Friday, May 18, 2007

15,000 Year Old Palaeolithic Rock Art at Qurta

15/05/06 Press Release

Unfortunately there is no URL for an online home for the following press release, which was sent to me by email:

Belgian Arcaheological Mission Traces Oldest Art in Egypt: 15,000 year old Palaeolithic rock art sites at Qurta are real 'Lascaux along the Nile'

In February-March 2007, a Belgian Archaeological Mission, financed by Yale University (with the co-operation of Vodafone Egypt) and directed by Dr. Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels (Belgium), started a rock art research project at the Qurta sites, on the east bank of the Nile, along the northern edge of the Kom Ombo Plain, about 40 km south of Edfu and 15 km north of Kom Ombo. The team also included scientists from Yale University (USA), University of California Los Angeles (USA), Australian National University (Canberra, Australia), American University in Cairo (Egypt), and Ghent University (Belgium).

Rock art research by the same mission in 2004 in the el-Hosh area on the west bank of the Nile, about 30 km south of Edfu, led to the discovery of an intriguing rock art locality at the southernmost tip of a Nubian sandstone hill called Abu Tanqura Bahari, about 4 km south of the modern village of el-Hosh. This locality shows, among other things, several images of bovids executed in a naturalistic, ‘Franco-Cantabrian, Lascaux-like’ style, which are quite different from the stylised cattle representations in the ‘classical’ Predynastic iconography of the 4th millennium BC. On the basis of patination and weathering, these bovid representations are definitely extremely old. As these el-Hosh bovid images are comparable to cattle representations that had been discovered in 1962-1963 by a Canadian archaeological mission (the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition) on the east bank of the Nile, in the Gebel Silsila area, the Belgian mission attempted to relocate the latter images. The attempt was successful and the sites were relocated in March-April 2005 near the modern village of Qurta, along the northern edge of the Kom Ombo Plain.

Intensive surveying of the Nubian sandstone cliffs immediately east of the village of Qurta led to the discovery of three rock art sites, designated Qurta I, II and III. At each of these sites several rock art locations, panels and individual figures were identified. In total there are at least about 160 individual figures. The rock art of Qurta consists mainly of naturalistically drawn animal figures. Both hammering and incision have been practised to create the images. Bovids are largely predominant (at least 111 examples), followed by birds (at least 7 examples), hippopotami (at least 3 examples), gazelle (at least 3 examples) and fish (2 examples). In addition, there are also (at least) 7 highly stylised representations of human figures (shown with pronounced buttocks, but no other bodily features). None of the animals present shows any evidence for domestication. There is no doubt that the bovids represented should be identified as Bos primigenius or aurochs (wild cattle). The Qurta rock art is quite unlike any rock art known elsewhere in Egypt. It is substantially different from the ubiquitous ‘classical’ Predynastic rock art of the 4th millennium BC, known from hundreds of sites throughout the Nile Valley and the adjacent Eastern and Western deserts.

In 1962-1963, the above-mentioned Canadian Prehistoric Expedition working in the area discovered and excavated several Late Palaeolithic settlements in the vicinity of the rock art sites. The most important of these is GS-III, situated at a distance of only 150 to 200 m from the Qurta I rock art site. At this Palaeolithic site fragments of sandstone were found on which linear grooves had been incised; in one case they formed several deep parallel grooves. This at least proves that the Late Palaeolithic inhabitants of the Kom Ombo Plain practised the technique of incising sandstone.

The GS-III site and similar sites found by the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition and other missions in the Kom Ombo Plain in the early 1960s are currently attributed to the Ballanan-Silsilian culture, dated to about 16,000 to 15,000 years ago (BP). Climatologically this corresponds to the end of an hyper-arid period, preceding a return of the rains and the ‘Wild Nile’ stage of about 14,000-13,000 BP.

The fauna of these Ballanan-Silsilian and other Late Palaeolithic sites in the Kom Ombo Plain suggests a culture of hunters and fishermen with a mixed subsistence economy oriented to both stream and desert for food resources. It is essentially characterized by the following elements: aurochs (wild cattle), hartebeest, some species of gazelle, hippopotamus, wading and diving birds (including numerous goose and duck species) and some fish species. With the exception of hartebeest, this faunal inventory perfectly matches 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 elephant, giraffe, and rhinoceros, are conspicuously absent.

Because of its particularities, the rock art of Qurta reflects a true Palaeolithic mentality, quite closely comparable to what governs European Palaeolithic art. An attribution of this Qurta rock art is proposed to the Late Pleistocene Ballanan-Silsilian culture or a Late Palaeolithic culture of similar nature and age. In this respect, it can hardly be coincidental that the comparable site of Abu Tanqura Bahari at El-Hosh is also situated at close distance (only at about 500 m) from a Late Palaeolithic site that, mainly on the basis of its stratigraphical position, must be of roughly similar age as the Ballanan-Silsilian industry of the Kom Ombo Plain. There remains therefore little doubt that the rock art of Qurta must be about 15,000 years old. It constitutes the oldest graphic activity recorded in Egypt until now. It provides clear evidence that Africa in general and Egypt in particular possesses prehistoric art that is both chronologically and aesthetically closely comparable to the great Palaeolithic art traditions known for a long time from the European continent. The rock art of Qurta, which is truly a ‘Lascaux along the Nile’, should therefore be preserved at any price.

Because of the amount of rock art present at Qurta and the extremely difficult recording conditions - scaffolding had to be constructed at several locations - the recording work has not yet been completed and will be the subject of a next campaign by the Belgian mission in early 2008.

Address of the mission:
Dr. Dirk Huyge
Royal Museums of Art and History
Jubelpark 10 Parc du Cinquantenaire
B-1000 Brussels
Phone: +32 2 741.73.51
Fax: +32 2 733.77.35

Royal Museums of Art and History
Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire
Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis