Hundreds of viper trails covered the sand before them. The Egyptologists could only hope that the serpents themselves were long gone as they made their way off the ancient desert road towards the limestone cliffs.
First to reach the wall, Dr John Coleman Darnell of Yale University, was surprised to find the surface covered with rough hieroglyphic inscriptions in apparently random patterns. What did they mean?
His past experience in the field led Darnell to think the markings were graffiti. The wall was close enough to an ancient campsite to serve as the common latrine for drivers, merchants and guards. The inscriptions, over 500 counted so far, were the ancient equivalent of writing on the bathroom wall. Darnell was the first person to see that graffiti in possibly 5000 years.
Using standard archaeological methods to measure, record and interpret the inscriptions on this wall could be the work of an entire career, by itself. But Professor Darnell’s plan wasn’t to use conventional techniques in this survey. His team was packing a technological edge that would make quick work of this fascinating new find.
When most people think of Egypt, the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, Queen Cleopatra, King Ramses II and, of course, the boy king Tutankhamen, spring to mind. In the popular imagination, thanks to explorers like John Carter and classic films such as The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra, Egypt is renowned as an ancient land of mystery whose roots run back to the foundations of human civilisation. It is the Egyptologists who dedicate themselves to uncovering the hidden past of this glorious land.
An author of several books on Egyptology, including Tutankhamun’s Armies, with Colleen Manassa (J. Wiley and Sons, 2007), Professor Darnell is the co-director of the joint Thebian Desert Road Survey and Yale Toshka Desert Survey.
Darnell’s team is working in a harsh environment in the Western Desert, which lies to the west of the Nile in Egypt, Libya and north western Sudan. About 700,000 square km in area, the temperature can rise to over 40 degrees in the midday heat and drop towards zero at night.
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