Egyptology lecture sheds new light on lost history

Brown University professor discusses recent expedition

Written by | July 23, 2013

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Professor Laurel Bestock recounts her work studying ancient Egyptian fortresses in Sudan. Photo Miles Sanguinetti

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Brown University Professor Laurel Bestock presents her findings from her 2012 research trip to Lake Nasser in northern Sudan. Photo by Miles Sanguinetti

Professor Laurel Bestock recounts her work studying ancient Egyptian fortresses in Sudan. Photo Miles SanguinettiBrown University Professor Laurel Bestock presents her findings from her 2012 research trip to 
Lake Nasser in northern Sudan. Photo by  Miles Sanguinetti

Brown University’s Dr. Laurel Bestock visited Portland State last Thursday to give a brief lecture in Smith Memorial Student Union detailing her recent archaeological work in Sudan researching several ancient Egyptian fortresses that were last excavated during the 1930s.

About 50 guests attended Bestock’s lecture, which was co-sponsored by the Oregon Chapter of the American Research Center in Egypt, a nonprofit organization based in Cairo that assists scholars in the Middle East and spreads cultural awareness with local chapters in the United States. The lecture was also sponsored by PSU’s Middle East Studies Center, founded in 1959 as the first federally funded undergraduate program for Middle East studies in the country.

“We were very excited to welcome Dr. Bestock,” said John Sarr, president of the Oregon Chapter of the ARCE. “As an assistant professor at Brown working in both Egyptology and archaeology, she is really doing some great work.”

Bestock’s lecture focused on recent studies of a series of Egyptian fortresses around the Nile River in Sudan, which were long believed to have been destroyed in 1964 after Egypt built the Aswan Dam. The dam redirected the Nile and created a large reservoir, Lake Nasser, across the Egypt-Sudan border, which covered a number of ancient Egyptian fortresses with a blanket of water.

“I did my senior honors thesis on these fortresses,” Bestock said, “and I would sit in the library and cry—literally cry. This was the late ’90s, and at that time we thought they were gone. Gone, 8,000 years of history, gone.”

But after an exploration by an archaeologist from the British Museum in 2004 revealed a small inlet above water that was supposed to be underwater, Bestock and her team knew they had to do everything they could to get into Sudan to investigate the fortress. The only problem? The tense security situation in Sudan means that getting in as an American citizen isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

“It’s not exactly legal to go to Sudan,” Bestock said with a hint of sarcasm, “and even if you find a way in, the American government won’t let you bring anything.”

After filling out stacks of paperwork and applications with the American government, Egypt and Sudan, Bestock and her team eventually found a way in that would require them to fly their equipment in through Austria and buy everything they needed to live on once they arrived, with countless permits in hand. “It was an absolute nightmare,” Bestock said. “I lost days of sleep off my life.”

But once they arrived, the excavation got underway—and the team found themselves quickly forgetting the paperwork and legal difficulties they had encountered as they endured 120-plus-degree afternoons and clouds of insects. Even worse, hours were lost to the afternoon heat, when the team would have to rest in the shade with their feet in buckets of water after only a few hours of work in the morning.

After fighting with their GPS, which didn’t seem to want to cooperate with American satellites by sending a signal from Sudan, Bestock’s team found the site: an ancient Egyptian settlement known as Uronarti first discovered by Egyptologist George Reisner in 1930 and long believed to be submerged beneath Lake Nasser.

At the site, the team found scraps of pottery and what appeared to be a large trash dump—either ancient or from a Harvard excavation near the area a few years earlier—all of which offered more questions for archaeologists than answers, driving Bestock and her team to look into options to return in the near future in order to extend their research at Uronarti and nearby sites.

“Just the simple fact that this is here gives us such great hope for other sites in the area, and we hope to get back soon,” Bestock said.

Thursday’s lecture was one in a series brought by PSU’s Middle East Studies Center Lecture Series. For more information on future events, visit pdx.edu/middle-east-studies, and for information about the American Research Center in Egypt, visit arce.org.

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