When UCL Qatar archaeologist Dr Jane Humphris returns to work in the ancient city of Meroe, Sudan, later this year, she says it will feel like “going home”.
Dr Humphris, who heads UCL Qatar’s Sudan archaeology project, has been overseeing investigations into ancient iron production associated with Meroe, part of the Kingdom of Kush, for the last five years.
During this time, the UCL Qatar team has unearthed many exciting archaeological finds, been instrumental in involving the local community in work at Meroe, provided dedicated training to many Sudanese graduates and, earlier this year, opened the ‘UCL Qatar Iron and Kush Information Point’ for visitors to learn about the technological history of the area.
“You really start to become part of the local family out there,” said Dr Humphris. “Over the years we’ve built a ‘dig house’ for the team at Meroe. So now, when I’m driving out to the village where our site is, it’s like going home, and the people living in the area are like a big extended family.”
While Meroe has been known as an ancient iron production centre for around 100 years, very little archaeology research had been done in relation to the metallurgical remains in the area until the UCL Qatar project, backed by Qatar Foundation (QF), began excavating in 2012.
“We’ve found very early iron production at the site as well as later iron works,” said Dr Humphris, who explained that Meroe was the second capital of the Kingdom of Kush, which was a powerful African state from roughly 800BC to 350AD.
When the UCL Qatar team discovered an ancient iron production and furnace workshop at Meroe in 2014, it gave rise to the idea to build an Information Point at the site. “This was a great opportunity for us to think about doing experimental archaeology; because the best way to understand an ancient technology is to try to do it yourself.”
Dr Humphris’ team built a replica of the furnace workshop next to the biggest iron remains at Meroe. “We built the furnace and it worked, so we staged the area as if we’d just been smelting and developed information panels on the Kingdom of Kush, the Royal City of Meroe, as well as iron production and its importance. The idea is that people can go there anytime and learn about the site.”
Dr Humphris, who has worked as an Africanist archaeologist with a specialism in iron production for more than 15 years, divides her time between working in the field in Sudan, and in the labs and at her office at UCL Qatar in Education City, Doha.
“One of the great things about being an archaeologist is that you never know what you’re going to find. Every little thing we find in our trenches has the potential to be an exciting breakthrough,” she said.
Like any successful archaeological project, UCL Qatar’s Sudan research is dependent on the analysis of samples taken from the site. Through its collaboration with the Sudan National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, the team has been able to bring a wide range of samples back to the material science labs in Doha for analysis.
“We’ve had some really nice object finds, nothing like gold or treasure, but things like a figurine that could have been a child’s toy, and huge quantities of pottery that help us to examine what people might have been eating or drinking. I really like finding things that bring the human aspect into the archaeology we’re excavating.”
Dr Humphris describes the labs at UCL Qatar as “almost unparalleled” in the region. “The analysis we carry out on samples here allows us to recreate and tell the story of the past. The facilities QF provides are very impressive; and it goes beyond the labs to the libraries. I’m running a project from Sudan and Qatar and we have the most amazing library at our disposal that covers everything from museums to database management to conservation.”
The head of UCL Qatar research in Sudan says she is looking forward to returning to Meroe for 12 weeks from the start of October. “I always look forward to getting back to Meroe. When we’re not in the field, we’re busy doing analysis in Doha, so by the time we return, our understanding of everything has developed so much that we can move forward with the research questions we want to ask for our up-coming field season,” she said.
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