Wadi surfaceContents


The following provides a brief summary of what the various datasets tell us about the use of the Eastern Desert from prehistoric times until the modern day.

Summary of Eastern Desert Usage

The Eastern Desert was clearly far more environmentally welcoming to life in the Middle Palaeolithic, when Sodmein Cave, Tree Shelter and the Bili Cave area were first occupied.  The range of species associated with the sites indicate much more humid conditions than those of today, and suggest that the Eastern Desert was a good area to exploit.

In the Upper Palaeolithic, when there is very little sign of any occupation in the Nile Valley, the Eastern Desert appears to have been occupied.  Artefacts occur at Laqeita and along the Read Sea coast, and two occupation phases are recorded at Sodmein Cave.  Conversely, there is no evidence to suggest that the Desert was occupied during the Late Palaeolithic, when occupation evidence increases dramatically in the Nile Valley.

In the Neolithic the Eastern Desert was occupied by groups herding sheep and goat, but no cattle.  The earliest of these may have come from the near East (or have been adopted by local groups in contact with the Near East), but other models are also under discussion.  It is possible that during the Badarian, the Eastern Desert formed part of a broader subsistence landscape, allowing Nile inhabitants to cultivate crops in the Nile floodplain and also be flexible about herding cattle beyond the floodplain, taking advantage of seasonal pastures in the desert areas.

If parallels between the the pottery of Naqada I/Naqada II and rock art are accepted, this would suggest that the Eastern Desert and the Nile Valley were occupied at the same time, but it is not known at this time whether the occupation would have been by the same groups using the Nile and the desert as part of a geographically wide ranging subsistence pattern, or by different groups employing different subsistence strategies to exploit different environments.  The former seems most likely, given the evidence for Tasian and Badarian type finds occurring in the desert.  The presence of Bedouin groups exploiting the resources of the Eastern Desert in Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Coptic and modern times  argue that there is no reason why the desert would not have been occupied in prehistoric times, when conditions were marginally better.

As I suggested in the summary at the end of the Predynastic page, it is probably to the time of the Predynastic, when land use was changing in the Eastern Desert, that the barriers between red and black earth became dominant as ideas:  “The relatively close cultural connections of the Badarian Period can be contrasted with the stark contrast between Red Land and Black Land that existed during the Pharaonic Period” (Majer 1992, p.228).

In the Pharaonic period the desert was used for its rocks and minerals.  The Eastern Desert was no longer integrated into the daily life of farmers.  It was now a land of expeditions and exploration.

During the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods the Desert was used for its rock and mineral resources.  Much of the archaeology is concerned with quarries, mines and the infrastructure of routes, watch towers and way stations that linked the Nile with its industrial centres and its Red Sea ports.  There is no evidence that the Eastern Desert was occupied by groups involved in any other type of activity at this time, although the presence of Bedouin is often implied.

At all times during its past and present, the Eastern Desert has been an important barrier to overcome for communication and travel to and from the Nile and the Red Sea.  Networks of ancient routes form a labyrinth throughout the desert, and some of these routes only become slightly less obscure during Pharaonic and more clearly during the Graeco-Roman-Byzantine periods when the infrastructure was a requirement of trade and industrial projects. 

Today, the Eastern Desert is arid, but it is still occupied by a number of Bedouin tribes. 

Current Status of Research

At the moment there are a small number of initiatives taking place in the Eastern Desert.  Barriers to fully integrated research have been described elsewhere on this site, but have included military restrictions, difficult topography, a greater emphasis on rock art research than archaeological survey, and prioritization on other areas which are considered to be more at risk.

Those initiatives that are taking place have produced some very interesting results, which are valuable in their own right, but also point to the fact that there is probably a vast amount of archaeological and rock art data still to be discovered.  Environmental evidence would hopefully become available on the back of archaeological excavation.  Interpretation of the archaeology of the Eastern Desert will not be complete until more data has been assembled, so that a more coherent narrative can be constructed.

The Challenge of the Eastern Desert

The Eastern Desert is associated with two main problems which are directly relevant to marrying archaeological data with rock art depictions:

  • The shortage of archaeological surveys conducted so far in the Eastern Desert
  • The lack of direct dates, or convincing relative dates, for rock art images

The challenge currently facing students of Eastern Desert archaeology is to evaluate the areas of the Eastern Desert in terms of human socioeconomic activity, at different times of occupation, with minimal available data.

