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Cahier « Archéologie et art de la vallée du Nil à l’Holocène moyen »

Late prehistoric sites from the Sabaloka province north of Khartoum on the Eastern bank of the Nile, Sudan

Ahmed Hamid Nassr
p. 21-42

Résumés

Les recherches archéologiques conduites au Soudan suggèrent que les communautés de la préhistoire récente se sont développées au travers de transitions majeures et d’une diversité régionale notable. Dans les régions centrale et septentrionale, un nombre important de sites d’habitat des périodes mésolithique et néolithique ont été identifiés. Les données inédites émergeant de projets en cours comme le Sabaloka Dam archaeological project (SDASP) and the El Salha project complètent progressivement la carte archéologique complexe du Soudan pour les périodes de la préhistoire récente apportant de nouvelles informations sur les modalités des transitions et l’emplacement des sites. De nombreux sujets ont déjà été explorés mais certaines problématiques restent vierges et de vastes régions encore inexplorées. Cet article rend compte des récents travaux de prospection et fouille menés dans la région de Sabaloka, au nord de Khartoum, depuis 2013-2015. Il est également l’occasion de proposer une discussion autour des particularismes régionaux dans la préhistoire récente du Soudan central, à partir d’études comparatives de mobilier.

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Introduction

1The Sabaloka project has been conducted since 2011 in order to test one of the most important area of Central Sudan which is still under-researched: Sabaloka, located north of Khartoum in the region of the sixth cataract and comprising complex volcanic mountains and deep channels. The department of Archaeology from Al-Neelain University has got a concession on the Eastern bank of the Nile from the sixth cataract to Hajar Alasal villages, about 60 km in length and following a bend of 10 km on the right bank of the river.

2The primary issue to be investigated in the Sabaloka area for the late prehistory is the inventory of sites and their geographical location in the corridor of Central Sudan compared to the other regions. On the other hand, the long history of archaeological investigation in Central Sudan has revealed many archaeological sites ranging both in a wide range of type/function and chronology, whilst the archaeological activities around Shendi, Butana and Atbara have shown interesting cultural aspects in those areas (Geus 1984; Reinold 2008; Sadig 2005; Mohammed-Ali 1982; Lecointe 1987; Salvatori & Usai 2008; Usai 2014; Nassr 2015; Salvatori et al. 2016). Sabaloka’s location in the middle of these regions could make it be an important place for cultural interaction.

3This paper discusses the results of the archaeological survey and test excavations from three seasons, from 2013 to 2015. The data were collected partly during a student training. Fieldwork has allowed evidencing the presence of archaeological sites by artefact concentrations on the ground. Test excavations at the sites have allowed to uncover stratified late prehistoric settlements, significant cemeteries with grave goods and different types of burial tumuli constructions.

4The study of the late prehistoric sites in Sabaloka reveals new aspects of the Sudanese Mesolithic and Neolithic. The sites are similar to others in Sudan regarding their main characteristics, but different in terms of local traditions.

Context of the archaeological research in Central Sudan

5The late prehistory in Sudan has been discussed on the base of comprehensive archaeological fieldwork conducted with stratigraphic analyses. The problem of defining Mesolithic and Neolithic periods has been the main topic (Arkell 1949, 1953; Krzyżaniak 1992a; Marks & Mohammed-Ali 1991; Haaland & Magid 1995; Usai 2003; Reinold 2008; Sadig 2010; Salvatori 2012; Salvatori & Usai 2006-2007). Over the long history of surveys and excavations in Sudan, it has been possible to perceive and describe the characteristics of the material cultures, the transitions and the discontinuity and/or continuity of traditions. The remaining issues faced by researchers now relate to the analysis of social complexity and the understanding of regional diversities within the chronological timeframe of the transition from hunter-gather-fisher groups to pastoral and farmers groups. One of the main problems to set out the late prehistoric developments in Central Sudan and the comparison of regional diversities is the lack of stratified material sequences supported by absolute dating. Some data come for example from Butana (Shuqadud site; Marks & Mohammed-Ali 1991) and other lately from Al-Khiday excavation south of Khartoum on the left bank of the White Nile (Salvatori & Usai 2008).

6In Central Sudan, late prehistoric cultures have been discussed from interdisciplinary approaches at different sites, mainly in the Khartoum province and in Northern Sudan. In most of the studies, the climate shift and the inter-regional contacts are regarded as the main reasons for cultural change. The wavy-line and dotted wavy-line motifs developed towards complex geometric decoration on pottery. Stone tools technology ranges from microlithic to polished surface implements, among grave goods found for the late Neolithic period (Geus 1984; Reinold 2008; Sadig 2010; Nassr 2015). One of the most important factor having favored the late prehistoric society development is the relative space and the accessibility of landscape, and it can be used as a perspective for the study of human spatial behavior.

7Many archaeological survey and excavations have been done in Khartoum, Butana and the Shendi areas (Arkell 1949, 1953; Hintze 1959; Krzyżaniak 1992b; Mohammed-Ali 1982; Haaland & Magid 1995; Marks & Mohammed Ali 1991; Geus 1984; Sadig 2005; Reinold 2008; Salvatori & Usai 2008; Salvatori et al. 2011; Nassr 2012; Suková & Varadzin 2012).

8Evidence of late prehistoric and Kushite cultures have been discovered in these three regions. Some of these cultures show local features and others show similarities as an indication of interactions between the regions (fig. 1). The Sabaloka province can be seen as the region right in the middle of the main late prehistoric areas in Central Sudan.

Figure 1 – Main Late Prehistoric sites in the Sudan

Figure 1 – Main Late Prehistoric sites in the Sudan

© Nassr

9The main discoveries of late prehistoric sites come from fieldwork conducted during the last century at Khartoum, Kadero, Geili, whilst recent projects have revealed more about pre-Kushite and Kushite civilization development (Salvatori 2012: 400). Furthermore, pioneering research in the Butana and Shendi area has evidenced early and late Neolithic settlements below the remains of Kushite sites (Geus 1984; Marks & Mohammed-Ali 1991; Sadig 2005; Wolf et al. 2014; Nassr 2015).

