An archaeological expedition to the deserts of Eastern Sudan

In December 2018, an archaeological survey comprising of Sudanese, Australian, British, and Swiss researchers and led by former Nomadic Empires Research Associate Dr Julien Cooper, investigated the remote deserts of Eastern Sudan. The expedition discovered new rock art sites (c. 3500-3200 BCE) and recorded a Late Antique gold mine (c. 7th Century CE) belonging to the Blemmyes. The Eastern Desert of Sudan is a remote and largely unexplored region, and in antiquity was the abode of the nomadic pastoralists known as the Medjay, Blemmyes, or Beja.  

Figure 1: The goldmining settlement of Alitiateb in the plain of Wadi Amur

The season recorded an ancient goldmine at the site known as Alitiatib where many sherds of the local nomadic culture were found (Figs 1 & 2). The site would seem to be a major Blemmyean settlement, and importantly indicates that this nomadic group controlled some goldmines in the interior desert. At the southern end of the settlement the expedition discovered a cemetery, scattered on the surface were a number of unique figurines (Fig. 3). These have been found at other Blemmyean sites, but their precise function remains unknown. 

Figure 2: Eastern Desert Ware ceramics along with Red Sea shells found at Alitiatib.

Two new rock art sites were documented in the deserts east of Nubian Nile, one a large tableaux depicting a ‘fleet’ of boats at the top of an isolated hill, and another a remote cave in the midst of a rocky pass depicting a hunting scene along with other fauna, including cattle, giraffes, goats, and dogs (Fig.4). The rock art sites both likely date to the late predynastic (c. 3500 BE) and possibly the early dynastic (c. 3000 BCE) periods. Boat petroglyphs of this nature are unique this far south and east, and this depiction may change our assessment of trade routes and foreign activity in this remote desert. 

Figure 3: Fertility figurines at Alitiateb
Figure 4: Cattle rock art at a cave in the deserts east of Lower Nubia

Acknowledgments: Dr Julien Cooper would like to thank colleagues in the Sudan, National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums, Drs Abdelrahman Ali, El-Hassan Ahmed, Mahmoud Soliman, and Hozaifa Abdelgamid for making the 2018 season possible and for their co-operation as well as the team members, Vivian Davies, Pierre Meyrat, Mubarak Adam and Osman Dafalla. The project was funded partly by the Wainwright Fund, The Egyptian Exploration Society, and Yale University.

‘The Steppe Nomads in the Eurasian Trade’: October workshop

(from left to right): Marek Jankowiak, Jonathan Shepard, Katie Campbell, Mandy Izadi, Irina Shingiray, Marie Favereau, Anatoly Khazanov, Pekka Hamalainen.

On 9 October, the Nomadic Empires project team hosted a workshop with Anatoly M. Khazanov, Ernest Gellner Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Fellow of the British Academy, and Corresponding Member of the UNESCO International Institute for the Study of Nomadic Civilization. The workshop was dedicated to the topic of the Steppe Nomads in the Eurasian Trade. Professor Khazanov and the workshop participants discussed different types of trade that the nomads were engaged in, such as regional, interregional, transit, and long-distance trade; and they also talked about how successful nomadic polities created a demand for trade in luxuries, provided supplies for that exchange, and safeguarded the movement of goods across different land routes. Khazanov explained that during some historical periods, other routes were more important than the transcontinental “Silk Route”—namely North-South routes, riverine and maritime routes, and also regional and local down-the-line exchange in goods. He stressed that localized mechanisms of connectivity between different communities were more important and responsible for the transfer of goods, ideas, and people across continents than the process of “globalization” during the pre-modern time period. Hence, Khazanov addressed a modern trend to exaggerate the role of the Silk Road in Eurasian history due to various political and nationalist agendas. The workshop dialog included the topics of the politics of nomadic trade, as well as the Eurasian transfer of technologies of trade and its mediators during the nomadic political domination of the Steppe, such as during the Mongol Peace.

