UCL Qatar


Industrial Kush, Sudan


The Second Kingdom of Kush, dating from c. 800 BC to c. AD 350, is one of the greatest ancient States of Africa. During the first half of this Kingdom period, the Kushites ruled the whole of Egypt and beyond as the 25th dynasty from their capital Napata at the fourth cataract on the river Nile. From around 350 BC royal burials (pyramids) appear to the south at Meroe, so although Meroe was an important economic settlement long before this, it was the Royal City for the final 700 years of the Kingdom of Kush.

The remains of extensive iron industries form prominent features at key locations within the Meroitic landscape, demonstrating the significance of iron production within the history of this period of the Kingdom of Kush. The iron industries would have involved a large portion of the population at Meroe, from those who went to the hills to collect the ores, to those who made the charcoal, to those who smelted the iron in distinctive furnace workshops. The products of these industries, iron tools, weapons, architectural implements and adornments, would have had a major impact on the rise and success of the kingdom. Thus by unravelling the secrets of these industries we will reveal much about the social, economic, political and religious contexts of Kush. However, when this new research project was launched in 2012, despite Meroitic iron production being often discussed within the academic community, knowledge of this fundamental Meroitic industry was notably superficial.

Excavating at the Apedemak Temple, Royal City of Meroe

In addition to a significant (and largely unexplored) archaeometallurgical potential, there exists an emotive debate as to whether iron production in fact entered sub-Saharan Africa from Meroe, or was instead independently invented at one or more locations to the south and/or west. Hence this new research, the first in decades to attempt to understand of Meroitic iron technologies, will both generate data from which a much enriched view of the role and impact of technology during Meroitic times, and allow for a broader consideration of the position of Meroitic iron production within debates surrounding the origins of iron in Africa.

Dr Jane Humphris, head of the UCL Qatar research in Sudan, which focuses on the remains of ancient industries, first travelled to the Meroitic site of Hamadab in Sudan in 2012 to join the 'Hamadab and Meroe Royal Baths' project of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). Led by Dr Pawel Wolf, archaeological research at the site of Hamadab has been ongoing for a number of years, and continues to reveal much about life at this urban settlement. One aspect of the site that had remained unexplored until now are the extensive remains associated with a major iron producing industry.

excavating the biggest slagheap at Meroe Royal City

The fieldwork began with an extensive ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey. The results of this survey were combined with data produced during a pervious magnetometer survey, in the hope that the locations of ancient furnaces would be revealed. In total, six large trenches were excavated both within and close to the iron production remains, and nearly 700 archaeometallurgical and associated archaeological samples were collected and shipped to UCL Qatar for laboratory analysis. These samples included numerous charcoal samples which were collected for wood species identification and radiocarbon dating. A thermo- and optically stimulated luminescence dating strategy was also implemented.

Since this first season, another six extensive archaeological field seasons have been carried out in the area, as well as dedicated community engagement and capacity building programmes. Highlights include finding the first iron smelting workshop at Meroe for 45 years, and redefining the chronological framework for iron production at the Royal City. A week-long conservation course at the National Museum and numerous community meetings to discuss the work with local communities are just some of the complementary work the team carries out each season.

chris teaching

Over the last year the multinational, multi-disciplinary team has undertaken a wealth of new research dedicated to understanding the ancient iron production industries of the Kingdom of Kush.

Geophysics forms a major part of the research, allowing us to deliberately position excavation trenches according to what we observed in the sub-surface data, and ensuring we maximise the time we spend excavating in the field. A number of resistivity transects were carried out at the site of Hamadab and at the Royal City of Meroe to provide data on the internal make-up of the slag heaps. This data was used in combination with gradiometry data to dictate excavation trench locations. Further interpretations of this data has highlighted potential ancient furnace workshops at a number of locations, and these will be investigated over coming seasons.

At the north mound of the Royal City of Meroe we undertook detailed aerial mapping and ground survey to produce the first comprehensive map of this area with all features defined. We therefore finally have a quantifiable understanding of the industrial landscape of the north mound and will use this to consider the scale and location of intensive iron production at Meroe and define the research strategy (in combination with the geophysics data) in terms of where new excavations will take place. The Amun Temple was also mapped aerially and topographically to produce data for the University of Khartoum team working at this site.