10Currently, archaeological research set the previous results as a foundation in order to fill out the geographical and chronological gaps, as the Elsalha project does. Located on the Western bank of the White Nile, the site has revealed a new extension of the late prehistoric settlement and cemeteries in the paleo-depression (Salvatori & Usai 2008). Besides, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, WVI, launched a long term interdisciplinary research project on the western bank of the Sabaloka area (Suková & Cílek 2012: 119).

Previous archaeological work in the Sabaloka area

11Whilst archaeological investigations began quite early in Central Sudan, prehistory was the latest period to draw the attention. Arkell published his books in 1949 and 1953 as the starting point of prehistoric research in Central Sudan, and the Khartoum area was the central place of the expeditions. The adjacent areas were described as extensions of the Khartoum province, but Sabaloka remained unexplored. Geological and geographical descriptions of the Sabaloka area in the Sixth Cataract were published by several researchers (Whiteman 1971; Sadig et al. 1974; Almond & Ahmed 1993; Suková & Varadzin 2012).

12The area of Sabaloka has been mentioned as a frontier area North of Khartoum. The first notes on the area were written by classical travelers, when Boncet wrote about the Founj kingdom in the area. Crump also described the area of Garri when he came back from Sinar in 1703 (Ahmed 1984: 41). In 1772, J. Bruce reported about some villages in the Garri area and De Belfond in 1821 made a description of the culture of local people and of the geomorphology of the area (Crawford 1953: 27-8).

13Concerning the archaeological record, the earliest descriptions ensued from some notes by Arkell (1949, 1953) and from fieldwork carried out at the junction between Khartoum and Shendi areas, where many archaeological sites were recorded in the Hajer Alasal area, mainly tumuli graves (Hintze 1959: 173). Surface collections and test pits were made by the French archaeological research unit and the NCAM (National Corporation of Antiquities and Museum, Sudan) on the Eastern bank of the Nile around Sabaloka (Geus 1984: 24). At the same time, rescue excavations were carried out during building work in Khartoum for the Atbara highway (Edwards 1998: 38). The archaeological sites recorded are mainly late and post Meroitic graveyards with a few indications of late prehistoric sites. A more intensive survey was undertaken from 1971 to 1983 around Geili and Jebel Jari, with excavations at Geili and Saqai, having provided data on Mesolithic and Neolithic sites dating back to the Middle and Late Holocene, and other sites dated to post-Meroitic and early Islamic periods (Caneva 1988: 72).

14In addition to these efforts, some data and descriptions of the area and of individual sites have been provided by researchers (Al-Sanjak 1978; Khalid 2013). A NCAM rescue campaign has been conducted in the South of Sabaloka since 2012, combined with the continuation of the research made by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic on the Western bank of the Nile (Suková &Varadzin 2012: 120).

15Geological, geographical and geoarchaeological field studies have been conducted in the area West of the Sabaloka and show the general map of sites setting within the geological landscape of the area (Lisá et al. 2012; Suková et al. 2010; Suková & Cílek 2012).

16These previous studies have provided enough data to indicate that the Sabaloka area, East of the Nile, held some archaeological potential and our project owes a debt to this work. The department of Archaeology of Al-Neelain University started the exploration of the area in 2009 with Khidir, Ahmed. He established the region as the concession area, and he created at the same time the department of Archaeology. Many archaeological features and aspects of the landscape were observed in the southern part of the area and have shed more light on its extension to the North as well.

17During the year 2013, an archaeological survey and excavations were carried out in the area for the purpose of student training, directed by the Author. The area was divided into small sections for the survey and landscape exploration in order to investigate each section and draw the general map of reconnaissance. Archaeological materials collected have evidenced different periods of occupancy, though late prehistory was dominant.

The Sabaloka archaeological project of Al-Neelain University

18Sabaloka is a gorge of igneous complex rocks located 80 km downstream of the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, consisting of the outskirts of the mountains of Eldaoul, Um-Marahiek and the exposed series of Eljebialat Elhomor. The landscape has undergone floods, as evidenced by wadis and small water channels such as Wadi AbJadad. The area slopes gradually from East to West, whilst the South is bordered by the mountain complex, and the North is an open land to the Butana flat plain, where the main water channels drain from East to West supported by the high land of Jebel Jari series extensions (fig. 2).

Figure 2 – Archaeological sites in the southern part of Sabaloka province

Figure 2 – Archaeological sites in the southern part of Sabaloka province

© Nassr

19The department of Archaeology of Al-Neelain University has conducted a project since 2013 in the Sabaloka province, North of Khartoum, on the eastern bank of the Nile between the Gorge Mountains of the Sixth Cataract and the Hajr Alasal area. Three seasons have been done in the Southern part of the area during 2013, 2014 and 2015. A methodology has been established for the landscape description with satellites images, for the survey, the test excavation and the sampling in order to achieve the general goals of the study. Several of our methodological approaches have already been applied in previous prehistoric studies in the Sudan. One common four-step approach is used here to document and investigate the late prehistoric sites: beginning with an overview of the literature and the landscape, systematic survey, test excavation and classification of data.

20Numerous archaeological sites have been discovered during the three seasons in the southern part of the area and two sites have been tested by an excavation. The main late prehistoric sites were found in a bend banking the deep water channels of the Nile.

21For the exploration of the area, satellite images have been used in order to divide the area into small sections. Systematic survey by walk was carried out for each section, artefacts were collected and the surface described. The sites identified during the survey consisted in late prehistoric settlements and cemeteries. The newly discovered late prehistoric site named Retaij has been examined by a systematic survey and a test excavation, and it has yielded a stratified Mesolithic and Neolithic occupation. Other sites dated back to the Late Meroitic, post-Meroitic and late medieval periods.

22The classification of the data collected from the surface and during the excavation show that the Sabaloka area was occupied from the Paleolithic to the late Medieval period, but predominantly during late prehistoric times. It emphasizes the significance of the situation of the area forming a borderland between three regional entities (Khartoum, Butana and Shendi).

Archaeological survey

23An archaeological reconnaissance was carried out in the southern part of the concession during 2013-2015 with surveys and test excavations undertaken in the area between the Sixth cataract to Jebel Abu Talih in the north. The area covered ca 25 km South/North and extended between the Nile and Khartoum-Atbara high way.

