Uncovering an Extraordinary World

October 31, 2003
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Archaeologists in Sudan excavate with laser precision.



In the barren desert regions of northern Sudan along the eastern bank of the Nile lies a narrow band of rocky, red land called Tombos. Year 'round the wind blows dry and strong, temperatures hold in the '90s and higher, and the soil is largely infertile.

But, a little more than 3,000 years ago, this seemingly uninhabitable region was teeming with life. The Egyptians had rolled in from the north, conquering the highly progressive upper Nubian people and blending the area's culture into a unique mix of customs, styles and government.

Little has been known about the distinctive interaction between the Nubians and Egyptians of this time until recently. In recent years, archaeologists have discovered more than 100 as yet unstudied archaeological sites in and around Tombos, including a 3,400-year-old Egyptian cemetery. While the cemetery site has long since been robbed of much of its rich pottery and artifacts, it still offers historians clear evidence of ancient cultural interactions.

As lead archaeologist for an expedition to excavate this site, I had the rare opportunity to make some exciting discoveries and just as importantly demonstrate the power of today's most advanced laser and infrared surveying devices in some of the most challenging conditions. The ruggedness and efficiency of these tools has changed the way I and my team do our jobs-offering new capabilities that allow us to work smarter, more accurately and with less disturbance to the site.



Tools to Map Times Past

Through our relationship with the Sudan National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) archaeological team has been involved in various expeditions in the Tombos region for several years. We returned in 2002 to more closely study the 3,400-year-old cemetery, specifically the remains of three tombs. The process of excavating essentially results in the demolition of the site. Therefore, the only remaining records-once the archaeologist has excavated-are the subsequent detailed maps and measurements, notes, photos and recovered artifacts. Highly accurate topographic and feature mapping is essential.

Prior to this expedition, our team assessed the tools necessary to complete the project in the most efficient and accurate way while encroaching on the site as little as possible and offering day-to-day repeatability. Harsh weather conditions further complicate matters. Keep in mind, this region is remote and fairly desolate. The winds blow strong and continuous, often creating blinding sandstorms. Our equipment needed to be rugged and easily portable to remove and set up on a daily basis.

In previous years, the archaeological teams had relied on conventional theodolites with add-on infrared distance measurers. While an EDM provided the necessary distance measurements, we continued to calculate and plot the points by hand. Speed had also been a problem. In fact, in the previous expedition to the same region, the archaeological team had run out of time and was unable to fully document the site architecture, in part because the charger and batteries failed. We really wanted something that offered a bit more efficiency and durability.

With this in mind, I contacted Surveyors Service Company, a Leica Geosystems (Atlanta, Ga.) distributor in Costa Mesa, Calif., to discuss some possibilities. We were primarily interested in close work measurements-within about 10 m, and not more than about 150 m-and the one-man operational capabilities of the laser distance measurer. Leica's TPS1100 Professional Series extended range reflectorless total stations offered an ideal solution. As a result, Leica Geosystems loaned us the TCRM1102 for use during the expedition. This much-appreciated assistance allowed us to make the most of our tight budget and still employ the latest in surveying technology. Soon after, we were packed and on the airplane to Sudan.

With the Leica Geosystems TCRM 1102 reflectorless total station's laser distance measurement device, the archaeological team located an undiscovered underground chamber tomb during its unprecedented five-day survey in Sudan.

Measuring Antiquity

Each of the three tombs designated as part of this excavation was approximately 3 m by 6 m-really more like crypts-made of a mud and brick material. Since the site had been first located two years prior, we began our first study by relocating the datum (which was really just a prominent rock with a large X carved into it).

Our surveyors chose a location on a low rise that offered the best line of sight of the entire cemetery (a plot of land approximately 5 km x 5 km). This position is within about 100 m of the tombs in question (an area about 150 m x 100 m).

Using the total station, we shot points, usually corners, thus providing the basic outline of the tombs and burial shafts. Put together, these points helped create a skeleton map that would then tie to the existing topographic map created two years prior. In addition, the team also located some surface artifacts and other general points to fill in gaps noted on the topographic map.

With the basic outline complete, several site workers, supervised by archaeologists, cleared a layer of sand that over the centuries had accumulated on the surface of the tombs. This effort revealed a previously undiscovered underground chamber tomb and pit tombs that were also located for inclusion on the topographic map.

The entire site survey was completed in an unprecedented five days, largely due to the one person flexibility of the total station's laser distance measurement device. We were onsite at 7 a.m. with the sunrise and back in our rented rooms in the town of Tombos by early afternoon, seeking relief from the relentless heat and wind.

Archaeologists spent the next several weeks excavating the site. Each of the tombs contained some beautiful jewelry, including earrings, scarabs and faience amulets (opaquely glazed charms) of the dwarf god Bes, who protected both the living and the dead. They uncovered personal items like cosmetics and many intact pots, which would have held food offerings to sustain the dead in the afterlife. The most exciting discovery was the skeletons of four women buried in the local Nubian style within this otherwise completely Egyptian cemetery. Two were buried together and associated with a black-topped Nubian cup, but another had a string of three faience amulets of the Egyptian god, Bes. In all, the team discovered 20 intact burials in the three tombs. Again, marking the exact position of these items is critical. Throughout the excavation we had left the total station positioned on the datum, ready to mark positions should the need arise. As discoveries such as the skeletons and artifacts emerged, we simply moved out of the way and shot the point locations.

Clean-up and Final Mapping

We spent about five days at the end of the excavation shooting, using the prism and laser devices to mark the remaining architectural features. Unlike the initial reference points, in this instance we concentrated on making detailed plans of each underground structure to provide a three-dimensional documentation not possible with line drawings.

The mobility of the total station and infrared measurement capabilities was particularly useful in the more confined spaces like the underground chamber tombs once the excavation was complete. In this case, the architecture was mapped in detail very quickly without the need to reset a target. It was still necessary to use the prism for coverage of larger areas and underground when line of sight was a problem.

The entire excavation took approximately two months for my team to complete. Thanks to the surveying technology from Leica Geosystems, we completed all our tasks and found a tool that is as important to us as our trusted archaeological trowel and shovel.

Modern surveying technology has revolutionized archaeology, allowing for the speedy documentation of structures and placement of finds with lightning speed. The time saved allows us to concentrate more on excavation. These new instruments and techniques helped make possible our surprising discovery of four Nubian burials, which modernizes our picture of the ancient Egyptian frontier. Their Nubian-style entombments in this Egyptian colonial cemetery reveal an unexpected level of cultural tolerance that can serve as an inspiration for us today.

We intend to explore this emerging relationship between Egyptian men and Nubian women further in future excavation seasons. Today the archaeological heritage of this important northeast African region is endangered by the rapid expansion of settlement and cultivation, making documentation and excavation of these and other sites imperative. If this important work is not undertaken today, we may lose forever the opportunity to address these compelling questions about the nature of Egyptian-Nubian interaction.

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