In a recent article, the historian Jennifer L. Derr discusses how the nineteenth and early twentieth century transformation of irrigation in Egypt reassembled bodily experience. As Derr notes, “the shift from basin to perennial irrigation produced new modes of labor, performed according to a different calendar”. Those modes transformed bodies in combination with a transformation of nature: “part and parcel of the [altered] ecologies in which they worked, the bodies of Egyptian cultivator-laborers were also transformed by perennial irrigation, in part through an explosion of bilharzia and hookworm disease”. A shift in ecological temporality constituted “labor-time”, as Derr’s article coins it, in addition to bodily experience of that temporality. Transformations in irrigation practice caused more than this ecological shift, however. Here, I argue that this process helped to constitute notions, ownership, and the physical experience of the past in a manner that paved the way for later, larger, and more notorious interventions in these realms.
Taking place in a period when Britain either occupied, controlled, or had considerable influence over the nominally independent government of the country, the construction of the Aswan Dam (Khazan Aswan) from 1899 to 1902, followed by its heightening from 1907 to 1912 and again from 1929 to 1933, enabled the continuing transformation of Egyptian agriculture to a practice of perennial irrigation in a way that benefited British interests. Simultaneously, the construction of the Aswan Dam also enabled large-scale work in archaeology. Nubia, the region to the south of the new dam, would be flooded, with each step in the construction process raising the level of the deluge. As a result, Nubians were forced to move their villages higher up the sides of the Nile valley or, in some cases, leave the region altogether. But the devastation of human lives was ultimately of less concern to the colonial officials in charge of the dam than the devastation of the multitude of ancient remains that Nubians lived amongst. Egypt’s Survey Department therefore sponsored a series of archaeological surveys in order to record the archaeological sites that would be submerged as a result of the Aswan Dam’s construction.
The work of these surveys, which took place from 1907 to 1911 and 1929 to 1934, unsurprisingly corresponded to a version of the past built on scientific racism. Predominantly excavating cemeteries, the reports related to the surveys are saturated with descriptions of the region’s ancient population that are shot through with racial judgment. For example, the (now notorious) anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith worked on the first of the two surveys, and spent his time organising human remains “with a view to the classification of their distinctive features and the determination of their racial characteristics”. The survey concluded that, at some point in the past, Nubia and Egypt had gone their separate ways, with Nubia’s supposed racial decline a clear cause of this split. The second survey, under the direction of the British archaeologist Walter Emery, continued in this vein, even as the work’s Egyptian anatomist, Ahmed El Batrawi, later contested such modes of thinking in print.
What interests me here, though, is how such scientific racism simultaneously allowed race to become a means of structuring ownership of, and physical connection to, the past at a time when not just British, but also Egyptian elites were invested in “the unity of the Nile Valley” under the aegis of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This conjunction had certain, obvious effects, particularly in terms of the forced resettlement of the Nubian population in the cause of British-led irrigation work. But the predominance of racial thinking also had other, subtler, effects: ones which would allow the slow disaggregation of Nubians from the Nile valley’s past even after Egyptian independence in 1956. This phenomenon became clear during the second Archaeological Survey of Nubia. During the survey, Walter Emery dealt with labour issues in a way that made clear exactly who any Nubian past could belong to. Some years after the work, Emery wrote that the Nubians were
racially distinct from the Egyptians, being inferior in almost every quality, particularly when it comes to a matter of work. On two or three occasions we attempted to employ them as labourers on the excavations, but their complaints of the heat, the dust and the speed of the work soon compelled us to relinquish the attempt. It was partly for this reason and the lack of man-power that we employed only Egyptian workmen, brought from Upper Egypt, throughout the five years that we worked in Nubia.
Complaints about the obvious bodily discomfort of archaeological labour in the low desert of the Nile valley were not to be taken seriously, and Nubians were accordingly not to be trusted when it came to the survey’s excavations. Consequently, any physical connection of those Nubians to the remains being excavated—and in proximity to which their settlements were located—slowly began to be severed as the survey progressed. No wonder, then, that thirty years later, during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, little attention was paid to how the Nubians who remained in the region felt about the ancient material that was still extant there, even as Egypt itself had achieved independence and, post-Suez, British troops had finally departed the country. Irrigation’s reordering of the Nubian environment ultimately meant that any link to that material had already been cut, at least in the eyes of the officials in charge of the work.
As the High Dam slowly came to fruition, Nubia flooded at a greater scale than ever before. Floodwaters both put an end to any Nubian settlement in the region and also—due to the structure’s size—rose in Sudanese Nubia for the first time, creating a hydro-political border between Egypt and Sudan. During the dam’s construction, the Ford Foundation funded an ethnological survey on the Egyptian side of the Nubian border, and Sudan government officials statistically surveyed various facets of Sudanese Nubian life. At the request of the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, meanwhile, UNESCO promoted a campaign of monument salvage and archaeological survey participated in by a global roster of missions. It was not a campaign that the Nubians themselves were involved in. Materially disaggregated from the region’s past at least thirty years earlier, for the most part everyone involved with organising the work simply ignored Nubian opinions about ruins at the same time as they ignored their opinions about forced migration. Hydropolitics and the rearrangement of Nubian ecologies had helped to constitute this situation.
One account of the campaign illustrates this process of disaggregation particularly well. In Nubian Twilight, the journalist Rex Keating wrote that
an amusing indication of how Nubians feel about their forbears was provided by the Spanish Expedition from Madrid who were digging an early C-group cemetery among the scattered houses of a modern village. Each morning with unfailing regularity an old woman appeared on the dig to lay claim to the property of her ‘ancestors’ as she described these people who died at least 4,000 years ago. She demanded half of all the pots and human remains found, ‘but you can keep the cattle horns’. She could be silenced only by the leader of the expedition, Dr Blanco Y Caro, demanding that she, in return, pay half the cost of running the expedition.
Not to be taken seriously, Nubian opinions were instead considered “amusing”.
As Nubians in the diaspora increasingly demand the right to return, however, I would hazard that their position as punchline to an archaeological joke is likely to shift. Irrigation engineering in Egypt transformed worlds, not to mention the people who lived in them. But, as that history itself shows, transformations can create unintended possibilities, too.
 Jennifer L. Derr, 2018, “Labor-Time: Ecological Bodies and Agricultural Labor in 19th– and Early 20th-Century Egypt”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 50, 195–212, p. 199.
 Ibid., p. 200.
 Grafton Elliot Smith, 1908, “Anatomical Report”. In: Ministry of Finance, Egypt; Survey Department, The Archaeological Survey of Nubia Bulletin No. 1, 25–35, p. 25.
 Discussed in William Y. Adams, 1977, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (London: Allen Lane), 92–93. Most pertinent were Ahmed El Batrawi’s two articles on “The Racial History of Egypt and Nubia” published in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1945 (v. 75 (1/2), 81–101) and 1946 (v. 76 (2), 131–156).
 Walter Bryan Emery, 1948, Nubian Treasure (London: Methuen), p. 14.
 Rex Keating, 1962, Nubian Twilight (London: Rupert Hart-Davis), pp. 90–91.