24Samples were collected from the surface and a primary description of the main archaeological features was made. Site recording consisted of systematic geographical mapping with a numbering from South to North (SP01, etc.; Sabaloka Project and site number). The dominant ones were associated with significant topographical features, such as tumuli graves, lithic workshop on rocky outcrops and late prehistoric mounds. Samples were collected from eleven sites and test excavations were conducted on two sites (fig. 2). Here is presented a brief description of all sites and a discussion on late prehistoric sites.

Archeological sites

25The archaeological survey of the southern part of the Sabaloka area has revealed eleven sites, differing in topography and chronology, among which late prehistoric sites are dominant. From all the sites discovered, eight have provided late prehistoric artifacts relating to Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The Upper and Middle Paleolithic evidence are rare and represented only by stone tools, mainly Levallois cores and flakes, and workshops of small size reoccupied by late prehistory groups. The Paleolithic sites are not visible from distance, they look mainly as workshops on the outcrop of sandstone and quartz, as debitage and waste within the current crops at the foot of mountains, and there are no quite clear dwelling sites. Tumuli from the late and post-Meroitic periods are common structures in the area, and they differ in size and distribution.

SP01

26In the southern section, investigations were accomplished starting from the South of the Sabaloka area with, firstly, the exploration of Almisaiktab village. A single Neolithic artefact was observed, along two Quba’ buildings within large Islamic cemeteries. Most of the antiquities had been eroded and destroyed by the modern village buildings. An initial survey of the village documented the presence of eight tumuli, closely similar in shape and size to the large post-Meroitic graves (Edwards 1998: 56).

SP02

27Towards the series of mountains of the Sabaloka hills, there is a gorge, which is called Farag Elsiraij, a small water channel descending from the mountains to the West. The archaeological survey carried out at a former bend shallow water channel provided debitage flakes and stone tools widespread on the rocky outcrops. Classification of the stone tools collected reveals that core technology is performed on rounded scraper allowing the detachment of flakes with sharp edges and bifacial retouch, characteristic of a Levallois stone tools production. Some small denticulates and Levallois points have been observed and sampled. Representing eroded stone tools, they might be coming from the draining to the foot of the mountain. The assemblage also included earlier artifacts related to the MSA technology, based on the stone tools form, size and in conjunction with retouched edges, similar to the Levallois stone tools already known from Central Sudan and the Bayuda desert (Arkell 1949; Masojć 2010; Abbate et al. 2010).

SP03

28The Aldankuge village, North of the mountains is on a levelled terrace high above the palaeo-channel of Wadi Ab-Jadad on the left bank. Many tumuli graves have been recorded within the modern residential area. This cultural heritage constitutes a record of the local people cultures, both past and modern. The artefacts collected are pottery jars, some beads and pieces of iron equipment from early Islamic and post-Meroitic cultures.

SP04

29East of the Almisaiktab village, there are traces of a water channel flowing in the area from the mountain gorge, close to a huge mountain called Jebel Um Marahiek. Our survey carried out on the mountain revealed a unique extension of the tumuli field lying on the top to open flat ground on the West of the hill. Different types of tomb monuments were recorded, from the mountain hill top to the flat area, covering about 1 km2. The number of graves recorded is 67, ranging from ring tumuli to tumuli clusters, and from oval mounds to dome graves and “crevice graves” amongst rock boulders. Most of the tumuli are flat and quite featureless.

30Our systematic survey was carried out to document the grave superstructures, notably composed of three types of shapes: oval, mound and circular ring stone. The diameter of the superstructure can range from 7 to 19 m and the height between 1 and 2 m from the base ground. The contrast in the sizes of the superstructures may indicate different periods and/or traditions; nevertheless the cemeteries are very similar to late and post-Meroitic cemeteries in Central Sudan (fig. 3). Systematic surveys and test excavations were done on the site.

Figure 3 – General view of the tumuli on the site SP04

Figure 3 – General view of the tumuli on the site SP04

© Nassr

31Three of the tumuli were excavated to understand the burial traditions and to estimate the dating of the necropolis. Two of the graves were robbed and the shafts disturbed. The skeletons were found without offerings. The third one lays in the middle of the site. The mound was oval, constructed with alluvial soil and small gravels, surrounded with a cladding of dark stone of ca 8.40 × 9.00 m size and 40 cm high from the surroundings. The tumuli were completely removed on 40 cm depth, the shaft was in rectangular shape in the centre of the mound, at a depth of 85 cm. The complete structure of the shaft was of “U” shape, 264 cm long in size, and the width of curve end was 200 cm. It had been covered by stone slabs and the base of the shaft is 150 cm.

32The excavation was conducted vertically with sides sloping gently outwards. The excavation of the ring ditch was made to provide additional information on the grave extension. It revealed a rectangular small shaft on the eastern part of the tumuli. This shaft, covered by stone, contained a well preserved skeleton which was discovered beneath the stone, lying in an extended position. That might be indicative of the reuse of the tumuli in later times (Christian period?) or could be interpreted also as a local burial custom in the Sabaloka province.

33The excavation was continued in the main shaft of the tumuli; the niche was dug into the curve end on the side of the shaft, clad by slabs of stone to a depth of 200 cm, modifying the entrance of the simple niche of 105 × 38 cm. Fortunately the grave was intact, the funerary goods were found inside the niche on the western part. The skeleton was in contracted position and found in the eastern part, laying on the right side with the head to the East and the face to the North. The offerings were composed of three jars with long necks, two small bowls and a dark basin (fig. 4). These funerary offerings are similar to the late Meroitic and post-Meroitic grave goods in the Fourth Cataract region and the Khartoum province (Babiker 1984; El-Tayeb & Kołosowska 2005).

Figure 4 – The offerings in the grave with the skeleton

Figure 4 – The offerings in the grave with the skeleton

© Nassr

SP05

34SP05 is a small workshop with stone tools recorded on the complex quartz outcrop, East of the northern side of the gorge. The samples collected consisted of flakes and a retouched scraper with a few Neolithic pottery sherds found on the northern edge of the mountain. Some bifacial point found in the lower area might have been brought there by draining from the mound. This stone tools are unfamiliar in the area: a bifacial point with continuous dorsal flaking, similar to the Levallois points and the early MSA points from Central Sudan and the Eastern desert of Lower Atbara River (Arkell 1949; Nassr 2014).

