Excavations at Umm Mawagir in Kharga

September 8, 2010

A discovery in Kharga Oasis in the southern Western Desert is expected to shed light on the use of the oasis duirng the First Intermediate and Middle Kingdom periods. The city of Umm Mawagir was occupied throughout these periods but its heyday appears to have been the period between 1650 and 1550 BC when political disruption distrubed the Nile Valley population.  Invasions fo the Delta and southern Egypt confined Phraonic control to an area of Upper Egypt around Luxor.

Together with finds in Dakhleh Oasis the discovery of of Umm Mawagir indicates a much greater level Egyptian influence over the south-western desert at this time than had been previously proposed.

Most importantly the site gives an insight into an important aspect of Egypt’s economy, with particular reference to its trade networks.  John and Deborah Darnell have specialized in investigating the archaeology of  desert roads for more than a decade.  One of their key discoveries was the 100 mile Girga Road which extends from Luxor to Kharga and was clearly a major route, with a number of outposts to provide food and water for people travelling between the two hubs.  The road confirmed that the ancient Egyptians had the ability to provision for this sort of expedition during the Middle Kingdom.

The most important discovery, to date, announced only recently was the bakery that gives Umm Mawagir (which means Mother of Bread Moulds) its name.  As well as nearly half a ton of broken sherds from ceramic baking moulds, two baking ovens were found together with husking and grinding equipment.  Production was clearly on an industrial scale and it si likelty that it was produced to supply the military.

Some ceramics were made of Nubian clays, others on local materials.  Cooking pots associated with teh Medjay, an elite military unit, were discarded at the site and may point to a Medjay presence in Kharga.

Less than half of the 218 acre has has been excavated to date.

See the Yale Alumni Magazine for more on this story, and more about the work of the Darnell with Yale on the Yale Egyptological Institute website.

Western Desert Flora

August 14, 2010

Thanks to Vincent Brown for pointing out this website about the common flora of Egypt’s Western Desert:
http://westerndesertflora.geolab.cz/

Petr Pokorny and Adela Pokorna have put together a terrific resource about the common plants that can be found in the Western Desert and the oases. Here’s an extract from their introduction:

Western Desert is a harsh environment for plant growth. The hot summer (sometimes above 50°C) and the extreme daily temperature fluctuations in winter (from above 30°C in the day to below zero at night) contribute to this. Of course, rainwater is extremely rare item there. Heavier downpour may occur only once in decades. Nevertheless, when it does occur, the rainwater quickly penetrates the permeable sand to a depth beyond the root zone. The seeds of only few plants succeed in germinating under such conditions.

In large tectonic depressions, oases were formed where artesian water reach the surface. Over a long history of human settlement the local biota was severely affected by humans. Inside oases, land was transformed into cultivated fields and orchards. As the result, it is difficult to ascertain what natural vegetation had been there before human interference. After reaching the surface and irrigating agricultural land, the water drains to lowest level of the oasis floor, where it forms pools or lakes. Because of high evaporation, this water becomes highly saline. Wetlands and salt marches that form around pools and lakes are rich in vegetation and, together with cultivated fields and often stabilised sand dunes, are the main features of inhabited land.

In Egypt, about 700 plant species commonly occur. According to the most recent analysis (Boulos 1999 – 2005), the total number of vascular plant species in Egypt is 2075. Substantial part of this diversity is confined to wettest regions – Mediterranean, Sinai Peninsula, and Gebel Elba, a mountain range that supports Acacia woodland. While not counting its northern Mediterranean fringe, Western Desert is the poorest regions in the country in terms of plant diversity.

The photographs are excellent and if you are interested in the flora that you may come across in the Egyptian Desert this is an excellent resource.

Another great resource for both flora and fauna is Andras Zboray’s website, which has some excellent information and lots of photos:
http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/florafauna.htm

Unified law on dealing with desert lands

August 8, 2010

The Egypt State Information Service has released a statement about the management of its deserts.  To be honest, even after reading it several times I am not much the wiser about what it is setting out to achieve, but I assume that it is a project that sets out to balance the needs of industry (mining and hunting for oil, for example), tourism (desert safaris and the problems and benefits associated), development of the deserts as the long planned “new valley” and, one sincerely hopes, heritage management.


Dr. Ahmed Nazif Prime Minister assigned eleven ministries including agriculture and land reclamation, tourism, trade and industry, housing and finance the mission of sorting out laws on dealing with the desert lands owned by the State and to propose a unified law on the use of desert land, in implementation of President Mubarak assignments for making the best use of those lands.

The assignments included the incorporation of similar laws and define the contradicting ones to avoid in the unified law.

The Prime Minister gave the end of this year as a deadline to have the unified law on desert lands according to the proposed funds.

Restrictions and new rules on travel to Gilf Kebir

August 5, 2010

Horizons Unlimited

There is a discussion on the above forum at the moment about travel restrictions and additional regulations for travel to the Gilf Kebir area. I know some of those participating in the conversation, and it looks as though the restrictions may be applied, so if you’re planning a trip to the area it may be worth investigating further.

Egypt’s new desert battle – landmines in the Western Desert

August 3, 2010

You Tube – Al Jazeera (Ayman Moyheldin)

I’ve posted about this before on my Egyptian Deserts blog, linking to several other stories. This is the area where the battle of el-Alamein was fought.

Video. 3.33 minutes.

An estimated 16 million landmines and unexploded munitions from World War II continue to maim thousands of local herders in the northern town of el-Alamein in Egypt.

The landmines pose not only a humanitarian hazard, but remain a huge obstacle to the economic development of Egypt’s coast which is believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves and potentially lucrative tourism destinations.

The Egyptian government says that de-mining the el-Alamein battlefields alone could cost $20 billon.

