800km north-south).’
‘The ‘Scorpion’ I am talking about played an important role in this process (as the first territorial state in world history I think it is of high importance even for our understanding of ‘global history’).’
‘Furthermore, I think that with our findings in Wadi el-Malik we can get a better understanding of the internal socio-economic development of Egypt a bit more than 5000 years ago.’
The name ‘Scorpion’ is written together with three other hieroglyphs on a rock inscription discovered more than two years ago in Wadi Abu Subeira to the east of Aswan.
The team from the University of Boon collaborated with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities when the stone was discovered two years ago, with the hopes of deciphering the ancient drawings.
The name ‘Scorpion’ is written by what looks like the predatory arachnids, along with two other images. But in the top right corner is a circular design that reveals that stone is a place name sign
The name ‘Scorpion’ is written by what looks like the predatory arachnids, along with two other images. But in the top right corner is a circular design that reveals that stone is a place name sign.
‘This is precisely why the new discovery of the rock inscription is so valuable,’ Morenz said.
‘Despite its brevity, the inscription opens a window into the world of the emergence of the Egyptian state and the culture associated with it.’
The researchers explain that Egypt was the first territorial state worldwide. There were already ruling systems elsewhere before, but these were much smaller,’ said Morenz.
The name ‘Scorpion’ is written together with three other hieroglyphs on a rock inscription discovered more than two years ago in Wadi Abu Subeira to the east of Aswan
However, during this time it was popularly known that the north-south extension of Egypt was already nearly 500 miles.
In fact, several rival population centres merged into the new central state,’ says Morenz. Royal estates, known as domains, were founded on the periphery of the empire in order to consolidate the pharaonic empire.’
In addition to various rock carvings, other early rock inscriptions were discovered here and found together with pottery from this period.
‘This area is still in the early stages of archaeological investigation,’ says Morenz. The researchers see this as an opportunity to take a closer look at the momentous process of the world’s first state emergence.
Archaeologists discover 35 burial chambers in the Sudan desert with fascinating links to Ancient Egypt
Archaeologists excavating a site in Sudan have discovered 35 pyramids revealing fascinating links between the bygone Kingdom of Kush that once existed there and ancient Egypt.
The pyramids, which date back around 2,000 years, are smaller than most Egyptian examples with the largest being 22 feet in width and the smallest, likely constructed for the burial of a child, being just 30 inches.
The site in Sedeinga, northern Sudan, was part of the ancient kingdom of Kush which shared a border with Egypt and, later on, the Roman Empire.
Discovery: The skeleton of a child buried with necklaces around its neck was unearthed amid a complex of 35 pyramids discovered in Sudan
Find: Some of the pyramids discovered in the dig in Sedeinga in northern Sudan. Unusually some had a circle built inside them with cross-braces connecting the circle to the corners of the pyramid
Treasures: An amulet of the Egyptian god Bes who was often associated with children and pregnant mothers (left) and archaeologist Vincent Francigny shows with a steal, a stone slab used to keep records (right)
One factor that has surprised the team was how densely concentrated the pyramids were. In a single area of 5,381 square feet, roughly the size of a basketball court, they found 13 pyramids.
Sadly the condition of the pyramids has suffered from the presence of a camel caravan route and the long passage of time and none of the top sections remains intact.
Capstones, depicting either a bird or a lotus flower on top of a solar orb, who have originally been placed at the top of the pyramids. Graves were discovered beside the pyramids in tomb chambers which were often found to have held more than one body.
Packed: One feature that surprised the team was how densely concentrated the pyramids were. In a single area of 5,381 square feet, roughly the size of a basketball court, they found 13 pyramids
Treasures: An offering table discovered at the site inscribed with ancient Meroitic writing (left) and a capstone which would have sat on the top of a pyramids shaped like a lotus flower above a solar orb (right)
Sadly these graves had all been plundered, possibly many hundreds of years ago, however, the archaeologists did find skeletal remains and some artefacts.
The archaeological team believes building of pyramids at Sedeinga continued for centuries and was strongly influenced by Egyptian funerary architecture.
Vincent Francigny, a research associate with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, told LiveScience: ‘The density of the pyramids is huge.
‘Because it lasted for hundreds of years they built more, more, more pyramids and after centuries they started to fill all the spaces that were still available in the necropolis.
‘They reached a point where it was so filled with people and graves that they had to reuse the oldest one.’
Some of the pyramids were found to have been built with cross-braces connecting the corners to an inner circle. Interestingly only one pyramid outside of Sedeinga is known to have been built in this way.
