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The MAHAS SURVEY PROJECT - Monograph report now published (April 2012) - available here

( Khartoum University

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Rock Drawings

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The 'Mahas Survey' is a University of Khartoum project undertaking a regional study of the archaeology and long-term history of the Mahas region of Middle Nubia, northern Sudan. This region (c.145km long), currently inhabited by Mahasi Nubians (speakers of Nobiin Nubian), extends north from around Tombos - Hannik (at the southern end of the Nile Third Cataract) to the area of Jebel Dosha-Wawa, the traditional frontier with their Sikood Nubian neighbours to the north. Field survey has to-date identified some 690 archaeological sites between Tombos and Delgo (c.80km along the river), within the southern half of this region. These relate to all periods of human history, ranging from very ancient Palaeolithic sites (c.500,000 years old) to a remarkable range of (Islamic) post-medieval sites, some of a type only found in this part of Sudanese Nubia. Some of these are of exceptional archaeological importance and interest, unmatched elsewhere in Sudan.

By the 1970s most of northern (Lower) Nubia had disappeared beneath the waters of Lake Nubia/Nasser - flooded by the Aswan Dam - and its inhabitants relocated. Archaeologically, the Mahas and Sikood areas have remained some of the last relatively unexplored parts of northern Nubia which have escaped flooding. Since 2007, the revived plans for the construction of a dam at Kajbar-Sabu, at the downstream end of the Nile's Third Cataract have presented a new threat not only to inhabitants of this region and their homes, but also the archaeological and cultural heritage of this region. This threat has brought a new urgency to archaeological research in this region, potentially demanding yet another campaign of salvage archaeology, following on immediately after the end of the Merowe Dam Salvage campaign..

The threatened area includes an extensive area upstream of Sabu-Kajbar (the surveyed area extends c.60km upriver as far as Hannik/Tombos), much of which will be flooded by the reservoir created by the Kajbar Dam. Areas downstream of the proposed dam site as far north as Delgo (c.20km downstream) may also be expected to see very considerable impacts from construction-related activities (e.g. quarrying, engineering infrastructure, new powerlines etc) and probably the construction of new settlements and new agricultural schemes to accommodate the displaced populations of villages destroyed by the reservoir. As such, all parts of the region and nearly all archaeological sites within it may now be assumed to be in danger.

Many of the sites are exceptionally well-preserved due to the arid environmental conditions. Amongst over 50 Neolithic sites, several have significant potential for further research, while the more than 70 sites of rock drawings identified in the region include some of the most important such sites known anywhere in the Sudan, with very spectacular sites at both Sabu and Kajbar. These represent some of the last surviving examples of a distinctive ' Nubian' riverine tradition of rock art, otherwise largely destroyed by the Aswan Dam.

At least 15 of the c.55 Kerma period sites (c.2500-1500BCE) so far located are either substantial cemetery or settlement sites which merit extensive excavations. Pharaonic Egyptian (14), Napatan (5?) and Meroitic (5?) sites are relatively rare, but these include some uniquely important sites (e.g.at Tombos, Habaraab, Nauri, Sesibi and Kedurma), some including major monumental remains and including sites which cannot be matched elsewhere in the Sudan. The medieval and more recent remains of the region are especially abundant (120+ sites) and significant, and often very well-preserved. These include several large settlements, including what is almost certainly a well-preserved monastery site and several mudbrick churches, some still standing, as well as two large fortified sites. Amongst the (200+) postmedieval sites so far identified are a number of settlements dating to the early postmedieval period, which are of special importance for the history of the development of the modern Sudan, and its frontier with Ottoman Egypt. The many examples of fortified houses (Diffi) which survive in this area appear to be an important and regionally distinctive architectural form, only found in this part of Sudanese Nubia.


Support : - A latest phase of interdisciplinary research in the region has been supported by the University of Khartoum and the Haycock Fund of the British Institute in Eastern Africa as well other Sudanese and expatriate organisations.

Sandstone cliffs, site of many rock drawings, at Sabu, by the Kajbar (Third) Cataract.

Historical Background

Some form of 'Mahas' regional identity appears to be long-established and the Mahas toponym can be traced back to at least the 1580s (CE) when a 'Sanjak of the Mahas' was created by the Ottoman conquerors of Egypt, advancing south along the Nile -- a local distinction between the Mahas and Sikood Nubians also appears to have already existed at that time. The Third Cataract may also have marked a much older frontier, the medieval writer al-Aswani recorded that the Cataract marked the border between the heartlands of the Nubian kingdom of Makuria , and its northern province of el-Maris (comprising Middle and Lower Nubia). Medieval Arab writers reported that the north was both linguistically and administratively distinct.

This distinction between Nubian areas north and south of the Cataract seems likely to reflect the early frontiers of the embryo Nubian kingdoms of Nobatia and Makuria which were emerging in the fifth century CE, following the disintegration of the Meroitic state which had controlled this region for many centuries. On current evidence, it also seems likely that during this early period we may see the first development of the 'typical' northern Nubian way of life. Based on irrigated agriculture using the waterwheel (Arabic ' saqia ' / Nobiin ' eskalee '- waterwheel), a ribbon of small farming villages along the palm-fringed Nile, lie at the heart of the 'traditional' Nubian world.

Against this background, it is hoped that archaeological survey, the collection of 'folkloric' data, oral history , genealogies and similar data has provided new insights into the region's long-term settlement history, and the origins and history of the modern Nubians who live here.

more on the project's aims

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Since 1990, participants have produced a number of Project and related publications . Two site inventories, a report on an important Meroitic site at KEDURMA and our most recent work may be found in:

Edwards, D.N. & Osman, A. 1992. Mahas Survey Reports 1. (The Mahas Survey 1991. Interim Report & Site Inventory). Cambridge.

Edwards, D.N. & Osman, A. 1994. Mahas Survey Reports 2. (The Mahas Survey 1990. Interim Report & Site Inventory). Cambridge.

Edwards, D.N. 1995. 'A Meroitic Settlement and Cemetery at Kedurma in the Third Cataract Region, Northern Sudan. Archeologie du Nil Moyen 7: 37-51.

Edwards, D. & Ali Osman, 2000. 'The Archaeology of Arduan Island - the Mahas Survey 2000'. Sudan & Nubia 4: 58-70.

Hashim, M. J. and Bell, H. 2000. ‘Reconstructing the History of Settlement Patterns in the Mahas:
Evidence from Language and Place-names’. Sudan & Nubia 4: 71-78.

Ali Osman 2004. 'Archaeology & Settlement in the Third Cataract region during the Medieval and Post-Medieval periods', Azania 39: 34-39.

Intisar Soghayroun el Zein 2004. 'The Ottomans and the Mahas in the Third Cataract Region',
Azania 39: 50-57

Edwards, D. N. 2004. 'The potential for Historical Archaeology in the
Sudan', Azania 39: 13-33

Edwards, D. N. 2006. ‘Mid-Holocene game drives in Nubian landscapes?’ in K. Kroeper, M. Chlodnicki & M. Kobusiewicz (eds.) Archaeology of Early Northeastern Africa. (Studies in African Archaeology Vol. 9). Poznan: Poznan Archaeological Museum, 49-64

Edwards, D.N. 2006. Drawing on Rocks, the most enduring monuments of Middle Nubia, Sudan and Nubia 10: 55-63

 


Director:  Prof. Ali Osman Mohammad Salih
(University of Khartoum, Department of Archaeology)

Archaeological Field Director:  D N Edwards (University of Leicester, UK)

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