Archaeology, Rock Art and Landscape

Patrick and TonyContents



The idea of this page was to blend data from archaeology, rock art and environmental research areas to pull together a coherent sense of how the Eastern Desert was used and experienced at different times.  I planned this page from the beginning, believing that it would be the binding element that would give the information presented on this site some real cohesion.  Unfortunately, it did not work out quite the way I planned.  The fact of the matter is that there is neither sufficient archaeological data nor sufficient work into the rock art in the entire Eastern Desert to enable a meaningful blending of the two datasets.  However, I thought that it would be useful to use the page to highlight some of the problems and opportunities that exist.

Most archaeologists and rock art experts agree that rock art should not, in an ideal world, be seen out of its geographical, environmental and archaeological contexts.  This is not always easy to arrange, and the Eastern Desert presents particular challenges.

Smith (1967) whose highly articulate paper speaks a remarkable amount of sense about Saharan rock art, states that “while prehistoric art is always valuable as a supplementary interpretative device, it is a dangerous tool when used alone.  Even in the highly details and specific scenes of human activities found in the Sahara, many of the events  are ambiguous and susceptible to several interpretations” (p.30).  Smith goes on to express his own opinion on the subject of using rock art: “In the last analysis we cannot consider the art as a phenomenon in its own right divorced from the lives of the groups responsible nor can we be content with regarding it as a mystical or spiritual manifestation.  We must search for an understanding  of the contexts which give rise to the art – whether it was locally invented or borrowed – and which permitted or required it to develop as it did” (p.33).  One of my archaeological heroines, Gertrude Caton-Thompson, agrees:  “the first prerequisite of for fruitful speculation on the age of rock pictures must lie with a knowledge of the prehistory of the area in which they occur” (1952

This page therefore takes a very cautious look at some of the ways in which the archaeology of the Eastern Desert has been and might be married to the rock art. 

The Environment

Environmental conditions have fluctuated throughout the entire period of human occupation in Egypt.  The most humid period appears to have been the Middle Palaeolithic, represented at Sodmein Cave. 

In the Neolithic period the desert was quite clearly occupied by groups herding sheep and goat.  Evidence from the Badarian period suggests that the desert was still inhabitable at least on a seasonal basis in the late prehistoric period. 

The petroglyphs that line wadi rock surfaces, and which show similarities to Naqada I ceramics, again indicate that the Eastern Desert was still a useful resource for herders and hunters, but it may be that either social or climatic factors favoured a more centralized occupation along the banks of the Nile. 

It is certainly clear that by the time that the Old Kingdom was established the desert areas had become largely uninhabitable due to increasing aridity, and had ceased to be used as a consistent resource.

A consideration of the distribution of the boat images associated with distinctive figures (the giants and loop-armed figures) as a category of rock art in its own right might reveal a pattern of geographical or topographical choice that could help to find a direction for future investigations and inquires.  The presence today of vegetation in some wadis in surprising volume may indicate areas which were comparatively lush in more humid periods – this might be a good way to begin a search for both rock art and archaeology, and to see if different highly localized modern environments are balanced by different volumes of each.  Similarly, matching up rock and mineral locations with rock art depictions might help to establish some sort of consistent association between image type and resource location.  These ideas are all somewhat random, and it is clear that a proper research plan is required, and further surveys undertaken on the back of that, before the distribution of the rock art (and the archaeology) is ever to be understood.

The Human Landscape

As described in the previous section, unlike art that is associated with specific monuments, topographical features or well-defined locations, like abstract Neolithic Boyne art in Ireland, which is directly associated with a funerary tradition, or Upper Palaeolithic paintings in France which are directly associated with caves, the rock art of the Eastern Desert is engraved into exposed rock surfaces which don’t appear at first glance to be associated with any obviously outstanding topographic features or archaeological sites. 