Al Jazeera’s Ayman Moyheldin reports.

A concise report on the expedition to the Gilf Kebir National Park

July 30, 2010

eiecop.org

PDF file. 63 pages with maps and some beautiful photographs.

Steps are being taken to make the Gilf Kebir a World Heritage site. The above report summarises the main findings and recommendations following an expedition to the area. It looks at archaeology (from the prehistoric period to WWII), flora and fauna and the damage caused by a number of different factors – including tourism.

Lake Qarun searched for antiquities

July 19, 2010

Yahoo! News

Egyptian experts have begun to explore the depths of Lake Qarun south of Cairo using remote sensing radars in search of sunken artefacts, antiquities officials told AFP on Wednesday.

Antiquities supremo Zahi Hawass said the work was launched a few days ago. “It is the first time ever that the antiquities department carries out an archaeological mission in Lake Qarun.”

Khaled Saeed, who heads the department of pre-historic affairs at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the team under his supervision hopes to pinpoint “huge basalt rocks” at the bottom of Lake Qarun.

According to Saeed, the discovery of the rocks was first made by Egyptian-American scientist Faruq al-Baz, a veteran of NASA’s Apollo programme, five years ago.

Baz, who now runs the Centre for Space Studies at Boston University, was carrying out a satellite survey of Egypt’s Western Desert when he and his team discovered in the Lake Qarun area “a large number of huge blocks of rock.”

“I believe that these huge slabs are made of basalt (volcanic rock) which were eventually moved upstream to the Giza plateau for the construction of the Great Pyramid,” Saeed said.

Teams of divers are examining a 10-kilometre (6.2 mile) long stretch of sea bed in Lake Qarun, Saeed added.

Also on Google / AFP.

Gebel Kamil Crater analysed

July 18, 2010

Ogle Earth

With photos.

Researchers scouring Google Earth for impact craters have discovered a new one in Egypt, National Geographic reports. Dubbed the Kamil Crater, it is small but very special, because it really is new, in geological terms — just a few thousand years old. So new, in fact, that the elements have not yet been able to erode the ejecta rays. On site, the researchers have been able to collect thousands of space rocks.

These findings were published just yesterday in the journal Science. The full text article requires a subscription, but the supporting online material does not. This material includes satellite images of the crater that contain coordinate information.

See above page for Google Earth photos and links to the Science article and the supporting material.

National Geographic

With photo.

A small impact crater discovered in the Egyptian desert could change estimates for impact hazards to our planet, according to a new study.

One of the best preserved craters yet found on Earth, the Kamil crater was initially discovered in February during a survey of satellite images on Google Earth. Researchers think the crater formed within the past couple thousand years.

The Italian-Egyptian team that found the crater in pictures recently visited and studied the 147-foot-wide (45-meter-wide), 52-foot-deep (16-meter-deep) hole. The team also collected thousands of pieces of the space rock that littered the surrounding desert.

Based on their calculations, the team thinks that a 4.2-foot-wide (1.3-meter-wide) solid iron meteor weighing 2,267 to 4,535 pounds (5,000 to 10,000 kilograms) smashed into the desert—nearly intact—at speeds exceeding 2.1 miles (3.5 kilometers) a second.

There are no hard numbers for how many meteors this size might currently be on a collision course with Earth, but scientists think the potential threats could be in the tens of thousands.

Current impact models state that iron meteors around this size and mass should break into smaller chunks before impact. (Related: “Comet ‘Shower’ Killed Ice Age Mammals?”)

Instead, the existence of the newfound crater implies that up to 35 percent of these iron giants may actually survive whole—and thus have greater destructive power.

Journal: Sahara, July 2010

July 13, 2010

Sahara

Contents of volume 21 (published July 2010), 240 pages, 459 black and white illustrations, 46 colour plates. Abstracts are available for the Papers.

Papers

Steven E. Sidebotham and Iwona Zych
Berenike: Archaeological fieldwork at a Ptolemaic-Roman port on the Red Sea coast of Egypt 2008-2010

Malika Hachid, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, Safia Agsous, Ali Amara, Lucile Beck, Frédérique Duquesnoy, Michel Grenet, Abdelkader Heddouche, Evelyne Kaltnecker, Norbert Mercier, Souhila Merzoug, Anita Quiles, Hocine Sahnoun, Hélène Valladas, Daniel Vigears, avec la collaboration de C. Gauthier et Frank Bassinot
Premiers résultats du projet algéro-français de datation directe et indirecte des images rupestres dans la Tasili-n-Ajjer

Savino di Lernia, Marina Gallinaro and Andrea Zerboni
UNESCO World Heritage Site vandalised. Report on damages to Acacus rock art (SW Libya)

Mohssine El Graoui, Youssef Bokbot, Högne Jungner et Susan Searight-Martinet
Datation radiocarbone sur des ossements mis au jour dans un tumulus à l’Adrar n’Zerzem, Oued Eç-çayad, région de Taghjijt (Sud marocain)

Alec Campbell and David Coulson
Big Hippo Site, Oued Afar, Algeria

Victoria Waldock
The Taleschout Hippos: An enigmatic site in the Messak Settafet, southwest Libya

Giancarlo Negro and Massimo Cammelli
The flint quarries of Wadi El Sheikh (Eastern Desert of Egypt)

Azhari Mustafa Sadig
Neolithic Settlement Patterns and Cultural Sequence of Nubia (Northern Sudan)

Alain Rodrigue
Le domaine rupestre de Taghjijt (Maroc)

Sections

Documenti rupestri / Documents of rock art / Documents rupestres

Aldo Boccazzi, Donatella Calati e Adriana Scarpa Falce
Tcherughé, un sito rappresentativo dell’arte rupestre pastorale del Tibesti orientale

Gianna Giannelli e Fabio Maestrucci
Cacciatori di elefanti: il riparo di Ihetsen (Tassili-n-Ajjer settentrionale, Algeria)

Bernard Fouilleux, Moussa Machar et Sarmi Machar
Quelques images inédites de la Tassili-n-Ajjer. Traits culturels de la population “Tête Ronde” : défenses de phacochères et bovidés masqués.

