The Archaeology of the Eastern Desert


Eastern Desert Rock Art

Website by Andie Byrnes
To see the version control table listing the latest updates to this site please click here


Page Contents

Website Objectives and Organization

This site is intended to provide a comprehensive description of the archaeology of the Eastern Desert from the Early Palaeolithic up until the end of the Graeco-Roman period. 

Information about the Eastern Desert is available in academic papers, websites and some books, but is highly fragmented and not always easy to access.  The objective of this site is therefore simply to aggregate existing data and make it available in the form of a single resource.  It has been broken down into a number of sections, and it is hoped that this will make the information easier to locate and digest. 

The best way of navigating the site is to use the left hand navigation bar, but in some sections an overhead navigation bar is also added to make life easier. 

The first section of the site looks at the geography, geology and environment of the Eastern Desert, to ensure that all of the archaeological data is placed within the context of the land which people were using and the resources that might have been available to them.

The next four sections look at the archaeology. The biggest problem that has been experienced in summarizing the archaeological data for this site is the difficulty of handling both conventional archaeological data and rock art.  This has lead to two different schemes, which do not lend themselves to a particularly consistent approach or seamless feel.  Archaeology is handled in one section, and rock art is handled in another.  The main body of archaeological data is described chronologically, but due to the problems with dating, the rock art is broken down into manageable chunks dealing with analysis and themes. Although it was not my intention to engage with complex archaeological issues, the need to tackle the incredibly vexed subject of rock art has inevitably resulted in a few comments about the nature and value of using rock art as an archaeological dataset.

I have attempted to compensate for this lack of continuity in approach by bringing together archaeology, geography, environment and rock art in a section which looks at how to use all of the different types of information to bring the Eastern Desert to life.  This last page has been the most difficult to complete, mainly due to the many problems of integrating the different datasets, but partly because the unique environmental conditions in the Eastern Desert are really not well understood and documented, but mainly because of poor data availability.

A number of appendices support the site without cluttering the main text.  I would recommend that anyone who is unfamiliar with the chronological relationships of the prehistoric and Predynastic periods investigate the Time Line appendix.

A full Bibliography is provided, and includes links to a) academic papers available only in print, b) academic papers available in print and online, and c) articles and project overviews which only appear online. Where the sites appear only on the Web (indicated by the letters WR next to the reference in the text), I have linked to the location details in the Bibliography rather than to the website itself.  This is to ensure that if an external site is re-organized or deleted, the visitor has the complete original details with which to try to locate any new pages or equivalent information.

The Links page provides hyperlinks to websites which may or may not have been compiled by academics, but are useful resources that are not directly affiliated to any academic institution or field project.

Finally, this website was put together as a leisure-time project following an illness.  Inevitably, there came a time when I had to decide that an initial draft was complete, let it loose online and go back to work in real world.  However, I am aware that much can be done to add value to the site, and the pages will continue to be updated and modified as I continue to read new material, and as people make suggestions and contribute information.   Please have a look at the About page to find out more.

This website is an ongoing project.  As new data emerges, it will be updated.  See the Change Control table below, for details about past updates.

Introduction to the Eastern Desert

The Eastern Desert, sometimes called the Arabian Desert in the north and the Nubian Desert in the south, covers approximately 21% of present day Egypt, and  consists of three principal strips of roughly parallel topography:

  • The Red Sea coast
  • The Red Sea mountains/hills
  • The desert strip between the Red Sea Hills and the Nile

Each zone offered different opportunities and imposed different limitations on the inhabitants of Egypt over a period of several hundred thousand years, during which climate and environments changed, new social structures evolved and the Egyptian state emerged. 

The Egyptian Pre-Pharaonic period begins some 500,000 years ago with the earliest stone tools, and sees the development of agriculture, social differentiation, crafts and evolving ideas of belief systems and increasingly complex economic processes.

The Egyptian state survived for 3000 years before the Greek and Roman administrations, and the Arabic invasion of 642 A.D.  Throughout the historical periods, the Eastern Desert was occupied, apparently on an fairly permanent basis by nomadic Bedouin, who used the meager plant and faunal resources to underpin their subsistence economy.  The desert is still occupied today by dwindling numbers of Bedouin. Other desert occupants were only present temporarily for specific location-focused activities like mining and quarrying.  The Eastern Desert wadis were also useful as a through-route from east to west, for trading and transportation.

Archaeological research and ethnographic observations in the Eastern Desert have both been sporadic.  A number of travelers in the late 1800s made observations about the landscape and the inhabitants, but it was only in the early 1900s that any serious archaeological investigation took place.

Gerald Fuchs, writing in 1991 about the state of research in the Eastern Desert, commented on the state of research, and his remarks remain valid today:  “The Eastern Desert of Egypt – or Arabian Desert – remains a region where systematic research still has to be done.  Unfortunately this is true for all fields of archaeology, although there is ample evidence of a rich and important cultural heritage. Besides rock art, ancient mining and quarry sites, rock inscriptions, sanctuaries, traffic routes with their infrastructure, settlements and burials must be mentioned.  The results of projects running for more than a decade in the Western Desert, contributing much to the knowledge of climate changes, ecology and the problems of the Early Neolithic, may indicate to some extent the research potential of the Eastern Desert” (Fuchs 1991, p.59).  Hans Barnard, writing in 2007, points to the bias of researchers towards specific known sites:  “Archaeological research in the Eastern Desert has understandably concentrated on the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic and Roman quarries, mines and harbours, as well as the numerous prehistoric and Pharaonic inscriptions  in the region, at the detriment of the more ephemeral traces of the nomadic inhabitants of the Eastern Desert” (Barnard 2007).

