Nice story from Al-Ahram Weekly, on the recent discovery of a stunning array of engraved rock art at Qurta in Upper Egypt, which may be 15,000 years old, making it contemporary with the Magdalenian era of north western Europe, whose most well known sites from this era are Lascaux and Altamira, amongst a host of others; moreover there is an apparent stylistic similarity with its northern neighbours.

However, this rock art isn’t situated deep within caves, instead being engraved onto large rocks at an open air site; the engraved figures are described as being in pristine condition – it’s worth bearing in mind that although Egypt has been viewed as an essentially sun-drenched realm since the golden days of its dynastic civilisation, there is evidence of significant rainfall and flooding there between about 10,000 bp and 5,000 bp, and again between about 4,000 bp and 3,000 bp., so the preservation of outdoor sites as ancient as this, is all the more remarkable.

Here’s a description of the find made by the team of Belgian archaeologists from the Royal Museum of Art and History, funded out of Yale University, who have announced the news of this find…

“The story of the discovery began two months ago when a Belgian archaeological mission from the Royal Museum of Art and History, financed by Yale University, resumed its intensive archaeological survey on the Nubian-sandstone cliffs at Qurta. While carrying out their routine survey, excavators stumbled upon three rock art sites spreading over a distance of about two kilometres on the eastern side of Qurta. Entitled Qurta I, II and III, each site contains several prehistoric rocks bearing a rich collection of Palaeolithic illustrations featuring a large number of bovids, hippopotami, birds and human figures.”

Bovids are the most common animals depicted in the illustrations, with at least 111 representations in different positions. Of other animals there are seven examples of birds, three hippopotami, three gazelles and two fish. There are also 10 highly stylised human figures shown with pronounced buttocks, but with no other distinct bodily features.

All the rock art images are very darkly coloured and seem to be covered by a substantially developed varnish. Most of the images also have traces of intensive weathering through Aeolian abrasion and water run-off.

Very interesting to note that as is the case with European rock art, the human figure is more an abstract motif than a naturalistic portrayal, and it’s tempting to ask whether there was any kind of direct or indirect contact between Magdalenian Europeans and Palaeolithic North African people, and whether one group influenced the other. I don’t have a good enough knowledge of rock art from the rest of the world dating to this era to make a comparison, although Australian rock art seems to have developed in a degree of isolation, as it is so markedly different from its occidental equivalent.

At the risk of sounding Eurocentric, I wonder if some Magdalenians might have decided to head out of Ice Age Europe for the more temperate climes of an Egypt less chilly – I don’t know of any contextual lithic, artefactual or organic evidence that would confirm or refute this. Alternatively, it’s also possible that people from what is now Egypt may have travelled up into Europe and seen some of the parietal work there, returned to Egypt and constructed the panels, which appear to represent a single and isolated phase of rock art.

Magdalenian rock art and its associated culture seems to have been very well entrenched in north western Europe over many millennia, and although it would have been physically possible for people to travel between there and North Africa, maybe it’s just as likely that goods or artefacts could have made longer journeys than the humans who passed them along what could have been longer lines of economic or cultural communication than otherwise supposed.

Obviously, I wouldn’t wish to deny Egypt any part of its Palaeolithic heritage, so for the time being, and with nothing substantial to back up a putative ‘cultural exchange event’, I’m going with the assumption that Qurta was a local phenomenon, created by people indigenous to the region at that point in time.

Here’s some more detail…

“None of the painted animals shows any evidence of domestication, and there is little doubt that the bovid should be identified as bos primigenius or aurochs (wild cattle),” (Belgian archaeologist Dirk) Huyge said. “Although these bovids are rather short-horned, there is archaeozoological evidence to support this suggestion.” He said that, moreover, the Late Pleistocene faunal representations on the Kom Ombo plain highlighted that the Egyptian species of bos primigenius had relatively smaller horns than the European, but was otherwise of about the same body size.

Huyge pointed out that animals drawn on rocks were individual images rather than collective except for a very few, such as the art featuring two bovids standing opposite one another and a fresco of three flying birds.

