This project is a new archaeological reconnaissance and survey of the Eastern Desert of Sudan. The mission will survey key goldmining sites and nomadic camps that have undergone little to no investigation, but have been identified from previous surveys, archival material, and/or satellite photography. The Eastern Desert of Sudan is well-known as a gold rich area and there are vestiges of mining operations in almost every period from the Second Millennium until the Arab Period. Goldmines are found in almost every region of this vast desert. Major mining nodes are known in the Allaqi, Onib, and Oshib regions as well as a vast desert north and east of Abu Hamed, a region that may have perhaps been called Amu in New Kingdom Egyptian texts. Remains of mining activity were documented in the vast surveys of Rosemarie and Dietrich Klemm as well as several expeditions conducted by Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, but there has been very little follow up work at these key sites to ascertain definite details about their occupation. The desert is also littered with nomadic camps, belonging to ancient nomadic groups of groups such as the Medjay, Blemmyes, and Beja. This survey project will ascertain the level of preservation at key mining sites and nomadic camps, as will identify the cultural affiliation and date of mining sites while also prospecting the region for new inscriptions and rock art sites. This project has its genesis as part of Julien Cooper’s work in the Nomadic Empires Project, an interdisciplinary project investigating nomadic groups in World History.

© Griffith Institute, Oxford

Sketch map of an ancient mine in the Eastern Desert, from the archive of Douglas Newbold, © Griffith Institute, Oxford

The desert contains the remains of two different groups, the expeditionary ventures of Nile regimes in Egypt and Sudan (Kerma-Kush, Napata, Meroe) and the remains of the indigenous inhabitants, the nomads. A key question for the archaeology and history of the desert is how these two disparate groups interacted, especially in the backdrop of goldmining and resource exploitation. For the agricultural kingdoms on the Nile in Egypt and Nubia, the desert was a source of exotic materials, notably gold but also aromatics and exotic fauna as well as other minerals like malachite. For the local nomadic groups, the desert was their homeland, a vast space which they roamed in search of pasture and water sources for their herds. The question of just who was engaged in mining operations in various periods, and the measure and intensity of state control in mining sites has not been assessed. This is one of the key issues relating to the history of the desert and will address the nature of foreign imperialism in the nomad heartland. Many un-surveyed goldmines, nomad camps (chiefly dry-stone wall huts) and associated cemeteries, rock art, and inscriptions can be found in this vast desert region.

© DigitalGlobe 2014

An 'enigmatic' Late Antique nomadic camp in the Eastern Desert? Such camps with dry-stone walls are relatively common features in the deserts east of the Fourth and Fifth Cataracts. © DigitalGlobe 2014.

One of the key foci of this project is investigation of the large nomadic camps which are encountered in the desert of Eastern Sudan. These bear a similarity to the so-called ‘enigmatic sites’ found in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, sites which likely belong to the nomadic Blemmyean groups who reached as far north as the deserts of Coptos. Initial investigations of these sites reveal that many of them contain Eastern Desert Ware, a decorated ceramic type that is often connected with the Blemmyes of Late Antiquity and is also known from some ‘enigmatic sites’ further north in the deserts east of Upper Egypt. Documentation of these sites will add new knowledge to the history of this often forgotten desert, and fill in the map to reveal the heartland of the Blemmyes.

Further reading

Barnard H. 2008. Eastern Desert Ware: traces of the inhabitants of the eastern deserts in Egypt and Sudan during the 4th-6th centuries CE. (Oxford).

Castiglioni, A., Castiglioni, A. & Vercoutter, J. 1995. Das Goldland der Pharaonen (Mainz).

Davies, W. V. 2014. ‘The Korosko Road Project: recording Egyptian inscriptions in the Eastern Desert and elsewhere’, Sudan & Nubia 18, 30-44.

Klemm, R. & Klemm, D. 2013. Gold and Goldmining in Ancient Egypt and Nubia (New York).