Bernard Fouilleux
Un animal énigmatique chez les «Têtes Rondes» (Tassili-n-Ajjer,Algérie)

Flavio Cambieri and Maria Emilia Peroschi
Report on new rock art sites in the area of Jebel Uweinat, Eastern Sahara

Victoria Waldock, Mohamed Ali Suliman and Pier Paolo Rossi
Horse, Hartebeest or Hybrid? A puzzling engraving in the Acacus

András Zboray and Mark Borda
Some recent results of the survey of Jebel Uweinat

Mark Borda
Observations concerning new rock art sites at Gebel Arkenu and comparisons with Uweinat

Documenti preistorici /Prehistoric documents /Documents préhistoriques

Jean-Pierre Duhard et Tamara Glazyrina
Statuette humaine en pierre dure provenant d’El Khatt (Mauritanie)

Alessandro Menardi Noguera, Paolo Carmignoto, Nicoletta Contavalli and Ettore Grugni
The stone lines of Upper Wadi Mashi (Gilf Kebir, Egypt)

Monumenti preislamici / Pre-Islamic Monuments / Monuments préislamiques

Maria Emilia Peroschi and Flavio Cambieri
Noteworthy stone structures and monoliths recently found in Wadi Abd el-Malik (Gilf Kebir, Egypt)

Mark Milburn
Three sojourns in the West Sahara

Scritture / Writings / Écritures

Werner Pichler
The Latino-Canarian rock inscriptions – a short review of the latest history of research and interpretation

Dibattiti / Debates / Débats

Tony Judd
“Lancer” petroglyphs at Egyptian temples and in the Eastern Desert

Jean-Loïc Le Quellec
Fac quod dico, non quod facio

Ahmed Achrati
Womanhood without the Bull: Venus of Laussel, Inanna, and the Lady of Tin Tilizaghen

Friedrich Berger
A Paradise off Rules? – A different view

The race to acquire meteorites

July 7, 2010

New Scientist (Laura Margottini)

THE bottle had gone and Mario Di Martino had a sick feeling that their secret was out. It was early 2010: he and his team were staring down into the Kamil crater in the Egyptian desert, miles from the nearest settlement.

Just a year before, Di Martino of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics in Turin, Italy, and colleagues had written their names on paper, placed it inside an empty bottle and thrown it into the crater. The reason? They were the first team to visit the site of a huge meteorite impact 5000 years ago. Few craters on Earth are so perfectly preserved. “We realised we were in front of a true rarity,” recalls Di Martino. The team’s analysis of the fragments they collected will appear in the 13 August issue of Science (see “Lunar crater here on Earth”).

Though the meteorites were still there, ominously the bottle had disappeared. “Unequivocally, somebody had entered the site,” says Di Martino. A few months later, samples of the Gebel Kamil meteorite – its official name – began to turn up at a market in France and online. The team was dismayed: the fragments disappearing into private hands meant vital information, such as the size of the meteorite that carved the crater, would be lost forever.

It is not the first time science has lost out to the burgeoning global trade in meteorites, which stretches from the bustling souks of Morocco to eBay. Meteorite researchers are racing private buyers to buy up these rare space rocks, and even helping dealers to identify fragments in exchange for samples. Yet participating in the trade helps to fuel it, and a small proportion of the meteorites for sale may have been snatched illegally from their country of origin. Should scientists collaborate with space rock vendors?

The global trade in meteorites has escalated in the last 20 years, largely because amateur hunters in North Africa have cottoned on to the fact that the rocks are there for the taking, because they are clearly visible on the bare desert surface (see map).

New Book: Bi’r Minayh

June 16, 2010

Budapest, Úri utca 49 * H-1250 Budapest, Pf. 41.
Telefax: (+361) 3758939;
e-mail: fruzsi@archaeolingua.hu
www.archaeolingua.hu

Ulrich Luft ed.
BI’R MINAYH, Report on the Survey 1998–2004
ISBN 978-963- 9911-11-6

It is the first time that one particular site in the Eastern Desert has been published to the full extent. This approach, that requires high skills and an affinity for details, has been opted for with the purpose to avoid that possible correlations went unrecognized, as it might happen in publications divided into a range of separate studies, each focusing on one specific subject exclusively. By applying the method of full archaeological reports, this present volume was aimed at contributing to a better understanding of the complex archaeology of the Egyptian Eastern Desert. The joint expedition of the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest and the Budapest University of Technology and Economics was a fieldwork project of interdisciplinary character, thus the multiplicity of approaches necessitated the restating of the expedition’s main objectives and prevented the authors from putting forward unfounded and highbrow ideas.

