Posted by: preservenile | May 22, 2012

Resume from the Sudan Dam meeting at British Museum 15 May 2012

On 15 May, a meeting hosted jointly by International Society for Nubian Studies (ISNS) and Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) took place at British Museum. The topic was the new dams that are planned to be built on the Middle Nile with the aim of attracting archaeological missions to salvage the cultural heritage in the areas to be flooded. However, the meeting did not come out the way that the planners had intended, i.e. as a gathering to energize support for an uncritical salvage operation. We have previously published the agenda of the meeting, so we proceed directly to the resume:


1) Muawia Mohammed Salih of the Dams Implementation Unit (DIU) reviewed the Government of Sudan’s (GOS) current programme of dam building. He was emphasizing plans to construct new dams at Kajbar on the Third Cataract of the Nile and at Shereiq on the Fifth Cataract, as well as drawing attention to the ongoing development of dams and related agricultural schemes on the Upper Atbara and Setit. The invitation indicated that seven new dams are planned to be built.

Mr. Salih furthermore said that the DIU had offered the archaeologists working for the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project (MDASP) wonderful assistance, and that they would do the same again. This is something that may not reflect the experience of all archaeologists involved with that work!

Dr. Timothy Kendall (director of NCAM’s Jebel Barkal Archaeological Mission) – in the discussion at the end – commented that the supposed “hospital city” at Merowe is closed and that the Merowe Museum is empty and also shut. Both had been funded by DIU, and the failure of these projects demolished much of what Mr. Salih was suggesting. Concerning the Merowe Museum, which we wrote about in the previous entry, it is worth stressing again that it is not even dedicated to the history and archaeology of the Fourth Cataract Region that was flooded, but is rather focusing on the region of Merowe and Napata.  

Furthermore, one could raise the question why DIU has spent so much funds on developing the town of Merowe rather than focusing on the resettlement sites for the people affected by the dam.

Mr. Salih is be a well-known figure to the archaeologists engaged in the MDASP. He has attended several of the MDASP’s annual meetings. Perhaps it is not unrelated that no representative of the local people was ever invited to these meetings…

2) Director of Fieldwork at NCAM, El-Hassan Ahmed Mohammed, reviewed current surveys by NCAM on the Upper Atbara and Setit, where it seems that maybe three years are left to go before completion of the agricultural scheme there. He had very little precise to say about what was found during the surveys or what needs to be done before the project is completed.

Very little archaeological work has indeed been undertaken in this region previously, but the dams are underway as we wrote in a previous entry. The region will probably be under water or the plough in 2015, if everything proceeds as planned by the DIU.

3) Dr. David Edwards, University of Leicester, gave a very good review of the Mahas Survey, which was conducted in collaboration with the University of Khartoum under the co-direction of Professor Ali Osman Mohammed Salih. The results from the survey are published in the monograph The archaeology of a Nubian frontier. The Mahas region of northern Sudan is in the area around the Third Cataract, which is threatened by the planned dam at Kajbar. Dr. Edwards identified some key sites and topics that warrant particular attention. He also stressed that many palaeo-channels now some distance from the river are likely to be rich in sites, something that is not yet very well known, but that concerns a region surely to be affected by the dam.

4) MA Mahmoud Suleiman Bashir of NCAM reported on the NCAM survey within the likely confines of the Kajbar Dam, indicating that they knew of/had found 275 sites (compared to ≥700 that Edwards had recorded in a somewhat larger area and during a more extensive period of surveying).

5) Dr. Derek Welsby, director of the Sudan Archaeological Research Society’s activities in Sudan, went over some of the major Pharaonic sites that would be affected by the Dal Dam, if built. He noted that almost all of Amara West and the so-called Cathedral of Sai would be flooded, with the rest of Sai and all of Soleb at great risk. He offered some preliminary estimates of the scale (cost, equipment) needed to move buildings or rock art panels and stressed the importance of thinking of rock art within a landscape framework, although in fact all sites could benefit from such a perspective. He also emphasized that given how groundwater can seep upward, how deep some of the archaeological strata may be, and the uncertainty about the precise maximum flood level at full storage, it’d be better to assume a worse case scenario when thinking of likely impacts. His main thrust, however, was to suggest that everyone should get on with what they are already doing – especially for Dal – so as to be best prepared when the dam goes ahead (see further comments from Welsby in the discussion below).

