I read William Carruthers’s Flooded Pasts as a Nubian woman. Consequently, I do not claim a neutral position, nor do I seek one. As I read, the ghosts of my ancestral flooded land loom large in my consciousness. I appreciate learning from the archival investigations that appear throughout this book. In Egypt, institutional archives are now kept behind a wall of security clearances and permits that are seldom issued to Nubians. Many archives outside Egypt are also inaccessible to Nubian researchers, most of whom are local historians in displacement without affiliations with academic institutions or access to their resources.

Nubians were displaced from their ancestral land by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1964. This was not the Nubians’ first displacement; it was preceded by the building of the Aswan Low Dam, constructed on the First Cataract by British colonialists in 1902 and subsequently heightened twice, in 1912 and 1933. While my people struggled through the twentieth century, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the international community focused on what they considered to be more pressing: salvaging the large number of archaeological sites that were threatened by the dams.

Flooded Pasts offers a critical examination of the power dynamics at play in archaeological salvage operations and raises important questions about the role of UNESCO and Western archaeological practices in relation to local communities. In doing so, it asks readers to rethink the underlying assumptions and methodologies of archaeological work. Carruthers explores the complex dynamics between UNESCO and the Egyptian and Sudanese governments in the context of the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia, the archaeological salvage operation that was carried out before the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Using archival evidence, he presents a critique of the field of archaeology by showing us its colonial roots.

In his introductory framing, Carruthers situates the subjugation of Nubia in historical context, calling out the practices that produced the current archaeological conceptualization of Nubia as mechanisms through which “new nations” asserted themselves during the Cold War. Hence the plural “pasts” in the book title refers to this split of Nubia into Egyptian and Sudanese Nubias. These understandings, as the author explains, come from “the view from the boat,” an Orientalist and extractive gaze through a Western frame. The critique alludes to the racial factors shaping the production of Nubia by archaeologists, citing their interest in a certain image of our ancestral land as well as their disregard for Nubians.

In a chapter titled “Documenting Nubia,” Carruthers looks at the methods used by both Western and Egyptian experts to document the archaeological “site.” This chapter specifically, and the book generally, presents a critique of documentation and archiving practices, raising a point about their failed transversality across French, British, and Egyptian realms. It is more amusing, however, to learn about the limits and malfunctions of these operations under UNESCO, which was highly influenced at the time by the French bureaucracy. Moreover, these practices clashed with and contradicted those of Egyptian institutions, but they eventually worked harmoniously with the national interests of Egypt, which in turn utilized archaeology and Egyptology as tools to write the metanarrative of the new, modern Egypt.

The author highlights the line between Egyptian Nubia and Sudanese Nubia, a division that is a sad matter of fact for Nubians. The institutional mechanism under which Egyptian Nubia operates is completely different from that of Sudanese Nubia. Carruthers narrates the involvement of various governmental and international actors in both countries.

He provides evidence that Egypt’s interest in Egyptian Nubia and its documentation, as well as the consecutive planning for its excavations, was based on Nubia’s value for Egypt’s efforts to represent itself to the world, and many Egyptologists served that political interest. Carruthers makes the crucial link between the date of the declaration of the regions that would be flooded and the date of the recognition of their importance by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. This declaration came before the actual work of planning for any excavation and research efforts and significantly before any budgeting for them. As the author demonstrates, Nubia was mobbed by the power of paperwork.

Carruthers crosses the border to Sudan in his fourth chapter, “Making Sudan Archaeological,” in which he looks at the initiation of the documentation centers that came into being in the light of the Nubian campaign. These centers had fewer resources than the ones in Egypt. He demonstrates how the Sudanese constitution enabled and activated the disciplinary and professional efforts that were then getting under way. Moreover, he presents the entanglements between the perspectives of development and the production of Sudanese Nubia as an archaeological subject.

The author draws a connection between the British colonial legacy in Sudan and the implementation of British archaeological methodologies in the area. Sudan was deemed fruitful, easy to access, and an easy target for experimental archaeologists. Carruthers scrutinizes the use of field and aerial photography in a colonial practice described by Nicholas Mirzoeff—in reference to the more recent technology of drone warfare but also applicable to this case—as “a plantation future of the overseer’s visual footprint over his ‘plat,’ a line drawing of an estate as if from an aerial viewpoint produced by (inaccurate) surveying to distinguish one colonized piece of land from another.”1

Carruthers argues that unlike Egyptian Nubia, which was defined by the International Campaign to fit into the nationalist metanarratives of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, Sudan was made through Nubia. He discusses the role of the Nubia campaign and the relationship between UNESCO and Ibrahim Aboud’s government in the context of defining the story of Sudan as a newly minted nation-state, and he asserts that archaeological campaigns have produced Nubia as a transnational de-peopled object between Sudan and Egypt.

In the chapter titled “Peopling Nubia,” Carruthers begins by arguing that the Nubian campaign was bound, shackled, and ascribed by its own paperwork. He moves from institutions benefiting from the Nubia campaign to Nubian voices. Despite the clear purpose declared in the chapter title and the pronounced decolonial approach, this effort falls short. The author starts with a reference to the work of Nubian novelists such as Muhammad Khalil Qasim, yet he practices secondhand citation. Another example is his use of Haggag Oddoul’s ideation of Nubian displacement in contrast to the ideas of Idris Aly and Yehia Mokhtar. Such discussion of the voices of Nubian writers could have provided an important contribution had the author unpacked their relative subjectivities and positionalities.

Going back to my initial assertion of reading the book from my Nubian position, I am often searching for my people’s voices in the stories of the blights that defined our twentieth century. Especially in “Peopling Nubia,” Carruthers could have devoted much more space to Nubian conceptualization, histories, and epistemic grounding. I suggest that future research attempting to people Nubia consider Yasmin Moll’s work and her race-conscious analysis of the Nubian stories and Saker el Nour’s work that centers peasant struggles around water.2 Moreover, the important localized archival work by Nubian activists and popular historians in Egypt and Sudan, such as Fatma Imam, Moustafa Shourbagy, and Ahmed Eltigani Sidahmed, could contribute to the goal of repeopling Nubia by Nubians.

Despite this particular shortcoming, Flooded Pasts provides a rigorous archival study of the UNESCO salvage operation and the archaeology project in Nubia, examining the power dynamics and colonial legacies while allowing us a peek into the inner workings of the International Campaign through archival evidence. The book reflects on the implications of the salvage campaign and the politics of development, highlighting the socioenvironmental impacts and the legacies of displacement and dispossession experienced by Nubian communities.

1.

Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Artificial Vision, White Space, and Racial Surveillance Capitalism,” AI & Society 36, no. 4 (2021), 1300.

2.

Yasmin Moll, “Narrating Nubia: Between Sentimentalism and Solidarity,” Racial Formations in Africa and the Middle East, no. 9 (2021), 81–86.