Scientists Discover Thousands of Ancient Tombs In Galaxy-Like Patterns

Researchers applied a cosmological tool to archaeology for the first time, revealing “invisible centers of gravity” across a vast funerary landscape.
Researchers applied a cosmological tool to archaeology for the first time, revealing “invisible centers of gravity” across a vast funerary landscape.
Qubbas around the Jebel Maman. Image: Stefano Costanzo
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In the vast and spectacular landscape of eastern Sudan, tombs deposited across generations have created enormous patterns resembling galaxies, according to a new study that combined fieldwork, cosmological tools, and remote-sensing technologies.

Sudan’s hilly Kassala region, which lies west of the nation’s border with Eritrea, has been inhabited by the semi-nomadic Beja people for at least 2,000 years, though its human history extends much further back in time into prehistory. Amid Kassala’s arid scenery is an abundance of raised funerary monuments, including Islamic tombs known as qubbas, with obscured origins that span many periods and cultures.


Local Sudanese archaeologists have conducted fieldwork around Kassala for years in collaboration with international colleagues, but the region has remained relatively unexplored due its remote location and lack of infrastructure. 

Now, researchers led by Stefano Costanzo, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Naples "L'Orientale,” have used satellite imagery to discover more than 10,000 funerary monuments within an area of about 1,600 square miles, revealing that “scholars drastically underestimated the amount of qubbas dotting the region,” according to a study published on Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

What’s more, Costanzo and his colleagues used tools from the field of cosmology to discover that these tombs are arranged in galaxy-like clusters across the landscape, with “parent” monuments acting as “invisible centers of gravity” around which other burials have accumulated, the study reports. 

The team—which includes study co-author Habab Idriss Ahmed, an archaeologist at the Sudanese National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, who is from Kassala—achieved this mind-boggling result by applying a spatial statistics tool that was developed for cosmology to an archaeological study for the first time.

“This kind of study can add a lot of information for us as archaeologists,” said Ahmed, who directed the team’s fieldwork, in a joint call with Costanzo. “It gives us a lot of information in terms of the vast area that these funerary monuments extended.” 


“It was an actual discovery,” added Costanzo. “Sometimes you say: ‘Oh, we made this discovery,’ but you expected what you were going to discover. This was an actual discovery, because I thought I would find 1,000 monuments, maybe, and I ended up with 10,000.” 

“It’s just incredible, from my point of view,” he added. “I wasn’t expecting that.” 

The fascinating results of the study emerged from the interdisciplinary approach of the researchers, who were supported in the field by many Sudanese archaeologists and locals.

Costanzo initially examined the selected area, a sparsely populated region that connects the eastern bank of the Gash River to the foothills of the western Eritrean Highlands, using open access satellite imagery. He pinpointed all the recognizable funerary monuments that were visible across the landscape, revealing the unexpected volume of qubbas.

The researchers were not only struck by the sheer wealth of monuments in the area, but by their interesting distribution across the landscape, which didn’t conform to a traditional topological analysis. Filippo Brandolini, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Newcastle University who co-authored the study, came up with the idea of using a statistical tool developed for cosmology, known as the Neyman-Scott Cluster Process, to shed light on the perplexing spatial patterns. 

“We started to think that there has to be some invisible or undetectable reason underlying the distribution,” Costanzo explained. “[Filippo Brandolini] did very thorough research on that, and discovered the Neyman-Scott Cluster Process.”


Running the distribution patterns through the cosmological tool exposed a “cosmogony of burials” composed of “clusters composed of offspring points revolving around parents,” according to the study. These parent sites, which are akin to galactic centers, coincide with locations with favorable burial conditions and available construction materials. The team speculates that the central sites may contain older tombs of cultural importance, with younger tombs radiating away from them, like the stars in a galactic disk.

Both Costanzo and Ahmed emphasized the importance of the local Kassala people to this study, as their oral traditions and cultural knowledge informed the on-the-ground fieldwork. The researchers hope that the new study will bring much-needed attention and protection to these incredible monuments, which are at risk from treasure hunters drawn to the region’s gold rush.

“Archaeology is like community engagement,” Ahmed said. “It's very important to make the community a part of it in terms of their involvement as a part of their heritage and, at the same time, as a source of its protection.”

“I think that eastern Sudan, as a whole, deserves more recognition in an official way, not just in a sense of protecting the sites from gold-mining and the gold rush with guardians, but maybe even to be listed as an official heritage site,” Costanzo concluded. “That would be a very, very big outcome for this kind of research.”