Saving Sudan’s heritage

I listened to a fascinating lecture last night by Derek Welsby of the British Museum, who is one of the top authorities on archaeological excavations in Sudan. I also cheekily asked him to write a couple of pages for our guidebook – answer on this one pending.

For a whole hour, I was captivated, as he took the audience with him on a journey through vast swathes of (north) Sudan’s ancient history, from the at-first-inexplicable discovery of shrapnel a train that exploded during Gordon’s time, to the burial chamber of a cow that must have been a very special beast to have been buried alongside so many riches.

Very little is known about ancient cultures in the south, he told us (virtually paraphrasing what I have written in our book), but suggested that might now change with the signing of the CPA.

Towards the end of his talk, he touched upon the very sensitive subject of the Merowe/Hamadab dam. This, he said, would destroy large amounts of as-yet-undiscovered archaeological treasures. As the land is flooded, and the water seeps down into the land that has remained bone-dry for centuries, bone will shatter, walls of ancient pyramids will crumble and pottery fragments will be washed away. Having devoted his life to the study of Sudan and Egypt, he is clearly more than a trifle upset about this – for there simply is not time to save even a fraction of what might be out there to save.

But he put on a brave face. There were a great many Sudanese in the room.

“I am not against dams,” he stressed pointedly. “It’s just – well, a shame we don’t have more time and money.”

He wisely declined to be drawn into arguments of whether the dam was right, and whether more dams would follow. The only other thing that he said about the dam project was to highlight the great benefits it would bring to people in Sudan – tripling electricity production, irrigating land and so forth. But he wasn’t fooling many people. The archaeologist in him despised the thought that ancient treasures would be forever lost.

But then – what is the point of complaining about this? The dam is nearing completion and is going to go ahead, whether folk like it or not. If him or his colleagues kick up too much of a fuss, their permit will be withdrawn from Sudan and they’ll simply be kicked out of the country.

There’s also the other argument, too. What’s more important: preserving some interesting, though useless, artefacts of ancient Sudan or bettering the lives of people in the desert?

I could annoy a lot of Derek Welsbys with my answer.

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