Oldest rock art in Egypt discovered

Photos: Oldest rock art in Egypt discovered

The Qurta I site is situated along a small canal. The scaffolding high up the hillslope indicates the location of the main rock art panel (© RMAH, Brussels)
Wooden scaffolding constructed in February 2007 to allow access to the rock art at the Qurta I site. The northern edge of the Kom Ombo Plain with the village of Qurta is in the background. The Nile runs right behind the large hill in the far distance (© RMAH, Brussels)
Wooden scaffolding constructed in March 2008 to reach the rock art at the Qurta I site. The Nubian sandstone scarp to the left of this location has been quarried away (© RMAH, Brussels)
Wooden scaffolding constructed in March 2008 to reach the rock art at the Qurta I site. The Kom Ombo Plain is in the background (© RMAH, Brussels)
Belgian archaeologist Wouter Claes poses with a panel with wild bovids (Bos primigenius or aurochs) at the Qurta II site. (© RMAH, Brussels)
American archaeologist Elyssa Figari recording rock art at the Qurta I site. The panel contains 33 images, including 25 wild bovids and a stylized human figure (© RMAH, Brussels)
Detail of the main rock art panel at the Qurta I site, showing how the makers of the rock art used the relief of the rock surface to lend volume and movement to the animal images (© RMAH, Brussels)
Detail of the main rock art panel at the Qurta I site, showing several wild bovids (Bos primigenius or aurochs) and a stylized human figure with outstretched arms (center below) (© RMAH, Brussels)
Detail of the main rock art panel at the Qurta I site, showing how the makers of the rock art made use of the relief of the rock surface to lend volume and movement to the animal images (© RMAH, Brussels)
Detail of a rock art panel at the Qurta II site, showing two drawings of wild bovids (Bos primigenius or aurochs) with forward pointing horns. The double belly line of the right specimen is typical of the Qurta II bovids (© RMAH, Brussels)
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Using a new technology known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), a team of Belgian scientists and Professor John Coleman Darnell of Yale have determined that Egyptian petroglyphs found at the east bank of the Nile are about 15,000 years old, making them the oldest rock art in Egypt and possibly the earliest known graphic record in North Africa.

The dating results will be published in the December issue of Antiquity (Vol. 85 Issue 330, pp. 1184–1193).

The site of the rock art panels is near the modern village of Qurta, about 40km south of the Upper-Egyptian town of Edfu. First seen by Canadian archaeologists in the early 1960s, they were subsequently forgotten and relocated by the Belgian mission in 2005. The rediscovery was announced in the Project Gallery of Antiquity in 2007.

The rock art at Qurta is characterized by hammered and incised naturalistic-style images of aurochs and other wild animals. On the basis of their intrinsic characteristics (subject matter, technique, and style), their patina and degree of weathering, as well as the archaeological and geomorphological context, these petroglyphs have been attributed to the late Pleistocene era, specifically to the late Palaeolithic period (roughly 23,000 to 11,000 ago). This makes them more or less contemporary with European art from the last Ice Age — such as the wall-paintings of Lascaux and Altamira caves.

“The palaeolithic rock art at Qurta reveals that the well-known cave art of the late Pleistocene in Europe was not an isolated phenomenon. Qurta puts North Africa firmly in the world of the earliest surviving artistic tradition, and shows that tradition to have been geographically more wide-spread than heretofore imagined,” commented Darnell, professor of Egyptology.

 The authors of the study note that while archaeologists generally did not dispute the estimated age of the images, proof in the form of indirect or direct science-based dating had hitherto been lacking.

In 2008, an interdisciplinary team of scientists directed by Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels (Belgium) discovered partly buried rock art panels at one of the Qurta sites. The deposits covering the rock art, in part composed of wind-blown sediments, were dated at the Laboratory of Mineralogy and Petrology (Luminescence Research Group) of Ghent University (Belgium) using OSL dating. This technology can determine the time that has elapsed since the buried sediment grains were last exposed to sunlight and offers a direct means for establishing the time of sediment deposition and accumulation. Based on analysis provided through this method, it was determined that the petroglyphs at Qurta are at least 15,000 years old. This is the first solid evidence that the rock art dates from the Pleistocene age, making it the oldest graphic activity ever recorded in Egypt and the whole of North Africa.

The fieldwork for this study was funded by the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Endowment for Egyptology of the Yale Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. The laboratory analyses were supported by the Fund for Scientific Research – Flanders. In addition, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo and Vodafone Egypt offered administrative and logistical support.