Stones and bones in the (semi-) desert

The Wadi Muqadam Geoarchaeological Project (Part 1 of 2)

Rationale & Background

Sudan lies between two areas which are central to discussions of how and when humans dispersed from Africa during the Palaeolithic: the Nile Delta (e.g. Van Peer 1998; Vermeersch 2001) and the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits (e.g. Rose 2004a; Beyin 2006; Bailey 2009; Armitage et al. 2011; Figure 1). Sudan's Palaeolithic archaeology therefore has the potential to address key dispersal questions, but to date the main collecting and research focus in the region has been restricted to the Nile Valley (e.g. Arkell 1949; Marks 1968; Van Peer 1998; Van Peer et al. 2003).

arch-RH-Sudan-1bFigure 1: Sudan, the Nile Delta, the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits and surrounding regions Figure 1: Sudan, the Nile Delta, the Bab-el-Mandeb Straits and surrounding regions

Our project sought to begin to address this research bias, by exploring the palaeo-landscapes of the Wadi Muqadam, approximately 70km west of Khartoum. The Wadi is currently dry for almost all of the year, but during wetter phases in the past would have been a seasonal or even perennial channel. The palaeohydrology of the Wadi responds to climatic changes in the Sahara Desert itself, in marked contrast to the Nile, with potential for the archaeological record to reflect this contrast, thus making the Wadi headwaters an intriguing location for field survey. These contrasts connect to broader recent discussions concerning the concept of 'Green Sahara' and the potential for human dispersals across the desert (e.g. Osborne et al. 2008; Drake et al. 2011): i.e. a potential 'third dispersal route' (alongside the Nile and Bab-el-Mandeb Straits).

The region includes residual gravel terraces formed as Wadi Muqadam cut down into the Nubian Sandstone bedrock, along with several small (1-4km diameter) palaeolake basins. Individual survey sites were identified remotely by Kevin White and Nick Drake, by combining multispectral Landsat Enhanced Thematic Mapper (ETM+) imagery with high spatial resolution imagery (Google Earth) and digital elevation models (ASTER GDEM and SRTM3; Figure 2). This enabled us to identify potential palaeo-lakes and palaeo-channel margins, as ETM+ images were processed to show the distribution of clays and hydrous minerals using band ratio methods (Jackson 1983). This picks out areas which have accumulated clays and evaporates (carbonates and sulphates) and, when in conjunction with digital elevation data, can be used to map basins which may have held palaeolakes during previous wetter climate phases (Figure 2). We also targeted the riparian zone at points along the Wadi Muqadam channel. 14 sites were subsequently surveyed over a four day period in April 2013 (Figure 3).RH-Sudan-2

Figure 2: A ratio of ETM+ band 5 divided by band 7, showing clays and carbonates as bright areas, draped over the ASTER GDEM and looking to the north-east. The three bright patches in the centre of the image lie in small palaeolake depressions and include our Sites 7, 8 and 9. A 5 km reach of Wadi Muqadam can be seen crossing the foreground. This is an example of the image products used to select sites for our field survey.


arch-RH-Sudan-3bFigure 3: Location map of the Wadi Muqadam headwaters, showing locations mentioned in the text. Note that sites 1-4 are in the drainage basin of a palaeochannel that drains east into the Nile. Sites 5-14 are in the Wadi Muqadam catchment that drains north, joining the Nile near Al Dabbah.


Reconnaissance fieldwalking surveys were undertaken at these sites. Artefacts were identified, categorised and photographed in the field, and were not removed from the sites. Flaked lithic artefacts were recorded and classified according to existing technological modes (e.g. Foley & Lahr 2003) and regional industry and artefact types (e.g. Van Peer 1998). Pottery motif styles were cross-referenced from the field survey's photographic record to standard types in the Wadi Howar and West Nubian Palaeolake regions (e.g. Hoelzmann et al. 2001; Jesse 2004) and to material from Jebel Moya (Brass & Schwenniger 2013).

For details of the survey results, please click here, and for the reference list please click here.

Dr Rob Hosfield & Dr Kevin White (both University of Reading) and Prof. Nick Drake (King's College London)

Acknowledgements: The project fieldwork was funded by an Thesiger-Oman International Fellowship (Royal Geographical Society). Other work in Sudan was funded by the University of Reading (School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science's Research Fund, and the Internationalisation Office) and the Gerald Averay Wainwright Fund: all support is very gratefully acknowledged.

Things to do now

Read more 

Read about the investigator

Follow us

Contact us

Page navigation


Search Form

A-Z lists