The more I read about and look at the Eastern Desert petroglyphs, the more they appear, rather, to represent an archaeology of landscape, of the type emphasized by research groups like ACACIA (Arid Climate Adaptation and Cultural Innovation in Africa), and researched by rock art specialists in other parts of the world, like Bradley (1994) and Searight (2004).  These approaches emphasize that geography is part of a human group’s interactive relationship with its environment, and see rock art as an inherent part of that:  “rock art is among the archeological phenomena that use the natural landscape in a most distinctive way” (Bradley 1994, p.100).

Rock art is part of a landscape.  Landscape, in this sense, is the environment and topography that are incorporated into human activities, and is a fundamentally human concept.  In areas where there are few people and life is inherently mobile, the idea of landscape, which includes favoured routes, landmarks and seasonally familiar routines, takes into account not only the signs of life that we can see, but the ideas and beliefs with which humans imbue that landscape.  Landscape can incorporate both highly localized elements like topographic features, individual trees, certain types of animal, and specific water sources (Hobbs 1989, p.84-86), but it can also incorporate the larger elements of sky, stars, light, darkness and rainfall.  The scope of a perceived landscape varies according to type of subsistence strategy and the degree to which this involves sedentism or mobility, industrial exploitation or a mixture of all.

The entire northeastern Saharan area, of which the Eastern Desert is only one very small part, is clearly a landscape in this sense, with rock art, seasonal settlements and far more temporary occupations marked by small artefact scatters and hearths. Landscapes are used and sometimes modified by humans, but in a way which is much less easy to define than settlements clearly defined over and above a landscape. 

The Eastern Sahara sites of the Early and Mid Holocene provide a sense of this landscape – vast areas of land with which humans have a specific and organized relationship, either in terms of how they move through it, or how they exploit it at different times for different purposes.  In the Western Desert, there are rich archaeological remains both in areas where rock art is found, and where it is not.  In the Eastern Desert it is often the rock art alone that provides an impression of a landscape that was interacted with, valued, and was part of human life in a very fundamental way from prehistory to modern times.


I have discussed the dating of the Eastern Desert rock art on the rock art page.  Following on from that, the only definitive dates available come from the archaeological data outlined on the Archaeology page. Vinson’s chronological analysis (1987) probably offers the best hope for a scheme that ties in dated Nile contexts with rock art images.  Some of the inscriptions are chronological markers in their own right – inscriptions from Pharaonic, Greek and Roman periods are often well tied into existing chronological systems, some only broadly, but some very specifically. 

With respect to early archaeology, until direct dates can be obtained, or a research project is able to develop a convincing and generally agreed upon scheme that can tie in rock art motifs with other archaeological data, I can see no way of forming a reliable view of rock art chronology.

The proximity of archaeological data to rock art motifs may form the basis of research projects which test hypotheses about chronological schemes.  

Attempts to blend archaeology and rock art

Unfortunately, it is out of the scope of this page (and this person!) to attempt to apply any of the methodological approaches described so briefly on the Rock Art Analysis page, and there are very few studies that have attempted any of these approaches in the Eastern Desert. Those attempts that have been made to blend the rock art with other archaeological datasets of the Eastern Desert are discussed here. 

The most common approach to the blending of archaeology with rock art is the application of rock art to archaeological data by comparison with motifs on artefacts in Egypt and elsewhere.  In Eastern Desert studies this was pioneered in the early 1900s and used to examine hypotheses about the unification of Egypt.