35The Neolithic pottery sherds include rocker stamp decoration and fine ware with different styles of Shaheinab pottery variant, similar to early Neolithic sites of Central Sudan (Arkell 1953; Salvatori & Usai 2008; Jesse 2010).

SP06

36During the reconnaissance in the eastern part, series of mountains were observed, extending from South to North. They are called Algibialat Alhomor and compose a complex rock formation of Precambrian gneiss (Almond & Ahmed 1993: 17). An archaeological survey was carried out on the top of the exposed ridges. Many kinds of archaeological features were recorded, mainly tumuli with different shapes (circular and conical) extending on the ridges, with fragments of pottery around the outcrops of the mountains. A large scatter of grinding stones, both lower and upper, has been documented.

37Generally, the archaeological remains investigated were relating to the late Meroitic and post-Meroitic periods and several showed traces of disturbance and/or robbery. Some Christian pottery sherds were also collected, indicating that the site was occupied during the Medieval period in Sudan. Numerous Neolithic artefacts in stone (tools, flakes and grinder) and also in pottery (sherds) were also observed on the top of the mountains and adjacent to the water channel. The pottery sample contain rocker stamp decorated pottery and fine ware with different dotted decoration styles, indicating that the site was occupied during the Early Neolithic period, and then reused in Medieval times with disturbances to the Neolithic archaeology.

SP07

38On the right bank of Wadi Ab-Jadad, close to the agricultural area, a large mound with exposed rock is situated towards the south-western end of a rocky outcrop on the right bank of the wadi. An appreciable amount of pottery sherds, stone tools and palaeo-environmental remains, such as animal bones and shells, was recovered from the surface of the mound.

39The site is recognizable as a mound overlooking a flat area on the edge of water channel sediments. Some dome graves were scattered in the southern and eastern parts of the site whilst the artefacts extended over 1 km from South to North and 300 m from East to West. Remains of Mesolithic and Neolithic artefacts like stone tools and pottery sherds were concentrated on the top and on the slopping sides of the mound. A part of the site has been damaged by the modern debris of the Ritaij village, which occupied the area 20-30 years ago. The ruins of buildings in mud bricks were observed East of the site.

40Our systematic survey and test excavations for three seasons suggest that the site contains stratified settlement evidence as well as grave goods of late prehistoric groups. The classification of the finds shows a long horizon from the Mesolithic and the early to late Neolithic with some graves of late Meroitic as well as early Islamic settlement debris. The site content will be discussed in detail at the end.

SP08

41North of the site SP07, on the left bank of the Wadi Ab Talih, there are hills extending from East to West. Our survey was carried out on the top of the hills and on a bend along the water channel. Various grave superstructures were clearly visible close to the mountains of the Eid Wad Jamra area. The structures recorded there comprised 25 graves which were large and oval in shape, and 17 graves which were small and circular. Fairly irregular and indistinct piles of stone were clustered at the South-West end of the mountains. The cemeteries and the artefacts on the surface indicate a post-Meroitic site, similar to the post-Meroitic cemeteries in different settings and with different grave shapes in Central Sudan (Edwards 1998).

SP09

42During the survey of Elgibialat Alhomor, two substantial sites were observed, consisting of grave mounds. The graves size was measured and the drawings were done. Based on the shape and the superstructure’s massive construction, they might be late Meroitic and post-Meroitic graves. This is confirmed by the pottery sherds widespread around the surface of the graves that were partially robbed.

SP10

43Another two major sites were recorded in the mountain further from the Nile. These two sites were much different from the others in terms of site setting, being situated at the foot of mountains close to the flat area banking Wadi Ab Talih.

44The southern one is a Mesolithic and Neolithic site. Artefacts were covering the surface, with an accumulation of pottery sherds and lithics, including fragments of wavy line and dotted wavy line pottery. Hard coarse texture, microlithic stone tools were dominant, along fine ware collected with polished stone ring and fragments of polish axes, all evidencing a Neolithic occupancy on the site. The finds collected from the surface show two horizons of the late prehistory from Early Khartoum and Shaheinab types in Central Sudan (Arkell 1949: 82).

45The agglomeration of pottery sherds, grinding stones and debitage flakes covered the flat area at the ridge of the mountain, banking the water channel, with the site surface mainly eroded from the top. The wavy line and rocker stamp motifs are dominant in the samples collected. Pottery texture shows hard coarse ware made from wadi clay and quartz with a few fine coarse ware represented by fine pottery sherds decorated with a geometric style and a regular rocker stamp. Polished axe fragments, palettes and crescents were also observed and collected from the surface. The combined study of the surface material indicates that the site is close to Early Neolithic facies, and it may be hypothesized that hunter-gathers occupied this area far from the Nile as a seasonal camp.

46The second site discovered at the foot of the northern mountain is a quartz workshop visible on the rocky outcrop of the top to the mountain ridges. Debitage of quartz was observed with some cores and flakes scattered. The stone tools collected show unfamiliar technology for Central Sudan, while flaked scrapers made on a core of basalt and rhyolite rocks are common. Sharp knifes made on flakes were also represented. The bifacial points include types of Levallois technology with continuous flaking on both sides, a tip end point and a cortical striking platform (fig. 5). Retouched scrapers and sharp blades show similarities with Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic stone tools technology. In addition to the Levallois flakes, some points are very similar with MSA types. The stone tools collected from this site are similar in technology, size and form with Middle and Upper Paleolithic in Eastern Sudan (Chmielewski 1987; Nassr 2014). The content of both sites is informative and seem to relate to gap periods of the archaeology of Central Sudan, which can be taken as an encouragement for prehistoric studies in the future to find out the missing period of the late Paleolithic.

Figure 5 – Bifacial point of MSA technology from site SP10

Figure 5 – Bifacial point of MSA technology from site SP10

© Nassr

SP11

47A single stone tool was observed on the western part of Elgibialat Alhomor, on a bend along the water channel. The other samples collected are composed of bifacial technology with tip end point and conjoining flakes on both faces, made from local rocks. The flakes collected have eroded surfaces, made in general on a core with a single cortical platform, closely similar to the MSA technology in Central Sudan (Arkell 1949). On the other hand, the scatter of Levallois cores, blades, flat flakes with a fated platform on the outcrops seems to be from a small occupation of Middle and Upper Paleolithic sites similar to the Paleolithic discoveries in Eastern Sudan (Khasm El Girba) (Abbate et al. 2010:26).

