Unidades docentes

The Blue Nile Project


(Sudan & Ethiopia)


 by Victor M. Fernández Martínez (Dpto. Prehistoria - UCM)


1. Introducion

The Blue Nile is one of the two main courses of the river Nile. The Saharan part of the river is formed by the union at the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, of the White Nile coming from the lacustrine region in Eastern Africa, and the Blue Nile coming from the Ethiopian Highlands. Though with a shorter length, the Blue Nile course amounts to more than 60 % of total Nile water flow. Historically the river was one of the main roads for the contacts between the clay plains of the arid Sahel and the higher volcanic plateau of Abyssinia, yet conflicts and wars raged after the first area came under Islamic rule in the XV century AD (the Funj Sultanate at Sennar). The possibility for the Christian rulers of the Highlands to control its water flow, even if technically impracticable, was always seen as a menace by the northerner states.

From an archaeological point of view, the river basin is almost terra incognita. In the Sudanese part, several surveys made by the British in the fifties, French in the seventies and Polish in the eighties did not yield attractive results or were published in a very summarised way. In the Ethiopian basin, the absence of data for the western part of the country is almost absolute.

A team from the Department of Prehistory of the Universidad Complutense has been working in the area since 1989, making general explorations and more detailed surveys and excavations in the Soba area near Khartoum. The group has been directed from 1989 to 1998 by archaeologists Víctor M. Fernández Martínez, Alfredo Jimeno Martínez (Universidad Complutense, Madrid) and Mario Menéndez Fernández (UNED, Madrid); currently is directed by Víctor M. Fernández. Other members of the project were anthropologist Gonzalo Trancho (U. Complutense), geologist Javier Lario (Museo de Ciencias Naturales, CSIC, Madrid), palaeoethnobotanists Anwar O. Abdelmagid (University of Bergen) and Jordi Juan-Tresserras (Universidad de Girona), and zooarchaeologist Louis Chaix (Museum d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève).

The research was financed by the Foundation Duran-Vall Llosera (1989), the Universidad Complutense (1990, 2001), the DGICYT of the Ministry of Education and Culture (Project PS89-084, 1991-1993, Project PS95-142, 1997-2000), and the Dirección General de Bellas Artes of the Ministry of Education and Culture (Instituto del Patrimonio Histórico Español, 1994-2001).

The Blue Nile at Wad Medani (Sudan), January 2000


<tdalign="center">The Nile Basin with indication of the areas aimed 
by the survey project in Sudan (1) and Ethiopia (2)

2. The archaeological work in Sudan (1989-2000)

The 1989 campaign was devoted to the excavation of the Neolithic site of Haj Yusif, near Khartoum North (Fernández 1989; Fernández et al. 1989). In the following seasons the survey and excavation were done in the area immediately to the South of the former site, the East bank of the Blue Nile from Gereif East/Haj Yusif to Umm Duwwan (Wadi Soba area). The complete survey of the area and test excavation of the main prehistoric sites were undertaken and completed in the 1990, 1992 and 1993 campaigns (Menéndez et al. 1994, Fernández et al. 1993, 1994, Jimeno et al. 1996, Lario et al. 1997). Afterwards, from 1994 to 1996 wider excavations were carried out at some of the Mesolithic sites previously discovered, specially Sheikh Mustafa and Al Mahalab (Fernández et al. 1997), radiocarbon dated between 7900 and 6700 bp, and the 1997 and 1998 campaigns were dedicated to the intensive excavation of the Neolithic site the Sheikh al Amin, radiocarbon dated at 5500 bp. During the 2000 field season a general exploration was made of the river basin southwards from Soba up to the towns of Gedaref in the Southeast and Singa at the main river course.

