Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 June 2007
Issue No. 849
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lascaux on the Nile

Palaeolithic rock art depicting animal illustrations similar to those found in the Lascaux caves in France have been discovered in the Upper Egyptian town of Kom Ombo, reports Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
One of the newly discovered rocks featuring three bovids with horns

The discovery of huge rocks decorated with Palaeolithic illustrations at the village of Qurta on the northern edge of Kom Ombo has caused excitement among the scientific community. The art was found by a team of Belgian archaeologists and restorers and features groups of cattle similar to those drawn on the walls of the French Lascaux caves. They are drawn and painted in a naturalistic style which is quite different from those shown in cattle representations of the well-known classical, pre-dynastic iconography of the fourth millennium BC. Illustrations of hippopotami, fish, birds and human figures can also be seen on the surface of some of the rocks.

The first examination of the patination and weathering suggests that these bovid representations are extremely old, most probably predating the fish-trap representations and associated rock scenes previously found at several locations in the Al-Hosh area. They are also similar to cattle representations discovered in 1962-63 by a Canadian archaeological mission as part of an attempt to reserve land for habitation and cultivation by Nubians who had been displaced from their homes by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The Belgian mission relocated the rock in 2004 to the area near the modern village of Qurta. This newly-discovered site is still in pristine condition since they have not been visited by archaeologists since the Canadian team in 1963.

"This is a very important discovery and sheds more light on human life and history during the Palaeolithic era, a lesser recognised period in Egypt," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said. He described it as an important revelation on Egypt's Stone Age heritage.

The story of the discovery began two months ago when a Belgian archaeological mission from the Royal Museum of Art and History, financed by Yale University, resumed its intensive archaeological survey on the Nubian-sandstone cliffs at Qurta. While carrying out their routine survey, excavators stumbled upon three rock art sites spreading over a distance of about two kilometres on the eastern side of Qurta. Entitled Qurta I, II and III, each site contains several prehistoric rocks bearing a rich collection of Palaeolithic illustrations featuring a large number of bovids, hippopotami, birds and human figures.

Although they are very well painted, the large amount of rock art and the extremely difficult recording conditions have meant the restorers have had to install scaffolding at several locations in an attempt to maintain them for documentation. So far 20 of the 30 panel illustrations have been photographed and archaeologically documented, while the remaining 10 will be subjected to documentation during the mission's next archaeological season in 2008.

Limited excavation was carried out at Qurta I but, regretfully, it did not reveal any more information about the people who created the art, and when they did so.

Bovids are the most common animals depicted in the illustrations, with at least 111 representations in different positions. Of other animals there are seven examples of birds, three hippopotami, three gazelles and two fish. There are also 10 highly stylised human figures shown with pronounced buttocks, but with no other distinct bodily features.

All the rock art images are very darkly coloured and seem to be covered by a substantially developed varnish. Most of the images also have traces of intensive weathering through Aeolian abrasion and water run-off.

"In this respect, the rock art at Qurta is highly homogeneous," said Belgian archaeologist Dirk Huyge, the team leader. Although there were numerous superimpositions of images, the art seemed to have been produced in a single phase.

"None of the painted animals shows any evidence of domestication, and there is little doubt that the bovid should be identified as bos primigenius or aurochs (wild cattle)," Huyge said. "Although these bovids are rather short-horned, there is archaeozoological evidence to support this suggestion." He said that, moreover, the Late Pleistocene faunal representations on the Kom Ombo plain highlighted that the Egyptian species of bos primigenius had relatively smaller horns than the European, but was otherwise of about the same body size.

Huyge pointed out that animals drown on rocks were individual images rather than collective except for a very few, such as the art featuring two bovids standing opposite one another and a fresco of three flying birds.

Early studies on the rock art illustrations revealed that, unlike those of the pre-dynastic period, especially those of the fourth millennium BC, they do not have imaginary ground lines. On the contrary they were drawn in all possible directions. Quite often the heads are represented either upwards or downwards as if they were in movement.

In his archaeological report, a copy of which Al-Ahram Weekly has received, Huyge described the characteristic of the newly-discovered illustrations. He writes that, from a technical point of view, prehistoric men used a special artistic technique of art to engrave and paint their rock images. They hammered and incised the solid surface to transform it into a fine animal, a bird or a scene from the nature around them. In some cases the figures are executed almost in bas-relief, such as the one showing a large bovid found in Qurta II and a fresco of birds which combined three images. "It is really a superb example among the rock art ever found," Huyge commented.

The dimensions of the Qurta images are exceptional. Often the prehistoric bovid stood taller than 0.8 metres, and the largest example ever found measured over 1.8 metres. In this respect the Qurta rock art is quite different in that the size of each animal figure varies by 0.4 to 0.5 metres.

The prehistoric artist or artists at Qurta made use of natural fissures, cracks, curves, arches and brows of the rocks, and integrated them into the art images. A perfect example of this is a rock panel found at Qurta II, where a natural vertical crack was used to render the back part of a bovid. Huyge points out that bovid drawings were deliberately left incomplete. Some had missing legs, tail or horns, while others had numerous scratches over their heads and necks,

Some of Qurta's bovid images are combined with highly schematised human figures similar to those known from the Magdalenian cultural phase of Palaeolithic Europe.

