Neolithic Nomads at El Multaga, Upper Nubia, Sudan

Article excerpt

Introduction

In Upper Nubia and Central Sudan, Neolithic burial customs are well documented as a result of the extensive excavation of several burial sites, the most important of which are located at Kadero (Krzyzaniak 1996), El Kadada (Geus 1984), El Ghaba (Lecointc 1987), Kadruka (Reinold 1994) and, more recently, site R2 near Kawa (Salvatori & Usai 2001), where richly furnished burials are concentrated in large mounds. El Multaga is located in Upper Nubia, in the districts of Gushabi and Abu Dom, between Debba and Korti (Figure 1), in an area that was never explored in detail until November 2001, when a survey was carried out in the frame of a salvage project by the SFDAS, the French Unit of NCAM (National Corporation for Antiquities and National Museums of the Sudan), over a territory of about 75 [km.sup.2]. Beside other discoveries, pertaining mainly to the Neolithic, that survey led to the identification of a large number of small mounds, some of which appeared to contain burials and/or artefacts, more particularly pottery wares that could be attributed to the Karat industry, defined during earlier research (Marks et al., 1968) and dating to the second half of the fifth millennium BC. Consequently, a second campaign, mainly devoted to the excavation of those mounds, was carried out in November-December 2002 by a team of archaeologists and anthropologists. It showed that, although the pottery of the graves displays strong affinities with the material found at Kadruka, the burial customs differ from what is known of all the sites excavated so far in the Nile valley. In this paper, we focus on these burial customs, using only the results of the second campaign.

Forty-two Neolithic graves

El Multaga stretches on old river silt overlaid by aeolian sand. The graves occupy circular mounds of various sizes that are 15 to 20 cm high and contain at most six burials. These mounds are scattered inside areas about one square kilometre across that seem to form distinct clusters at a distance from each other. They differ from all the burial sites of the same period excavated so far in the Middle Nile valley, where numerous graves are concentrated in large mounds. Since the graves were filled with the sediment extracted from them, their limits could not be identified easily unless evidenced by the position of the skeleton. Indeed, some are just big enough to contain the bodies, so that the skull and the feet are then raised on both sides, displaying a "wall effect" (Figure 2). Finally, as corpses decayed, the sediment in which they were buried filled up progressively their inner spaces, preserving some trunk and pelvis volumes and keeping most bones in primary position.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

A total number of forty-two graves have been unearthed during the second campaign. Except for MTG 19/8/1 and MTG 36/4/1, which were discovered by accident in flat areas, they were distributed among eighteen mounds. Forty of the graves contained a single burial and two, MTG 28/2/3 and MTG 18/1/4, contained double burials. In MTG 28/2/3, a child lay over an adult, while in 18/1/4 only long bones from two adults were still present. All are primary burials that decayed inside the grave without subsequent human intervention.

The mounds included from one to six corpses (Table 1) that belonged only to adults in seven instances, only to juveniles in three instances and to both adults and juveniles in seven instances. As a result of bad conservation of the pelvic bones, sex could be identified only for three adults, following the method of Bruzek (1991), and the adults' age at death could not be determined. On the other hand, using the models defined by Moorees et al. (1963a, 1963b), we could distinguish twenty-six adults and fifteen juveniles but, for the three remaining skeletons, poor bone conservation and lack of teeth prevented such identification. Table 2 reviews the age at death. Since the excavations focused on the mounds, the skeletal sample represents only part of the population, a fact that prevents any discussion on its configuration, all the more since the chronological sequence of the burials cannot be evidenced either. …