The fragment of a tool, a mysterious script, a shard of pottery. Out of such clues, using the tools and insights of science, mathematics, and engineering, archaeologists piece together the histories of ancient civilizations. A new EDC project, digNubia, introduces young people to archaeology through an exciting find: the remains of the ancient African civilization of Nubia that emerged over six thousand years ago in northern Sudan and southern Egypt. The project includes a documentary film, website, and traveling exhibit.
Largely overlooked by archaeologists until the 1960’s, ancient Nubia was rediscovered when Egypt’s plans to build the Aswan High Dam threatened to flood forever nearly 300 miles of the Nubian Nile Valley and all traces of ancient settlements that lay within it. The more than 40 teams of archaeologists who raced to explore this region recorded thousands of prehistoric sites and rock drawings and excavated hundreds of cemeteries and early towns. They discovered the traces of a brilliant, literate civilization that over millennia traded with Egypt, was conquered and ruled by Egypt (ca.1500-1100 BC) and even conquered and ruled Egypt itself (ca. 720-660 BC).
According to archaeologist and EDC consultant Timothy Kendall, because the Egyptians had a written language before the Nubians, early scholars saw Nubia only through the eyes of the Egyptians and their view of the ancient Nile Valley was necessarily limited. “There is so much the Egyptians didn’t tell us,” he says, “The only way we can really understand what the Nubians achieved is to actually go to Sudan and conduct archaeological investigations.”
Supported with a major grant from the National Science Foundation, digNubia is both a hands-on exhibit and an interactive website. They bring the excitement of archaeology, and a little-known aspect of African history, to middle school students in after-school and informal settings, particularly in underserved areas. Dignubia grows out of several other Nubia-related projects at Northeastern University and EDC supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. They include NubiaNet, a Web resource for teachers developed at EDC by Ron Bailey, digNubia’s Principal Investigator Emeritus.
The content of the digNubia website is accessed through a virtual archaeologist’s tent set amid the pyramids of Meroë, capital of the ancient Nubian kingdom. Most of its onscreen elements are interactive: clicking on the map takes a visitor to interactive timelines on Nubian history and geography; another click leads to an interactive application that prompts users to discover how GPS (Global Positioning System) technology works. The bookshelf links to a primer in Meroitic, the (as yet undeciphered) Nubian written language, and to more information about Nubian rulers, artifacts, and gods and goddesses, while a toolbox links to animated illustrations of more than 25 tools used by archaeologists. The website also includes a section for teachers and parents with hands-on activities about archaeology and ancient Nubia that can be carried out in the home or in classrooms.
The traveling exhibit recreates a fictional archaeological dig site that has been manufactured for both accuracy and durability. “The site is fictional, but each element is authentic,” explains EDC Researcher Ken Schopf, a former paleontologist. The premise of the traveling exhibit is that the visitor is an archaeologist investigating the tomb of a Nubian queen. (Nubian civilization, unusually for the ancient world, had numerous female rulers.) Visitors can try to determine the sex of a skeleton, explore carvings in a pyramid chapel, interpret the name of the dead person in the ancient Meroitic script, and date the burial by examining the objects found in the tomb, among other activities.
Occupying only 500 square feet when fully assembled, the exhibit includes an archaeologist’s tent, a chapel area, and a tomb excavation with an adjacent lab area. Inside the tomb area, created to simulate a 2,000 year-old site, visitors can study the remains of a (plastic) human skeleton, as well as beads, rings, pottery, mirrors and other fabricated artifacts embedded in the tomb floor. In the lab area they can handle similar artifacts, comparing and classifying them, as archaeologists do. In one activity, visitors classify pottery according to decoration, material, and form. From such study, says Kristen Bjork, digNubia’s Principal Investigator, “students think about how the pieces fit together, and what different forms mean. How would someone use a piece of pottery with a pointed base? With a rounded one? Being an archaeologist exercises the powers of deductive reasoning.”
Just as the puzzle of Nubia has been pieced together stone by stone, so visitors to the exhibit are challenged to rebuild one wall of a pyramid chapel. Made of high-density foam, the blocks are covered in several layers of latex, and scored with a heat pen to imitate the carved stone blocks of Nubian relief sculpture. By interpreting these carvings, visitors can determine the time period in which the chapel was built. Archaeologists use both “absolute” and “relative“ dating methods, Bjork explains. Carbon dating—measuring the presence of a carbon isotope that decays over time—is a form of “absolute” dating, telling us approximately how many years ago a living thing died. “Relative” dating, on the other hand, tells us when objects were created relative to one another. It relies on visual clues, such as depictions of clothing styles associated with a certain era. DigNubia helps students understand how the two kinds of dating complement each other. “It’s important not to rely on a single piece of evidence,“ Bjork says. “You have to have a lot of knowledge to draw valid conclusions.”
The project’s 30-minute documentary film, created by Juneteenth Productions in collaboration with EDC, allows viewers to visit to some of the ancient Sudanese sites and hear from the archaeologists and other scientists working there. The film is meant to serve as an introduction to archaeology and ancient Nubia for the general public and the staffs of the organizations and institutions for which the traveling exhibit has been designed. These include community organizations, schools, small museums, YMCAs/ YWCAs, and boys and girls clubs. The digNubia exhibit is being piloted in Boston this fall, and is scheduled to go national in the spring. The Web site is available online and the documentary film may soon be broadcast on television.
Originally published on October 31, 2001