Reinterpreting life and death in ancient Nubia

This article was originally published on The conversation and has been republished with Creative Commons.

VSCircular boulder mounds dot the desert landscape of the Tombos archaeological site in northern Sudan. They reveal tumuli – the underground burial tombs used at least as early as 2500 BC by ancient inhabitants who called this region Kush or Nubia. As a bioarchaeologist who excavates and analyzes human skeletal remains and their related grave goods, I have worked in Tombos for over 20 years.

Ddiscussions of ancient history in Africa are dominated by the rise of Egypt. But several societies have gained great power in the Nile Valley since the middle of the third millennium BCE, including this often overshadowed southern neighbor of Egypt. Even though ancient Kush rivaled and, at times, conquered Egypt, there has been a relative lack of modern attention given to this civilization. Early 20th century research expanded scholars’ understanding of ancient Kush, but interpretations had colonial and racist biases that often obscured the strengths and achievements of this civilization.

I am co-director, with Stuart Tyson Smith, of the Tombos excavations. These burials tell our archaeological team many aspects of life and death in this place millennia ago. Much like those who live along the Nile today, ancient peoples had to deal with various challenges, including environmental changes, socio-political transitions, and interactions with other groups. Sharing our discoveries with the local community and supporting Sudanese who wish to pursue a career in archeology are equally important to our discoveries about the past.


Jhe remains of the ancient inhabitants of Tombos reveal information about their physical activity, as well as infection and nutrition. Conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and the effects of forced labor all leave marks on the human body that provide insight into the epidemiology of disease in the past. They help us trace the factors that play a role in health conditions and their social context. For example, we found the remains of an adult woman and a child who lived with a developmental disorder, which shows that people with physical differences were integrated into society.

BBy analyzing the isotopes, or forms of chemical elements, embedded in the inhabitants’ teeth, we are able to piece together where they may have lived as children.

AWhen the team discovers what is hidden under the ground, we learn more about the former members of the community. For example, we found the remains of an elderly woman who lived into her 60s and suffered from arthritis, a younger woman whose burial included a baby, and a middle-aged woman with a basket full of small whole and broken figurines, beads, and other items. Uncovering people who apparently lived different types of life allows our team to create a picture of who populated Tombos when it was booming.

Located along the Nile in present-day Sudan, the ancient civilization of Nubia or Kush at times rivaled its northern neighbor Egypt. The conversation

Jhe funerary structures show us how people wanted to represent themselves and their families publicly after death. We can link the position of the body and the artifacts accompanying burials to different cultural and religious practices. A well-stocked burial of a middle-aged man included both a bed and a coffin, combining traditional Nubian and Egyptian practices. The tomb also contained bronze bowls, a decorated wooden box, a stack of amulets which were treated as magical objects, and a cache of iron weapons, which demonstrate the early use of iron in Nubia.

OWe discovered that when the Egyptians ruled over the Nubians during the New Kingdom Empire around 1200 BC. AD, some immigrant Egyptians and local people chose Egyptian-style pyramids and chamber tombs for their burials. At the same time, some people in Tombos also used the local mound tomb structure similar to earlier tombs in Nubia, showing how people varied in their choices regarding burial.


OThe ability of our archaeological team to successfully construct a picture of people from the past relies on active and close engagement with the local community. Our interactions with the townspeople – through archaeological work, informal conversations over tea and formal presentations of our findings – have shown us that they are proud of the ancient inhabitants of the region and wish for them- themselves and for others to know more about them.

A The recent conferences and discussions that my Sudanese colleague, Remah Abdelrahim Kabashi Ahmed, and I held for the women of Tombos showed us how curious they are about the past as well as the present. Remah, who is trained in bioarchaeology, and I answered questions such as: what kind of medicine did people use then? How old was the baby at the time of death? Why did people put a bed and jewelry in their graves? They notice the use of beds in ancient burials that resemble those carved in recent times. They ask if we as women find the work physically difficult.

IMostly they tell us they want more introductions because the male family members who work with us at the archaeological site don’t share with them what we have found. As a result, we have expanded our reach in a number of ways, including collaborating with local schools to produce educational materials on archaeology, local history and finds from the Tombos site. We also hosted a teacher and her students on a site visit to see our open excavations.

A group of women stand together under trees and next to a table with a bag next to it.

The archaeological team shares its findings with the local community, especially with women, who are less likely to work on the site as workers. (The author is third from the right.) Michele R. Buzon

OWe work closely with the Sudanese administrative body that oversees archaeological research, the National Society of Antiquities and Museums. But it’s not enough. It is important for foreign scholars to study the past in collaboration with community partners and Sudanese academic colleagues. These partnerships are essential steps in working together to create new knowledge about the region’s ancient history and improve the exclusionary and racist perspectives of previous scholars.

JMohamed Faroug Ali, a member of the ombos team and a Sudanese archaeologist from the African International University in Khartoum, led the creation of the Sudanese American Archaeological Research Center, with the aim of encouraging international research and collaboration in Sudan . We have organized virtual conferences and offered scholarships to Sudanese students pursuing studies in archaeology. We are working on developing a degree program at the International University of Africa.

OOur goal is to support the training of Sudanese so that local people, who have more direct links to the ancient civilization we are studying, can participate in these archaeological projects at all levels. Promoting and practicing ethical research that includes the people who now live in the area is as important to the Tombos team as learning more about the lives of former inhabitants.