Workshop on the Alans

Earlier this month, the Nomadic Empires Project hosted a workshop on the Alans—the medieval communities of the Northern Caucasus—and the Gates of the Alans—a system of fortification erected in order to control one of the major passageways through the Caucasus range that “divided” the frontier groups, such as the Alans, as well as the nomadic empires of the Northern Steppe from the territories of the large sedentary empires such as Sasanian Iran and the Islamic Caliphate.

left to right: Professor Eberhard Sauer, Professor Dmitry Korobov, Dr Irina Shingiray, Dr. Brian Gilmour, Dr Marie Favereau and Dr. Adam Bollok

Professor Dmitry Korobov, the Head of the Department of Theory and Methods, Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences gave a presentation titled “Early Medieval Fortifications and Land Use in the Northern Caucasus.” Korobov’s extensive archaeological research in the Northern Caucasus, the results of which he shared with the group, allowed him to paint a portrait of the medieval Alans and their way of life. He described their habitation and fortification sites and strategies, explained the system of their agro-pastoral economy and landuse, the role of long-distance trade and various religious beliefs based on their way of life and death. Korobov also presented evidence for the fluctuating political organization and cultural resilience of the Alans as a frontier people, who used their own strategies of dispersed or more unified settlements at different periods of history as their communities had to negotiate their position between the nomadic and sedentary empires on both sides of the Caucasus.

The precarious nature of life at the imperial frontier surrounded by the lands of various “hostile” people known from the medieval textual sources was discussed by Professor Eberhard Sauer, Edinburgh University’s School of History, Classics & Archaeology, in his presentation on “The Gate of the Alans“. Sauer shared the results of his multi-disciplinary archaeological project at this famous fortress which is currently located on the border between Georgia and Russia. He talked about the difficulties of maintaining a guarded fortification system in that remote part of the Caucasus, which had a harsh climate, sporadic food supplies, and experienced never-ending military attacks from the North and South. The diversity of the frontier population is another puzzling trait supported by archaeological evidence—the evidence that makes it difficult to understand who controlled this major fortress at different times in medieval history, as people moved and material culture was increasingly widely shared across the Caucasus.

These presentations provided the participants of the workshop with new and exciting information that resulted in the discussion of what role nomadic and sedentary empires and the frontier communities played in that region of the Caucasus, when the fortification system changed hands under different political circumstances through different phases of imperial power.

Pastoral Production in northern Afghanistan

Nomads and Merchant Credit: T Barfield

On 23 October, the Nomadic Empires project team hosted a workshop with Thomas Barfield, Professor and Chairman at the Department of Anthropology, Boston University, and President of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies.

During the workshop, titled Pastoral production in northern Afghanistan: the case of the Central Asian Arabs, Barfield delivered a rich visual narrative of the annual migration and production cycle of that pastoral nomadic community, whom he had studied in Afghanistan during the 1970s. He explained how nomads organized and prepared for migration, what activities they carried out in different seasons and areas of habitation (food preparation, dwelling construction, textile making, animal rearing, training and trading), how their society and economy functioned while they moved on a seasonal basis, and how they were integrated within the larger regional community and economy through labor division, trade, social exchange, ecology, and religion. Special attention was paid to the material culture of the nomads in different contexts and different environments as they moved through changing landscapes and seasons and interacted with other regional groups of Afghanistan. Part of this workshop discussion also focused on nomadic and regional identities expressed through verbal and non-verbal communication patterns (such as dress, religious practices, and gendered activities). These patterns of communication and exchange were especially pronounced at such venues as regional and local market places, shrines, and during interpersonal encounters on the migration routes.

Workshop: “Assembling a Nomadic Archive”

Kathryn Babayan (right) and members of the Nomadic Empires team

On 16 October, 2017, the Nomadic Empires project held a workshop in Oxford entitled “Assembling a Nomadic Archive”, presented by Kathryn Babayan, Associate Professor at the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Department of History at the University of Michigan, who specializes in medieval and early-modern Persianate studies; cultural, social, and political histories of Iran, Iraq, Anatolia, and Central Asia; as well as in the studies of gender, sexuality, and subaltern groups.

Kathryn Babayan delivered a presentation about her experiences with assembling a nomadic archive for her case study of the Qizilbash—a tribal Turkic-speaking community with pastoral nomadic roots that served as a backbone for the Safavid imperial ascendance in Iran in the 15th century—the focus of her well-received monograph “Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs” (2002). She discussed sources, media, and technologies of nomadic archives and how their material culture is impacted by mobility and displacement. She shared her ideas with the team about the cultural and ‘materialist modes of analysis’ of such archives, while stressing the importance of epics, poetry, and visual media as sources for writing nomadic histories.

The team and Dr Babayan explored the questions of who controls the nomadic archive—how and by whom it is constituted and which sources should be considered representative of nomadic lives and agency. The issues of gender (i.e. female presence vs. exclusion in royal scenes of authority) and ethos and aesthetics of mobility (i.e. dynamism, portability) were also the focus of the group discussion. Another central topic of this workshop was the role of Sufi and Shia mysticism and the importance of the religious dimension in nomadic politics, authority, and sovereignty, as it was demonstrated by Babayan in her discussion of the Qizilbash, and corroborated by the case studies of the Golden Horde Mongols, the Khazars, and the Rumies—some of the subjects of the Nomadic Empires team’s monographs.

