Africa’s Other Pyramids
It is little known and generally ignored that more than 800 years after the last pyramids were built in Egypt, a new era of pyramid construction began in an African country south of Egypt. Over a period of more than 1,000 years some 200 pyramids, more than twice the number of known Pyramids in Egypt, were built for royal cemeteries in el-Kuru, Nuri, Gebel Barkal and Meroe in what is now Sudan. The pyramids were burial places of Kushitic and Meroitic kings or Pharaohs between the 8th century BC and the 4th century AD. These pyramids, although considerably smaller than their Egyptian predecessors, they are by no means less impressive, in fact, because of their unique position in a semi desert environment and their relative isolation, visiting these Nubian pyramids can be more of an emotional experience than being in the rather commercialised environment of the great pyramids of Egypt.
Most prominent among the Nubian pyramids are the royal cemeteries of Meroe some 200 km north of Khartoum and less than 5 km East of the Nile. Some of the structures of Meroe were destroyed in the 18th century in the course of ruthless plundering by the treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini. Probably deliberately spread misinformation, which placed a gold treasure found by Ferlini into one of the pyramids, resulted in further demolishing of some of the pyramids of Meroe.
Fig.1: Northern cemetery of Meroe
As a component of the recently initiated Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project (QSAP), an initiative with the objective of ‘promoting the rich archaeological heritage in the Republic of the Sudan’, the Meroe pyramids will now be restored by the DAI, “Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI), Berlin. The restoration efforts will probably include the dismantling and reconstruction of the badly damaged pyramids.
The Zamani Project of the University of Cape Town (www.zamaniproject.org), felt privileged to be asked to contribute to this restoration by providing metrically accurate spatial data for the analysis of the site conditions for the planning of conservation interventions.
The team’s task was the provision of high resolution 3D-models (Fig. 2) of all, still complete or partly destroyed pyramids, ortho-images (Fig.3) of all facades including top views, terrain models of the immediate vicinity of the pyramids as well as photographic panorama tours of the site, which comprised the so-called North and South cemeteries. The high resolution, high accuracy ortho-images were required to aid the documentation of each individual stone by the conservators as needed for the planned dismantling and reconstruction of damaged sections.
Fig.2: Untextured 3D laserscan model of the Northern cemetery of Meroe
The 3D models of the 32 Meroe pyramids and associated funeral chapels were generated from laserscan point clouds acquired with the Imager 5010c scanner from Z+F, supported by photography with 3 DSLR cameras, and geo-referenced with a Trimble RTK GPS.
The tribulations of upwards facing surfaces above instrument level are known to every laser scanning practitioner. This phenomenon is specifically grave when scanning pyramids with a large portion of the structure comprising upwards facing surfaces. In many cases these could be scanned risking life and limb by climbing onto the top of neighbouring pyramids or scaling the narrow and sometimes crumbling steps of the pyramid being scanned, but this was not possible for all structures, and some surfaces had to remain un-modelled. No UAV was available for the first field campaign, but it is planned to attempt filling in the few remaining gaps by UAV photogrammetry during the next field session, which will also cover the documentation of the as yet undocumented West cemetery.
Fig.3: Ortho-image of pyramid no.17 (3D Laserscan model with texture)
Having worked on heritage sites in Africa for the past 10 years, the Zamani team is not unfamiliar with difficult working conditions, however Meroe presented its own challenges with temperatures of close to 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, slippery sand dunes which made instrument set-ups difficult and extreme light conditions. All this was compensated by the beauty of the site, the privilege of the contact with a long passed civilisation and being part of the restoration of its physical manifestations, and the great support be local authorities and members of the DAI.
Examples of 3D models of the Meroe pyramids are presented here:
by Heinz Ruther, Principal Investigator, Zamani Project