Settlement patterns of late prehistoric sites in the Sabaloka area

48Despite the fact that the Khartoum province is an important place for understanding the emergence and dispersal of the late prehistory and its extensions in Central Sudan, only a few regions bordering the Khartoum area have been granted of adequate prehistoric research. Moreover, they were not exposed to similar field approaches and classification methods, hindering a balanced assessment of the contribution of each region to the study of the late prehistoric cultural evolution. One of the leading theoretical issues in this study is land use and settlement patterns in the Sabaloka area, Central Sudan. In addition, there are important missing links from Khartoum to adjacent areas, as the Sabaloka area, which might have been a corridor between Khartoum and the Butana and Shendi area.

49It is widely accepted that the late prehistoric groups in Sudan occupied the areas close to water sources. As such, the Nile and the large water channels would have played a great role in site distribution. As well as the size of the sites, their functions differ in settlement patterns. The large settlements, acting as dwelling centers, seem to be found on a bend of the Nilotic fertile plains, for example the site of Kadero in Khartoum province (Krzyżaniak 1992b; Chłodnicki et al. 2011), whereas smaller sites found at the foot of mountains would have been used as workshops or small seasonal camps far from the Nile in the desert or semi-desert. This picture ensues from the comprehensive discoveries in the Central Sudan (Arkell 1953; Geus 1984; Caneva 1988; Marks & Mohammed-Ali 1991; Krzyżaniak 1992a; Sadig 2010; Salvatori 2012; Nassr 2015). The classification of samples collected from stone Age sites show Late Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Early Neolithic and Late Neolithic sites in the area (fig. 6).

Figure 6 – Late prehistoric sites discovered in the Sabaloka area

Figure 6 – Late prehistoric sites discovered in the Sabaloka area

© Nassr

50According to the satellite exploration and our survey, the landscape of Sabaloka consist of complex gorge mountains in the South, series of mountains in the East and the fertile plain between the mountain and the Nile in the eastern and northern parts, where water channels drain. From this topographical setting, it seems that the archaeological sites are distributed according to the site function, indicated by the composition of the artefactual assemblages: the settlements are in the flat area and the workshop at the foot of mountains, graves being on the top of mountains. Mesolithic and Neolithic sites are observed in open situations on the large mounds and at the foot of mountains, at the proximity of water sources even along wadis or paleo-lakes. Most of the sites reused by later occupations (late- and post-Meroitic) lay on the paleo-depression.

51From this settlement pattern, it seems that the late prehistoric groups in the Sabaloka region occupied the area close to the Nile, mountains and seasonal water channels, which would indicate wet conditions in late times and the exploitation of resources available locally from the hinterland and riverine aspects. The permanent settlements were close to the Nile on high mounds. The workshops are found at the foot of cliffs, while the small sites found in the eastern part far from the Nile might be seasonal camps.

Excavation of Retaij late prehistoric site (SP07)

52The site of Retaij was discovered during the first visit to the Sabaloka area in late 2012 and revisited during the systematic survey in 2013. The site consists of a large mounds from silt and outcrops of rocks, situated immediately on the right bank of Wadi Ab-Jadad and close to the fertile plain and mountains (fig. 7). Excavation of Retaij site was needed for two reasons: the first being student training and the second, to estimate and test the late prehistoric extensions. The digging started from the first season in 2013 by test excavations, the continuation of which was postponed each season to make students gaining more experience in the area. Three seasons have been done on the site.

Figure 7 – General view of the site SP07

Figure 7 – General view of the site SP07

© Nassr

53A systematic survey was done and surface samples collected during the first season. Mesolithic and Neolithic pottery sherds were the dominant finds from the surface, being an indicator of particular settlement chronology and pottery production. Stone tools observed on the surface, flakes and debitage indicate small local workshops. The remains of fauna and flora were represented by fragment of bones, shells and plant impressions on the pottery fragments, as well as grinding stones observed on the rocks. The extension of the remains over the surface covers approximately 700 × 200 m. Seasonal rains and subsequent deflation processes has crashed the occupation debris over a extension larger than the original settlement size, which probably occupied the area of about 150 × 300 m on top of the mound.

54The whole site was divided into a virtual grid of 2 × 2 m squares. Excavations were targeted on different parts of the mound to test the stratification depth on the top and the sides. About 18 squares have been excavated (fig. 8), all the squares providing a huge amount of data from three contexts dating to the Mesolithic in lower part, Early Neolithic in the middle part and late Neolithic in the upper part. Five graves were discovered: single skeletons, double and multiple skeletons in one pit have been found with grave goods.

Figure 8 – Excavation map of the site

Figure 8 – Excavation map of the site

© Nassr

55The systematic survey and extensive excavation carried out on the site show that the artefacts concentrated in the southern part of the site and at the foot of the mound. The much eroded surface indicates a deliberate removal of waste and some artefacts were moved from the top to the eastern part of the site. The upper layers of excavation revealed that the eastern part of the mound was used both as a dwelling place and a burial ground, the foot of the mound show workshops nearby the rocky outcrops and grinding areas.

56The dig revealed also settlement remains at the foot of the mound, more than in the lower parts. Three levels of occupation have been identified from the contexts of the three seasons of test excavations, and different sections drawn from the top of the mound to the lower parts. Documentation of the strata content shows interval layers between the main dwelling phases.

57The upper level consist of a superficial sand sheet deposit, observed from the surface level. At 5 cm deep, a smoothed soil with dark clay sediments appeared and was 15 cm in depth. The finds in this level consist of fine coarse ware pottery and small stone tools mainly polished, mixed with an accumulation of dwelling evidence as ashes, charcoal and bones of domesticated animals and fish. This occupation near the surface indicates a late Neolithic horizon, as dated from the pottery sherds and polished axes.

