Thursday, July 12, 2007
Egypt's Oldest Known Art Identified, Is 15,000 Years Old
Egypt's Oldest Known Art Identified, Is 15,000 Years Old
Dan Morrison in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
July 11, 2007
Rock face drawings and etchings recently rediscovered in southern Egypt are similar in age and style to the iconic Stone Age cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, archaeologists say.
"It is not at all an exaggeration to call it 'Lascaux on the Nile,'" said expedition leader Dirk Huyge, curator of the Egyptian Collection at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, Belgium.
"The style is riveting," added Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo, who was part of Huyge's team.
The art is "unlike anything seen elsewhere in Egypt," he said.
The engravings—estimated to be about 15,000 years old—were chiseled into several sandstone cliff faces at the village of Qurta, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) south of Cairo (Egypt map).
Of the more than 160 figures found so far, most depict wild bulls. The biggest is nearly six feet (two meters) wide.
The drawings "push Egyptian art, religion, and culture back to a much earlier time," Ikram said.
The team's findings will be published in the September issue of the British quarterly journal Antiquity.
Before Its Time
The Qurta art has now twice been uncovered by modern researchers.
Some of the engravings were first found in 1962 by a group from the University of Toronto, Canada.
The leader of that expedition, Philip Smith, made the then novel suggestion that the figures were from the Paleolithic age—the Stone Age period from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago—in a 1964 article in Archaeology magazine.
But he abandoned the hypothesis in later years.
"The Paleolithic experts told them, It's absolutely crazy—Europe is the cradle of art," Huyge, the leader of the new expedition, said. "And they backed off the idea.
"They must have accepted the fact that that nobody wanted to believe them, but they were right."
Discoveries of Paleolithic art in southern Africa and Australia since then have paved the way for the scientific community to accept what Smith first diffidently suggested, Huyge said.
Neither Smith, who has retired, nor his assistant on that expedition, Morgan Tamplin, now a professor emeritus at Trent University in Canada, could be reached for comment.
Huyge's March 2007 expedition strengthened the findings that Smith had discarded. The team found several additional panels of artwork over a 1-mile-long (1.66-kilometer-long) stretch of 230-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) sandstone cliffs.
There is "little doubt" the engravings are 15,000-years-old, Huyge said. They depict a now extinct species of wild cow whose horns have been recovered from Paleolithic settlements nearby.
The drawings would be examined for lichens and organic grime called "varnish rind" that could be carbon dated or subjected to another process known as uranium series dating, Huyge added. Because the rocks are inorganic, they cannot be dated directly using these methods.
In the meantime, the finding has raised a big question: How were people in Western Europe and southern Egypt producing almost identical artwork at the same time?
While the caves at Lascaux are best known for their painted images of bulls and cows, that artwork is actually outnumbered by stone engravings. And the Lascaux engravings are virtually identical to those in Qurta, Huyge pointed out.
"I'm not suggesting that the art in the caves of Lascaux was made by Egyptians or that [European] people were in Egypt," he said.
"The art is so similar that it reflects a similar mentality, a similar stage of development," he added. "When people are confronted with similar conditions, this will automatically lead to a similar kind of thinking, a similar creativity."
Now the archaeologists are on the hunt for additional—and potentially older—artwork.
"The rock art must be part of an evolution," Huyge said. "There must be older art in Egypt, if we can find it. I think open-air sites like Qurta will be found all over North Africa."
Africa's Imperiled Rock Art Documented Before it Disappears
By David Braun
National Geographic News
October 5, 2001
Panoramas of hunting and war, graceful images of animals loping across the savanna, ghostly handprints of people who lived long ago—ancient artists daubed millions of images like these across Africa, recording the world as they saw it.
The paintings, which can be found in more than a million sites across Africa, are a precious depository of information on how ancient Africans interpreted their physical and spiritual worlds. Whereas their bones and implements may tell us when and where they existed, how they lived and died, and even what they ate, it is only through their art that we can know a little about their thoughts.
Photographer and explorer David Coulson is criss-crossing the vast continent to document Africa's rock art and make the world aware of its importance before it disappears.
Significant rock art exists in at least 30 countries in Africa, said Coulson. "We estimate that there are well over a million sites in Africa, and sometimes one single site might have thousands of images," he said.
The ancient rock images—some that date from more than 20,000 years ago—have withstood the effects of time, weather, and the activities of countless human generations largely because they were painted on the walls of caves or under cliff overhangs, where their creators sought shelter.
For decades, scientists and others have been warning that the rock art is vanishing.
