Ancient Egyptian graffiti, burial sites discovered by Yale archaeologists

Ancient Egyptian cave art from 3,300 B.C.E., depicting an addax, or antelope
John Darnell, professor of Egyptology at Yale, along with a team of researchers, uncovered a “lost oasis” in the eastern Egyptian desert. One image dates back to about 3,300 B.C.E. and includes large depictions of animals, including an addax, or antelope. “The large addax in particular deserves to be added to the artistic achievements of early Egypt,” says Darnell.

A team of archaeologists — led by Yale Egyptologist John Darnell — has uncovered a “lost oasis” of archaeological activity in the eastern Egyptian desert of Elkab.

The researchers from the Elkab Desert Survey Project — a joint mission of Yale and the Royal Museums of Art and History Brussels working in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities and the Inspectorate of Edfu — surveyed the area of Bir Umm Tineidba, once thought to be devoid of any major archaeological remains. Instead, the team unearthed “a wealth of archaeological and epigraphic material,” says Darnell, including a number of examples of ancient rock art or “graffiti,” the burial site of an Egyptian woman, and a previously unrecorded, enigmatic Late Roman settlement.

One particularly impressive image identified during the field season, says Darnell, dates back to about 3,300 B.C.E. and includes large depictions of animals, including a bull, a giraffe, an addax (antelope), a barbary sheep, and donkeys. Other tableaux depict long lines of boats, revealing an “interesting mixture of Eastern Desert and closer, Nile Valley-oriented styles,” notes Darnell.

At a time immediately before the invention of the hieroglyphic script, rock art such as this provides important clues to the religion and symbolic communication of Predynastic Egyptians,” says Darnell. “The large addax in particular deserves to be added to the artistic achievements of early Egypt.

Darnell says that this ancient graffiti was created for other people who would visit the site or who might pass along the road. “The ancient Egyptians just loved to write and draw,” he says. “And this general desire to express and memorialize yourself graphically seems to be one of the real hallmarks of Egyptian culture; it seems to be one of the things that you pick up when you are Egyptianized: that you just can't pass one of these surfaces without memorializing yourself.”

Egyptians chose a meaningful spot to carve these images, explains Darnell, usually at a habitation site or, as in this case, a crossroad of tracks going east to west. 

This is imagery and style that you would expect in the Nile Valley, but it's out here in the Eastern Desert at this site,” says Darnell, explaining that the drawings suggest a cultural mix and demonstrate that desert people were almost certainly interacting with Nile Valley people. “It shows a greater complexity and a little bit more of a mosaic, or hybrid of groups,” says Darnell. “I think this discovery will influence how we see the development of the early state in Egypt.”

Our newly discovered material at Bir Umm Tineidba is important in revealing a desert population coming under increasing influence from the Nile Valley during the time of Dynasty 0 [the Protodynastic Period in ancient Egypt characterized by an ongoing process of political unification, culminating in the formation of a single state to begin the Early Dynastic Period],” he adds.

The archaeologists also uncovered several burial tumuli — or mounds of earth and stone raised over graves — that appear to belong to desert dwellers with physical ties to both the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. They investigated one of the tumuli, which they determined was the burial place of a woman between 25 to 35 years of age at the time of her death. “She was probably one of the local desert elite, and was buried with at least a strand of Red Sea shells and carnelian beads, alluding to her desert and Red Sea associations, as well as a Protodynastic vessel of Nile Valley manufacture, all indicative of the two worlds of Nile and desert with which she and her people appear to have interacted,” says Darnell.

To the south of the rock inscription and tumuli sites, the archaeologists located a Late Roman settlement with dozens of stone structures. The ceramic evidence and other materials indicate that the site dates to between 400 and 600 C.E., says Darnell. “This Late Roman site complements the evidence for similar archaeological sites in the Eastern Desert, and once again fills a gap in an area once blank on the archaeological map of the Eastern Desert.

Probably associated with the ancient people whom Egyptian and later Roman documents call the Blemmyes, these sites reveal important information on the late administration of the Eastern Desert, and help us understand the transition between the Late Antique and the Early Islamic Periods,” says Darnell.

To document their findings in the field, the team used a digital technique developed at Yale in 2010, in collaboration with Yale digital archaeologist Alberto Urcia. The technology, employing the photogrammetric Structure from Motion technology, generates detailed three-dimensional models of the rock surface that are used to produce high-resolution images of each panel. Unfortunately, says Darnell, considerable and active mining in the area is threatening the sites in and near Bir Umm Tineidba.

The new technology, says Darnell, cuts excavation and recording time down to about a quarter of what it used to be. “It means you get through more material in greater detail than you would otherwise. If you’re racing the clock to record these desert sites before mining and land reclamation and thieves get at them, you know you can do four structures in a month rather than one structure in a month, which is fabulous.”

Darnell adds, “If I could go back in time and do all the other sites I’ve done in the past using that technique I would. At least we have it now, and it will greatly increase the speed and accuracy with which we will hopefully record ever more sites.”

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Bess Connolly Martell: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324