An early theory by Frankfort (1924), and later developed by both Kantor, suggested that the Eastern Desert was used as a route for Mesopotamian invaders who invaded Egypt via the Wadi Hammamat and the Red Sea, having come by boat from the Persian Gulf. It was taken up and promoted by Kantor.   This approach was supported by Winkler (1938), who suggested that the rock art engravings of flat-bottomed boats with vertical prows and sterns were Mesopotamian vessels quite unlike the sickle shaped boats on Gerzean (Naqada II) pottery.  This attempt to compare and contrast rock art motifs with those on ceramics was probably the clearest of the early attempts to understand rock art and try to tie it in to other archaeological data – in this case motifs on other aartefacts.  Marks (1997), whose work is discussed on the Eastern Desert Rock Art page, has dealt with this thoroughly, seeing Mesopotamian connections with Egypt throughout various periods, but via a route through the Delta, which was of a commercial rather than military/invasive nature.  He also considered the boat images of the rock art, comparing them against the artefacts that are traditionally used in arguments in favour of an Eastern Desert link with Mesopotamia, and rejected them convincingly on the grounds of style and features.

It has been demonstrated that some of the rock art data does share certain themes with archaeological data elsewhere in Egypt.

Cattle are shown liberally in the Eastern Desert and all over the northeastern and central Sahara (e.g. Tassili n’Ajjer, Chad and the Nile Valley).  Elsewhere in northeast Africa, cattle burials are known from Adrar Bous (Niger) from 6200 BP.  Although there is nothing specifically in the Eastern Desert to support the idea that cattle had a particular significance, there is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in Egypt.  Cattle burials were made in the Western Desert (at c.6740BP) and the Nile Valley (from the Badarian at c.4400 BC).  The Badarian cattle burials are of particular interest in the context of the Eastern Desert rock art, due to the suggestions that the Eastern desert may have been an extension of Badarian territory for the pasturing of herds on a seasonal basis.

Boats have been analyzed at some length by Vinson (1987) who has been able to find convincing correspondences between Eastern Desert petroglyphs and archaeological data of the Nile Valley at a number of different periods.  The observations that he and Hoffman (1979) make about the proximity of the images to the Nile rather than the Red Sea seem to suggest that the images are probably the work of Nile inhabitants rather than that of foreign invaders or Red Sea inhabitants.  Beyond these remarks it is difficult to draw any conclusions, except to point out the obvious, which is that Nile Valley inhabitants who were familiar with boats were using the Eastern Desert at different periods either for its resources or as a through-route to the Red Sea.  The only human figures that show clear resemblance with Nile Valley examples are the loop-armed figures that appear on Naqada II ceramics in conjunction with ostrich and boat images.  Again, this implies a connection between the Predynastic occupants of the Nile Valley and the use of the Eastern Desert, but does not necessarily suggest anything more useful. Hunting and herding scenes, and depictions of both wild and domesticated animals, imply the uses made by people of the Eastern Desert, and might date to any time period, although the data suggests that most of these type of images are most likely to belong to the Predynastic period. 

The presence of Badarian and Tasian burials in the Eastern Desert is difficult to tie into any rock art data, because there is no correspondence visible between the two types of iconography represented, except in terms of plumed figures. 

Similarly, although it is known that the Eastern Desert was used during the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Byzantine and later times, and continues to be used to this day by the Bedouin, it is difficult to make any judgement about which images, if any, would have been sketched onto the rock faces during these times.  It is certainly the case that images  and texts from later periods can appear side by side, but it is not clear whether they were contemporary or were separated by significant time periods.

An interesting approach, mentioned previously, was attempted by Douglas Brewer who hypothesized that rock art was often created by ancient pastoralists who required grazing for their herds. So Brewer worked on the theory that art would be more abundant on specific soil types that could produce grasses under the rainier conditions that existed in the area from 3,000 to 5,000 B.C. The idea proved to be very successful for locating rock art (Petersen 2006).  It would be interesting to know more about this project, but unfortunately it has not yet been published.

Finally, detouring briefly to Morocco, Searight’s (2004) was able to compare animal remains found in archaeological deposits with animal depictions, and found that “of the wild animals, only antelopes figured at the top of both lists.  The other animals engraved were rarely found during archeological excavation while, on the contrary, excavations brought to light remains of animals very rarely engraved” (2004 p.85). Although no firm conclusions can be drawn from this finding, it again shows how archaeological data can be used to establish relationships between different datasets.

