Although the water looks unappealing, Kristin Romey prepares herself to plunge into the depths – and right above her head, there’s a big clue as to why she is putting herself through this ordeal. In this part of the broiling north of Sudan, you see, there’s a pyramid – a monument to a long-lost monarch that hints at a kingdom that once held sway over vast swathes of northern Africa. And when Romey and her colleague reach their destination, what they find is truly astonishing.
The pair know where they should be heading, too. A man’s tomb lies beneath this pyramid, although he wasn’t just any man; Nastasen was once a pharaoh of Nubia, and he was buried here more than 2,000 years ago. Now Romey – a trained archaeologist – moves down a stairway etched into the rock. All she has for air, should there be an emergency, is a tiny canister.
Waiting for Romey at the base of the stairway is Pearce Paul Creasman – another archaeologist who is working with a grant from National Geographic. He greets his colleague, however, with some words of caution, saying, “It’s really deep today. There’s not going to be any headroom in the first chamber.” Indeed, Creasman himself is already up to his chest in the murky waters.
Only weeks earlier, Creasman had first penetrated the flooded tomb of Nastasen. Now, he and Romey will go down into the three chambers together and investigate a sarcophagus that it seems has laid untouched through the centuries. Before the duo reach their goal, though, Creasman shows Romey a metal grate and tells her that she’ll have to squeeze through an opening that small to enter the catacomb.
The tomb that the two archaeologists are exploring lies at Nuri – a site that stretches over nearly 200 acres of land. Nuri is also fairly close to the River Nile’s east bank, which is itself situated some way north of Sudan’s capital Khartoum. And the area is arguably best known for housing around 20 pyramids that were all constructed from 650 B.C. to 300 B.C.
The base of Nastasen’s pyramid, meanwhile, is a 100-foot square that rests on a small area of level ground. But although the tomb is a mile from the river, over time it’s become prone to flooding by groundwater. As a consequence, then, the three chambers of the pharaoh’s final resting place – all sliced into the stone beneath the desert sands – are currently submerged.
But, of course, Nastasen’s pyramid is just one of many examples at Nuri, while the towering structures themselves are part of a greater complex that was initially built under the Napatan culture. The pyramids are also located in the dry regions on either side of the Nile that were once part of Nubia. And these imposing buildings – along with others in the region – display elements of art and architecture that are unique to the area around Nuri.
Owing to this uniqueness, then, the pyramids and other locations in the area were collectively classified as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. And the nearby mountain of Gebel Barkel is significant not only to local residents but also to those who lived millennia before them. You see, at one time the people of Egypt considered the mountain to be the home of the god Amon.
Naturally, the pyramids are important, too, representing as they do the last resting places of the Kushite kings and their queens. These “black pharaohs” were initially underlings to the Egyptian emperors; once the New Kingdom had fallen apart, however, they began to rise in importance. In fact, from roughly 760 B.C. the Kushites began to control the whole of Egypt – and they worked to put their stamp on their territory, too.
In particular, the five black pharaohs looked to the past for inspiration. And building pyramids – just as their distant predecessors had done to mark their graves – were among the old customs that they subsequently chose to revive. More than 80 royals were interred at Nuri in all, with about one in four of their graves crowned by pyramids.
And in July 2019 Creasman explained the historical importance of the Kushites to the BBC. “[The Kushites] were on the only corridor across the Sahara where you can pass through the desert in sight of drinking water the whole way, so that put them in a very important position,” he said. “This pre-dates the arrival of the camel.”
After first rising to power in 2000 B.C, Kush’s influence waxed and waned, although the kingdom’s production of gold meant that the region could never be ignored. And while the black pharaohs were chased out of Egypt by the neo-Assyrians in the seventh century B.C, they nonetheless continued to rule over their desert land until the fourth century A.D. – when their reign came to an end.
Royal burials at Nuri, meanwhile, are thought to have been initiated by the pharaoh Taharqa, with his pyramid remaining the biggest in the area. And Taharqa’s descendants continued to use the area as a necropolis for many years. Others utilized the site for the same purpose, too – even after Kush had vanished into the sands.