Preface by ULRICH LUFT; 1. Introduction by ULRICH LUFT;
2. Geology of Bi’r Minayh region by BÉLA KLEB and ÁKOS TÖRÖK;
3. Surveying and mapping at Bi’r Minayh by LÁSZLÓ SZŰCS and ÁKOS GREGORI;
4. Prehistoric finds;
4.1. Introduction by TIBOR MARTON and JÓZSEF DANYI;
4.2. Catalogue by TIBOR MARTON and JÓZSEF DANYI;
5. Petroglyphs;
5.1. Introduction by ULRICH LUFT;
5.2. Catalogue by MÁRTON ATTILA FARKAS and ZOLTÁN HORVÁTH;
6. Inscriptions;
6.1. Introduction by ULRICH LUFT; Catalogue by ADRIENN ALMÁSY and ENIKŐ KISS;
6.3. Greek dockets by ADRIENN ALMÁSY;
7. Architectural remains;
7.1. Introduction by ZSOLT VASÁROS;
7.2. Catalogue of the buildings by ZSOLT VASÁROS;
7.3. Test excavation at the site by GÁBOR LASSÁNYI;
7.4. Cemetery;
7.4.1. The cemetery architectural report by ZSOLT VASÁROS;
7.4.2. Burials by GÁBOR LASSÁNYI;
8. Small finds;
8.1. Pottery by GÁBOR LASSÁNYI;
8.2. Catalogue by GÁBOR LASSÁNYI;
8.3. Beads by BORI NÉMETH;
8.4. Various small finds by GÁBOR LASSÁNYI;
Indices; Corpus of tribal marks by ADRIENN ALMÁSY;
Index of petroglyphs by ADRIENN ALMÁSY;
Index of inscriptions by ENIKŐ KISS;
Reference works; Contributors; Colour Plates; Maps in folder; Archaeological site map, del. LÁSZLÓ SZŰCS and ÁKOS GREGORI; Architectural site map, del. ZSOLT VASÁROS;
Panorama of Field E, del. ZSOLT VASÁROS; Panorama of Field R, del. ZSOLT VASÁROS

Language: English, 2010., 340 pp. with illustrations, ISBN 978-963- 9911-11-6
Price € 116

Online: Bir Abu Safa, Eastern Desert

June 13, 2010

New York University

A Water Temple at Bir Abu Safa (Eastern Desert)
By Steve E. Sidebotham, Gabriel T. Mikhail, James A. Harrell and Roger S. Bagnall.
JARCE XLI 2004

I found this, as usual, whilst looking for something else. This paper about a very unusual rock-carved temple in the southern Eastern Desert (very broadly on a level with Aswan, in a wadi linking to the Red Sea coast).

Colloquium Notes: The Signs of Which Times?

June 9, 2010

Colloquium notes: The Signs of Which Times?



The Signs of Which Times? Chronological and Palaeoenvironmental Issues in the Rock Art of Northern Africa
Palais des Academies, Rue Ducale, Brussels
3rd, 4th and 5th June 2010
Colloquium introduction by Dirk Huyge and Francis Van Noten
Colloquium programme
Colloquium abstracts

Apologies that these notes haven’t been posted sooner but I wanted to add some links for those who weren’t familiar with the speakers or subjects. Unfortunately I haven’t added as many links as I would have liked but I wanted to post these notes in a timely manner.

Introduction

The Signs of Which Times was organized by Dirk Huyge and Francis Van Noten under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences. Its scope, the rock art of the entire Saharan region, attracted a mixture of some of the most illustrious names in rock art research together with those who have just completed or are just completing their research at post-graduate level.

As its name implies, the colloquium was intended to address the issues of chronology and environment in rock art studies. It is perhaps worth stating my own reasons for attending the colloquium. Although rock art is not one of my primary interests I would very much like to use it as a dataset integrated with other archaeological datasets because rock art is present in several of my research regions, an ambition which is fairly impossible at the moment (due to lack of absolute dates with which it can be tied into other archaeological data). I am also seriously interested in how research into localized manifestations of climate change, in the form of geographically discrete environmental conditions, would open up an understanding of when and how people would have been able to move through and use the Saharan landscape.

Around one third of the papers were in French, as were the following discussions. As speakers were allocated 15 minutes rather than the usual 20 minutes many decided to ensure delivery of all the information by speaking very quickly – I was fine when this was done in English but struggled hopelessly with machine-gun French, because my French is terribly rusty. Fortunately most of the other delegates were either bi-lingual or impressively multi-lingual so I was in a small and somewhat irrelevant minority. Moral of the story: if you want to engage in North African rock art studies either as a serious research topic or as a serious hobby you really need to speak French, which is probably the lingua franca of rock art in North Africa. This is absolutely not a complaint. It is, however, very important to take note of the obvious caveat that my following review is a somewhat lopsided one. I am making generalizations about a colloquium in which there were some lectures where I only had a superficial understanding of the main points of the presentation.

If anyone who attended wants to make any corrections please feel free!

Much of the research presented was preliminary, and as a formal Proceedings of the colloquium is planned I have not given any detailed summaries of the papers presented. The following is an overview of some of the themes and trends revealed by the colloquium. I will give details of the Proceedings and when its publication is planned when I know more myself.

Conference Overview

Each paper was allocated 15 minutes, and at the end of each session there was a half hour discussion period which was well used.

The colloquium was opened by Paul Bahn who discussed the history of rock art studies in north Africa, and raised the problem of modern vandalism to rock art sites. Although there are some big names in north African rock art they tend to be known mainly amongst other north African archaeologists. Paul Bahn is something of a poster boy for rock art so his opening address was a good way of reinforcing the profile of Saharan rock art research.

If I could go back in time and add a wish list item to the introductory lectures, I think that I would have found it of considerable use to have had a summary of the current state of rock art research in North Africa, as a logical follow-on to Paul Bahn’s lecture. There have been many suggested and detailed chronologies for rock art sequences in the Sahara and it would have been good to have had these in the back of the mind for contextual purposes. It has to be said, of course, that everyone else at the colloquium was probably already fully aware of these!

There were, as at all conferences, strong papers, weaker papers and four no-shows including Savino di Lernia, Selima Ikram, Ahmed Skounti and John Darnell (Darnell’s and Skounti ‘s PowerPoint’s were presented by others who were also presenting their own research). I was particularly sad that Di Lernia was absent because his paper had the potential of uniting some of the more disparate data, and I have read so many of his papers that it would have been good to hear him in person.