The Eastern Desert in Context

I have mentioned elsewhere that it is important not to view the Eastern Desert in isolation, but to put it into a larger geographical and socio-economic context.  This is difficult to do at the moment, for all of the oft-repeated reasons, but there are a number of avenues that offer the potential for comparative studies. 

Friedman and Hobbs (2002) looked at the relationships between Tasian type artefacts found in the Eastern Desert at Wadi Atulla and compared it with examples found in the Western Desert.  They see a correspondence between the sites, which may indicate a connection between the Eastern and Western Deserts.  Related pottery is also found in the Nile Valley, which may also indicate evidence for interaction between different distinct areas of Egypt. The beakers are the characteristic feature that suggest a link between the Nile Tasian and the Eastern Desert examples, although there are many differences which are important and indicate that the desert and Nile groups, while possibly in contact, were significantly different.

The Theban Desert Road Project (Darnell and Darnell various seasons WR) has begun to open up a view of routes across the Qena curve, and from the Western Desert to Nile.  It is quite clear that the Western Desert was crossed by a maze of routes throughout its past. Extensive data indicates that there were connections between the Western Desert and the Nile from Predynastic times.  Darnell (2002, p.156) confirms that “desert routes are an important and formerly untapped source of information about the origins and development of the ancient Egyptian civilization, as well as the enterprising character of both Nile Valley and desert dwellers in traversing the barren expanses of the Eastern Sahara”.  She goes on to highlight that there are clear signs that the occupants of the Western Desert, who probably had close cultural affinities with cultures further afield, entered the Nile Valley at the south of the Qena curve, from which area they could travel across the Qena curve, and head north towards Abydos or south towards Hierakonpolis (Darnell 2002, p.157). It would be interesting to see what, if any relationship, these Nile-terminating routes had with  some of some of the Eastern Desert to Red Sea routes which begin/terminate in the same areas.  One of the datasets that might assist with this is, in fact, rock art – for example it has been suggested that the Cave of Pegs and the Wadi el-Hol rock art includes some early examples, and it would be interesting to see if these bore any relationship to the Eastern Desert examples.  At the moment the Cave of Pegs has produced pottery that has affinities with both Nubia and the western areas of the Western Desert, possibly throughout the Predynastic, but nothing that indicates any connections with the Eastern Desert.

The Tasian, mentioned in connection with the Eastern Desert (Friedman and Hobbs 2002) is also mentioned by Darnell and Darnell (1997-98 WR) in connection with caves at the entrance to one of the branches of the Wadi el-Hol. Although badly damaged by looters, the caves appear to contain Predynastic burials.  At least one adult and a juvenile are represented, accompanied by dog bones which appear to be contemporary with the remains, leather garments, fragments of a quartz palette with green malachite staining, a piece of a large shell, a number of white feathers and many fragments of black pottery.  The pottery appears to be of Tasian type, and this designation is consistent with the fact that Tasian groups used stone other than slate for the manufacture of their palettes:  “As a preliminary conclusion, we suggest that have here a Tasian burial, at a point on a Western Desert road suggesting that the Tasian culture entered the Nile Valley from elsewhere.  The use of quartz for our Tasian palette suggests a Nubian connection to the Tasians, or at least to the Tasians buried in the caves on the Farshut Road.  The probable presence of a dog buried with the people would also be consistent with Nubian desert dwellers (Darnell and Darnell 1997-1998 WR).  They go on to suggest that this supports Friedman’s conclusion that Tasians were a nomadic people with whom Nile Valley people interacted during the Badarian and Naqada I periods.  These conclusions would be well worth examining in the light of the Tasian burial discovered in the Eastern Desert.  It also suggests that closer examination of relationships between Nubian and Egyptian areas of the Eastern Desert would be worth examining.  In this piece the, the mention of feathers is also of interest, given that plumed head-dresses apparently appear on vases in the Nile Valley and in rock art in the Eastern Desert.