"This must evidently have had a kind of symbolical meaning," Huyge suggests.

"The Qurta rock art is quite unlike any rock art known elsewhere in Egypt," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says. He adds that it is substantially different from the ubiquitous "classical" pre-dynastic rock art of the fourth millennium BC, known from hundreds of sites throughout the Nile Valley and the adjacent Eastern and Western deserts. The only true parallel thus far known is the rock art previously discovered in 2004 at Abu Tanqura Bahari at Al-Hosh, about 10 kilometres to the north and on the opposite bank of the river.

In 1962 and 1963, the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition started an intensive excavation project in the area around Kom Ombo to rescue as many as possible of the prehistoric remains in the area. Several Late Palaeolithic settlements were found in the vicinity of the recently discovered rock art sites, the most important of which is GS-III, situated at a distance of only 150 to 200 metres from the Qurta I rock art site. At this Palaeolithic site, sandstone fragments were found on which were incised several deep parallel linear grooves. "Such discovery proved that the Late Palaeolithic inhabitants of the Kom Ombo plain practised the technique of incising sandstone to implement their drawings," Hawass concludes.

Mohamed El-Beyali, head of Aswan antiquities, says the GS-III site and similar sites found by the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition and other missions on the Kom Ombo plain in the early 1960s were attributed to the Ballanan-Silsilian culture. Other occurrences of this culture are known from Wadi Halfa in Sudanese Nubia and from the vicinity of Esna (E71-K20) and Nage' Hammadi (Arab Al-Sahaba). The Ballanan-Silsilian culture is dated to about 16,000 to 15,000 years ago. This corresponds climatologically to the end of a hyper-arid period, preceding a return of the rains and the "Wild Nile" stage of about 14,000-13,000 years ago.

The fauna of these Ballanan-Silsilian and other Late Palaeolithic sites on the Kom Ombo plain suggest a culture of hunters and fishermen with a mixed subsistence economy oriented to both stream and desert for food resources. "It is essentially characterised by elements such as aurochs ( bosprimigenius ), hartebeest ( alcelaphus buselaphus ), some species of gazelle (especially gazella dorcas ), hippopotamus ( hippopotamus amphibius ), wading and diving birds including numerous goose and duck species as well as some fish species, especially clarias or catfish," Huyge said. He continued that with the exception of hartebeest, this faunal inventory perfectly matched the animal repertory of the Qurta rock art sites. Both in the Late Palaeolithic faunal assemblages and in the rock art large "Ethiopian" faunal elements, such as elephants, giraffes and rhinoceros, are conspicuously absent.

Huyge claimed that although the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition had hinted on several occasions of the high antiquity of the rock art at Qurta, it had failed to assess the true importance of its finds. In an article in Scientific American in 1976, P E L Smith, director of the Canadian mission, wrote: "interesting scenes of wild animals, including cattle and hippopotamus, are engraved on the cliffs near our Gabal Silsila sites, but no one can prove they were the work of a late Palaeolithic group." And still later, in 1985, he assumed: "... that the Gabal Silsila art... is of Holocene age like most or all of the art known to date in northern Africa.". "In our opinion," Huyge continued in his report, "because of the various particularities outlined above, the rock art of Qurta reflects a true Palaeolithic mentality, quite closely comparable to what governs European Palaeolithic art.

"We propose an attribution of this Qurta rock art to the Late Pleistocene Ballanan-Silsilian culture or a Late Palaeolithic culture of similar nature and age," Huyge wrote. He added that "in this respect, it can hardly be coincidental that the comparable site of Abu Tanqura Bahari 11 at Al-Hosh is also situated at close distance [only at about 500m] from a Late Palaeolithic site that, mainly on the basis of its stratigraphical position immediately below the 'Wild Nile' silts, must be of roughly similar age as the Ballanan-Silsilian industry of the Kom Ombo plain. "These remains, therefore, suggest that the rock art of Qurta can be about 15,000 years old," Huyge claimed. He pointed out that the exact age of the rock art was unfortunately not yet available, "but we propose to sample the rock art in the near future for AMS 14C dating of organics in the varnish rind and/or U-series dating."

Huyge sees that the rock art of Qurta and also that of Al-Hosh are "extremely important" as they constitute the oldest graphic activity thus far recorded in Egypt. They also provide clear evidence that Africa in general and Egypt in particular possess prehistoric art that is both chronologically and aesthetically closely comparable to the great Palaeolithic art traditions known for a long time from Europe.

"The rock art of Qurta, which is truly a 'Lascaux on the Nile' should therefore be preserved at any price. Qurta is definitely Egypt's most important rock art site," Huyge concluded.

The rock supporting this art, the Nubian sandstone, is extremely fragile and still being intensively quarried in the area. The rock art panels are often very large and show numerous cracks and fissures. Huyge believes that since it would almost be impossible to remove the rock art from its original location without seriously damaging it, and since, of course, the rock art is an integral part of the Upper Egyptian desert landscape that should be studied and understood in situ, the only way properly to safeguard this priceless heritage of Egypt is to provide adequate surveillance, with several permanent guards on site. It could eventually be envisaged that the area of the rock art could be secured by building high protective walls around it. "Taking this rock art away from its original location, however, and putting it in a museum would definitely be a substantial impoverishment of Egypt's cultural heritage."

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