We all know that science is also all about failure, mistakes, and unexpected events. I have addressed this topic already on several occasions, especially for outreach activities like podcasts, Science Slams and blog posts (see, e.g. https://on.soundcloud.com/MYkcX). All of us working in Sudan also know that despite of the beauty of the country, the great Sudanese people, and the wonderful archaeology here, it takes a good amount of resilience to work here – and flexibility.
Having said this all, it is not my intention to write a just negative piece here, but nevertheless to share at least a small glimpse of all the frustration I experienced this week.
According to plan, I shifted my focus from site AtW 001 to the Vila site 2-S-54 in Foshu where we have been already working earlier this season (when I had to come up with Plan B with the crash of our totalstation). Despite of severe nimiti attacks, all went well on Saturday, Sunday and Monday and I was getting all prepared to excavate the original occupation deposit of this well-preserved 18th Dynasty building, when one of the most depressing days of my professional life to far occurred on Tuesday.
I arrived at the site, a bit ahead of my co-worker Mohamed Soubho (since he was kindly pushing the wheelbarrow with our equipment), and could not believe my eyes: every single brick, almost every laid stone block of the structure were simply gone, have been destroyed and smashed to pieces! This destruction was so massive that I was simply speechless and felt completely helpless.
Yes, of course we documented everything until the destruction, but the original deposits were now simply gone and the previously complete architecture severely damaged, including a deep hole cut into the bedrock in the center of the site.
By the time Mohamed arrived, I had found my voice again, made some phone calls and informed our inspector Huda and the tourism police in Abri and Wadi Halfa. We gave a complete report also to higher authorities in Dongola – it is clear that the destruction must be seen in connection with the increase in modern gold working in the area. And that this poses a major threat for all the other sites located nearby.
Mohamed and I started then cleaning up the mess these looters left when I received a phone call from Kate Rose, who was nearby busy flying our drone. First, I thought her slightly irritated voice is probably because her workman Samer told her about our disaster at Foshu (Mohamed called him of course). But then I realized what she is telling me: for unknown reasons, our drone crashed, simply fell from the sky, from the height of 70m. When a very bad day is about to get worse… and yes – it really did: once we had finished cleaning our mess and I was about to document everything with my camera, the camera did not work… it’s also broken – like site 2-S-54, like our drone, and all of this within a few hours.
Well, by now, thanks to Kate and our colleague and friend Sami from NCAM at Khartoum, we will probably be able to kindly borrow the drone of NCAM in the next days… but the site is lost (and my camera still not working).
Why do I share this with you all? Well, maybe partly out of selfish feelings, I just needed to get all of this out, this was a real nightmare week and not business as usual. But more importantly, I believe that we do not talk enough about things which go wrong in academia and in science – partly because of a false feeling of embarrassment (even if much like in in our case is due to external factors and not to real human-caused errors; not wanting to say that mistakes do not also happen), but most prominently because we are trained that only success and more precisely in archaeology great discoveries count and receive attention. But there is so much more than that, so much is hidden below the surface, so much energy is sapped by all these things which do not work out as planned.
I am very frank here – I consider myself a resilient person, but it took me two days to recover, it really was a shock, especially in combination with the drone and camera. And I am still sad when I see the damaged site I was about to excavate (of course we went back to check if further destruction happened which is not the case…), but I already have specific ideas about the improvement of the protection of our sites in the next years. Although it was impossible for me to continue at 2-S-54 after this disaster, I am now done with its documentation and description, including the pottery analysis for 2023. Despite of a vague sad feeling, I very much appreciate what we documented this season and how much new material and ideas we gained from this amazing site – even if we lost the most crucial part of it.
Archaeology is not just about progress, discoveries, and success – we should be open about the fact that we also constantly fail in many respects, for a great range of different reasons. This then also allows us to appreciate our positive results and working steps even further – because these are rarely what we call in Viennese “a gmahte Wiesn”.