If you know the Bible, though, Taharqa’s name may ring a bell, as the second book of Kings tells the story of him warding off an Assyrian attack on Jerusalem. That battle ultimately ended in such a crushing victory for Taharqa, in fact, that Egypt – as well as Kush – subsequently enjoyed a lengthy period of peace. And with no fighting to focus on, the pharaoh was then able to turn his attention to building works.
But while Taharqa’s pyramid at Nuri resembles its Egyptian counterparts quite closely, there is one clear distinction: whereas the Egyptian pharaohs were buried inside their pyramids, the Kushite kings lie underneath theirs. And excavating the Kushites’ burial chambers would therefore prove more difficult for archaeologists, as they would be required to dig into the bedrock beneath the structures.
The first man to attempt the task was George Reisner – an American archaeologist who specialized in Egypt and its buried history. His vast knowledge and fine judgement had led to him being hailed as an authority on the ancient civilization that had once flourished in the north African nation. And before tackling Nuri, Reisner had actually once dug at Giza – the famous home of the Great Pyramid.
So, Reisner came to Nuri in the early 20th century to dig into Taharqa’s burial chambers. At the same time, the Egyptologist drew maps of the other structures in the area. He made another important discovery at the location to boot: namely, that groundwater fed by the Nile would prove a huge barrier to further investigation of the site.
However, Reisner didn’t even bother publishing the outcome of his studies at Nuri, with the knock-on effect being that the site didn’t receive the attention that it might otherwise have been given. It seems, too, that Reisner had considered the Kushite kings to not be the equals of the Egyptians from a racial standpoint, nor did he see their buildings as anything other than imitations of earlier glories.
And despite the 1922 discovery of the burial site of Tutankhamun earning global attention, Nuri continued to remain relatively unexplored. It didn’t help, perhaps, that the large site offered formidable challenges to archaeologists. Many of the tombs were potentially submerged, you see, and underwater archaeology hadn’t even been tried in Sudan yet.
So, it wasn’t until 2018 that an archaeologist with the required skills would turn his attention to Nuri. Creasman has the experience in underwater archaeology that Reisner lacked along with a keen knowledge of Egyptian studies. His talents don’t end there, either, as he also works in the field of dendrochronology: the study of tree rings.
And from his home base at the University of Arizona, Creasman’s interests in ancient Egypt and Sudan have led him to run a research program in both of those countries. The college’s Egyptian Expedition has operated since the late 1980s, in fact – largely in Thebes and the Valley of the Kings. Creasman’s work in the field, moreover, has led to recognition from notable bodies such as the Royal Geographical Society.
When Creasman came to Nuri, then, he decided to look at the tomb of Nastasen, who was king of Kush between 335 B.C. and 315 B.C. As the final ruler to have his tomb at the site, Nastasen had ended up with the least attractive plot of land – although that certainly didn’t put Creasman off. Instead, the archaeologist figured that checking out Nastasen’s burial spot would prove ideal in determining just how waterlogged other structures in the area may be.
Nastasen had ruled towards the end of the Napatan culture, with the center of Nubian power shifting shortly after his passing to Meroë. That change would in turn ultimately bring on conflict between the Napatan house and other would-be royals over control of Kush. And that turmoil stood in marked contrast to Nastasen’s reign, as his power across a massive region had stayed strong.
Indeed, Nastasen had demonstrated that control when an Egyptian king named Khabbash attacked Kush. The ambush didn’t end well for Khabbash, either, with the Nubian forces repulsing him and his men and relieving him of a great deal of his treasure and naval forces. And although Nastasen himself is a somewhat obscure figure, there’s a reason why historians today know a bit about this conflict.
You see, Nastasen had a 5-foot-high stela – a granite monument – made after his win over Khabbash. Likely once an adornment of the temple of Amon at Gebel Barkal, the stela later turned up in the city of Dongola, which lies by the Nile in northern Sudan. And the stone is marked, too, with the most recent examples of Egyptian hieroglyphs to have yet been discovered. This message celebrates the black pharaoh’s triumph.