58There was a transitional interface between the end of the dark clay and the hard grey soil consisting of settlement evidence such as living floors which contained abundant concentrations of artefacts. The sediments in Level Two extended on a depth of 20-40 cm, composed of sand and small pebbles mixed with muddy black organic material. The objects discovered in this level are in high quantity, more than the above, and characterized by early Neolithic pottery sherds with dotted decorations, fragments of rocker, and gouge stone tools. The fire place debris were mixed with fish bones, debitage flakes from stone tool production and grave goods were discovered.

59The early Neolithic contexts on the shallow part of the site disappeared at a depth of 35-40 cm, where the virgin soil was found. Nevertheless, in the middle of the site, there was a Level Three beneath the early Neolithic context at a depth between 60 and 80 cm in some squares (fig. 9). This level consisted of hard coarse sand with small gravel mixed with fragments of pottery, mainly hard coarse ware with different styles of wavy line decorations, microlithic stone tools, and single graves. This closely relates to Mesolithic features, cut by Neolithic graves in some parts of the site.

Figure 9 – Excavation section of the site

Figure 9 – Excavation section of the site

1, Yellow sand; 2, dark soil containing late Neolithic artefacts; 3, Dwelling layer of Shaheinab horizon (Neolithic); 4, Early Khartoum artefacts (Early Neolithic or Mesolithic); 5, Virgin soil.

© Nassr

60The stratification described above shows an occupation of the site from the Mesolithic to the late Neolithic, similar to late prehistoric settlements in Central Sudan on the base of stone tools technology, ceramic industries and the succession in the stratification of the main prehistoric cultures (Arkell 1949, 1953; Krzyżaniak 1992a; Caneva 1988; Sadig 2012; Nassr 2015; Salvatori 2012).

61The initial study of the site content describes the finds of each season from a chronological point of view: pottery sherds and vessel, stone tools, fauna and flora discussed from the raw material, technology and typology. The classification of the material from the excavation shows that multiple traditions have developed at the site during a long occupation time span. Microlithic technology is the dominant feature of the lithic assemblage, composed from simple cores worked for flaking on their sides, crescents and scrapers, elongated blades with sharp sides and tip end points, retouched denticulates, small flakes, chunks and debitage products are the common technological production. Bifacial or polished stone tools are rare, represented by some arrow heads, gouges and polished axes. All of the lithic assemblage, collected either from the surface or from the excavation, revealed that the stone tools were made from local raw material, such as quartz, rhyolite, sand stone and basalt. The typological study of the stone tools shows three late prehistoric horizons: 1/ Mesolithic, identified from the small crescents, rounded scrapers made on core and sharp knifes. The stone tools indicating a Mesolithic horizon are rare and mainly coming from the surface with a few from the lower part of the excavation; 2/ The early Neolithic Shaheinab type is represented by gouges and retouched denticulates; 3/ And the third horizon was recognized from the polished axes, small arrow heads, polished ring stones and fragments of bracelets. Additionally, there are some varia stone tools similar to late Paleolithic ones: shattered fragment, broken flakes and tanged arrow heads, all collected from the surface. The gouge and polished axes (fig. 10) observed on the surface and in the upper level are an indicator in favour of a developed Neolithic stone tools technology at this site.

Figure 10 – Gouge and polished axes

Figure 10 – Gouge and polished axes

© Nassr

62From the above mentioned assemblage, it is possible to describe the stone tools industries of the site as cores used for flaking from a cortical striking platform, scraping tools with rounded retouch by a bifacial conjunction flaking. Burins, arrow heads and borers show blade techniques based on sharp sides and tip points, and some of them show small tang. Broken and complete gouges and polished axes evidence the high quality of late prehistoric stone tools production on the site.

63The overview of the stone tools assemblage collected from the survey and the excavation outlines the chronology and technology. Microlithic stone technology is recognizable in burins, denticulates and chips. This includes core, debitage and flake technology. Small arrow heads and polish axes made from flint are typical from late Neolithic stone tools technology. We combined the results of the study of stone tools technology with pottery production and site stratification. To do so, we compared the more easily legible and obvious features from the assemblage and discussed it with, in regard, the characteristics from other sites in the Khartoum province or beyond. Those stone tools main features suggest:

  1. A stone tool set produced from the local rock sources (rhyolite and quartz) with some others;

  2. The exclusive usage of flake technology;

  3. Retouched pieces of burins and scrapers;

  4. Considerable microlithic and a few polished implements;

  5. Gouges, retouched scrapers and polish axes recognized are characteristic features for the early and late Neolithic;

  6. Stone tools were produced on the site, with workshop identified on site from the debitage and waste production.

64The stone tools technology, the typology and the raw materials show different attributes. Some of them are well identified in many regions, such as the initial core on a scraper, the grinding stones and the flaking on small stone tools. Other characteristics indicate diversity, such as the polished axes and bifacial gouges made from quartz and rhyolite, which are known from the western Nile (Shaheinab and Sabaloka west) and far at Kadero and the Blue Nile (Arkell 1953; Fernández et al. 2003; Suková et al. 2014). Researchers have made major re-evaluations on the base of the evidence of late prehistoric stone tools technology in Central Sudan (Geus 1984; Reinold 2001; Fernández et al. 1989, 2003; Fernández 2006). One of the most important issues has been solved about the spread of the Neolithic cultural development and the relationships between different cultural areas and sites within the same region, as a consistent homogeneity and evidenced in stone tools technology. On the other hand, individual features in the stone tools typology could be an indication of local cultural traditions, which appear at Sabaloka East in some flakes, sharp scrapers, the two types of grinder (rocky grinder hole and saddle quern grinder) and small rhyolite gouges.

65The ceramic industries are quite remarkable for the late prehistoric occupation of the site: hard coarse ware, friable and fine textures are dominant. An interesting feature of the site pottery is the combination of two horizons of the late prehistoric ceramic productions in Central Sudan: Early Khartoum, Shaheinab and late Neolithic pottery sherds were identified. Wavy line pottery with different styles was common on the surface and in the lower level of excavation (fig. 11), which indicates that the earliest settlement at the site occurred during the Mesolithic period. Other attributes of an Early Khartoum phase were identified from the pottery sherds, such as the coarse ware treatment, large deep dots and rocker stamp decoration and different style of dotted wavy line (DWL) and wavy line (WL). That shows similarities with other Mesolithic sites in the Khartoum region and beyond (Salvatori 2012: 404-405).

