While everyone knows about the ancient Egyptians, very little is known about their mysterious neighbors in the Kingdom of Kush. Like Egypt, The Nubian Pharaohs of Kush ruled by divine right from the bronze age until the collapse of the new Egyptian kingdom. The Pharaoh’s of Kush ruled over a land called Nubia that stretched from the southern part of modern-day Egypt to what is now Sudan. While archeologists have focused on Egyptian pyramids, it seems one pyramid buried beneath the desert sand in Sudan had its own secret to tell.
Within the land of Nubia, there was a young pharaoh by the name of Nastasen. There are very few historical records of this pharaoh, but what is known about him is that he ruled in the Kush kingdom. His reign ended towards the end of the Kush regime itself. That’s almost 2,500 years ago!
The Egyptian pharaoh who ruled during this time was Kabbash, and Nastasen and Kabbash were at war with one another. By the end of the war, Nastasen had bested Kabbash and taken all of his goods as spoils of war.
Nastasen’s Resting Place
How Nastasen eventually died is unknown, but as he was considered to be one of the most illustrious pharaohs from the Kush kingdom, his memory lived on. The area of Nuri within Sudan is very similar to Giza within Egypt. It became the resting spot for all of the great pharaohs, and Nastasen had a pyramid erected for himself to be filled with all of his spoils of war once it was time for him to pass on to the next realm.
There is one key difference though between Kushite pyramids and Egyptian ones, and that is where the pharaohs are buried. In Egypt, the pharaohs were placed in a secret chamber within the heart of the pyramid. In Nuri, the pharaohs were placed in a chamber that had been dug underneath the pyramid.
A Submerged Tomb
One of the main reasons Nastasen’s tomb had never been entered, much less found, was because of where his burial chamber was. Hidden in a dark cavern beneath the pyramid, the tomb was well hidden. Sadly over time, the water table rose, and eventually, this cavern was flooded. The elements had not been kind to this once mightly rulers tomb. Over time, the burial chamber had been submerged with water, which made accessing it almost impossible.
It would take many years before an archaeology team would be equipped to handle the treacherous cavern, and fund an expedition that would involve underwater archeology. Underwater tombs tend to be full of water that has a lot of sediment in it, which makes it hard to see. They are also pitch black, which means that it is hazardous to swim through a cavern where the water isn’t clear, and there are hidden objects all around you.
The Nuri Complex
The Nuri complex itself comprises around 20 pyramids, which makes it even bigger than Giza. A lot of the pyramids are grouped quite closely together, and the entire area is just under 200 acres of desert. Being so close to the river Nile, the annual flooding of the river caused the water table to rise. It was because of this that all the burial chambers in the hidden complex became flooded.
Many of the pyramids have submerged burial chambers, which has made it incredibly hard to excavate. There are many treasures just waiting to be found within this complex. The construction period for the complex was some 2,500 years ago.
The Kushites and Nastasen had long been a source of interest for historians and archeologists alike. The Kushite empire sat in the Sahara desert, which essentially gave them ownership of the land’s water. Any traveler who wanted to pass through the area would have to follow the water points that the empire had set up.
As well, a lot of the gold prized by the Egyptian pharaohs was mined in Kush, which made them an important trading partner. It was not until 4 A.D. that the Kushite empire finally faded, and became the part of history that it is now.
The First Explorer
While Nastasen’s tomb itself would not be explored for almost a century after this, the complex of Nuri itself was put on the historical radar in the 1930s.
George Reisner, who hailed from America and had studied archaeology, ventured out to the ancient ruins to try and unearth their secrets. Upon discovering that many of the caverns were submerged, he gave up any hopes of excavation. It was not until 2018 that Nastasen’s secrets would be revealed.
When a battle was won during ancient times, a stela or large stone pillar would usually be built, which would tell the tale of it. Nastasen had commissioned one after beating Kabbash, and this stela, which was written in early hieroglyphs, is what would tell future archaeologists where to find his final resting place.
What initially confused archeologists was the fact that the stela had been removed from Nuri, and found in Dongola a northern city.
Meet Kristin Romey
In the 2010s, Kristin Romey, an archeologist, began to explore the Nuri complex. She had become fascinated by the stela, which detailed the “Black Pharaoh” and the fact that he had been put in his final resting place in an as yet undiscovered subterranean cavern.
Kristin knew from George Reisner’s notes that he had thought he had found Nastasen’s tomb, but he had never explored it because of the water. When she located the tomb, she saw that his notes had been correct. The entire area under Nastasen’s pyramid was submerged.
Underwater archeology is still a relatively new form of exploration. Archeologists need to be seasoned divers to begin exploring, and it can take many years before they can dive into unique sites like under pyramids in the middle of Sudan.
Kristin knew that she would need reinforcements if she was going to take on Nastasen’s underwater chamber. Who would she be able to call to come and help her?
Meet Pearce Creasman
Pearce Paul Creasman is an American archeologist from the University of Arizona. He has become a well-known Egyptologist who has been on a variety of digs in both Egypt and Sudan.