Very little else has been discovered about Nastasen, however. And if anyone wants to find more, they’ll need to dive into his tomb. But that in itself is easier said than done; in the time since Reisner’s expedition, the water level at the site has risen dramatically.
That said, Reisner’s workers were at least able to discover a stairway down into Nastasen’s tomb. And after the group dug the flight out, one of the group even managed to get down into the crypt. The lucky man in question spent his time there digging a hole and grabbing a few shabtis – statues supposedly imbued with magic that were meant to look after the dead in the next life.
Apparently, however, that’s all the worker had time for. Before too long, Reisner’s team had gone, and the tomb soon disappeared back under the desert. When Creasman came to Nuri, then, his first task would be to uncover the stairway once again. And that proved quite a job, taking up a whole year’s worth of digging.
It wasn’t until January 2019, in fact, that Creasman’s expedition got down as far as the tomb’s entry point. But there was no cause for celebration just yet, as the team subsequently realized that this part of the burial chamber had been entirely submerged. It seemed that yet more groundwater had accumulated – perhaps because of climate change or the fact that dams were being built on the river.
Creasman described the digging during his interview with the BBC and noted that his team had gone “as far as [they] could.” So, while the staircase had 65 steps, the researchers had only “got about 40 stairs down until [they] hit the water table.” Creasman added, “[We] knew we wouldn’t be able to go any further without putting our heads under.”
But even more danger lurked in the waterlogged burial area, as divers who entered the chambers risked being trapped if the rocks surrounding the opening fell in. With that in mind, Creasman had to use a chute made of steel to bolster the entry space. To get into the tomb required struggling through this chute, and the archaeologist was rendered practically blind as he did so when tiny particles made the water impenetrably murky.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the divers couldn’t even use scuba tanks to supply oxygen; given the confined space of the entryway, these devices would simply be too unwieldy. So the explorers instead had to rely on a line that brought in air from up above when they entered the tomb in January 2019.
Then, once inside the burial chamber, the divers were finally able to see the sarcophagus – the massive stone container for Nastasen’s remains. But yet again, members of the group would have to be patient, as looking inside would have to wait for another year. The pit dug long ago by Reisner’s teammate would have to be investigated at a later date, too.
And Creasman described Nastasen’s burial area to the BBC. “There are three chambers with these beautiful arched ceilings about the size of a small bus,” he said. “You go in one chamber into the next, [and] it’s pitch black. You know you’re in a tomb if your flashlights aren’t on. And it starts revealing the secrets that are held within.”
Thankfully, though, the struggle to get into the chambers proved worthwhile. As Creasman told Newsday, the shabtis hadn’t all been taken. “The gold offerings were still sitting there – these small glass-type statues [that] had been leafed in gold,” he explained. “And while the water destroyed the glass underneath, the little gold flake was still there.”
What’s more, the small tendrils of gold that the archaeologists found hinted at an interesting story. It seemed, in fact, that the water might have prevented thieves from getting into the burial chamber. After all, if they’d been able to enter, they would surely have snatched the golden statuettes as a potential source of easy money.
The discovery of gold leaf shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though. After all, Kush was one of antiquity’s great centers of gold production. Kushite artisans not only wrought jewelry, but they also clothed places of worship and figurines with gold leaf. And the gold trade brought riches to the nation, meaning Kush could hold some sway in its neighbor Egypt’s politics.
Some years prior to Creasman’s expedition, meanwhile, archaeologists had dug up a site in northern Sudan that they believed had been crucial to Kush’s gold industry. There, the researchers found stones that could have been used to crush gold ore to release flakes of the precious metal.
There’s little doubt, though, that more remains to be discovered at Nuri. Indeed, if Creasman’s team do succeed in their aim to dig out Nastasen’s tomb in 2020, they may well find untouched treasures that were once buried alongside the pharaoh. And who knows what may lie inside the sarcophagus that sits in the third chamber?
Creasman has aspirations for his dig, in any case, and he revealed these to National Geographic. “I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri – to fill in the blanks of what happened here,” he said. “It’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told.”