Landscape archaeology on Boni Island (northern Sudan):
Environmental potential and Holocene use history of a cataract zone in comparative perspective


Project Leaders:

PD Dr. Hans-Peter Wotzka
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte
Forschungsstelle Afrika
Jennerstr. 8
D-50823 Köln
 0221 / 556680
 0221 / 5502303


Dr. Heinz Felber
Seminar für Ägyptologie
Meister-Ekkehart-Str. 7
D-50937 Köln
 0221 / 470-2562
 0221 / 470-5079



Bettina Petrick M.A.
Mathias Ritter, Dipl. Geograph
Bettina Ventker M.A.
Thorsten Ziebarth M.A.


Research Area:

Northern Sudan




Research Program

A new high dam is under construction in the Nile’s Fourth Cataract zone, northern Sudan. As early as 2008 a reservoir 170 km in length and up to 4 km wide will flood the barely known stretch of the Nile valley between Hamdab and Abu Hamed. The project is part of an international rescue campaign initiated by Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM). It aims at reconstructing the environmental potential and the Holocene history of actual human use of a specific part of that region: Boni Island (50 km²), being the largest of the many islands liable to at least partial flooding. Within the river oasis surrounded by desert the cataract situation makes for very special conditions for human existence, especially for agrarian societies practising irrigation horticulture. Arable land is restricted to an extremely narrow zone next to the river, on average not even 50 m wide. On the other hand, after the yearly high flood numerous temporary water courses and islands on falling dry offer seluka land, apt for cultivation on naturally moist soils. The intensive system of todays Manasir population allows three annual harvests.

Due to the time pressure given the archaeological investigations 2005–2007 will focus on systematic intensive foot surveys covering the whole island and the adjoining right bank of the Nile. The goals include: (1) A complete documentation of sites from all periods, their mapping, dating, and interpretation. Limited test excavations of selected sites and features will be carried out in order to check on the fieldwalking results, to gain additional information, and to provide samples for archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, palaeogeography and scientific dating. The aim is to derive diachronic patterns and processes of settlement and land use to be compared with the recent irrigation system. The field data will also be analysed with respect to demographic developments and modes of subsistence against the background of varying climatic and ecological conditions. (2) Alongside it is intended to build up from the literature a database of similar situations in the area between the First and the Fourth Cataracts. (3) Pertinent Egyptian and Napatan texts will be systematically analysed for ancient conceptions of cataract regions. The approach is designed to allow (4) a structural comparison between the Fourth Cataract and its counterparts in Middle and Lower Nubia. This will add a new type of landscape, not so far investigated under the umbrella of ACACIA, (5) opening up avenues of comparison with other landscapes in arid Africa. A pilot survey season early in 2004 yielded archaeological sites, features, and finds from the Middle Palaeolithic to medieval and modern times. From the more recent of these periods there is an abundance of burials, cemeteries, settlements, and rock art sites. One of the questions to be asked of that material is whether the cataracts really acted as cultural and territorial divisions between the Nile’s reaches, as is conventionally assumed, or rather linked them up with one another by virtue of their specially rich natural potential. As for the Fourth Cataract it will also be important to try to illuminate its temporary significance as a border zone between the Egyptian and Nubian states.

Research Area


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