Student Spotlight: Gretchen Zoeller

Gretchen Zoeller excavates a burial site in Nuri, Sudan. Photo Credit: Nichole Sobecki / VII.
Gretchen Zoeller excavates a burial site in Nuri, Sudan. Photo Credit: Nichole Sobecki / VII.


For students of any discipline, the world is a classroom. This is especially accurate for students of Anthropology, like PhD student Gretchen Zoeller. Zoeller’s studies have taken her to Italy; El-Kurru, Sudan; and most recently, Nuri, Sudan. 215 miles north of Khartoum and nestled along the Nile River, Nuri contains nearly 20 pyramids marking the tombs of Kushite royals who were buried between 650 BCE and 300 BCE. The primary exploration in this ancient necropolis centers the excavation of the flooded burial chamber of Nastasen, the last Kushite Pharoah to be buried at Nuri. Alongside site director Dr. Pearce Paul Creasman, Zoeller and her colleagues from the United States and Sudan unearth clues that piece together histories of human occupation and migration along the Nile River Valley. 
Nuri pyramids in the Sudanese desert. Photo Credit: Dr. Abagail Breidenstein

Pyramids of Nuri on the Sudanese Desert. Photo Credit: Dr. Abagail Breidenstein

Zoeller embarked on this expedition in 2020, shortly before beginning her PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh. Her objective was to examine several smaller cemeteries across the 170-acre site. In addition to the royal pyramids, Nuri contains evidence of burial traditions across Meroitic, Christian, and Islamic cultures. While the Islamic graves remain undisturbed, Zoeller was able to distinguish Christian graves from those of Meroitic peoples based on their style and the artifacts they contain. The Meroitic burial sites comprise mounds of sand with concentric rock rings. While these graves may have been established concurrently to or soon after the Kushite tombs were built, the simpler Christian box graves indicate a medieval migration through the region. 

Gretchen Zoeller excavates a burial site in Nuri, Sudan. Photo Credit: Dr. Abagail BreidensteinBeyond uncovering broad perspectives on human migration, Zoeller’s work on biological archaeology takes special note of case studies among the excavated remains that reveal medical practices and end-of-life care. One such example includes the oldest evidence of medical intervention amputation in the Nile Valley. Saw striations along the tibia and fibula of one individual indicate minor healing prior to death. Zoeller remarks that while this practice did not save the individual's life, it demonstrates a level of care and effort to do so, especially when paired with the burial goods placed alongside the remains.  

It is not all ancient history, however. In 2019, during a Sudanese revolution, protestors chanted the names of Nubian kings and queens in the streets—the same Kushite royals buried beneath the pyramids at Nuri. In opposition to the erasure of pre-Islamic history, Sudanese people turned to the rich cultural tapestry that Zoeller and her colleagues were witnessing first-hand. For Zoeller, these socio-political tensions underscore the importance of collaboration. At Nuri, she worked alongside students from the University of Khartoum and a site inspector from Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums to ensure that excavation practices foreground local conservation and cultural heritage while informing global understandings of the region. 

Now in the third year of her program, Zoeller plans to return to Nuri in the winter of 2023 to further her research. 

Gretchen Zoeller

Gretchen Zoeller is a biological anthropology student whose research focuses on the Nile River Valley populations in Africa, particularly, ancient Nubia at site of Nuri, North Sudan. Nestled within rich cultural and archaeological contexts, Gretchen’s special interests in bioarchaeology, mortuary practices, and paleopathology are being implemented to explore the site’s archaeological remains and reconstruct its deep history of human occupation.