Figure 11 – Different styles of wavy line pottery from Level Three

Figure 11 – Different styles of wavy line pottery from Level Three

© Nassr

66The pottery sherds found in the middle level were treated with a burnished surface and rocker stamp decorations. Gouges were found mixed in the upper part with the content of Level One, mainly composed of fine pottery sherds with complex dots and lines decoration. This level was eroded in some parts of the site by post-depositional disturbances, when some complete fine ware bowls were taken from the site by the local people. The fine ware was common in the upper level (fig. 12), and very similar to the late Neolithic pottery of the Central Sudan and Shendi area on the base of surface treatment and geometric decoration on both faces (Krzyżaniak 1992b; Geus 1984; Sadig 2010; Nassr 2015).

Figure 12 – Late Neolithic fine bowl from Level One

Figure 12 – Late Neolithic fine bowl from Level One

© Nassr

67The pottery vessels, fragments and sherds collected from the three seasons of excavation demonstrate the considerable chronological differences of the production. In fact, the site has been heavily eroded and most of the pottery comes from the much disturbed top layer of 15-30 cm thickness. By combining the material stratification and the classification, two chronological periods of pottery production have been identified. In addition, the diversity in pottery manufacturing process, decoration and shapes show different traditions, mainly Early Khartoum and Shaheinab types. These types were determined by simple individual elements observed in the decoration distribution and the texture of the surface treatment, such as dotted bands and fine ware with wavy line decoration. It may be concluded that there are two different pottery productions: Early Khartoum pottery represented by hard coarse ware made from quartz and wadi clay with different styles of wavy line decoration (fig. 13), and Shaheinab pottery identified from the fine ware made from Nile clay and smooth wadi clay with complex decoration: rocker stamp, dots, lines and geometric decorations outside the pot, inside and on the rims (fig. 14).

Figure 13 – Early Khartoum decoration type

Figure 13 – Early Khartoum decoration type

© Nassr

Figure 14 – Shaheinab decoration type

Figure 14 – Shaheinab decoration type

© Nassr

68There are late Neolithic elements recognized from the fine treatment of pottery sherds and bowls, the unique decoration of complex geometric lines and dots on the fragment of a bowl, of cups and basin. Their components are quartz and wadi clay and it seems they have been produced locally. This singular pieces of pottery with distinguished thickness and decoration can be qualified as rippled ware and they indicate that the site was also used during the younger phase of the late Neolithic, close to the third millennium B.C.

69The fauna and flora remains were collected with the trowel and by flotation of soil samples. The documentation of the material sampling carried out in the fieldwork was made with the description of the contexts and a classification of the remains into: fragment of bones, fossils and plant evidence. The samples were presented to a specialist in Paleontology at Al-Neelain University for the initial classification. The study of the material by type, size and preservation suggests that the mammals and fish were constituting the dominant part of the economic subsistence in both cultural horizons of the site, Early Khartoum and Shaheinab. Wild animals, reptiles, birds, river molluscs, fresh water molluscs, land snail and fish have been identified. In the upper level of the excavation, domestic animal bones were found, represented by goats and sheep. The remains of plants can be identified from pottery impressions and on grinder stones, and still need more analysis.

70The primary study of the extraordinary fauna and flora from the excavation suggest that some bones were artificially used as tools. The preservation of faunal remains was particularly bad.

71The other small finds, mainly found in the upper level, consisted of ornaments and small pieces of bones, rocks, ostrich eggs and shells. Crocodile bones were found with artificial comb manufacture on the edges and burnished surface; they seem to have been used for pottery decorations (fig. 15). Small bones shaped as tip points are interpreted as fish hooks and some bone of animals show a tip end and a simple working surface as tools.

Figure 15 – Crocodile bones used as tools for pottery decoration and burnished

Figure 15 – Crocodile bones used as tools for pottery decoration and burnished

© Nassr

Late prehistoric graves from site SP07

72Two clusters of prehistoric graves were excavated beneath the settlement layers, sometimes cut by the settlement contexts and lost by the disturbance of the dwelling remains. The graves discovered during the three seasons are of three different types, according to the grave shape and the skeleton position. Type one are graves in a small pit, the funerary goods including small fine bowls, large basin and beads. The skeleton is found in a contracted position and the offerings are close to the head. This is similar to the late Neolithic wealthy graves of Central Sudan (Geus 1984; Krzyżaniak 1992a; Nassr 2015). The second type include two skeletons in contracted position in a circular pit (fig. 16), while no good furniture are recorded, except for a few beads differing in shape and colors. There is no absolute dating of this type of grave but the content suggests that this kind of poor grave found in the southern part of the site might be earlier graves because of the small pit, the bad preservations of the human bones and the simple furniture made of beads only. It is actually closely similar to Mesolithic burial traditions having been discovered in Early Khartoum site and in the West bank of the White Nile (Arkell 1949; Salvatori 2012).

Figure 16 –A late prehistoric burial with more than one skeleton

Figure 16 –A late prehistoric burial with more than one skeleton

© Nassr

73The third type of grave is containing multiple skeletons. Two graves of this kind were discovered on the top of the mound within late Neolithic context. The first one was a circular pit with three skeletons laid in contracted positions, and no offerings have been found with the exception of a few beads. The other grave was different: three skeletons were found in a large pit in extended position and some lip plug and beads found around the neck and the pelvis of the skeletons.

74A number of small finds discovered in settlement contexts are also represented in the offerings: beads from ostrich eggs and shells are dominant, generally found with the skeleton close to the skull and around the pelvic area. Lip plugs found in the graves were of different shapes and sizes. Beside that, a figurine made from clay was found (fig. 17). These small finds suggest that the site was occupied by late Neolithic population, as they are similar to the late Neolithic attributes from Central Sudan and Shendi reach (Reinold 2008; Sadig 2012; Nassr 2015).