Many of the images have been defaced with graffiti left by colonial explorers, settlers, bandits, and modern populations. Others are being rubbed out by pollutants in rain. Some sites that housed rock art have been dynamited to make way for burgeoning housing development and the construction of roads and dams.
Coulson and his colleague Alec Campbell have produced the first comprehensive photographic book of Africa's rock art for distribution in the English-speaking world. "We are certainly the first to visit all the sites ourselves," Coulson said.
Much more work on the project remains to be done. "The story has only been partly told," he said. The team has published two articles in National Geographic on Saharan rock art, for example, but the remarkable rock art by the Bushmen of Southern Africa is still little known, as is rock art in eastern and central Africa.
To expand awareness about the value and importance of this African heritage, Coulson and others founded the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), based in Nairobi, Kenya. He believes, and other experts have concurred, that Africa has more ancient rock paintings and engravings than any other continent, most of it found in northern and southern Africa.
Tom Hill, a founding trustee of TARA, said: "We know from human evolutionary science that modern Homo sapiens began in Africa. It stands to reason, therefore, that Africa would contain both the oldest and the greatest amount of rock art in the world."
TARA, Hill noted, is the only organization he knows of that's dedicated to preserving rock art across the entire continent of Africa. "This is a world heritage that is used by scientists, visited by some tourists, damaged and stolen by vandals, ignored for the most part by governments, and left otherwise to vanish from sight," said Hill, who is also the founding chairman of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.
Of the African rock art that has been scientifically dated so far, the oldest images are in Namibia, from about 27,000 years ago. Yet most experts agree that some of Africa's rock art may date to more than 50,000 years ago, Coulson said.
In the Sahara, much of the rock art depicts animals that no longer live in the region. When the paintings and engravings were made, the Sahara was not a desert. Until 2,000 years ago it was somewhat green and fertile, supporting at times large herds of game and relatively large human populations. Nine thousand years ago the region was covered with lakes and forests.
With support from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, Coulson and his colleagues will travel to Algeria in November to document engravings that may be the largest pieces of prehistoric art on Earth.
"Herding and hunting peoples all over our planet have created extraordinary rock art," said Henry Wright, curator of archaeology at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology and a member of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. "These representations are among our best pathways to ancient systems of thought. From these images we learn how long-disappeared people viewed their universe—an invaluable testimony from the past."
Questions of Size
The large engravings Coulson will be searching for on the National Geographic-supported expedition are thought to have been made thousands of years before the pyramids were built and are virtually unknown, Coulson said.
Among the giant engravings Coulson and his team documented on previous field trips, for example, was an image on rocks in Niger of a giraffe 18 feet (5.4 meters) high (see the accompanying photo gallery).
Why did the ancient artists make such outsize engravings?
The subject matter offers clues to why the artists engraved such large images, Couslon said. "Giraffes appear to have been important animals through many different ancient cultures in Africa," he said. "They were painted and engraved more frequently, with greater care and artistry, and to a greater size. We think that many cultures may have considered them as rain animals, possessing power over the rains."
Coulson expects to find paintings as well as engravings in southern Algeria. "From what I have heard, I believe that there may be paintings from the early pastoral period on the northern Tassili plateau, and possibly from the Roundhead period [about 9,000 years ago]," he said. "I have heard that there are many incredible engravings in other wadis [river beds], some as old as the big giraffes."
The Tassili plateau resembles the surface of the moon, and much of it is inaccessible even by four-wheel-drive vehicles, Coulson said. Getting to the sites where the ancient engravings and paintings of giraffes can be found will require his team to travel on camel and by foot in the final stages of the journey. They will traverse river beds in 1,000-foot (300-meter) gorges.
"Southeast Algeria is about as remote as you can get," Coulson said. "We have traveled hundreds of miles, and occasionally over a thousand in the central Sahara, without seeing a single living soul."
Coulson plans to document the rock paintings and engravings in a variety of formats to add to his growing archives of the continent's rock art. In addition to reporting on the art in magazines and the scientific press, he will film a television documentary on African rock art and his work in Africa.
With support from the Ford Foundation, he and others are also developing a program to increase awareness among people in Africa about the importance of the continent's rock art and the need to preserve it. The materials will include videos for schools in urban and rural areas.
Research Supported by the National Geographic Society:
David Coulson is one of a distinguished group of scientists from around the globe, in fields ranging from astronomy to zoology, who have been awarded grants from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration (CRE).
Posted by lmurx at 4:14 PM