In a few words, our survey and excavation on the Blue Nile area has brought to light settlement patterns during the Mesolithic (Early Khartoum phase) and Neolithic (Shaheinab phase) that are similar in part to those recorded by the previous work in the area. There are differences, however, worthy of attention in the Mesolithic, the investigation of which could help to provide an answer to certain unsettled questions. These are the indications of functional distinctions at a micro-spatial level within the sites, and at a macro-spatial level the evidence for seasonal movements between the river and the desert area along the Wadi Soba. This research has also helped to explain the mechanisms of transition to the Neolithic pastoral economy in the area. Our evaluation was positive as for the relative influence on this evolution of the climatic changes (positively tested by the geological analysis), and the arrival of pastoral groups from the Sahara as the innovations in pottery decoration and shapes suggest. This external factor was also the most probable agent for the social mutation that happened at that time (c. 6000 bp): the installation of big base-camps and the beginning of social division that most conspicuously appears at the first big cemeteries in the area (Kadero, Kadada). In contrast with the previous Mesolithic graveyards, where most of the interments corresponded to women, later the majority of the corpses are of men. This change from a feminine to a masculine-centred society is also suggested by the Saharan rock art evidence: the women are abundant in the "Round Head" style drawings, and the contrary is the case in the following "Bovidian" style, with more men than women as it is to be expected in the pastoral groups. This change may be also interpreted as the end of a "primitive" society and the beginning of a "peasant" society.

Intact layer at the site of Sheikh el Amin Engraved bone from Sheikh Mustafa
Mesolithic pottery sherds (Wavy Line, Dotted Wavy Line and Rocker impression types) and lithic tools (scrapers, borers, crescents and backed points)

The archaeobotanical work on the sites has yielded some interesting results, though the research analysis has not been completed yet. The evidence for intensive cereal gathering (SorghumSetaria) is attested by the plant impressions on the pottery sherds and carbonised seeds found in the site sediments. A microscopic analysis of the residues in the potteries and grinding stones also suggests their use for processing cereals and other wild plants in the area, as well as fish, red ochre and milk fat.

A preliminary identification of the faunal remains from the Mesolithic excavations has been made. The assemblage from Sheikh Mustafa was especially rich but very fragmented (only 18.9 % of the bones could be identified at the genus or species level). Large antelopes (DamaliscusTragelaphus and Hippotragus) were dominant, followed by some gazelles (G. dorcas); large animals as giraffe, hippopotamus or buffalo were very scarce, as well as leopard and fox. The Monitor lizard is well represented, and the same is the case with the fish bones, more frequent in the lower than in the upper levels of the site. A curious aspect of the Sheikh Mustafa site is the complete absence of shell remains. The faunal sample recovered from Al Mahalab was smaller in size, the animal class range being practically identical to Sheikh Mustafa except for the mollusk remains, which are very abundant at this site (especially Pila). This difference may possibly be explained because the two sites were occupied during different parts of the year (Jimeno et al. 1996).

A sedimentological and mineralogical (X-ray diffraction) analysis has been made of seven earth samples, stratigraphically arranged, from the Al Mahalab site, the resulting data being coincident with which is known about the climatic sequence of the Egyptian Western Desert between 8000 and 6900 bp (Lario et al. 1997).

In the exploration campaign of January and February, 2000, a total of 48 new archaeological sites were discovered, and 5 more, published in the fifties, were re-examined through their materials stored in the National Museum. The cultural ascription of these sites is as follows: Palaeolithic (1 site), Mesolithic-Early Khartoum (9), Early Neolithic-Shaheinab (2), Late Neolithic-Jebel Moya/Atbai tradition (5), Mesolithic or Neolithic (6), Rock Art (1), Meroitic and/or Christian (7), Islamic (16).

The finding of Late Neolithic sites, located in the Eastern Bank of the Blue Nile (Wadi Rabob, Wadi Hasib) and in the Gezira area (Qoz areas), is especially important since this phase was almost completely unknown up to now in Central Sudan. The surface aspect of some of these sites, with the material remains covering several hectares, strongly contradicts current ideas about a depopulation of the area or the installation of a specialised pastoral, mobile economy in the area during the last millennia BC.

Perforated stone rings, polished axes and mace, and simple zoned impression pottery sherds from the Late Neolithic site of Rabob (Khartoum Province)

3. The archaeological work in Ethiopia (2000-)

The team’s project for the next seasons is to continue the survey of the Blue Nile basin at the other side of the border, in the contact area between the Sudanese plains and the beginning of the Abyssinian plateau, around the town of Assosa, capital of the newly instituted Benishangul-Gumuz regional state. The hypothesis to be tested is the importance of this area for the introduction of the agro-pastoral economy into the highlands around or after the VI millennium BP (V millennium BC calibrated), as it was suggested long ago by notable anthropologists and archaeologists such as George P. Murdock or John Desmond Clark. But not only every archaeological record from that period (especially stratified rock shelters or caves and rock art evidence) will be looked at, since the survey will also register all the available evidence for the history of this area, from the last Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to the historical conntacts between Sudan and Abyssinia.