Mr Francigny believes that when pyramid building came into fashion at Sedeinga it could have been combined with a local circle-building tradition called tumulus construction, resulting in pyramids with circles within them.
He added: ‘What we found this year is very intriguing. A grave of a child and it was covered by only a kind of circle, almost complete, of brick.’
A copper alloy bowl was found in the tomb holding this skeleton (left).Sedeinga, in Sudan, sits near the River Nile which flows up into Egypt (right)
Among the artefacts discovered were depictions of Egyptian gods including Bes who is associated with children and pregnant mothers. One of the most interesting finds was an offering table depicting the jackal-headed god Anubis and a goddess believed to be Isis.
A dedication to a woman named ‘Aba-la,’ which researchers believe may be a nickname for ‘grandmother,’ was inscribed with ancient Meroitic writing – a script derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Archaeologists Diving Under a 2,300-Year-Old Pyramid Find Ancient Treasure
Somewhere Below the surface of the kiddie-pool sized patch of brown water is the entrance to the 2,300-year-old tomb of a pharaoh named Nastasen. If I crane my neck back far enough, I can just make out the eastern flank of his pyramid rising nearly three stories above me.
In order to access the tomb of pharaoh Nastasen, archaeologists had to excavate the processional staircase that leads to the burial chambers deep below his pyramid at Nuri.
It’s a sweltering morning in the desert of northern Sudan, the land of Nubia in the time of the pharaohs. Sweat drips into the dive mask hung around my neck as I negotiate my way down a narrow, ancient staircase cut deep into the bedrock. Waterproof flashlights clank from each wrist, and a 20-pound weight belt is slung commando-style across my chest. An emergency container of air, no bigger than a can of hairspray, is secured uncomfortably in the small of my back.
At the bottom of the stairs, archaeologist and National Geographic grantee Pearce Paul Creasman are standing chest-deep in the muddy water. “It’s really deep today,” he warns. “There’s not going to be any headroom in the first chamber.”
Creasman and I both trained as underwater archaeologists, so when I heard that he had the grant to explore submerged ancient tombs, I gave him a call and asked to tag along. Just a few weeks before I arrived, he entered Nastasen’s tomb for the first time, swimming through the first chamber, then a second, then into a third and final room, where, beneath several feet of water, he saw what looked like a royal sarcophagus. The stone coffin appeared to be unopened and undisturbed. Now, Creasman disappears into the water and resurfaces with a steel grate used to seal the tomb entrance. It looks no bigger than a large television set.
“This is how big the chute is,” he announces. “That’s your only space to get in and out of the tomb.” Back-mounted scuba tanks are too unwieldy in such tight confines, so we clip into 150-foot-long hoses that will supply us with air from a noisy, gasoline-fed pump.
“I’ll go first and pull my hose in,” Creasman says. “If I don’t see you in five minutes, I’ll come to find you.”
I nod and turn back to look up the ancient staircase, where Fakhri Hassan Abdallah, an inspector with Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, stands silhouetted against the rising sun. He gives me a thumbs up and smiles. I shove the diving regulator into my mouth. It’s time to go pyramid diving.
The pyramids of Nuri
Nastasen’s watery tomb is located at the ancient site of Nuri, which sprawls across more than 170 acres of sand near the east bank of the Nile River in northern Sudan. Seen from the sky, its most commanding feature is an arc of some 20 pyramids built between 650 B.C. and 300 B.C. that appear strung together like gems on a delicate necklace.
Local excavation helper at the entrance to a pyramid in Sudan below the groundwater table laying a compressed air line for diving archaeologists. Shutterstock.
These pyramids mark the burials of Kushite royals, the “black pharaohs” who operated as vassals on the gold-rich southern edges of the Egyptian empire, but who emerged as a force of their own during the political chaos that followed the demise of the New Kingdom. From about 760 B.C. to 650 B.C., five Kushite pharaohs ruled all of Egypt from Nubia to the Mediterranean Sea, embarking on ambitious building programs up and down the Nile and reviving the religious practices of a much earlier Egyptian empire—including the construction of pyramids, which they buried their kings under.
The largest and oldest pyramid at Nuri belongs to its most famous resident: the pharaoh Taharqa, a Kushite king who in the seventh century B.C. rallied his troops to the northern edges of his empire to defend Jerusalem from the Assyrians, earning him a mention in the Old Testament. George Reisner, a Harvard Egyptologist, visited Nuri a century ago to excavate the burial chambers beneath Taharqa’s massive pyramid.
