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2009-2013. Resumption of excavations of the Meroitic necropolis

Friday 23 September 2011, by SFDAS

Directed by Claude Rilly et Vincent Francigny.

Team : Agathe Chen, Romain David, Marie Evina, Coralie Gradel, François Lenoir.

Sedeinga is located between the second and third cataracts, on the left bank of the Nile, about thirty kilometres south of Sai island. The site was initially known for the remains of the temple of queen Tiye, great royal wife of Amenophis III. This romantic ruin with its unique miraculously standing column is unfortunately too fragile to enable excavations to take place without an expensive restoration of the pulverulent blocks of sandstone.

The site also offers remains of a 10th century Christian church. But between the temple and the magnificent desert with its gebels rising in the West, lies a huge Napatan and Meroitic necropolis, the biggest and best preserved known in Nubia (over 30 ha).

Michela Schiff Giorgini from the University of Pisa started studying the site of Sedeinga in 1963 in addition to her excavations in Soleb, about fifteen kilometres south. In 1979, her assistants Jean Leclant and Clément Robichon took over the work. Then, Catherine Berger-El Naggar and Audran Labrousse directed the excavations until 2008.

The story of the excavations of this site and of the Sedeinga Archaeological Unit (SEDAU), a French mission founded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of Paris-Sorbonne, resumed course at the end of 2009 with a new director and a new team. Claude Rilly took over from Catherine Berger El-Naggar and surrounded himself with young specialists to relaunch a campaign focused on the Meroitic cemetery that had not been excavated for 7 years.

The current project, that will last four years, will focus on Sector II (which is exclusively Meroitic) and on the burial chronology.

The team
From left to right and top to bottom: Vincent Francigny, Agathe Chen, Claude Rilly, Coralie Gradel, Alphonse Andaba, François Lenoir, Romain David and Marie Evina.
SEDAU ©V. Francigny
View of Secteur II
V. Francigny © SEDAU

The first campaign that took place from November 22 to December 20, 2009 turned out to be successful in all fields: a detailed topographic survey of the site; anthropological study and classification of bones; study and classification of ceramics; epigraphic study of the inscribed stelae. In spite of the time spent upon arrival re-organizing the house and the work, the three weeks of excavation enabled us to establish meticulous data and to complete them with significant discoveries.

After having laid out the grid and determined an excavation square, a trench was opened along a row of pyramids oriented East West, uncovering a new row of small tombs perpendicular to the first one. The first excavations confirmed a systematic and repeated plundering of the tombs but a few significant objects could be cleared.

The tombs found within the excavation square looked modest, as confirmed by the objects found: fragments of thin pottery, pearls and fragments of glass and faience jewellery that adorned the dead. We can particularly notice a small blue glazed faience pendant that represents the symbol ankh on top of a crescent moon, which could be the well known symbol of the god Apedemak.

Glazed faience pendant.
V. Francigny © SEDAU

The western zone of the trench uncovered several big stone objects among which two capstones that must have covered the top of an important pyramid, and two funerary stelae with Meroitic inscriptions of which one is almost complete. A little further, the untouched tomb of a child, although poor in material, enabled us to study the original arrangement of the burial elements.

Pyramid capstone.
V. Francigny © SEDAU
Meroitic stele and facsimile.
V. Francigny © SEDAU

Un peu plus loin, la tombe intacte d’un enfant, bien que pauvre en matériel, a permis d’étudier la disposition originelle des éléments de l’inhumation.

Child’s tomb.
V. Francigny © SEDAU

The southern zone being occupied by a huge red sand quarry, a new trench was dug towards the North, revealing four tombs with superstructures. In the same sector traces of a pyramid have been discovered. Its structure, based on an interior dome, is quite rare. It is only represented by five constructions, three of which being in Sedeinga.

The layout of the tombs enabled us to put forward a new theory concerning the development of the necropolis. It did not extend uniformly, as previously believed, from West to East, but in separate groups, sometimes contemporary, around one or two tutelary pyramids.

Future campaigns should confirm this theory and give us the opportunity to pursue anthropological, ceramological and epigraphic researches as new discoveries will come to light.