It’s a hot morning in the desert of northern Sudan, the land of Nubia in the time of the ancient pharaohs. Archaeologists Kristen Romey and Pearce Paul Creasman are sweating through their dive masks as they descend a rock-carved staircase, making their way to the entrance of a long-forgotten underwater tomb.
They each carry just two waterproof flashlights, one for each wrist, a 20-pound weight belt, and a tiny emergency container of air. They were ready to go exploring. The only thing was that they weren’t sure what they were going to find.
It Started With A Grant to Explore The Pyramids Of Nuri
Kristin Romey and Pearce Paul Creasman are both trained underwater archaeologists. So, when Romey heard of Creasman’s grant to explore a submerged ancient tomb in Sudan, she decided to give him a call and tag along. Neither of them knew what to expect.
They were going in blindly. No one had really studied the artifacts within the pyramids of Nuri. What were they going to find? There was a chance that they were too late, and grave robbers had already beaten them to the treasures hidden deep within the ancient tombs. You’ll never guess what they found.
Kristin Romey Prepares To Dive Into The Unknown
As Romey prepared to dive into very yellow, sandstone-filled water, she received a massive clue as to why she was putting herself through the whole ordeal. And it rose over her head in the distance — a pyramid located in the north of Sudan.
The pyramid was home to a monarch who once held sway over a vast majority of Northern Africa. Romey and Creasman were not looking at the monument, though, they were on a quest to explore something else entirely. What they found at the bottom of the flooded pyramid is truly astonishing.
They Explore A 2,300-Year-Old Tomb
Romey and Creasman weren’t diving in the questionable water for fun. They had a destination in mind — a man’s tomb. It’s not just any man, though. The tomb is the resting place of Nastasen, the late King of Kush, who was buried more than 2,000 years ago.
For a trained archaeologist such as Romey, that bit of history was worth diving into the flooded underbelly of the pyramid. She slowly made her way down the rock-carved staircase into the water. All she had for air was a tube to the surface and a tiny canister strapped to her back, in case of emergencies. Would the old tomb be worth the lack of oxygen?
The Water Level Was Very High
Creasman waited for Romey at the bottom of the ancient staircase, but he didn’t have what one would call “good news.” He actually had words of caution that he shared before the two ventured any further: “It’s really deep today. There’s not going to be any headroom in the first chamber.”
That meant that the two were going to have to make sure they held onto their oxygen tubes and hopefully not have to use their emergency canister of air. But when you’re underneath an ancient pyramid about to explore a long-forgotten tomb, all bets are off.
The Opening To The Tomb Was Only As Big As A TV Set
A few weeks prior to this expedition, Creasman had explored the tomb of Nastasen by himself. Now, the two of them were going to go down into the three chambers together in hopes of investigating the submerged sarcophagus that has lain untouched for centuries. What were they going to find in there?
Before the two archaeologists were able to reach the chambers, Creasman pointed out that they first had to shimmy through an opening about no larger than a tv set. That’s not exactly something a person wants to do while they’re chest-deep in murky water underneath an ancient pyramid!
Nuri Stretches Over 200 Acres Of Desert
The tomb the two archaeologists were exploring is located in Nuri. The site stretches over nearly 200 acres of land and houses around 20 pyramids that were constructed from 650 B.C. to 300 B.C. Nuri is also close to the east of the Nile River, so the pyramids are prone to flooding.
Nastasen’s pyramid base is a 100-foot square that sits on top of a level patch of ground at low elevation. Being a mile from the river, this pyramid is most likely to flood. As a result, the three chambers of the pharaoh’s tomb are submerged in water.
The Pyramids Are The Burial Sites Of The Kushite Royals
The string of 20 pyramids marks the burial grounds of the Kushite royals, the “black pharaohs” who operated as vassals on the southern edges of the Egyptian empire. The pharaohs emerged triumphant during the political chaos that followed the demise of the New Kingdom of Egypt. And from 760 B.C. to 650 B.C., five Kushite pharaohs ruled all of Egypt.
During their rule, the pharaohs built grand structures up and down the Nile River, reviving some of the religious practices of the old Egyptian empire. One such practice was constructing pyramids to bury their kings beneath.
Underwater Archaeologists Were Needed To Explore The Tomb
The pyramids of Nuri remained relatively unexplored throughout history. Since underwater archaeology had yet to be attempted in Sudan, there was no safe way for archaeologists to explore the underbelly of the tombs. The first person to try breaching the burial chambers was George Reisner, an American archaeologist who specialized in ancient Egypt and its buried history.
Reisner was easily able to explore tombs within the Pyramids of Giza, which housed ancient royals. But all he discovered at Nuri was that the pharaohs were buried underground, and that their tombs were flooded.
Nuri Was Left Alone Until 2018
Reisner never published the results of his findings in Nuri, and for almost a century the place was forgotten. It wasn’t until 2018, when Creasman ventured to Nuri, that any answers were found. Creasman had experience in underwater archaeology that Reisner lacked. With a grant from the National Geographic Society, he decided to zero in on the pyramid of Nastasen.
This particular pharaoh was one of the minor royals who ruled Kush from 335 B.C. to 315 B.C. And because he was the last king to be buried in Nuri, his pyramid lies on the worst piece of real estate.
