In 1905, British archaeologists descended on a sliver of eastern Africa, aiming to uncover and extract artifacts from 3,000-year-old temples. They left mostly with photographs, discouraged by the ever-shifting sand dunes that blanketed the land. “We sank up to the knees at every step,” E. A. Wallis Budge, the British Egyptologist and philologist, wrote at the time, adding: “[We] made several trial diggings in other parts of the site, but we found nothing worth carrying away.”
For the next century, the region known as Nubia—home to civilizations older than the dynastic Egyptians, skirting the Nile River in what is today northern Sudan and southern Egypt—was paid relatively little attention. The land was inhospitable, and some archaeologists of the era subtly or explicitly dismissed the notion that black Africans were capable of creating art, technology, and metropolises like those from Egypt or Rome. Modern textbooks still treat ancient Nubia like a mere annex to Egypt: a few paragraphs on black pharaohs, at most.
Today, archaeologists are realizing how wrong their predecessors were—and how little time they have left to uncover and fully understand Nubia’s historical significance.
“This is one of the great, earliest known civilizations in the world,” says Neal Spencer, an archaeologist with the British Museum. For the past 10 years, Spencer has traveled to a site his academic predecessors photographed a century ago, called Amara West, around 100 miles south of the Egyptian border in Sudan. Armed with a device called a magnetometer, which measures the patterns of magnetism in the features hidden underground, Spencer plots thousands of readings to reveal entire neighborhoods beneath the sand, the bases of pyramids, and round burial mounds, called tumuli, over tombs where skeletons rest on funerary beds—unique to Nubia—dating from 1,300 to 800 B.C.