The main approaches in the papers presented focused on the creation of relative chronological sequences of rock art, of which there were six methods discussed: superimposition, animal types, (e.g. savanna or domesticated), human activities (e.g. hunting or herding), patination/varnish, stylistic composition and weathering. Nearby archaeological remains were also referenced. The value of micro-erosion techniques was discussed but was largely rejected as a valid method. In other words, many of the presentations were concerned with identifying reliable ways of putting different rock art scenes in relative sequences using one or more techniques. The resulting sequences are relative, meaning that they suggest which styles are older than others but cannot fit them into a calendrical (absolute) sequence. It is the inability of rock art research to date rock art which isolates it so thoroughly from other datasets and keeps it at a stage which is almost equivalent to the culture-history approach of the 1950s and 1960s where, in the absence of scientific dating methods, archaeology was dedicated to the building and, where possible, the cross-referencing of relative sequences. When radiocarbon dating was invented, and calibrated using tree ring data, it became clear many sequences were too short or too long, and were often placed in the wrong periods as a result for the belief that ideas diffused from more advanced cultures. It may well be found that rock art chronologies will experience similar revisions in the future. Unfortunately, most of the rock art regions being discussed at the colloquium were too far apart from each other for conversations about cross-referencing of sequences to be possible.

Susan Searight’s short presentation highlighted many of the problems with relative dating techniques, but there were many promising approaches presented over the three days. Examples of presentations looking at local relative sequences include Maria Guagnin’s use of patination and palaeolake data in Libya, Andras Zboray‘s use of superimposition and weathering in the southwest Western Desert of Egypt, Joachim Soler i Subils’s presentation about new work in the western Sahara (click here for an earlier paper), Per Storemyr‘s use of varnish to assess geometric rock art in the region of the First Nile Cataract, Lauren Lippiello and Maria Gatto’s use of style, patination, palaeoclimate and superimposition at Khor Abu Subeira South (Aswan) and Francis Lankester’s use of stylistic comparisons with Nile iconography to develop a chronolgy of boat engravings in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. As a result of many of these presentations it seems clear that the value of varnish/patina as a way of dating rock art is highly variable and completely dependent upon localized conditions. Where used it is clear that a very sound research design is required. Dirk Huyge, Heiko Riemer and Karin Kindermann all made use of surrounding archaeological data (pottery and lithics) to attempt to refine dates for nearby rock art. The strongest proposals were those where a number of different types of method were available to the researcher.

As well as relative sequences the potential value of scientific applications to the dating problem were discussed. Dirk Huyge presented the results of luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating on rock art at Qurta. Qurta has lovely naturalistic rock art sometimes picked out in bas relief – you can read about it and see some of the images here and here. The main technique used, luminescence dating, measures the time when light last reached a deposit. The technique was used on the sediments sealing engraved rock art which had been concealed by hill-slope deposits. The dates from the layers beneath the upper deposits span a period which gives a terminus ante quem (time before which) for the rock art. Although the dates span a wide period for each of the sealed layers tested they area all squarely located in the Pleistocene (late Palaeolithic) and possibly at least 15,000 years old. The results seem to be confirmed by radiocarbon dates taken on microfaunal remains from another engraving at the same levels from which the OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) dates were taken. They confirm again the Pleistocene age of the rock art. The circumstantial arguments that the team advanced in their Antiquity article are therefore now supplemented with real proof. These dates are also consistent with the surrounding archaeology which has produced no artefacts more recent than the Palaeolithic, and the art itself which shows animals which were more consistent with Pleistocene rather than Holocene conditions. There were no challenges to either the techniques employed or the dates themselves, in spite of the presence of the team’s OSL specialist who was on hand to answer any questions. Susan Searight says that scientific dating is soon to be tested on a rock art panel in Morocco. Sadly, Joachim Soler i Subils reported that radiocarbon tests in the western Sahara were unsuccessful.

One of the key strengths of the colloquium, which was the sheer vastness of its geographical scope, was also a minor difficulty common to most gatherings of this type. The work being carried out across the Sahara has very different histories. Some areas have been studied for many decades, whilst others are in the very earliest stages of exploration. Some areas have, as Susan Searight put it, good archaeological data with no rock art whilst others have good rock art data with very little archaeological excavation in the vicinity. Some sites were in the western Sahara, some in Libya, others in Egypt, all of which have very different climatic, geological and geomorphological influences at play. An excellent summary of eastern Saharan climatic and environmental conditions by Stefan Kroepelin was unmatched by anything equivalent for central and western regions. There were only two lectures which attempted to define similarities and differences over broad areas of the Sahara to address the idea of possible linkages amongst groups who could have moved over 100s of kilometres. Most of the research presented was, as you would expect, very localized. This was inevitable but it also highlighted how fragmented the state of knowledge about the use of the Sahara by the rock art painters actually is.

Much of the colloquium was devoted to presenting new field work findings, and these papers were truly fascinating. I was particularly struck by the uphill struggle facing the Universitat de Girona team in the western Sahara. Not only is their rock art quite unlike that of any other project’s, but the lithic assemblages retrieved in the vicinity don’t fit into any existing scheme. This really is life on the starting blocks. At the other end of the scale the work in the Gilf Kebir has been going on for decades but new discoveries have now been made by the ACACIA group in the vicinity of the Wadi Sura, and by Andras Zboray throughout that area and are being slotted into the bigger existing framework of knowledge about the region.