Experimental archaeology iron smelting at the Royal City

Large-scale excavations were carried out at a number of locations in the Meroe region. At Meroe Royal City, the team completed the excavation of an ancient furnace workshop, found by the team using geophysics techniques described above, the year before. This is the first Meroitic furnace workshop found since the 1960's, and therefore the only one to ever be excavated using modern techniques and scientific analysis. The data being generated from geochemical analysis will help us to understand the operating parameters of the workshops and further help us to understand how the iron smelters worked and the materials they used. Also at the Royal City, an extensive excavation at the Apedemak Temple which is situated on top of an iron producing area, revealed not only a new Meroitic building and a 10m long, 3m tall section through the slag heap, but also a retaining wall surrounding the metallurgical remains and other insights into the relationship between the industrial evolution of the site and the more general religious and political context of the time. Further excavations will take place at both of these exciting locations during the coming seasons of field work.

Excavations continued to investigate the archaeometallurgical remains at the German Archaeological Institute site of Hamadab. The discarded remains of two furnaces were found (again due to interpreted geophysics data), although these remains were not in situ. Work at this site shed light on the relationship between the sub-surface Meroitic buildings and the post-Meroitic iron production waste which sits on top of these remains.

Learning about ancient iron production

Finally, during an exploration of the wider region for possible iron ore sources that may have been used by the ancient smelters, the team, led by an elderly Sudanese gentleman, may have found the ancient mining area of the Meroites, situated approximately 10km away from the Royal City. A pragmatic survey was carried out which revealed burnt bricks, occasional pottery and slag, and even a fragment of a carved statue, all found amongst dozens of silted up depressions across a large hilltop. Two test excavations were carried out to understand these depressions further, and extensive aerial mapping and excavations are planned for the coming field seasons.

Throughout all of these excavations, samples of the archaeometallurgical and associated archaeological materials were statistically processed and documented and shipped back to the Materials Sciences Laboratories at UCL Qatar where analysis continues on this material.

The UCL Qatar information point – the lasting legacy

An iron smelting festival was held at the Royal City of Meroe with two main aims: first to provide the opportunity for experimental archaeology, to allow the team to try to replicate the ancient iron smelting techniques to learn more about the ingredients and methods used by the iron smelters of Meroe; and second, to provide an educational opportunity for people to come and learn about the iron smelting at Meroe, which was one of the major industries of the time and helped to drive the rise and power of the Kingdom of Kush. A furnace workshop and shelter was constructed, replicating the workshop the team excavated, and the raw materials were found and processed using traditional ways. Over seven hundred people attended, learning about the ancient technologies in an educational area before going to watch the smelters in action. The experiments provided a wealth of data we are now using these to interpret the archaeological remains in the field and in the laboratory. In addition, a one hour documentary film of the process was produced (in English and Arabic) which will be available online as an open access educational tool.

Processing archaeometallurgical remains at Hamadab

Additional community engagement and capacity building aside from the week-long smelting festival included meetings that were held at the UCL Qatar dig house with the local communities to explain the work and our recent findings, and invite comments and questions. Interviews about the impact of our work and our presence in the area were conducted, to provide information to help formulate strategies for our future involvement in the area. Another two University of Khartoum archaeology graduates were given the opportunity to work with the team to gain more experience and further their learning about archaeology.

An ancient iron smelting workshop excavated at Meroe

Finds documentation has continued over the last year, focusing on all aspects of the non-metallurgical finds including small finds, ceramics and technical ceramics. A huge number of items have been numbered, entered into the database, photographed, and drawn, which has allowed scientific analysis to begin on these objects. Already interesting observations have been made through this detailed documentation process, including an evolution of tuyere types tying in nicely to the chronological framework we are generating for Meroitic iron production.

New radiocarbon dates, luminescence dates and archaeobotanical analysis, as well as petrographic analysis of ceramics and scientific analysis of slag and ore samples have produced exciting results, the publication of which is ongoing.