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Rock the Oasis March 13, 2006

Egyptologist Salima Ikram discusses ancient rock art discovered this field season in the forbidding Western Desert.

Best known for her work on ancient human and animal mummies with the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Salima Ikram is also co-director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey (NKOS), which is documenting for the first time the myriad forts the Romans built on the edge of Egypt's Western Desert, the empire's African frontier in the third and fourth centuries A.D. For the past five years, Ikram and her partner Corinna Rossi have catalogued the forts, their extensive system of aqueduct-fed fields, and the hundreds of tombs surrounding them. About 100 miles west of Luxor, these sites are isolated and have generally been safe from looters and careless adventure tourists, but two years ago one fort suffered terrible destruction when looters bulldozed its temple in search of gold. Ikram found the damage months later while taking potential NKOS funders on a tour of the forts. She was devastated. "It's terrible when you see your temples turned into piles of dirt," she said. "I was in tears."

On a more positive note, unexpected archaeological finds have turned up on travel routes between this fort, known as Ayn Amur, and one called Umm el-Dabadib, in the northern region of the Kharga Oasis: large sandstone rocks with beautifully etched petroglyphs. Most are found at two sites the archaeologists dubbed Split Rock and Snake Valley. While the oldest are estimated to be 8,000-12,000 years old, there are also some pharaonic inscriptions. Inscribed or pecked into sandstone, the images depict birds, fish, giraffes, gazelles, crocodiles, and other animals, human figures dancing and hunting, and a number of geometric motifs such as zig-zag lines and triangles. They also discovered a rock apparently considered the home of the mysterious, still unidentified animal sacred to the god Seth, who is associated with the desert.

Recently, former ARCHAEOLOGY editor Jennifer Pinkowski visited Ikram at her home in Cairo, where Ikram showed her photos of the petroglyphs taken during the 2006 field season in January.


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Split Rock (Courtesy Salima Ikram) [LARGER IMAGE]

JP: How did you find the petroglyphs?

SI: What we did this season was trace the routes between Umm el-Dabadib and Ayn Amur. No, no one's ever looked at this area before, so it's really nice. We wandered around quite a lot, and we found, in addition to the routes, lots and lots of prehistoric stuff.

Now this is something we call Split Rock (see photo, left) because it's just split.

Most of the activity is on the east side, because it's more protected. Some of the petroglyphs are really high up--like 10 meters--so I think that before the rock split, so you could actually go that far up to the face. Maybe this rock was important because it had almost a head, so it was like a lion couchant or a snake rearing up, and I think that's why it attracted so much attention, because you could immediately spot it from a distance.


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Split Rock animals (Courtesy Salima Ikram) [LARGER IMAGE]

Here is a big, big panel on Split Rock (see photo, right) that shows millions of giraffes hanging out and doing their thing. You've got oryxes as well.

JP: How many known petroglyph sites are there in Egypt?

SI: There are probably quite a few, but no one's spent much time mapping them.

JP: Are there petroglyphs elsewhere that these can be compared to?

SI: We've got some stuff outside of Dakhla Oasis [just west of Kharga Oasis], but on the whole, the rock art of the Western Desert is so different from that of the Eastern Desert. In the Eastern Desert, you get some prehistoric stuff, but you get a lot more that seems to be protodynastic--more boats and things. They're not as old, certainly, as what we're getting in the Western Desert.

It's only by accident you find these things if they have really well protected overhangs. Our stone is sandstone, so we've lost a lot. We found a donkey broken in half. The legs broke off this past year. That gives you an example of the weathering. We also have a huge problem with wind and sand erosion.


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Scratched-out fish (Courtesy Salima Ikram) [LARGER IMAGE]

Now, this is quite fun. We found zig zags--a lightning motif, go figure--and depictions of fish on the site (see photo, left), which is a desert environment. So when you find people drawing fish, it's kind of strange. We found lots of fish and then more fish, and then a fish that someone scratched out. No more fish!

JP: So the lake must have dried up.

SI: Yes. Obviously, there had been lots of little lakes here, and people were hanging out and fishing.


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Faint glyphs (Courtesy Salima Ikram) [LARGER IMAGE]

This is a teeny weeny little pharaonic inscription here (see photo, right). It's a very crudely carved inscription--you can see "coming" and then "Nefru," which is beautiful, and then this is man with his hand to his mouth. It's a glyph again. Who the hell knows what's going on there.

JP: Is there anything about this style of writing, being pharaonic, that allows you to identify it to a particular period?

SI: With rock art it's a bit difficult because they are just going: gouge, gouge, gouge. Sometimes specific names or spellings indicate a precise time period.

We also got a lot of pubic triangles. Some people think the triangles are all Bedouin, but I think that's rubbish. I think you get pharaonic pubic triangles as well. And some of these sites--maybe it's about fertility, maybe it's by frustrated men, I don't know. But you do get a lot of these. You don't get many penises. One or two.

And this year we discovered what we're calling Snake Valley, which looks like a major encampment in the prehistoric, possibly Early Neolithic. Whether it was a seasonal one, or a regular one, I don't know. Most probably seasonal. But, there's an overhang and you can see layers upon layers upon layer of drawings.

Of course, you get lots of snakes. You also have humans and animals and doing things together, doing things separately. Some of the people are dancing. Some of them are hunting. And some of them seem to be sort of hanging out looking at animals in a suspicious kind of way, so I assume they're stalking them. That's my general impression.


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Snake Valley people (Courtesy Salima Ikram) [LARGER IMAGE]

Here are people (see photo, left). They are fully frontal, which is really interesting. One of these here is really weird--he's got some sort of carrier bag or water. He's carrying something in each hand. There are a lot of pecked patterns--I'm not sure what's going on there.

Another really cool thing this season is that we actually found a rock that is sacred to the god Seth. It's large and riddled with holes, as if some kind of animal lived there. I'm totally besotted with this place.


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Seth image (Courtesy Salima Ikram) [LARGER IMAGE]

JP: And what is the graffiti?

SI: They're images of Seth and some mentions of Amun having to do with Seth as well (see photo, right). It also has a couple of other New Kingdom inscriptions relating to scribes that we haven't deciphered yet.

Now, nobody knows what the Seth animal is. It's probably some kind of an amalgam of wild desert types. But clearly, people thought that this rock was where they lived. So there's a hole that's like a mini cave. And it's great because they're sort of almost like very rough sandstone steps that have just been added to with more sandstone, laid one on the other, leading up to the hole. The graffiti is all on the north side of this rock where the hole is and it starts off much lighter at the edges and then it sort of intensifies and reaches a crescendo at the hole.

JP: How do you record the rock art? What's the actual documentation process?

SI: We are recording their position using a GPS, and then photographing them and drawing them.

JP: What's next for the North Kharga Oasis Survey?

SI: We need to finish up documenting the sites that we have found properly and sniffing around to see what we have missed. Our major goal is to finish the monograph that deals with the main oasis so that it is ready for publication.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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