The colloquium was less useful on the subject of delivering new information about the past environment. Most of the speakers were using palaeoenvironment as a way to assist with dating. There were few examples where the environment was the main subject against which the rock art was set. As mentioned above, Stefan Kroepelin’s excellent presentation on eastern Saharan climate and environment was an exception, providing a good overview of the environmental conditions based partly on a palaeolake sequence from Wadi Bakht in the Gilf Kebir (south west Egypt), and promising new and very detailed results from lake cores from Ounianga (Chad) in the future. I was hoping that the colloquium would attract other climate specialists working with archaeologists so that the latest palaeoenvironmental research from other areas of the Sahara could be discussed, but these were lacking which was a real shame. Di Lernia has done a considerable amount of work trying to tie in archaeology with environmental change so it was a particular regret that he failed to attend. Andrea Zerboni’s presentation of research taking place in the Tadrat Acacus and Messak Settafet (Libyan central Sahara) explained how geological and environmental data are being used together to improve an understanding of Holocene climate change and how these are being used for dating. I would have been interested to hear much more about the lake data. Hopefully more information about this piece of work will be revealed in the Proceedings.

Apart from Tilman Lenssen-Erz‘s paper looking at art production as epistemic regulation in a sociological system in Ennedi using costly signalling theory, Stan Hendrickx’s discussion of Early Dynastic iconography and John Darnell’s suggested sequence of development from art through iconography to hieroglyphs there was little attempt to interpret any of the rock art discussed. This is completely in keeping with the scope of the colloquium which did not have interpretation in its brief.

One of the horror stories revealed by a number of presentations at the colloquium, highlighted by Paul Bahn in the opening lecture and later reinforced dramatically by other members of the colloquium, was the amount of deliberate damage to rock art sites that has been inflicted. This raised the important issue of the conflicting interests of conservation and risk management whilst allowing the public to have access to the sites. The examples presented by Paul Bahn of rock art which has been painted out by someone as revenge for being fired by a tour company, and by Stan Hendrickx of the deliberate destruction of the Naq el Hamdulab royal scene made people gasp out loud. Fortunately photographs taken by Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habachi (whose biography I am currently reading) and stored in Chicago House in Luxor have recorded the Naq el Hamdula scenes. This highlights how important it is to record rock art before either accidental or deliberate damage occurs.

In the light of this it was particularly good that several presentations looked at ways in which rock art is being recorded for posterity using a number of different techniques. For example, Frank Forster’s presentation of the work being carried out at the Mestekawi-Foggini cave (which the ACACIA team refer to as Wadi Sura II) uses 3D laser scanning, digital photogrammetry, and non-destructive investigation of pigments as part of a series of techniques used to record the cave. At Hierakonpolis the threat of quarrying, graffiti and vandalism has made recording existing rock art important, and Fred Hardtke presented his work in this field, using a portable set up involving a camera on an extendable pole linked to a laptop to enable out -of-reach rock art to be photographed.

I was immensely impressed with the way in which different teams are willing to work together. This was particularly highlighted when discussions on the south-western area of the Western Desert of Egypt came up (four of the papers). Heiko Riemer and Andras Zboray referred to each other’s work, and Andras Zboray and Stefan Kroepelin operated an accomplished double-act when answering questions about the environmental context of Zboray’s proposed chronology. The enthusiasm, mutual respect and humour which came over during these discussions made the bad old days of academic one-upmanship seem offensively sterile by comparison. It was also good to get a sense of team members working together. In Algerian rock art research three members of the CNRPAH team delivered a paper together and two Dirk Huyge’s Qurta team were on hand to ask questions about luminescence dating and fauna. Although the cost of traveling to foreign venues is naturally prohibitive these two cases illustrated the value of having multiple team members on hand to contribute to papers and discussions. The half hour coffee breaks and the hour and a half lunch breaks gave everyone the opportunity to mingle and to discuss both their own research interests and those of others. British politicians could learn so much from this :-)

Conclusion

Every researcher, in contributing localized sequences right across the Sahara, provided more pieces of a vast puzzle.

Only when the chronological and environmental sequences are aligned will researchers begin to see trends across the Sahara in chronological terms. And only when more detailed palaeoenvironmental studies are carried out will the prehistoric occupation of the Sahara be understood in terms of its natural context. It probably remains for innovations in scientific dating techniques to develop reliable methods for tying in rock art with the much greater corpus of archaeological data which can be tied into a calendrical rather than relative sequence.

The colloquium was a great opportunity for multiple research teams and individual researchers to come together and discuss both specific problems and general ideas and issues. The formal discussion periods and the informal breaks offered great opportunities for these discussions to flourish, and my impression was that this was of immense value to those attending.

I learned an enormous amount and look forward to the publication of the Proceedings. Speedy publication will depend on the ability of contributors to submit their papers in a timely manner, but hopefully there will be an update about a planned publication date before too long.

My thanks

My thanks to Dirk Huyge, Francis Van Noten and the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences for the colloquium as a whole.

The moderators of each session should be congratulated for keeping everyone to their allotted 15 minute slots (a nightmare job done with subtlety, skill and humour).

Particular thanks to all of the contributors for keeping the audience so thoroughly engaged with each topic, and for having worked so hard to present their research so concisely.

Gilf Kebir

This is slightly off topic, but it was mentioned at the colloquium that Karin Kinderman (she of Djara cave for those of you who follow prehistoric archaeology in Egypt) is now heading up a Gilf Kebir National Park project. It was the first official news I had heard that the Gilf was going to become a national park and I have absolutely no other information on the subject. I will try to find out more, so watch this space.

For those of you have visited the Mestekawi-Foggini cave and wondered how far the paintings go beneath the level of the sand (as I have done many times!) the answer, following excavations, is 1.2m below the surface. Unfortunately a small trial excavation and a core sunk into the sand down to 3.5m revealed no archaeological remains.

