The SJE Collection (Part 1): A Nubian material culture lover’s dream

Sweden. A land of pristine forests, Vikings, flat-packed furniture, ABBA, no social-distancing, and – believe it or not – copious quantities of Nubian antiquities. Uppsala was the first stop on InBetween’s research mission, and hence will be the first series of retrospective travel posts on the blog. I say ‘series’ because (a) it was a long trip (six weeks in total), and (b) there is much to share!

This was actually my third visit to Uppsala – I’d been here in 2013 and 2014 as part of my PhD research on Pan-Grave pottery. In total I’ve spent about three months there and have recorded close to 1000 objects from seven sites, four of which I re-recorded in their entirety.

It’s a lovely place, home to the oldest University in Scandinavia (est. 1477), seat of the archbishop of the Church of Sweden since 1164, and it will no doubt be familiar to fans of the TV show “Vikings”. Besides all that, the city is home to one of the largest and most significant collections of Nubian antiquities anywhere in the world, now held by the Museum Gustavianum. All of the finds were excavated by the Scandinavian Joint Expedition to Sudanese Nubia (the SJE) between 1961 and 1964. The SJE was one of the largest missions of the UNESCO salvage operation to rescue the antiquities of Nubia, which were to be lost following the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

A map of Lower Nubia showing the various international concessions. The SJE is marked with a red bracket. (Image: The UNESCO Courier, Feb/Mar 1980)

The SJE’s concession extended along a 60km stretch of the Nile between the towns of Faras and Gemai, immediately to the south of the Egyptian-Sudanese border (marked with a red bracket on the map). In sum, the mission recorded 490 sites, more than 4200 individual burials, approximately 2600 rock inscriptions, and collected thousands upon thousands of material culture objects. Finds from the excavations were divided between Sudan and the four participating Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) in accordance with legal agreements in place at the time.

The bulk of the material was sent to Uppsala, which now holds material culture objects and organics from the Early and Middle Nubian sites. Some of it is on display at the Museum Gustavianum, but most of the material is in storage at the nearby Evolution Centre.

The Museum Gustavianum (left), which is sadly closed for refurbishment until 2021 (I think), and the Evolution Centre (right) which was my base for the duration of my time in town.

The collection includes pottery (15 tonnes of it!!), jewellery and other small finds, lithics, metals, textiles, and organics (human remains were sent to Copenhagen). Not only that, but Uppsala also holds the full archival records of the mission – field notes, reports, correspondence, press clippings, excavation photographs, object photographs, and the most wonderful series of photographs of people and everyday life in towns and villages that are now lost for all eternity. The collection is immense, and having access to the objects and the archives is a really unique opportunity for a researcher. Reading the field notes, looking at photos, and holding the objects makes you feel like you are right there in the field with the team. It’s truly wonderful.

But I wasn’t there to revel among the wonderful objects, I was there to work!

Views of me working on the collection. Having direct access to the objects right across the hallway was a dream scenario for any researcher, and made the job infinitely easier! (Photos: A. Grubner)

The goal of my trip was to record the finds and archives from three sites that have culturally mixed assemblages, because these sites and their mixed characters might tell me something about how the various Nubian groups interacted, and how those interactions impacted how they materially expressed their cultural identities. I’ll write a separate post about those sites, but for now I will say that they are not the sites that I had originally planned to look at. As with fieldwork, it’s important to be adaptable, and in a way, what I was doing in Uppsala was fieldwork – I was re-excavating an excavation. When I saw this material on the shelves in the storeroom, it spoke to me, and I listened.

As I said, I’ll write about the sites in more detail in a future post, but today I want to talk about the collection itself, and what it’s like to work with ‘legacy data’ – that is, material that was excavated in the past and that, in this case, had already been studied and published.

Some views of the dreamy storerooms.

The collection has been impeccably organised and catalogued by the lovely Ludmila Wekström, the curator of the collection. Ludmila has the objects beautifully organised in rolling compactus storage, minimalist foam-lined light wood shelves, and scores of white archival boxes. Textiles, organics and metals are in similarly beautiful climate-controlled rooms. It really is a dream of a place, and all very modular and Swedish.

Finding the material is not a problem. What proved to sometimes be tricky is working with the material once you’d found it. I quickly came to realise that for some sites, the published records do not accurately reflect what is actually in the collection, and in some cases there were discrepancies between the objects, the archives, and the publications. Sometimes I would open a bag of sherds, which corresponded to a single object number in the published lists, only to find that in fact there were sherds of multiple different vessels. In other words, what was published as one vessel in reality could be two, three or even more!

This was obviously frustrating, but one has to remember that the researchers who studied this material before me were working with intimidating amounts of data – 15 tonnes of pottery alone. FIFTEEN TONNES!!! And that’s just the Early and Middle Nubian material! I was only working on a few sites, but imagine doing this for 490 sites with limited time and limited money and you can understand how these discrepancies might occur.

Despite the  occasional oversights, the SJE volumes are still one of the most extensive published records of the UNESCO missions, rivalled only by the Chicago Oriental Institute’s publications. Publishing this volume of data was an immense task, and we owe our forebears a great deal, so such errors are entirely forgivable and made me realise a few things:

  1. We all make mistakes. As researchers, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us, but those giants were human, and humans make mistakes sometimes, and that’s OK.
  2. Always question your sources. Even the most reliable source will have errors in it somewhere. I mean, I’m reliable to the point of it being boring, but even I’m too scared to open my own book because I find a typo every damn time!!
  3. If you are able to return to the data, then return to the data. There is no better way to check the validity of your evidence than by holding it in your own hands and looking at it with your own eyes.

Setbacks aside, the collection has one major advantage that makes it hugely attractive to researchers like myself. One word: Sherds. Most museums are populated with whole or near complete vessels, but the SJE collection includes bag upon bag upon bag of sherds. Big ones, tiny ones, diagnostic ones, non-diagnostic ones, coarse wares, fine wares, decorated, undecorated, closed forms, open forms… you get the idea. There are a lot of sherds. And this opens up an array of possibilities for scientific analysis. I was given permission to take some samples for petrographic analysis (publication in preparation!), and hope I can do more in the future, along with other analytical methods. 

Some of highlights from the SJE Archives: notes, hand-drawn maps, negatives, photographs, and some cute little flowers drawn in the margin of one of the field diaries 🙂

But the best thing about the collection is that almost everything is in one place – objects and archives. I could start with the original hand-written finds list, check it against objects in the collection, find the original field diaries and see the excavator’s comments about the moment it was uncovered, and look through the photographs to find pictures of it in situ. If there were discrepancies between the various records, a thorough checking of the notes and photos usually clarified things. It really is like being there, at the moment of excavation. You could even see traces of quiet moments, where one excavator found time to draw flowers around the margins of their page. Handwriting grew less and less legible and the day progressed. This is such a unique experience, and something that is impossible to get from other collections where the objects are often scattered between multiple museums and totally divorced from their original archival documentation.

If it wasn’t clear, I love the SJE collection. It may sound corny, but it holds a special place in my heart. So much of my work has been based on this collection, and it has really been a privilege to work with it.

So, now you know about Uppsala and the SJE collection. Next time, more about the sites…