However, matters are improving for all periods.  In the 1990s and early 2000s some additional research has been done into all periods which have helped to fill out the picture provided by the Eastern Desert, past and present.  Difficulties include terrain and problems of navigation.  Modern technologies like GPS and satellite photography have helped to improve the feasibility of research in the desert areas.  A number of research groups are now active in the Eastern Desert and are beginning to provide a much clearer picture of the Eastern Desert’s past.  In the El Gouna area, for example, the Belgian Middle Egypt Prehistoric Project are looking at early prehistory, Southampton University have been investigating the Roman quarry Mons Porphyritis, the Oriental Institute have been researching at the Byzantine mine at Bir Umm Fawakhir in the Wadi Hammamat, and the EDS and RATS surveys of rock art have added vast bodies of data for further consideration.  Bonnie Sampsell’s overview of the geology of Egypt has helped to put a lot of this into the context of topography and natural resources. 

Having said that, there is still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done before the understanding of the Eastern Desert approaches that of the Western Desert.  Surveys have focused on rock art and neglected archaeology, which means that what we know about archaeology is restricted either to conspicuous sites (mainly some Pharaonic sites, and the complex networked enterprises of Greek, Roman or Byzantine periods) or to the notoriously ambiguous information provided by the rock art and a number of inscriptions. The areas so far examined tend to fall within a very narrow band.  There is still an awful lot of survey work to do before the surface of Eastern Desert archaeology is even scratched.

Geographical Scope of Website

At the moment this website is concerned mainly with sites that are concentrated in the central zone of the Eastern Desert, in the wadis of the Red Sea Hills, which is where most of the research has been concentrated.  This is an accident of the areas concentrated upon by past research projects and these, in themselves, are probably an artefact of the permissions that survey teams were able to obtain from the Egyptian government.


This site has only very few photographs.  This allows the site to be accessed from a dial-up connection, and prevents problems with my web provider’s allocation of megabytes! 

The photographs that accompany the rock art section of the site are located at a separate site:  www.rockart.cd2.com. Other photographs are available on the web, and are listed on the Links page on this site.


Please see the About page to learn more about the author, the scope of the website, the contributors and the  people to whom I owe a very considerable debt of thanks.


Change Control

Please note that you may have to Refresh/Reload the page to see the changes.

Date of Change

Version Number



Change Details

30th August 2007





6th August 2007


Rock Art

Rock art analysis

Odds and ends

Eastern Desert rock art



Details about indigenous desert occupants updated

20th June 2007

Version 2.1.1c


Online Resources area

Instead of listing online resources as a random list, I have organized them under subject headings to make this section more user friendly.

19th June 2007

Version 2.1.1b



New references added



Data from Dittman 1993 added.


Middle Palaeolthic

Additional data about environmental conditions placed on the page (Dittman 1993)


Appendix L

New appendix, with a table summarizing Vinson’s 1994 boat/ship data

Appendix H

A few additional notes about modern inhabitants of the Eastern Desert

16th June 2007

Version 2.1.1a



Odds and ends, all referenced in the Bibliography



Updated with details from Monein 2005 paper on hydrology and geomorphology (references added to Bibliography)

15th June 2007

Version 2.1.1


Appendix A

Page formatting problems fixed.  Details of concerns about Qurta rock art added.

13th June 2007

Version 2.1



Updated with latest references


Appendix C

New timelines added



Notes from Shaw 2002 added re amethyst mines at Wadi el-Hudi

Graeco-Roman page

  • Notes added re nomadic occupants of the desert at this time
  • Notes re Bir Umm Fawakhir updated
  • Notes re Via Porphyrites added


  • Chronological table added to relate Eastern Desert occupation to Nile Valley, following Vermeersch 2002.
  • Narrative more closely tied in with the above Nile Valley chronology
  • Tarifian referred to
  • Tasian section updated
  • Summary re-written (not quite sure what happened with the original, but it didn’t make any sense at all – apologies for that!)

9th June 2007

Version 2.0



Complete update using a number of new references.   
More typos eliminated (and a few more added, I expect!)

26th May 2007




The Bibliography has been updated with additional references

Rock Art


The Rock Art gallery has been moved from the main navigation into the Rock Art section.  The Gallery, on www.rockart.cd2.com, has also been updated, with an introduction and additional captions

25th May 2007





24th May  2007


Entire Site


Checked for typos and inconsistencies in the structure of the content. 
The Interpretation content on the Rock Art Analysis page has been completely re-organized. 

18th May 2007


  • Blending Datasets
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix J – Site decoder
  • Appendix B – Sites under threat
  • Blending Datasets
  • Appendix J has been updated with a note re naming conventions in North Africa
  • Appendix A has been updated with information about rock art being stolen from the Theban area with a view to selling
  • The Blending Datasets page now has contents under a new sub heading entitled “Eastern Desert Context”

9th May 2007

Version 1.0

Entire Site


Launch version, with one appendix awaiting completion.  Lots of tweaking yet to be done.  All comments very welcome!

8th May 2007


Entire Site


Ongoing work to complete site

6th May 2007


Entire Site


Ongoing work to complete site

24th April 2007


Entire Site still under construction.  No pages complete.


Published in order to check performance of site.


Site Map

Click to open interactive site map



Copyright Andie Byrnes 2007