Magazine article The Spectator

Buried Treasure

Magazine article The Spectator

Buried Treasure

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

Buried treasure

Sudan: Ancient Treasures

British Museum, until 9 January 2005

Despite its proximity to the familiar culture of Egypt, Sudan, the largest country in Africa and the link between the Mediterranean world and central Africa, is one of the most mysterious. The southern two thirds of the country are archaeologically terra incognita, and even the northern third is only now yielding its secrets.

Currently, there are 30 archaeological missions at work in Sudan. The British Museum, continuing that practical compact with scholarship which backed Sir Austen Henry Layard's epochal discoveries at Nineveh and Babylon in the 1840s, is also involved. The two Museum curators who organised this exhibition and acted as editors of the prestigious catalogue are also working archaeologists who have done their time in the Sudanese desert. The exhibition could be regarded as the last faint echo of the British Empire, for it celebrates the founding of Khartoum Museum by the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in 1904, in which the British Museum was also involved. The impetus given by the need to house artefacts inundated by the rising waters of Lake Nasser led to the foundation of the Sudan National Museum in 1971. All the objects in the exhibition, most of which are recent discoveries, come from the Museum.

In the past, archaeologists working in Sudan were Egyptologists who regarded Sudan as an adjunct. It has now emerged as a discipline in its own right, a fact demonstrated by the British Museum itself changing the name of the relevant department from Department of Egyptian Antiquities to Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically, with sections on special themes. The section devoted to pottery is particularly thought-provoking for it goes back 10,000 years. One would have expected the artefacts to have been crude, heavy pots. Instead, they are delicate in form and subtle in colour, with designs persisting for thousands of years. Contemplating these exquisite objects, some witty, like the ostrich-shaped vessel (235)*, some elegant, like the calciform beaker (240), one begins to reconsider the accepted convention that mankind started at the bottom and has been progressing upwards ever since. Similar expertise is to be found among the stone-workers. Two objects which at first glance seem to be models of bottles reveal themselves on inspection to be female figures, the human form reduced to a few subtle but unmistakably feminine curves (272:273).

The timespan is awesome, from the Palaeolithic period to the 19th century. Within that context the Egyptians are seen as johnny-come-latelies, arriving 'only' about 3000 BC. …

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