According to Harry Verhoeven, the author of Black Gold for Blue Gold?, the Dal Dam will have the highest output of electricity of the new dams proposed on the Middle Nile… But as Dr. Welsby remarked, it will have tremendous impact on archaeology.

Moreover, we believe that one should also expect that the town of Abri will go under water, as well as much fertile agricultural land. This may be why the feasibility of this dam is still under consideration, currently by the company URS Scott-Wilson.  

6) For the Shereik Dam in the Fifth Cataract there was a presentation by Mariusz Drzewiecki from Poznan that focused on the medieval fortresses located there.

The presentation was followed by a formal appeal by Dr. Abdelrahman Ali, newly appointed Director General of NCAM, for international assistance, which started off the discussion.


Dr. Vincent Rondot, president of the International Society for Nubian Studies (ISNS), chaired the discussion. He repeatedly urged the discussants to focus on the archaeology, because that was the reason why everyone was there and appeared to be unhappy with any attempt to talk about wider ethical issues. However, he did permit a Kajbar resident to express his community’s profound opposition to the dam there, something in which he was vocally supported from the floor by a fellow Mahas Nubian, who recalled the killing of several protestors against the Kajbar Dam in 2007.

Professor Dietrich Wildung, director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, spoke first, and he politely urged the case for alternatives to hydroelectricity and for the Government not to go ahead with the dams, followed in similar vein by Professor Matthieu Honegger of Neuchatel University. It seemed like most speakers in the discussion were opposed to the dams, although other issues were the focus of their entries. 

Costanza de Simone from the Cairo office of UNESCO forcefully expressed  the necessity of not considering heritage issues (including archaeology) in a context devoid of concerns about human rights, while other speakers drew attention to the problems during MDASP of not having had meaningful community participation or agreement.

Several speakers, including Junior professorin Claudia Näser and Dr. Edwards also expressed strong views about including ethnography, living heritage etc. within any future work and about doing this by working with Nubian-speakers from the region.

Dr. Bruce Williams (member of the American Committee for Nubian Heritage) argued that archaeologists could not do this work without the salvage being used as justification for the dams. Dr. Derek Welsby in contrast was clear in his opinion – the dams would happen, and “sitting on the fence” (a strange term to use about principled opposition!) was pointless, and archaeologists should just get on and save sites – or “document the archaeology” as Dr. Rondot put it.

We are naturally content that some of our colleagues did speak up, although we disagree that the dams are “OK” as long as an ethnographic component and community participation have been included. Before any archaeologist decide to participate in the proposed salvage projects in Sudan, they should make sure that the dam building operations are consistent with the principles laid down by the World Commission on Dams, enjoy the support of the local population, and are undertaken in a manner consistent with the ethical principles of relevant organisations, such as the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (especially considering that ISNS itself appears – from its website – to lacks such guidelines). If these conditions are not met, it is better to refrain from giving credibility to new, dubious dam projects in Sudan.

Comments toward the very end of the British Museum meeting by Dr. Abdelrahman of NCAM that if local consent is not forthcoming the Kajbar Dam will not be built hold out some hope that continuing our campaign as archaeologists may contribute to safeguarding Nubia’s surviving heritage.



  1. […] on the 15th of May, perhaps a “new order” is arising for the Middle Nile Valley too. HERE can be found a report from that meeting, as it was compiled on the basis of testimonies from […]

  2. […] the Society for Africanist Archaeologists who posted today news and links on the topic inspired by the BM meeting of the 15th of May. We therefore decided to show here a photo of the panel dedicated to the dams’ crisis in […]

  3. The recent publication ‘Archaeology of a Nubian Frontier’ which draws together current archaeological knowledge of the Third Cataract region is in-print and available from here:
    or any bookshop.

  4. […] after the meeting about the new dams planned in Sudan at the British Museum in May, the British Institute of East Africa took an active position against the undertaking of […]

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