Reisner’s Workers Grabbed Shabti From The Tomb
Very little has been discovered about Nastasen. So, if anyone wanted to know his history, there was little to do other than dive into his tomb. Although that’s easier said than done, as the water level has risen dramatically since the time of Reisner’s expedition.
At least his workers were able to find the staircase that led down into the tomb. After the crew dug out the flight, one of the workers was able to make his way down into the crypt. Once there, he spent his time digging a hole and grabbing shabti — statues that are meant to look after the deceased in the next life.
It Took A Year To Re-Dig The Staircase
Unfortunately, that’s all the worker had time for, and soon after he resurfaced, Reisner’s team left. The tomb was forgotten and the staircase was buried by desert sand. It wasn’t until years later when Creasman ventured to Nuri that the staircase was uncovered once again. Sadly, it took Creasman and his team about a year to dig it up.
Fast forward one more year to 2019, and he was finally able to venture down to the tomb’s entry point. But it wasn’t a cause for celebration, as they realized that the rest of the chamber was going to be completely submerged underwater.
They Uncovered 40 Of The 65 Stairs
During an interview with BBC, Creasman noted that his team had gone “as far as [they] could.” While the staircase reportedly has 65 stairs, the researchers were only able to dig out 40 before hitting the top of the water. Creasman added, “[We] knew we wouldn’t be able to go any further without putting our heads under.”
The thing is, uncovering the stairs was the easy part. More danger lurked under the water, as divers who entered the chambers had the risk of being trapped if the surrounding rocks fell into the opening.
He Constructed A Metal Chute Around The Entrance
Considering that no one wanted to be trapped underground, Creasman reinforced the entrance to the chambers with metal chutes. This way, rocks wouldn’t fall into the opening, but rather slide away from it. Now the issue was that in order to enter the tomb, the divers were going to have to shimmy around the chute.
Each brave soul who wanted to explore the other side of the stairwell was going in practically blind because of the sandstone-filled water. So maneuvering through the chute was anything but easy.
They Used Tubes For Their Oxygen Supply
If making their way through the chute wasn’t hard enough, they had to do so with a line that supplied them with oxygen from the surface. Scuba tanks were too bulky for the confined space they were working in, so their only choice was to rely on a line that brought in air, with a tiny container of air in case of emergencies.
The container was about as big as a can of hairspray. Once all of the logistics were squared away, the researchers were finally able to dive in and investigate Nastasen’s tomb.
They Explore The First Two Chambers
In the first chamber, the water reaches the ceiling and every movement causes the water to become murkier and murkier. The sandstone and water mixture is horrible for visibility in the bus-sized chamber, but Creasman and Romey circled around before emerging in the second chamber.
There, the ceiling had collapsed, making a fairly large air pocket for the archaeologists to catch their breath. It’s also here that Creasman began to unpack some supplies, placing flashlights in plastic jerry jars to illuminate the dark chamber. Then they made their way to the final chamber.
A Stone Sarcophagus Lies Underwater
After swimming through a low, rounded, rock-cut doorway, the archaeologists entered the third and final chamber. Below them, although hardly visible, was a stone sarcophagus where the supposed remains of Nastasen lie. They also spotted the pit that one of Reisner’s workers dug up about a century ago!
As this is the earliest stage of a huge project, Creasman wants to make sure everything is in place and that they have a solid game plan moving into 2020. They had just uncovered a huge missing part of Kush history, after all!
Creasman Had A Plan For The Long-Term Project
Creasman’s objectives moving forward were actually quite easy and, honestly, necessary for the project to continue on a positive path. He wanted to demonstrate that the air-supply system he had in place was, in fact, safe to use for an extended amount of time. Also, he wanted to take basic measurements of each of the chambers.
The final step in the preliminary plan of exploring the tomb was to fully dig through “Reisner’s pit” to see if anything was overlooked or left behind. There must have been a reason one of the workers was digging through that exact spot and Creasman was going to find out what!
Removing The Sarcophagus Was Going To Take Time
Unfortunately, the opening of the stone coffin was going to have to wait until a later date. They first had to figure out how to get the sarcophagus out of the chamber and to the surface before even thinking about opening the top! The good news is that the rising groundwater has kept grave robbers at bay.
This means that most of what Nastasen was buried with is still in the tomb, even if some objects have disintegrated and are now part of the sandstone and water mix.
They Sifted Through Sediment And Found Pure Gold Foil!
The team went on to dig up more of “Reisner’s pit,” filling plastic buckets with sediment and swimming them out into the air-pocketed second chamber. Then, they proceeded to put the sediment on a screen and sift for artifacts. And boy, did they find some interesting things!
After sifting through the rubble, the team discovered paper-thin pieces of pure gold foil. At one point in time, the material most likely covered figurines that have since dissolved in the water. The gilded figures would have been easy pickings for grave robbers, further supporting their claim that the rising water had put off any robbers.
They Had Their Work Cut Out For Them
On their final dive, Romey and Creasman floated into the third chamber of the tomb, right over Nastasen’s undisturbed resting place. They discussed the upcoming year and the goals they had for the project. The biggest was to somehow get the 2,300-year-old sarcophagus that is submerged underwater to the surface. It’s going to be a challenge, to say the least.
Creasman is optimistic, saying, “I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here. t’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told.”