Reisner’s team also mapped Nuri’s funerary monuments, which include more than 80 royal Kushite burials—roughly a quarter of which are topped with their sandstone pyramids. His field notes show that many of the tombs he encountered were already inundated with groundwater percolating from the nearby Nile, making traditional dirt excavation unsafe or impossible.
Reisner never published the results of his work (an associate cobbled what little was documented into a report published in 1955), and for almost a century Nuri was ignored. The Harvard archaeologist had offhandedly—and inaccurately—dismissed the Kushite kings as racially inferior and their accomplishments as an inheritance of older Egyptian traditions.
Then, in 1922, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb shifted the public’s attention to the Valley of the Kings, nearly 500 miles up the Nile in Luxor. In the decades that followed, Nuri seemed too big and challenging a site to tackle. Many of its tombs were likely underwater, and no one had ever before attempted underwater archaeology in Sudan. Besides, northern Sudan—ancient Nubia—had plenty of other stunning sites to keep archaeologists busy for years to come.
Pearce Paul Creasman first visited Nuri in 2018. An unusual hybrid of Egyptologist and underwater archaeologist (as well as an associate professor in the dendrochronology laboratory at the University of Arizona), Creasman saw a rare opportunity to explore the watery tombs that Reisner was unable to tackle a century ago.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society, Creasman zeroed in on the pyramid of Nastasen, a minor pharaoh who ruled Kush from 335 B.C. to 315 B.C. Because he was the last king buried at Nuri, his pyramid was built on the worst piece of real estate in the lowest elevations of the royal necropolis. If Reisner’s reports about the flooded tombs were true, Creasman reasoned, an exploration of pharaoh Nastasen’s final resting place would be the best way to gauge how inundated these monuments might be in the 21st century.
According to Reisner’s century-old field notes, his team located and excavated the rock-hewn stairwell that led down to the burial chambers deep beneath Nastasen’s pyramid. One of Reisner’s workers entered the tomb and, likely unnerved by the knee-deep water, hastily made his way to the third and final chamber. There he dug a small pit in the corner and collected a handful of shabtis—small magical figurines tasked with tending to the deceased’s needs in the afterlife. The research team left Nuri, and over the decades Nastasen’s tomb, and the staircase leading to it, were again buried under the desert sands.
Creasman’s team spent the 2018 field season and part of the 2019 season digging out the staircase. They reached the opening of the tomb this January and discovered that the entrance was now completely underwater, most likely due to rising groundwater caused by natural and human-induced climate change, intensive agriculture near the site, and the construction of modern dams along the Nile.
By the time I arrive at Nuri, Creasman has reinforced the narrow tomb opening with a steel chute to prevent a rock collapse that would trap divers in the chambers beneath the pyramid. I pull myself through the chute and into the first chamber. As Creasman had warned, the water reaches to the ceiling. Every movement kicks up a cloud of ultra-fine sediment that makes it almost impossible to see what’s directly in front of me.
I feel my way around the bus-sized chamber, swimming in circles until I eventually surface in the second chamber. There, the ceiling has collapsed, creating space for a large air pocket. I find Creasman hoisting bags of gear onto a pile of dry rubble and placing flashlights into plastic jerry cans that gently bob in the water and illuminate the darkness. Empty Red Bull cans serve as floats for a safety line that runs from the back of the tomb to the entrance.
Swimming through a low, rounded, rock-cut doorway, we enter the third chamber. The stone sarcophagus is dimly visible below us—a thrilling sight—and we spot the pit that was hastily dug by Reisner’s nervous worker a century ago. At this early phase of the project, Creasman’s objectives are to demonstrate the safety of the air-supply system, gather basic measurements, and thoroughly excavate “Reisner’s pit” to see what was overlooked. Peering inside the stone coffin will have to wait until next year.
But there are tantalizing clues that the rising groundwater kept grave robbers from looting Nastasen’s tomb. As we excavate Reisner’s pit—filling plastic buckets with sediment, swimming them out into the air-filled second chamber, dumping the sediment onto a screen and sifting for artefacts—we discover paper-thin foils of pure gold that likely once covered precious figurines that long ago dissolved in the water. Those gilded figurines would have been easy pickings for looters, and their remains are a sure sign that Nastasen’s tomb has been essentially untouched.
On our final dive, Creasman and I float silently in water in the back chamber of the tomb, hovering above what may very well be Nastasen’s undisturbed sarcophagus. We talk about the team’s goal for 2020: to excavate the pharaoh’s 2,300-year-old submerged royal burial chambers. It’s an audacious aim and a huge logistical challenge, but Creasman is optimistic.
“I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here,” he says. “It’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told.”