Ceramic comparisons may also yield results.  At the site Qarn el-Ginah in Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert, Badarian pottery was found (Darnell and Darnell 1997-1998 WR), and (MacDonald WR) points to Badarian pottery at sites MD22 and dMD36 also at Kharga.  Badarian ceramics are, of course, best known from Middle Egypt, but examples are also known in the Eastern Desert.  This indicates that the groups of the Badarian period were using a wide range of desert resources that could well have spanned both wadi environments of the Eastern Desert and at least one oasis of the Western Deserts, as well as the Nile Valley.

The relationship between Dakhleh Oasis and the Nile Valley during the Badarian would also be worth examining.  The Dakhleh Predynastic sequence is divided into three cultural units:  Bashendi A, Bashendi B and Sheikh Muftah.  Bashendi A predates the Badarian, but Bashendi B overlaps both the Badarian and the earliest parts of Naqada I.  Similarities between the lithic toolkits of the oasis and the Nile Valley are striking, with lithics typical of late Bashendi A and characteristic of all of the Bashendi B period appearing in both Dakhleh and Badarian Nile locations.  This again argues for an early use of different types of ecology and topography by groups using Badarian tool kits.  This sequence is echoed in Kharga oasis (Macdonald WR):  “The assemblages at many of these sites are very similar to those described for Dakhleh, suggesting that the oases, linked by the Plateau Escarpment that borders them both, constituted a single cultural entity through much fo the early and mi-Holocene”. 

In the Late Predynastic and/or Early Dynastic periods a type of ceramic artefact often referred to as ‘lampshade cylinders’ or Clayton Rings, which are open at both ends, and taper from one end to the other is found in the Western and Eastern Deserts, but do not appear in the Nile Valley.  Although most of the Cave of Pegs artefacts belong to no more recently than Naqada III (until the Coptic period) these items may indicate that the rock art within the cave could have been carried out any time between the Badarian and the end of the 2nd Dynasty.  Again, it would be useful to compare the presence of the lampshade cylinder distribution in Eastern and Western Deserts, and compare this with rock art distribution to see if there are any correspondences.  Unfortunately their function is unknown. 

In later periods, horse and, much later still, camel opened up the opportunities for longer distance travel. The Theban Desert Road Project has unearthed a “road of horses”, the main Farshut Road, which may have been a “pony express” type route (Darnell and Darnell 1997-98 WR).  In their 1995-1996 report, the Darnells state that “As impressive as the distances covered by ancient Egyptian desert travelers is the extent of pharaonic activity in the desert between the Nile Valley and the oases. As a result of our work, we can now identify one or more major routes in use across the Qena bend during every period from predynastic times to the present. This information has implications for understanding not only the use of the desert (for trade, military endeavors, religious purposes, etc.) but also broader topics, such as patterns of population concentration and geographical determinants of political history” (Darnell and Darnell 1995-1996 WR).  How all these desert routes inter-related throughout the Pharaonic period must be of considerable interest, helping to cast light on the role of deserts and oases in different Nile locations. 


As I have said elsewhere on this site, it seems clear that there is simply not enough archaeological data to form detailed hypotheses about the distribution and meaning of Eastern Desert rock art.  I suspect that the key to working out how the Eastern Desert was used, particularly during the prehistoric and Predynastic periods, is to develop and carry out intensive field work programmes based on hypotheses that are formed on the basis of existing knowledge of rock art distribution.  This runs counter to a number of other rock art research, which work from the archaeology forwards (e.g. Bradley 1994; Anati 1999) and is probably the most logical approach where sufficient archaeological data is available.

Without this work, comparative studies are in danger of being very one-sided.  comparative studies are going to be key in any attempts to understand how different ecologies and landscapes were used in Egypt over time



Copyright Andie Byrnes 2007

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