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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 18:40 GMT 19:40 UK
Sudan's past uncovered
By Lawrence Pollard
BBC arts correspondent

It is Africa's largest country. It has more pyramids than Egypt. But Sudan is not in the headlines for its heritage.

A new exhibit of ancient Sudanese artefacts at the British Museum in London is hoping to go some way to change this.

Gilded statuette of king from Kush dynasty in Tabo, Sudan. Copyright: Sudan National Museum

"Sudan is not well known in the West, and unfortunately if it is known, it's only for very bad things. Now is an opportunity to show another face of the Sudan - one of civilisation."

As director of fieldwork for the national museum in Khartoum, Dr Saleh Mohammed Ahmed is familiar with the treasures loaned to the British Museum.

When the show was first mooted five years ago, it was hoped it might mark the signing of a peace treaty ending the civil war.

Instead, the news is full of the crisis in Darfur, while some of the country's most exciting archaeological sites are about to disappear under a dam project.

And a few months ago, the Khartoum museum was robbed of dozens of major pieces.

Cohabitation

In various ways, the show at the British Museum sheds light on each of these issues.

Curator Derek Welsby points out a big white bone at the entrance to the gallery.

It is a fossil giraffe bone, next to a picture of where it was found in the arid moonscape of the Sudanese desert.

"What this shows us is that once upon a time, what is now one of the most arid places on the planet had a population of big game with people fishing and hunting," he says.

Pyramids at Jebel Barkal, Sudan. Copyright: Derek A Welsby
Sudan's pyramids are less known than those of its neighbour, Egypt

"You can see how fluid the climate is, and how this causes all sorts of problems to present-day populations as it did to people in the past."

This lends a sobering historical perspective to the struggles over land occupation in Darfur, but elsewhere in the gallery there is more hopeful evidence of a history of mutual tolerance between Sudan's ethnic and religious groups.

By the 10th Century, there were three Christian kingdoms in the area, and on display is a jeweller's mould found in a Christian site and used for casting Koranic inscriptions.

Clear evidence, says Mr Welsby, of cohabitation.

"We've got Christian sites where there are clearly Muslims living as part of the resident population. We have Muslim tombstones found adjacent to ones inscribed in Greek, old Nubian and Coptic, for example."

New history

One of the least-known areas of Sudan is the inhospitable region round the fourth cataract of the Nile.

This area is about to flooded by a 160km-long (100 mile) lake for a hydroelectric dam.

Just as 40 years ago when the temples at Abu Simbel in Egypt were threatened by the Aswan dam, rescue archaeologists are hard at work.

Ostrich-shaped ceramic vessel used to wash people's hands between 1750BC and 1550BC in Sudan. Copyright: Sudan National Museum
Hundreds of artefacts like this one have been uncovered

And they are finding astonishing riches in the dry, termite-free area they thought was empty of artefacts.

"We are rewriting the history of Sudan, finding materials from all periods," says Dr Saleh.

They have discovered fortresses, cities, cemeteries and even a pyramid where they thought there was nothing.

And its all about to be obliterated.

Political challenges

Neil Macgregor, director of the British Museum, hopes the exhibition will alert the world to this archaeological race against time, but he is mindful of other priorities, too.

The British Museum is waiving its entry fee in place of a suggested donation to relief charities in Darfur.

"Whatever happens politically, it's going to be more important than ever to understand what this country is about. That's what this exhibition is for."

As in the cases of Iraq and Iran, the international community of archaeologists and scholars is working to keep lines of communication open during politically difficult times.

And the pieces stolen from Khartoum?

Fifty-seven of them were recovered two weeks ago in Omdurman, just outside Khartoum, safe and intact.

Some good news at least from Sudan, at a time when it is in short supply.


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