The Ethiopian Blue Nile (Abbay) Gorge at the road between
Nekemte (Wollega, Oromia) and Debre Markos
(Gojjam, Amhara), February 2000


- FERNÁNDEZ, Víctor M. (1989): "A New Neolithic site near Khartoum", Late Prehistory of the Nile Basin and the Sahara , (L. Krzyzaniak, M. Kobusiewicz, eds.), Poznan (Poland): 411-15.

- FERNANDEZ, V.M.; JIMENO, A.; MENENDEZ, M.; TRANCHO, G. (1989): "The Neolithic site of Haj Yusif (Central Sudan)", Trabajos de Prehistoria, 46: 261-269. CSIC, Madrid,

- FERNANDEZ, V.M.; JIMENO, A.; MENENDEZ, M. (1993): "Modelos de asentamiento del Mesolítico y Neolítico en el Nilo Azul (Sudán Central)", Complutum, 4: 253-264. Universidad Complutense, Madrid.

- FERNANDEZ, V.M. (1993): "Misión arqueológica de la Universidad Complutense en Nubia y Sudán". Gaceta Complutense, 93: 20-23.

- FERNANDEZ, V.M.; MENENDEZ, M.; JIMENO, A.; LARIO, J. (1994): "Geología y patrones de asentamiento prehistórico en el Nilo Azul (Jartum, Sudán Central)",Geoarqueología (Actas de la 2ª Reunión Nacional de Geoarqueología. ITGE, Madrid, 14-16 de diciembre de 1992) (J.F. Jordá Pardo, ed.), ITGE-AEQUA, Madrid, 245-264.

- MENENDEZ, M.; JIMENO,A.; FERNANDEZ, V.M. (1994): "The archaeological survey of the Blue Nile (East bank): aims and first results", Études Nubiennes (Conférence de Genève, Actes du VII Congrès international d’études nubiennes, 3-8 septembre 1990), vol. II, communications: 13-18.

- JIMENO, A.; FERNANDEZ, V.M.; MENENDEZ, M.; LARIO, J. (1996): "The Mesolithic/Neolithic of the Blue Nile (East Bank): chronological seriation and settlement patterns",Interregional contacts in the Later Prehistory of Northeastern Africa (L. Krzyzaniak, M. Kobusiewicz, eds.) (International Symposium, Dymaczewo-Poznan, Poland, 8-12 sept. 1992), Poznan (Poland): 335-345.

- FERNANDEZ, V.M.; JIMENO, A.; MENENDEZ, M.; LARIO, J. (1997): "The Mesolithic sites of Sheikh Mustafa and Al Mahalab (Central Sudan): a preliminary report", Cahier de recherches de l’Institut de Papyrologie et d’Egyptologie de Lille (VIII International Conference on Nubian Studies, Université Charles de Gaulle -Lille-III-, Lille, 11-17 Sept. 1994), 17/2: 21-27.

- LARIO, J.; SÁNCHEZ-MORAL, S.; FERNÁNDEZ, V.M.; JIMENO, A.; MENÉNDEZ, M. (1997): "Palaeoenvironmental evolution of the Blue Nile (Central Sudan) during the Early and Mid-Holocene (Mesolithic-Neolithic transition)", Quaternary Science Reviews, 16: 583-588.

- FERNÁNDEZ, V.M.; JIMENO, A.; MENÉNDEZ, M. (1997): "The Spanish Archaeological Work at the Blue Nile (Khartoum Province), 1989-1996", KUSH (Journal of the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan), 17: 355-378.

- FERNÁNDEZ, V.M. (n.d.): Spanish archaeological project in the Blue Nile (sudan). Survey between Eseilat and Singa. Preliminary report of the 1999-2000 campaign. Unpublished manuscript.

- FERNÁNDEZ, V.M. (ed.) (2003): The Blue Nile Project. Holocene Archaeology in Central Sudan. Dossier monográfico de la revista Complutum , 14, 2003: 197-425 (con la participación de A. Jimeno, M. Menéndez, J. Lario, A. A-Magid, L. Chaix, G. Trancho, B. Robledo, J.A. López-Sáez, P. López)