British Museum blog

Ancient human remains from Sudan: training future specialists


Michaela Binder, Durham University

Sudan has perhaps one of the richest and most fascinating archaeological records in the world. Construction projects such as roads and dams are an increasing threat to its cultural heritage which prompts a large number of salvage excavations by Sudanese and international teams. Accordingly, as a large number of archaeological sites are cemeteries, the amount of human remains housed in museums and universities for use in research is steadily growing.

The pyramid cemetery at Meroe

The pyramid cemetery at Meroe, a UNESCO World Heritage site since April 2011

Despite the fact Sudan has many excellent archaeologists, the scientific potential of human remains – which can increase our knowledge about many aspects of past human cultures – is not fully harnessed. This is mainly due to the fact that there is relatively little training in the study of human remains within the country itself.

Recognising this problem, the British Museum’s Amara West project has instigated a Bioarchaeology Field School, generously funded by the Institute of Bioarchaeology. I am currently in Khartoum running a one-week workshop at the National Council of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM). Over the course of the workshop, nine participants, including senior members of NCAM and archaeologists from the universities of Khartoum, Shendi, Bahri (Juba) and Wadi al-Nil, will gain a basic understanding of the study of human remains, the methods involved and the potential information that can be obtained.

Workshop participants learning anatomy using a plastic skeleton.

Workshop participants learning anatomy using a plastic skeleton.

During the first few days, we have been busy learning about the anatomy of the human skeleton. Following practice on a plastic skeleton, the participants get hands-on experience with skeletons excavated at the Meroitic cemetery at Berber, by workshop participant Mahmoud Suleiman Bashir, an inspector at NCAM.

We have also visited excavations at al-Khiday near Khartoum, a multi-period site with cemeteries of the Pre-Mesolithic, Neolithic and Meroitic periods, where Tina Jakob of Durham University, who works on the human remains of Al-Khiday, gave a talk about her research.

Site visit to Al-Khiday. Tina Jakob showing participants the Meroitic burial she is excavating

Site visit to Al-Khiday. Tina Jakob showing participants the Meroitic burial she is excavating

You can read more about our discoveries at Amara West on the British Museum website where we have uploaded new pages about the excavation of a Ramesside house at the town, and post-New Kingdom burials in cemetery C.

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Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum In 1991, BMW invited South African artist Esther Mahlangu to make a work of art in their Art Car project to mark the end of apartheid. Her work, with its brightly coloured geometric shapes, draws on the traditional house-painting designs of Ndebele people in South Africa. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation.

See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
#SouthAfrica #history #art #design Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. This gold rhinoceros, alongside four other gold sculptures, was discovered in three royal graves there. They are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat, and a rhinoceros – and also objects associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or crown. These treasures were discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe for trade with the coast, as part of an international trade network stretching as far as China, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history Our special exhibition this autumn will explore the fascinating history of South Africa through art, telling a story that stretches back 100,000 years.

Rock art is one of South Africa’s oldest artistic traditions. It was first made by the ancestors of San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, South Africa’s first peoples, at least 30,000 years ago.

This rock painting will feature in the exhibition. It depicts San|Bushmen running between eland, a type of antelope that is spiritually important. Hunter-gatherer rock paintings such as this are understood to relate to a ritual practice named ‘the great healing’ or ‘trance dance’, which continues today in the Kalahari outside of South Africa. 
The paintings address the relationship between healers, or shamans, and the worlds of the living and the dead. In the painting some eland are bleeding from the nose and frothing at the mouth. Eland do this when they are close to death, and shamans show similar symptoms when they are metaphorically ‘dying’ and entering the world of the dead during the great trance dance.

Find out more about our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition by clicking on the link in our bio.

The Zaamenkomst Panel. Detail of rock art depicting San|Bushmen running between eland. Made before 1900. On loan from Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections and SARADA. Photo: Neil Rusch.
#rockart #SouthAfrica #painting
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