Figure 17 – Small finds (Figurine, Ostrich eggs beads and lip plug) from the graves and settlement contexts

Figure 17 – Small finds (Figurine, Ostrich eggs beads and lip plug) from the graves and settlement contexts

© Nassr

75The artefacts described above and coming from stratified contexts suggest that the Retaij site is an important late prehistoric site for our understanding of the late prehistoric traditions of Central Sudan, in terms of spatiality and in terms of chronology. The dominant features of the material represent the periods of the Mesolithic, the Early and the Late Neolithic and are common elements of these periods in Central Sudan. Besides, more unfamiliar finds were discovered on the site, such as multiple burials and some small artefacts as the crocodile bones used for decoration purposes. They might be local attributes of the Sabaloka province, shedding a new light on the regional diversities of late prehistory in Central Sudan.

Conclusions

76Although the archaeological surveys and excavations carried out in the Sabaloka region, East of the Nile, have revealed numerous archaeological sites, the main archaeological potential of the area lies in particular in the late prehistoric evidence. The staging of different chronologies recorded is important for our understanding of the Late Stone Age developments out of the Khartoum province, and especially for the issue of transitional times. Our three seasons of surveys and test excavations have contributed to highlight the importance of the Sabaloka area in the Sudanese archaeology. The initial classification of the samples collected during the site explorations shows different occupation horizons, ranging from the Middle Stone Age to the late Medieval periods. The data from the excavations confirm and deepen the information got from the survey and sheds light on the importance of the region in the late prehistoric times. The study of the artefacts from both surveys and excavations has revealed the similarities and differences of the Sabaloka area with other Central Sudan regions. As such, Sabaloka appears as a corridor of cultural interaction between three important regions of the Central Sudan: Khartoum, Shendi and the Butana region. The pottery decoration patterns and some of stone tools such as the gouge give more information on the similarities with the areas West of the Nile, Shaheinab site for example (Arkell 1953) and Jebel Sabaloka on the left bank of the Nile (Suková & Cílek 2012).

77The archaeological evidence also testifies of the main evolution trends in the pottery production, with the development of coarse ware during early Neolithic and the fine smoothed treatment of ceramic during the late Neolithic. The regional diversity can also be observed in settlement patterns. In most of the region, the late prehistoric sites are banking the Nile or large water channels. In Sabaloka East, the sites were mainly found close to the mountains or on the outcrop of sandstone and not far from the Nile, on a bend along deeper water channels. This pattern has also been observed for the late prehistoric sites at Sabaloka West (Suková et al. 2014:150).

78The variability in late prehistoric sites functions reveal three types of occupations: permanent settlements, seasonal camps and workshops from the Mesolithic, early and late Neolithic periods. Early Khartoum and Shaheinab pottery are the characteristic elements, while microlithic stone tools, gouges and polished axes are also common. In additions there is a local tradition of late prehistory being represented by double graves, bone artefacts, pottery decoration such as the band of dotted wavy line made by rocker stamp, and flaking sharp scrapers. Besides prehistoric settlement sites, tumuli graves are recorded as dominant features. They are an indication of extensive mobility in the area during the late Meroitic and Medieval periods.

79The overview of the general results from the three seasons of research at Sabaloka, East of the Nile, gives the informative conclusion that the area is promising and has been occupied during different periods. Our project contributes to enrich the archaeological map of the region. The comparative studies of the data collected from the surface and from the excavations suggest that there are Middle Paleolithic sites, Mesolithic sites, Neolithic sites, Meroitic and post Meroitic sites, however the Stone Age sites are dominant. These are the results from the southern part of the province; the other parts will be investigated during the forthcoming season and will contribute to our understanding of this important area for the archaeology of Central Sudan. Comprehensive classifications will be made for the data collected and absolute datings are necessary to establish the chronology of the archaeological sites in the area and to enhance the archaeological map of late prehistoric sites in Central Sudan.

I am grateful to thanks my colleagues and my student for their helping in the field work. My full thanks go to Al-Neelain University, Faculty of Arts, Archaeology Department, for the funding, and to Andrew Smith and Emmanuelle Honoré for having contributed to the translation of the text.

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Table des illustrations

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Titre Figure 1 – Main Late Prehistoric sites in the Sudan
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Titre Figure 2 – Archaeological sites in the southern part of Sabaloka province
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Titre Figure 3 – General view of the tumuli on the site SP04
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Titre Figure 4 – The offerings in the grave with the skeleton
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Titre Figure 5 – Bifacial point of MSA technology from site SP10
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Titre Figure 6 – Late prehistoric sites discovered in the Sabaloka area
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Titre Figure 7 – General view of the site SP07
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Titre Figure 8 – Excavation map of the site
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Titre Figure 9 – Excavation section of the site
Légende 1, Yellow sand; 2, dark soil containing late Neolithic artefacts; 3, Dwelling layer of Shaheinab horizon (Neolithic); 4, Early Khartoum artefacts (Early Neolithic or Mesolithic); 5, Virgin soil.
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Titre Figure 10 – Gouge and polished axes
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Titre Figure 11 – Different styles of wavy line pottery from Level Three
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 968k
Titre Figure 12 – Late Neolithic fine bowl from Level One
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 756k
Titre Figure 13 – Early Khartoum decoration type
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 468k
Titre Figure 14 – Shaheinab decoration type
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-15.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 500k
Titre Figure 15 – Crocodile bones used as tools for pottery decoration and burnished
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 220k
Titre Figure 16 –A late prehistoric burial with more than one skeleton
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 404k
Titre Figure 17 – Small finds (Figurine, Ostrich eggs beads and lip plug) from the graves and settlement contexts
Crédits © Nassr
URL http://aaa.revues.org/docannexe/image/902/img-18.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 507k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Ahmed Hamid Nassr, « Late prehistoric sites from the Sabaloka province north of Khartoum on the Eastern bank of the Nile, Sudan », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 12 | 2016, 21-42.

Référence électronique

Ahmed Hamid Nassr, « Late prehistoric sites from the Sabaloka province north of Khartoum on the Eastern bank of the Nile, Sudan », Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [En ligne], 12 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 19 septembre 2017. URL : http://aaa.revues.org/902 ; DOI : 10.4000/aaa.902

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Auteur

Ahmed Hamid Nassr

ahmedkabushia84@gmail.com – Al-Neelain University, Faculty of Arts, Archaeology Dept., Khartoum (Soudan)

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Droits d’auteur

CNRS - ArScAn. Cartographie d’après www.geoatlas.fr

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