Early studies on the rock art illustrations revealed that, unlike those of the pre-dynastic period, especially those of the fourth millennium BC, they do not have imaginary ground lines. On the contrary they were drawn in all possible directions. Quite often the heads are represented either upwards or downwards as if they were in movement.”

Another interesting similarity with rock art in Europe is the way in which natural features in the rock were exploited…

“The prehistoric artist or artists at Qurta made use of natural fissures, cracks, curves, arches and brows of the rocks, and integrated them into the art images. A perfect example of this is a rock panel found at Qurta II, where a natural vertical crack was used to render the back part of a bovid. Huyge points out that bovid drawings were deliberately left incomplete. Some had missing legs, tail or horns, while others had numerous scratches over their heads and necks.

Some of Qurta’s bovid images are combined with highly schematised human figures similar to those known from the Magdalenian cultural phase of Palaeolithic Europe.”

It would be interesting to know that if there wasn’t any connection between these North African images and those of the Magdalenian artists, why there was such a similarity in method and execution – i.e. was this particular expression of parietal art the function of humans at a certain stage of their artistic development that manifested itself in the same way across two regions on two continents – offhand I can’t think how such an idea could be proved or not.

I came across this comment from Dr. Jean Clottes, on the Bradshaw Foundation website, who makes the following observations regarding the Palaeolithic rock art of Europe…

Contrary to a well-spread idea, Paleolithic rock art is not merely a ‘cave art’. In fact, a recent study showed that if the art of 88 sites was to be found in the complete dark, in 65 other cases it was in the daylight (Clottes 1997). Three main cases can be distinguished : – the deep caves, for which an artificial light was necessary; – the shelters which were more or less lit up by natural light ; – the open air sites. The latter are essentially known in Spain and Portugal. Only one case has been discovered in France (the engraved rock at Campome in the Pyrenees-Orientales). The art in the light and the art in the dark: those two tendencies have coexisted for all the duration of the Paleolithic. The art in the dark was preferred in certain areas (the Pyrenees) and at certain periods (Middle and Late Magdalenian). The low-relief sculptures are only to be found in shelters. On the other hand, the paintings which used to exist in shelters have for the most part eroded away and only very faint traces remain, contrary to engravings which could in many cases be preserved in them.”

Whoever made these images in Upper Egypt demonstrated a very high level of workmanship, and dedication to produce such a large body of work, which according to Dr. Zahi Hawass…

“The Qurta rock art is quite unlike any rock art known elsewhere in Egypt,” Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says. He adds that it is substantially different from the ubiquitous “classical” pre-dynastic rock art of the fourth millennium BC, known from hundreds of sites throughout the Nile Valley and the adjacent Eastern and Western deserts. The only true parallel thus far known is the rock art previously discovered in 2004 at Abu Tanqura Bahari at Al-Hosh, about 10 kilometres to the north and on the opposite bank of the river.”

Another notable aspect of this recent discovery is that this site has been alluded to in the past, specifically by the Canadian Prehistoric Expedition; as we see…

“In an article in Scientific American in 1976, P E L Smith, director of the Canadian mission, wrote: “interesting scenes of wild animals, including cattle and hippopotamus, are engraved on the cliffs near our Gabal Silsila sites, but no one can prove they were the work of a late Palaeolithic group.” And still later, in 1985, he assumed: “… that the Gabal Silsila art… is of Holocene age like most or all of the art known to date in northern Africa.”. “In our opinion,” Huyge continued in his report, “because of the various particularities outlined above, the rock art of Qurta reflects a true Palaeolithic mentality, quite closely comparable to what governs European Palaeolithic art.”

I’m tempted to add here that if these images had been spotted in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, they would have been greeted with similar acclaim to other recent finds there, such as at Chauvet Cave in the mid-1990s, but because these Qurta images were off the beaten track of the Eurasian Palaeolithic, not as much importance was ascribed to them – but maybe that’s a tad cynical of me. The important point for now is that these images have finally been recognised for what they are – a superb example of parietal art from an unexpected location, bringing us vivid reminders of a glittering facet of the past that has long since vanished. (TJ)

see also: Antiquity – ‘Lascaux Along The Nile: Late Pleistocene Rock Art In Egypt