Want to take trip back in time? Pick up a shovel and a plane ticket to northeast Africa.
In the world of archaeology, Sudan is a goldmine. The country contains some of history’s oldest archaeological sites and has been a prime target for archaeologists since the mid-19th century. Czech archaeologists have been the key players in a renewal of interest in Sudan in the past two decades, and a team of Czechs are currently engaged in the excavation and study of Wad Banaga, an ancient Sudanese city dating back more than 2,000 years. The city is on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and may hold the clue to the decipherment of the ancient Meroitic language, which became extinct around the year 400.
Pavel Onderka, curator of Egyptian and Nubian antiquities and head of the ancient Near East and African department of Prague’s National Museum, has recently returned from Sudan, where he and his colleagues are engaged in Wad Banaga, which Onderka calls “one of the most important sites in Sudan.”
This ancient city flourished at the dawn of the first millenium and was first explored by Europeans in 1821. Interest in Sudan lagged in the latter half of the 20th century, but archaeologists from the National Museum have been excavating the area for several years. The most important structure on the site, which Onderka and his team are currently excavating, is the Palace of the Queen Amanishakheto, which was constructed in the last decade of the 5th century B.C.
“We’ve also been exploring a small temple dedicated to the Nubian lion gods Apedemak and Sebiumeker … which was built at the turn of the eras and collapsed at least twice before its final collapse at the end of the kingdom in the 4th century A.D.,” he said. “Surrounding the temple is a more complex political center which flourished between the 4th century B.C. and the 6th century A.D., meaning there is one millennium of history to study in one place.”
While Czech archaeologists are primarily engaged with the ancient site, activities in Sudan go beyond archaeological digs. This past November, Onderka and his colleagues delivered 150 kilograms of toys and teaching materials to Sudan and are now raising money to fund a well in Wad Banaga, where he says more than 3,000 people live without access to fresh water and drink from the Nile River. So far, Onderka estimates they have raised half of the approximately $25,000 needed to complete the well.
“We also have an exhibition of photos from the Náprstek Museum in Prague on display at the Sudanese National Museum. These are photos of Sudan taken 100 years ago by Czechoslovak explorers,” he said. “The Sudanese have appreciated this cultural exchange, as there is a Czechoslovak community in Sudan consisting of Czech women who married Sudanese men and a large number of Sudanese people who graduated from Czech universities and speak perfect Czech.”
Onderka made his first trip to Sudan in 2007, becoming the first Czech to set foot on the archaeological site at Wad Banaga. He says his visits to Sudan have changed his perception of Sudanese society by destroying his preconceived notions of the country as a dangerous place.
“When I first arrived, I asked my colleagues whether I could leave the compound where we were staying. They laughed and told me I could go wherever I wanted. Actually, once I started exploring the capital city, I felt safer there than in Prague,” he said.
Onderka estimates that the current expedition in Wad Banaga will last 60 years. Reconstructing this important era of early history is not easy, but Onderka says the city could also hold the key for the decipherment of the Meroitic language, as a shrine stand with inscriptions in both Egyptian and Meroitic script, which is now held in the Egyptian museum in Berlin, was discovered in Wad Banaga in 1844. But like a textbook archaeologist, Onderka remains patient and refuses to get his hopes up.
“The stand was the clue for the decipherment of the Meroitic script because it held two languages. The language remains undeciphered, however. We hope the site will provide more clues to reveal the evidence that could contribute to the decipherment of the language,” he said.