Venue

The venue was ideal in many ways. The Palais des Academies itself was being renovated but signs directed delegates to the building next door where a room had been filled with chairs and where a large projector screen and a podium had been set up. The weather in Brussels was seethingly hot, and although the room became rather sticky towards the end of the final sessions, it never became unbearable and it easily fitted the number of delegates available – around 100 of us, I would guess. A vast and airy hall was used to serve hot and cold drinks and wonderful lunches. The entire event went without either technical or organizational hitches. As the weather was stunningly good and the building was next to the pretty Parc de Bruxelles complete with wooded areas, open grass and fountains, it was great to be able to stretch the legs and soak up the sun on breaks.

Travel Notes

It was a distinct bonus that the colloquium was on the route of the Eurostar. The Eurostar lacks frills and, during school Half Term in the UK, was full of families changing at Lille to go to Disneyland and Paris. But it knocked the socks off chewing one’s fingernails over volcanoes and strikes and messing around with getting to an airport, hanging around prior to and following check in, and removing half one’s clothing at the security checks – all for a ridiculously short flight. The train from St Pancras (easily accessible by tube and bus from anywhere in London) took 2 hours and whilst seriously lacking anything remotely resembling finesse it was completely fuss-free. NB – if you travel by Eurostar from St Pancras get your money before you go through passport control because there is no Bureau de Change in the departure lounge. We took a taxi when we arrived in Bruxelles Midi but with hindsight we could have taken the tube because it was only four stops from our hotel, the inexpensive but excellent Hotel Chambord at Porte De Namur, which was a five minute walk from the colloquium venue.

Two examples of ostrich with head, neck, legs and tail but no body,
something which was discussed at the colloquium. One of the
suggestions was that the body had been defined with
material other than paint – for example with feathers
fixed into the space. There’s no way of testing this at
the moment but it is a fascinating thought. Click to see
the bigger image (Mestekawi-Foggini / Wadi Sura II cave).

More useful links

ACACIA Arid Climate Adaptation and Cultural Innovation in Africa
Bradshaw Foundation
Carlo Bergmann’s Discoveries
Climate Research Unit
Fezzan Rock Art Project
IFRAO Rock Art Glossary
International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO)
International Newsletter on Rock Art
Libyan Desert Rock Art
Nekhen News (Hierakonpolis)
Rock inscriptions at El Hosh, Egypt
Sahara Journal
Stonewatch World-Wide Rock Art
Tassili n’Ajjer
Theban Desert Road Project
UNE -Dating Rock Art

[The photographs used in this post are mine,
apart from the satellite photograph.
All rock art photos are from western Gilf Kebir]

Online interview with Fred Wendorf

June 6, 2010

The Archaeology Channel

Dr. Fred Wendorf came of age and began his career during a formative period in American archaeology. But after leaving his permanent mark on the development of archaeology in the American Southwest and the United States, he essentially founded the study of the prehistoric eastern Sahara, beginning with the Aswan Dam Project in the Nile River Valley. His life, nearly ended by a bullet on a WWII battlefield in Italy, has included an archaeological research career spanning six decades and an unsurpassed record of seminal contributions. His recently published book, Desert Days: My Life as a Field Archaeologist, is a record not only of a life, but of an epoch in the history of archaeology on two continents. This is history he not just witnessed, but to a significant degree he created it through his innovative approaches and endless energy, which should serve as an inspiration to subsequent generations of archaeologists.

Dr. Richard Pettigrew of ALI interviewed Dr. Wendorf for The Archaeology Channel on two separate occasions, first in person at the Society for American Archaeology Conference in Atlanta on April 24, 2009, and then over the telephone on June 9, 2009. Guided by Dr. Wendorf’s book, this interview covers a wide array of topics, including his role in the creation of the first truly large contract archaeology projects in the United States, his momentous and very fruitful decision to launch a field expedition in the Nile River Valley against the wishes and advice of others, and the contributions of his research toward the understanding of human cultural development. Personal anecdotes combine with long considered assessments to paint a genuine picture of his life and career and the era they have spanned.

New rock art research at Gilf Kebir

May 26, 2010

Reuters

Archaeologists are studying prehistoric rock drawings discovered in a remote cave in 2002, including dancing figures and strange headless beasts, as they seek new clues about the rise of Egyptian civilisation.

Amateur explorers stumbled across the cave, which includes 5,000 images painted or engraved into stone, in the vast, empty desert near Egypt’s southwest border with Libya and Sudan.

Rudolph Kuper, a German archaeologist, said the detail depicted in the “Cave of the Beasts” indicate the site is at least 8,000 years old, likely the work of hunter-gatherers whose descendants may have been among the early settlers of the then-swampy and inhospitable Nile Valley.

The cave is 10 km (6 miles) from the “Cave of the Swimmers” romanticised in the film the “English Patient”, but with far more, and better preserved, images.

By studying the sandstone cave and other nearby sites, the archaeologists are trying to build a timeline to compare the culture and technologies of the peoples who inhabited the area.

Heritage Key (Sean Williams)

Prehistoric cave painters in the Sahara Desert gave rise to ancient Egyptian civilisation, according to a German archaeological team. The paintings in a caves in Gilf Kebir, a vast sandstone plateau near the Egyptian-Libyan border, may be over 400 miles from the River Nile. But the team claims it was once a thriving community which later spread east to create Egypt’s famous cities and landmarks.

The plateau, a Martian landscape the size of Switzerland, is home to two famous caves, the ‘Cave of the Swimmers’ and the ‘Cave of the Beasts’ – Watch our amazing video of the caves and their paintings here. The former was discovered by Hungarian explorer László Almásy and immortalised in the novel and Academy Award-winning movie The English Patient. But it is the latter which the team believe could unlock the secrets of how ancient Egypt began.

