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Excavations of the University of Lille III Charles de Gaulle

Zankor et Abou Sofyan

Friday 23 September 2011, by SFDAS

Directed by Brigitte Gratien.

Located south of Wadi el-Milk, along the famous “40-Day Road” that goes through Darfur and Kordofan, the site of Zankor was long known for its monolithic columns standing in the middle of the arid steppe. The site was surveyed by British teams under the Condominium but real archaeological excavations only took place in 2002 by the archaeological mission of Gism el-Arba (University of Lille III) directed by Brigitte Gratien

Zankor, the site seen from the town.
R.-P. Dissaux © SFDAS

The excavation of Zankor is a brave and pioneering undertaking. The working conditions are indeed extreme even for experienced archaeologists. The situation is not easier scientifically speaking as the excavators have always mainly been concerned with the Nile Valley and parallels are lacking to identify the cultures represented on the site, none of them having any writing system. Although there have been hundreds of publications of uneven quality concerning the link between civilizations of the Nile Valley and interior Africa, the Mission of Gism el-Arba is the only one that decided to go ahead and look for archaeological evidence.

Zankor, basecamp
R.-P. Dissaux © SFDAS.jpg

When extending the surveying area twenty kilometres around the site, it became obvious that settlement in this area dated back to the Middle Paleolithic. The population and the number of sites grew with time remaining sheltered from the wind around the gebels that punctuate the plain. As for the cemeteries, they are located on open land, in the steppe. These civilizations have not yet been identified nor precisely dated for lack of elements of comparison, but research is being pursued.

Several levels of settlement are however known. The first dates back to the 2nd millennium BC and is characterized by light dwellings, stone tools and beautiful polished pottery with incised ornaments.

The second level is well represented, especially in Zankor. Approximately dating from the first year AD, this civilisation is contemporary to that of Meroe, but no Meroitic remains have yet been discovered. Thick walls consolidated by observation towers made up the great wall surrounding a 1.3 by 1.8 kilometre zone on the summit of gebel Zankor. A little lower, a less populated settlement area was also comprised within the city walls. A rainwater collection system and two tanks located higher up provided the city with water. The largest part of the site has been destroyed and the bricks have been used for modern constructions. It is nevertheless obvious that these ancient houses comprised several rooms that were either grouped or aligned. Circles made of polished stone pillars suggest worship places.

Zankor, remains of the city
R.-P. Dissaux © SFDAS

The ceramics are unusual, roughly made, mounted on basketry, covered by red tin glaze and sometimes bearing geometric decorations.
The occupation seems to have been brief which leads to believe that Zankor was the seat of a separate principality, without any link to the civilisations that ruled over the Nile Valley during the same period.
The later settlements have not been well identified and the city of Foga is the only urban site known to date. It seems that the region knew another “Golden Age” in the 13th and 14th centuries, but here again, no convincing connection was established with the contemporary Christian kingdoms of the Nile Valley.
Many cemeteries of the various periods punctuate the plain with tombs mostly covered by stone mounds. Some of them are distinguishable by a higher mound set up in the centre of a square formed by standing stones. One of the most remarkable examples of this kind of grave can be seen in the vicinity of Zankor and was dated by C14 to the end of the 13th or beginning of the 14th century. The region may then have lost its importance because of the scarcity of water. The centres of influence would then have moved towards the South West.

Zankor, survey of a mound by G. Nogara and V. Francigny
V. Francigny © SFDAS

In 2005, field surveying started on the site of Abu Sofyan, 250 kilometres north of Zankor. Since its discovery in 1923 and an initial survey in 1935, only a great mound and a few rock engravings have been mentioned, still without any connection to the cultures of the Nile Valley, nor even with Zankor. Surveying started within a perimeter of 20 km by 20 km. The oldest site was dated from the Middle Paleolithic.

One of the most remarkable discoveries is a small Neolithic cemetery comprising about ten mounds, preceded by a double alley of standing stones. A stelae sanctuary may have existed not far from there.

At a later date, there are less but more concentrated settlements than at Zankor but there are many scattered cemeteries. Within Abu Sofyan, there is a completely buried settlement area, recognisable by its walls, and a necropolis. The most important tomb has a diameter of 50 meters, is more than 3 meters high and covered by a brick mound.

Local pottery seems to be contemporary to the Meroitic period and the site of Zankor, even though it presents some similarities with the earlier Kerma wares.

Another city encircled by stones overlooks the settlement area, as at Zankor, but with a slightly different scheme of the division between upper town and lower town.

An aspect specific to Abu Sofyan must be noted: rock paintings of all periods depict wildlife or roughly stylized figures, or even mounted camels in the later drawings.

Thus, the southern zone of the Nile near the Forty-Day Road has been occupied by mankind almost continuously since prehistoric times but seems to have stayed away from civilizations of the Valley. We must therefore consider that there was a succession of independent kingdoms along these commercial roads before the expansion of the Darfur sultanate towards the Kordofan and the Fung campaigns in Central Sudan.