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Ancient Kush likened to Egypt

A 4,000-year-old gold- processing center sheds light on an early urban civilization in Africa.

June 19, 2007|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Archeologists have unearthed a 4,000-year-old gold-processing center along the middle Nile in Sudan that suggests the ancient kingdom of Kush was much larger than scholars previously believed and would have rivaled the domain of the Egyptians to the north.

Kush, which was called Nubia by the Greeks, was the first urban civilization in sub-Saharan Africa. The discovery of the gold center and a related graveyard is providing new information about the relationship between rulers in the capital city, Kerma, and its peripheral subjects, said archeologist Geoff Emberling of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who is announcing the find today.

Believed to have flourished from about 2400 BC until the 2nd century AD, Kush "is gradually coming out of the shadow of Egypt," said archeologist Derek A. Welsby of the British Museum, who was not involved in the excavation.

"We didn't know that Kush extended into the 4th Cataract zone" of the Nile, Welsby said, referring to the region where Emberling excavated

Much new information is emerging about Kush because of the salvage archeology being conducted ahead of next year's opening of the Merowe Dam, also known as Hamdab, which will flood thousands of archeological sites.

The imminent opening of the dam "has stimulated a vast amount of archeological work," Welsby said. "But the dam will be a great benefit to the modern-day people of Sudan, so we can't stand in the way of progress."

Emberling's team excavated along the banks of the Nile at the site of Hosh el Geruf, about 225 miles north of Khartoum and about 180 miles beyond what historians had considered the northern boundary of Kush. The region is called the 4th Cataract of the Nile because it is one of six cataracts, or shallow stretches of the river, where the surface is broken by small boulders and stones, rendering it unnavigable most of the year.

The team had originally thought the small site, covering nearly four acres, was a settlement but found no evidence of a permanent community.

"There was no architecture that we were able to find," Emberling said. "It was very frustrating."

They did find at least 55 large grindstones, much larger than those used for grain. The stones were broken, but geologist James A. Harrell of the University of Toledo and archeologist Carol Meyer of the Oriental Institute recognized them as part of a gold-processing facility.

They also found "huge quantities of hammer stones" at the site, Emberling said.

There are quartz veins in the rocks at the site, and gold is a common contaminant of quartz. It is possible that the Kushites were breaking up the veins with hammers, then reducing them to a fine powder with the grindstones. The gold then could have been panned in nearby streams.

Alternatively, the same process could have been used to extract gold from alluvial soil laid down by ancient floods in the region.

"Even today, panning for gold is a traditional activity in the area," said archeologist Bruce Williams of the Oriental Institute, a co-leader of the expedition.

Similar facilities had been found at sites in the eastern desert of Egypt, "but we had no direct evidence for how the Kushites were extracting gold themselves," Emberling said.

Nearby, at a site called Al-Widay, the team found a cemetery containing the remains of about 90 people who were buried during the 400 years the gold-processing center was in operation, from about 1900 BC to 1500 BC.

"We found one laughably tiny gold bead in the burials, but that was the only gold we found," Emberling said. "It seems certain that the gold was not used locally. Very likely the gold was for the benefit of the ruler and his circle in Kerma," 225 miles upstream from Hosh el Geruf.

Most of the graves were closely packed circular shafts lined with stone -- characteristic of Kushite graves. "Most of the burials were of not particularly wealthy people," Emberling noted.

But in the later burials, which coincided with the peak of the early Kush kingdom's power, they found scarabs made of faience, carnelian beads, vessels imported from Egypt and valuable pottery from Kerma.

That pottery, a black-topped red ware, "is among the most beautiful of Nubian ceramics," Emberling said. It is handmade, polished and very thin, and is generally assumed to have been made only in Kerma.

So the residents shipped their gold to Kerma, he said, "and what they got in return were a few high-status, largely symbolic gifts."

Altogether, at least 11 international teams are working feverishly in the area to sample selected sites and collect as much information as possible before the dam deluges the area.

Finding "Kerma material at the 4th Cataract was one of the major surprises of the salvage effort," Williams said.

It "suggests the leaders of Kush were able to expand their influence much further than was previously known, possibly including as much as 750 miles along the banks of the Nile," he said.

Emberling noted that the excavation area is more than 400 miles from the Darfur region of Sudan -- where a conflict pitting rebels against Arab-led militias believed to be backed by the government has left at least 200,000 people dead and more than 2 million displaced -- so the teams have had no problems with residents.

The only severe problem, he said, was that "March is the season of the biting flies, and the region just swarmed with the vicious creatures."

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