Rudolf Kuper, of Köln’s Heinrich Barth Institute, believes the Cave of the Beasts’ detail dates it back around 8,000 years. He claims its artists’ descendents would eventually emigrate to the Nile Valley to create pharaonic Egypt. “It is the most amazing cave … in North Africa and Egypt,” German expert Karin Kindermann tells AP. “You take a piece of the puzzle and see where it could fit. This is an important piece.”

Eastern Desert dung

April 26, 2010

The Journal of Arid Environments has an upcoming article in its July 2010 edition about the important Sodmein Cave and Tree Shelter sits in Egypt’s Eastern Desert.  The Abstract of the article indicates that the article is an overview of the article for ovicaprids from the two sites – the earliest evidence for domesticated sheep and goat in Egypt.

The article is:  Sites with Holocene dung deposits in the Eastern Desert of Egypt: Visited by herders? by V. Linseele, E. Marinova, W. Van Neer,   and P.M. Vermeersch.

It is available for purchase at the above address.

Desert kites – 2400 year old animal traps in Sinai

April 26, 2010

There is an interesting item on the Discovery News website which suggests that extensive systems of low walls in the eastern Sinai were traps for wild herds of ungulates, particularly gazelle, ibex and wild ass.   The full details will be reported in a paper which will appear in the July 2010 editon of the Journal of Arid Environments.

The walls are thought to form barriers to the herds which funneled them into corners where they could be trapped and killed.   The so-called “desert kites” are thought to be between 2500 and 2400 years old.   The news story is not clear about the evidence which has led researchers to this conclusion, but contributing factors seem to be the relationship of the desert kites to pastures and migration routes.  According to the authors of the paper  many seem to have fallen out of use during the Middle Bronze Age in the southern Negev.

The paper, entitled Desert kites in the Negev desert and northeast Sinai: Their function, chronology and ecology (pages 806-817), is by A. Holzer, U. Avner, N. Porat, L.K. Horwitz.  It is available for purchase at the Journal’s website, and there is an Abstract and Article Outline available.

Neolithic tombs in southern Sinai

April 25, 2010

The upcoming July 2010 edition of the Journal of Arid Environments includes the article  Neolithic tombs in southwestern Sinai by A.E. Close and T. Minichillo.  It looks at a group of previously unknown tombs in the southern area of the plain of Qa’a, which are thought to date to around 7000bp and describes in detail a particularly elaborate tombs which included prestige goods including  flaked stone items, stone beads and turquoise.

The article is available for purchase online at the above page.

Photographs of Wadi Hammamat by Su Bayfield

April 24, 2010

Su Bayfield has posted a number of photographs of inscriptions and views of the Wadi Hammamat on Flickr.

The Wadi Hammamat is a fabulous canvas of inscriptions from the prehistoric period onwards. From the prehistoric period there are images of hunting and herding. Later images, thought from similar ties to Naqada pottery to be Predynastic, include elaborate boats and figures. Pharaonic inscriptions include commemorative texts by the overseers of quarrying work and by those traveling along the route from the Nile to the Red Sea. In modern times Bedouin still leave tribal marks. The engravings stand out so well because a dark patina overlies a much lighter rock. When the patina is pierced the lighter rock stands out clearly against the dark brown surface.

Su’s photos capture a bit of everything – as well as the rock carvings (including one of my favourites, showing Thoth in his baboon form) and demotic and Greek inscriptions, she has shown the abandoned sarcophagus which had been carved in situ. Anyone who has been bored to the point of madness by my Western Desert photos, all golds and oranges, will be struck by the steely grey of the high desert of the Red Sea Hills.

There are two modern survey works dealing with the Eastern Desert petroglyphs, both out of print, and a very recent publication by Tony Judd – Rock Art of the Eastern Desert of Egypt Content, Comparisons, Dating and Significance (British Archaeological Reports International Series – BARI S2008). The book is based on Tony’s PhD.

Su’s Egyptian Monuments site is a great resource it is always good to see her adding more photographs of Egypt, wherever she stores them.

New Book: Swimmers in the Sand

April 22, 2010

From Miroslav Bárta

Swimmers in the Sand. On the Neolithic Origins of Ancient Egyptian Mythology and Symbolism

ISBN 978-80-87025-26-0, 112 pages
Publisher: Dryada: Prague
Publication date: April 2010
Author: Miroslav Bárta, photographs Martin Frouz

I couldn’t find this on any of the usual online retailers but perhaps it is not available just yet. I for one am interested in getting hold of this title so if anyone finds it available online please let me know.

The origins of ancient Egyptian civilisation have been attracting the attention of archaeologist ever since the beginnings of Egyptology more than 200 years ago. This book presents a new and original interpretation of the rock art in Egyptian Western Desert which is of a key importance for our understanding of the roots of ancient Egyptian civilisation. Indeed, her very origins can be most likely dated to the 6th millennium B.C. In this time and the centuries to follow the paintings in the Cave of the Swimmers known from a blockbuster English Patient and in the Cave of Beasts discovered only few years ago were created. These caves are located in a distant and hardly accessible part of Egypt, on the border of Egypt, Libya and Sudan.

The rock-art preserved in these caves features several unique motifs that will become cornerstone of ancient Egyptian iconography and mythology. Among them may be named the motif of the sky goddess and the earth god, prototypic representation of an ancient chieftain in the much later pharaonic guise or the concept of cave creatures protecting the entrance to the Netherworld.

During the Fifth and Fourth millennia B.C. the vast areas of Western Desert suffered from a major depredation of climate that most likely caused a gradual evacuation of the region and instigated appearance of permanent settlements in the Nile valley which led to genesis of ancient Egyptian culture. The present study aims to present a theory according to which at least some parts of the discussed rock art in the Western Desert was created by an ancient mind that later on contributed to the intellectual emergence of ancient Egyptian civilisation in the Nile valley.


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