Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lecture notes: John Wyatt's "Animal Worlds"

A few days ago I posted a set of notes that I made about Dirk Huyge's lecture on Egyptian petroglpyhs. Continuing along those lines, today I am posting my notes from John Wyatt's lecture, entitled Animal Worlds. This was part of Dr Kathryn Piquette's Egypt Before The Pyramids course at Bloomsbury last week.

Unfortunately my notes weren’t as comprehensive as those that I took at Dirk Huyge’s lecture because I was operating the slide changer on the slide projector. It turned out that my abilities didn’t stretch to watching for the sign that the slide needed changing and writing notes at the same time. Multi-taskers would be ashamed of me. It was a truly fascinating lecture, from which I learned an enormous amount, and I can only apologise for not doing full justice to it.

John’s professional background is as an ornithologist specializing in floodplains, and he also spent six years doing field research on the black rhino (and was gored twice, which really is getting up close and personal with one’s research subject!). His knowledge is encyclopaedic but he was able to break down a vast corpus of data into an easily digestible and very enjoyable presentation.

John’s approach was to match up the data on artefacts and rock art, where representations of animals are shown, with the fossil data - the actual remains of animals found at archaeological sites in Egypt.

John opened with the idea that African animals may have played a greater role in Egypt’s past than previously thought. The impact of migratory behaviour in both birds and grazing animals may have been of greater importance than usually recognized, especially in post-glacial Egypt when the climate was wetter than it is today and the environment was comparable to modern Sahelian conditions. John explained that by “migration” he means any species which move over distances in order to feed but then return. The example given to illustrate this point was the movement of aquatic birds who make use of floodplain regimes, which in Africa occur at different times in different places. The birds follow floodplain regimes north throughout northern Africa. The antelope, indigenous to Mesopotamia and shown on the Gebel el Tarif knife and in some rock art may have migrated into the area as far as southern Egypt and the Sudan, and was probably found in Egypt until the Early Dynastic period. He suggested that emigration, where species move on a permanent basis, may also have taken place at some points.

However, John also pointed out that just because certain species are represented on artefacts or in rock art found in Egypt this does not mean that the animals themselves were necessarily present in Egypt. Human movements could have led to outsiders bringing in artefacts with representations of animals, or Egyptians visiting other areas and bringing their experiences home with them.

John looked at the record for wildlife in Egypt specie by specie - everything from squirrels and desert hares to lions and elephants. As well as describing the evidence available for their physical presence in Egypt, he looked at their environmental requirements - particularly their water requirements. This was fascinating because it gave a good idea of what sort of environmental conditions were being experienced when these species were in the given areas. Certain species were concentrated in very specific areas depending on water availability. An example given was the Nile lechwe - an antelope with high water consumption requirements, the only evidence for which comes from the Faiyum Depression and the Nile Delta where water was readily available.

The giraffe is another interesting character. In rock art it appears in the Eastern Desert, Nile Valley and Gebel Uweinat (and elsewhere in the Sahara). Dirk Huyge had mentioned the ones at El Kab in the previous lecture. John’s analysis of the requirements of the giraffe make it clear that the giraffe needs trees or tall shrubs in order to survive. Acacia is one of the trees that it uses habitually for food and hydration. Acacia is a staple Sahelian tree and as John says it survives today in limited desert areas. Before the mid Holocene drying the giraffe might well have been resident in southern areas of Egypt before being forced out by aridification.

Another specie that is a useful climatic indicator is the striped ground squirrel which was found in the Western Desert and Dakhleh, but is now extinct in Egypt. There has been extensive debate about the maximum levels of rainfall experienced in the eastern Sahara at different times in the post-glacial period. Looking at all the data the most plausible estimates for maximum annual rainfall put it at between 100 and 200mm in the Western Desert. To put that into context, 400mm is required for cultivation and today’s Western Desert receives less than 4mm maximum annual rainfall. This squirrel requires some sort of moisture but only needs direct intake of water itself rarely, sustaining itself instead on the moisture it finds in plants. Its habitat was a burrow under the ground. These facts combined indicate that it requires sufficient plant life around it in order to keep itself hydrated but needs very low levels of rainfall to ensure that its burrow does not fill with water. Again, Sahelian conditions would be a good match for this rodent.

There were some real surprises in the fossil record - for example white rhino at Dakhleh oasis. As it was a grazing animal this indicates that in the general Dakhleh area there was sufficient grazing vegetation available to support the white rhino. Dakhleh produced some more surprising results, and I wonder if this wasn’t because it is thought that it is the only one of the oases which is thought to have experienced a dual climatic system in the early Holocene - tropical (with summer rains) and temperate (with winter rains).

Many of the species were a particularly good match with Dirk Huyge’s lectures, where the vexed subject of identification of different species was raised. The horned ungulates were very interesting from this point of view - the different shapes and sizes of horns are very diagnostic for determining which specie is which in a depiction.

On a similar level John was also able to shed some very useful light on the subject of tall leggy birds (of the feathered variety, obviously!). These are frequently shown on Naqada II vessels and in rock art. He distinguished between birds with legs towards the back of their bodies, which can only be ostriches, and those with legs clearly positioned of the bird. The best candidate for the latter is the great flamingo. Fossil remains of the specie survives from the Egypt desert and oases, and it can still be found in Egypt today.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the lecture enormously. John is a very fluent speaker, knows his subject backwards and had excellent slides to support his lecture, with both illustrations and photographs which really brought the subject to life. The handouts which accompanied the lecture were absolutely super and I will be keeping mine in one of my desktop folders for ease of reference. Both are several pages long. The first is an enormous list of the mammals of ancient Egypt, including English, Latin and Arabic names and their current status in Egypt together with lovely coloured illustrations of the most important of them. The second is listing of many of the artefacts discussed with identifications of each of the species shown on the items.

Many thanks to John Wyatt, who is a super person and who I believe (and hope) will be presenting again next year at Bloomsbury.

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