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A niche in the wall of Nastasen's third burial chamber

Desert Diver Discovers Submerged Treasure Beneath 2,300-Year-Old Kushite Pyramid

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A team of archaeologists ‘diving’ in the sweltering deserts of northern Sudan, once the land of Nubia, have discovered artifacts and ‘gold leaf’ in a 2,300-year-old submerged tomb belonging to a pharaoh named Nastasen who ruled the Kush kingdom from 335 BC to 315 BC.

A key difference between the pyramids discovered in northern Sudan and the more famous pyramids at Cairo in Egypt is that the pharaohs were buried beneath them, rather than within them. For this reason, George Reisner, a Harvard Egyptologist, first visited Nuri over a century ago and discovered burial chambers beneath Taharqa’s massive pyramid, the largest of 20 pyramids marking the burials of Kushite royal family.

Nuri pyramids

Nuri pyramids. ( John Partridge )

Sometimes called the “black pharaohs,” this dynasty conquered Egypt in the 8th Century BC and ruled for almost a century. Reisner not only reported that he had found their water filled tombs, but he also noted the presence of a narrow, ancient processional staircase cut into the bedrock running deep below Nastasen’s pyramid at Nuri.

In 2018, the team located the 65-step stairway and began excavating, but when they got to around 40 stairs down they hit a water table - enters underwater archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman - associate professor in the  dendrochronology laboratory at the University of Arizona, who led the team into the subaquatic ancient tomb for the first time in at least 100 years.

Diving Deep Into The Desert

In a National Geographic article Creasman said “normal scuba tanks would have been too cumbersome” and this is why he decided to pump oxygen through 150-foot-long (45.72 meters) hoses from a gasoline-fed pump on the surface. With Fakhri Hassan Abdallah, an inspector with Sudan’s  National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums , manning the air pump, Creasman entered the ancient abyss.

Creasman told BBC Newsday ,

There are three chambers, with these beautiful arched ceilings, about the size of a small bus, you go in one chamber into the next, it's pitch black, you know you're in a tomb if your flash lights aren't on. And it starts revealing the secrets that are held within.

And in this instance, those secrets Creasman risked his life to touch came in the form of fragments of ancient gold. According to Creasman, when he was making his way through the dark silt they… “Were still sitting there - small glass-type statues” which had once been leafed in gold.

A shabti found in the submerged chamber of a Kushite pyramid

A shabti found in the submerged chamber of a Kushite pyramid. ( Pearce Paul Creasman, Nuri Pyramids Expedition )

And while the water destroyed the glass underneath, “the little gold flake was still there”. Under normal circumstances all traces of gold leaf would have been stolen by grave robbers , but the rising water level made this particular tomb inaccessible, said underwater archaeologist Kristin Romey in National Geographic .

Seeking the Origins of Kush Gold Leaf

‘Kush gold leaf’ sounds like the name of a tea, or a brand of really strong hashish, both products associated with the Kush empire; however, while Creasman’s team might be slightly let down at not having found a collection of solid gold statues , the fragments of gold leaf are in themselves priceless in heritage terms.

The land of the Kush became one of the main gold-producing areas of the ancient world and its alchemists and craftspeople forged intricate and beautiful jewelry and they adorned their temples and statues with gold leaf. In 2007, The Guardian published an article announcing that archaeologists discovered “An ancient site where gold flakes were hand-ground from rare ores.”

Gold leaf found in the tomb

Gold leaf found in the tomb. ( Pearce Paul Creasman, Nuri Pyramids Expedition )

Located at Hosh el-Geruf, 225 miles (362 km) north of Khartoum in Sudan, the archaeologists first unearthed grinding stones made of a granite-like rock called gneiss, used to crush the ore and recover flakes of gold . Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, told The Guardian, “This work is extremely important because it can give us our first look at the economic organisation of this very important but little-known African state - the Kush empire.”

Funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society, for more information and updates on archaeology at Nuri, visit the official expedition website at  nuripyramids.org.

Top Image: A niche in the wall of Nastasen's third burial chamber. Source: Pearce Paul Creasman, Nuri Pyramids Expedition

By Ashley Cowie

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