Sudan banking on foreign-run archaeological digs


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While the practice of sharing archaeological digs becomes more and more rare, Sudan continues to share half of its archaeological finds, in some cases, with the foreign missions responsible for the discovery. The country has equally opted for increased cooperation with foreign scientists with the objective of promoting its history.

Sudan’s rich and ancient past is often neglected. From its Nubian fortresses, the kingdom of Kush to the great Meroë Empire, Sudan has witnessed many celebrated civilizations. Relatively forgotten, its story has been eclipsed by the seductive history of its neighbor—the land of the Pharaohs, Egypt. And the country has embarked on a crusade to rectify this neglect.

This crusade could explain the reason behind Sudan’s decision to continue with the old tradition of sharing archaeological finds, a common practice throughout the 20th century, but which has experienced a marked decline in recent times. Many countries, especially Egypt, have discontinued this practice.

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During the course of French excavations close to the city of Meroë, Sudan proposed ownership of half of all archaeological discoveries, made to date and yet to be discovered, to the French Louvre museum. While the international museum giant is yet to make an official decision concerning this offer, an impressive collection of pieces from the site is currently on display at the Louvre in the “Meroë: An Empire on the Nile”-exhibit.

The country sees this type of cooperation as a means of restoring its past glory. But Sudanese sites are not as attractive as those in countries such as its imposing neighbor, Egypt, and allowing foreign museums to take back with them some key treasures from its past is seen as a strategy. A strategy that allows Sudan to export its culture to where it matters most.

However, this practice appears to be losing ground with the very western countries who have been invited to partake in such arrangements. Despite its strong archaeological presence in Sudan, France, for example, seems to be shying away from the practice. “It is against French policy,” explains Gilbert Nassins, archaeological photographer with the French Scientific Research Institute, CNRS.

But that is not all. “Sudan is struggling with other issues,” says Nassins. This is in spite of the government’s motivation to invest in archaeological excavations since the Nubian campaign. Many new museums are being built. The poor economic conditions of the country as well as inadequate infrastructure, however, do not allow the country the luxury of undertaking such gigantic archaeological adventures on its own without the help of the international community. To succeed, the east African country needs to have access to training and scientific expertise, among others. These invitations undoubtedly bring the question of incentives to the fore.

Another reason behind the invitation, according to Nassins, is that during discoveries “the question of how to conserve the artifacts arises”. This is because the growing number of archaeological sites in the country has led to an excess of antiquities, more than the country can handle solely. And with poor preservation facilities, where available, it is true that the state of the art preservation conditions in Western museums remain an attractive alternative.

International Cooperation

Foreign museums in Sudan are held in high esteem. Gilbert Nassins, who has worked for several years on digs in Sudan, explains that the presence of these foreign museums is pervasive. “The United States historically is very present, as well as Germany, France, and more recently Norwegians, Greeks, Polish — especially interested in the Christian dispensation, and of course the presence of the British and the British Museum.”

Michel Baud, curator of the “Meroë: An Empire On the Nile”-exhibit, currently at the Louvre Museum in Paris, is quick to point out that the French are not inactive. “The Sudanese have strong ties with French archaeologists, especially because of Jean Vercoutter.” In 1967, the French Section of the Directorate on Antiquities of Sudan (SFDAS) was created (officially in 1969) with the help of the famous archaeologist. “This institute is directly linked to the Sudanese administration,” he adds. SFDAS offers training to the personnel of the Sudanese Department of Antiquities.

In the final analysis, international cooperation seems to be paying off and every party is benefiting from the abundance of artifacts, most of all Sudan’s hunger to make known its proud history despite its financial and material limitations. But this couldn’t come at a more tense climate as countries of the Global South battle Western museums for the restitution of stolen artifacts. Sudan, in the meantime, cannot afford to take the same vociferous direction as its Egyptian neighbor.

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