As luck would have it, he had also done some underwater archeology and was a licensed diver. With the help of funding from National Geographic, Pearce and Kristin assembled a top-notch team of divers and archaeologists who prepared themselves to enter Nastasen’s tomb.
The stairway to the tomb had already been uncovered by the original archeology team in the 1930s. It had been covered in sand, and Kristin and Pearce would have to dig for about a year before they managed to reveal the submerged chamber.
Once they had found the entrance, they knew it was time for the real work to start. At the beginning of 2019, they assembled their full underwater diving team and began to prepare for the excavation.
The reason the digging took so long is that there were a total of 65 steps that were buried. These led underneath the tomb, but Pearce and Kristin only managed to uncover 40 steps.
Once they hit step 40, water began to seep out of the sand, and they knew they had arrived at the chamber. A lot of safety precautions would need to be put into place, and the strongest underwater flashlights procured.
Pearce had another reason for wanting to join in on this adventure. He had been working on some new underwater archeology excavation techniques and had not had the chance to try them out yet. He thought this would be a good pilot project for some of them.
He also had a theory that Nastasen’s tomb would inform the archeology team about the other submerged pharaohs in the area. If the tomb was intact, and the artifacts preserved, then the other tombs would be worth exploring.
Right away, Pearce knew that there was going to be a problem. The entrance to the tomb was tiny, and traditional diving tanks would not fit through. Thus, a tube full of air would have to be fed into the tomb, and each archeologist would need one.
They also needed to be very careful that they did not get stuck in the tomb should a cave-in occur. All of the walls around them had been subject to water seeping in for centuries, and that made the stone quite soft.
Strengthening The Tomb
Having the pyramid collapse around the archeologists as they explored was a real fear. Pearce knew that they would need to devise a way to keep the opening to the tomb secure.
He decided that metal inserts could be used to strengthen the stone around the entrance. This was an old technique used in mines, and it would help prevent mine shafts from caving in. Once all of the safety measures were in place, it was finally time for the team to get their first glimpse of Nastasen’s tomb.
On the day of the first dive, the Nile had decided to come and say, “Hello.” The water levels had risen drastically, and the doorway was almost fully submerged. Pearce and Kristin were hesitant to dive in case the water rose anymore.
Pearce was concerned that they would not be able to see anything, much less be able to excavate at all. Kirstin thought that they should finally enter the chamber and that they were ready after all of these preparations.
The Chamber Of Secrets
Slowly, Pearce and Kristin, along with some of their team, made their way into Nastasen’s tomb. The site that greeted them was a real surprise. Kristin had a feeling that the tomb would be full of wonders that had not been seen since Howard Carter excavated the boy king, Tutankhaman’s tomb.
Hopefully, the water had not done too much damage to whatever lay in the water depths of this pyramid. Usually, saltwater will damage artifacts, not freshwater like that of the Nile.
As the team swam into Nastasen’s tomb, they realized that it was not completely submerged. The tomb had been hollowed out with curved ceilings, which had allowed for air pockets to be trapped at the top.
As Pearce and Kristin shone their flashlights around, they were greeted by a tomb that had not been looted by grave robbers. What they really wanted to find was Nastasen’s coffin and hieroglyphs, which would tell the story of his death.
The Burial Chamber
After swimming through the first chamber, Pearce and Kristin realized that it was a series of three chambers. Within the third, and final chamber lay Nastasen at peace in his sarcophagus.
Sarcophagi are usually made of wood and have many layers, almost like stacking dolls. Nastasen’s sarcophagus had been sitting in water for around 2,500 years, which meant that it was not in the best condition. This was disappointing, but that did not mean it was unsalvageable.
While the sarcophagus was waterlogged, there were lots of other offerings that had been left in the burial chamber. Some statuettes were unearthed, which were completely different from anything that had been found before.
They were named the “Black Pharaohs.” Originally, the Kushites had been subjects of the Egyptian pharaohs, but then had broken off and formed their own kingdom. The statuettes found reflected their darker skin color, whereas the Egyptian ones tended to reflect how they were paler.
As the Kushite kingdom was also known to be major gold producers, it was not surprising for Pearce and Kirstin to find pieces of gold leaf in the water. This had flaked off of the walls, and some of the figurines that had been left in the tomb.
The sarcophagus and Nastasen’s remains will likely have many gold amulets within it, and when it is finally removed from the pyramid, these will be studied.
More To Be Found
As this is an ongoing excavation, Pearce and Kristin are very excited to see what else they can unearth. The statuettes and pieces of gold simply hint at even bigger finds.
They have to develop a method to remove the sarcophagus without destroying it. The hole to the entrance is too small to accommodate it, so the team will have to devise a way to dismantle the sarcophagus and then rebuild it outside of the tomb.
With the help of National Geographic, Pearce and Kristin have begun to get the story out about this time in history. A lot of people don’t know about the Kushite kingdom, as the focus has always been on ancient Egypt.
Now, this important period can be highlighted, and some of the stories about the black pharaohs shared with the world. We know we are very excited to see what Nastasen’s sarcophagus contains!