 

Vth European Congress on World and Global History, Budapest

On September 2nd  2017 research associate Dr. Marie Favereau took part in the Vth European Congress on World and Global History (ENIUGH) in Budapest. Her panel, entitled ‘Empires, exchange and civilizational connectivity in Eurasia’, was organized by Chris Hann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Halle; PI of the ERC-funded project “Realising Eurasia”).

The Eurasian Panel (left to right: Chris Hann, Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Dagmar Schäfer, Marie Favereau, Krishan Kumar, and Burkhard Schnepel)

In Hann’s own words “the baseline for this panel is a turning point in world history: the urban revolution of the Bronze Age, as outlined by anthropologist Jack Goody (1919 – 2015), following archaeologist Gordon Childe. This revolution launched multiple civilizations of Eurasia on unprecedented paths of development that culminated in industrial capitalism (…) Empirically, the papers analyse various societies and empires, their immaterial as well as their material constitution, and the concrete ways in which they fertilized each other in pan-Eurasian encounters.”

Dr. Favereau’s presented a paper in which she discussed the concept of “Mongol Peace”. She showed how in the 1260s the Mongols transformed their old empire into a kind of commonwealth; how they changed the rules of exchange in Eurasia; and how actually their “peace” meant a new global economic order.

Vincent Hiribarren talks on Kanem-Bornu and Nomads in Central Africa

On June 8th, Dr. Vincent Hiribarren, lecturer in African History at King’s College London, came to Oxford to present his research on the the Empire of Kanem-Bornu in Central Africa. This enigmatic kingdom is one of Africa’s first nomadic states, with a king list stretching back almost a millennia. The Kingdom controlled Saharan trade routes and was an important node in the Islamisation of Africa. Dr. Hiribarren presented his research on the 1000 year history of Kanem-Bornu and its varying geopolitics, archaeology, and society, providing a crucial insight into one of Africa’s least well-known Empires. The workshop explored issues relating to nomadism and its place in Kanem-Bornu as well as state sponsorship of trade routes. This proceeded to a discussion on the place of the environment in the formation of geopolitical arrangements in Central Africa.

Nomads and Iranian Frontiers

The Nomadic Empires project organised a workshop on 3rd May 2017 to bring together historical analyses and archaeological fieldwork to address the roles of nomads in trade routes, fortifications, and polity formations along frontiers of the pre-modern Iranian realm. Prof. Richard Payne (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago) presented the multi-faceted grammar of politics employed by the hybrid polity of Turan in late antiquity, demonstrating nomads as sophisticated architects of empire.

Dr. Paul Wordsworth (Oriental Studies, University of Oxford) placed the communities of these frontiers under the microscope through a presentation of his own fieldwork on major trade centers, namely Merv, the geographic itineraries of cross-desert pathways to reach them, and the constructed landscapes of those routes as more than mere caravanserais.

Visiting speakers in Oxford

On June 06, 2018, the Nomadic Empires team welcomed Professor Beatrice Manz (Tufts University, USA), who specializes on history of the Mongol and the Timurid Empires, and Professor David Morgan (SOAS and formerly University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA)—a historian of the Mongols and the medieval Middle East. Professor Manz presented a workshop titled: Tribes, Armies and Empires:  Social Morphology of Pastoral Nomads in the Mongol and Timurid Periods, where she addressed the changing structure of nomadic social groups from the rise of the Mongol Empire to the Timurid Period. The workshop focused in particular on the theme of nomadic, tribal, and mixed armies, and their creation, development, and dispersion during different historical cases and phases of centralized rulership and its collapse. Professor Manz first examined the creation of Chinggis Khan’s army, then she traced the trajectories of such tribal groups as the Jalayirids and the Oirats during the Ilkhanid Period, and the subsequent restructuring of armies during the Timurid Period, when Timur implemented his strategy of suppressing tribal power.

The workshop participants had a detailed discussion about current terminology with regard to nomadic social morphologies (such as tribes, clans, lineages, armies, empires, etc.), their genesis and strategies of affiliation, leadership, and endurance (kinship, marriage alliances, hereditary offices and positions, incorporation and diversity, personal followings, forced displacements, etc). In the afternoon, discussion continued about the varieties of armies employed and engaged by nomadic empires. The focus was on the issues of logistics, provisions, demographics, geographies of incorporation and dispersion of tribal and non-tribal contingents of these armies, as well as the role and participation of women in wars waged by nomadic empires.