The future challenges are to try to fill the gaps in the data by survey and excavation based on detailed research proposals.  The topography of the Eastern Desert inevitably makes this difficult, but there are clear indications that the archaeology is there to be found if searches are made.  Hobbs (1989) comments on two separate occasions that he has visited archaeological remains that appear to be prehistoric – surface scatters and hearths.  Hobbs is an anthropologist, not an archaeologist, but he appears to be well informed.  These sites known to the Ma’aza Bedouin, together with those already identified, particularly by the Belgian Middle Egypt Prehistoric Project, may very well be the tip of a much larger iceberg.  Certainly, the ability of the Vermeersch and his team to pick an area near Gouna and in the space of one short season find significant remains argues that it might be possible to do this anywhere in the desert.

The difficulties provided by the topography should not be underestimated.  Whilst some of the wadis are huge and very easily found, parts of the desert are a maze on tributaries and channels which are very difficult to navigate.  Hobbs (1989) describes a trip across the Galala Plateau, which is a maze of wadis, within which even his Bedouin companions became repeatedly lost.

  • Surveys
    • Rock art
    • Archaeology
      • Environment
      • Land use
  • Testing hypotheses

Another frustration is the lack of a centralized post-survey/excavation resource.  It would be truly useful to be able to Search for, view and compare data from, for example, the Eastern Desert, the Egyptian Nile, the Nubian Nile and the Western Desert – not to mention other Near Eastern and north African areas.

Future Research

There are a number of avenues of research which could usefully be followed. 

In the field, some of the research avenues are very obvious – the excavation of known sites and the search for unknown sites are the most obvious tasks that need to be carried out.

The research of existing data is always going to be hampered by the awareness that the combined datasets are probably failing to represent the archaeology of the Eastern Desert, precisely because of the absence of sufficient excavation and survey data.  However, even with insufficient data for firm conclusions, sufficient data does exist for hypotheses to be formed which will help to frame research projects in answer to a number of questions.  Some of these hypotheses could be expanded with existing data, to be assessed against new data at a later date.

Research questions have been framed by a number of different writers, both in generic terms globally, and specifically to Eastern Desert rock art. 

Morrow and Morrow (2002, p.21) provide the following list of future research requirements for the Eastern Desert (quoted word from word from page 21):

  • Identify patterns of movement within the wadis and the eras during which such patterns existed
  • Explain the predominance of boats and orant figures within this data set in the context of the paucity of such imagery among otherwise similar examples of rock art in neighbouring areas, e.g. Nubia, Sudan, the Libyan and Sahara deserts and Saudi Arabia
  • Account for the ‘battle’ scenes depicted in Cervicek’s Horizon F, tentatively regarded as of Blemyan origin, and interpret the many signs/tribal marks attributed to Blemyan/Wudum customs
  • Establish lineal relationships between rock art images and later Pharaonic traditions, e.g. the apparent link between the ‘boat-towing’ scenes i the desert petroglyphs and funerary barques
  • Determine whether or not specific rock art conventions can be tabulated and dated within topographical areas
  • Produce a detailed relative chronology for the appearance and disappearance of faunal populations, to assist placement of rock art depictions within time horizons
  • Produce an acceptable definition and description of the boat types

As quoted on the Rock Art Analysis page, Craig Alexander has come up with a useful set of questions, referring specifically to landscape use and diachronic issues, which could be usefully asked in relation to Eastern Desert rock art as well as his own localized focus on Italian Alpine rock art that belong to the same periods, or whose age can be determined over periods of time.  Some of the questions relevant to the Eastern Desert are reproduced here (Alexander 2006, p.20-21 WR):

  • Are they at similar altitudes?
  • Are they near known settlements?
  • Are they on particular soil-types?
  • Does their distribution coincide with likely activity areas?
  • Do they coincide with expected paths between settlements (or, more broadly, the valley floor) and higher land?
  • Are the sites intervisible?
  • Are they interaudible?
  • Which sites were re-used over time?
  • Are they simply the easiest of access?
  • What are their characteristics?
    • Are they close to water?
    • Close to paths?
    • At places of greater than average viewshed?
    • At places of enhanced visual exposure?
  • Do certain petroglyphs from one period typically co-occur with certain types from earlier periods?
  • Do the locational characteristics of sites with a predominance of later petroglyph forms differ from those with a predominance of earlier forms?
  • What does this tell us about the changing interrelationships of people, activities and land?
  • More general questions also suggest themselves: Are particular petroglyphs typically oriented in particular ways (as Barfield & Chippindale 1997 suggest can be the case)?
  • How are large and small petroglyph panels situated relative to each other and to other landscape features, both geologic/hydrologic and anthropogenic?

My own interests would like, also, in looking at the relationships between different areas at different periods, using different datasets to suggest possible connections and then examining other data to assess them.



I have the impression that the Eastern Desert could be of considerable importance for attempting to understand the use of different environments and raw materials in Egypt – both diachronically, and by comparison with contemporary regions.  The considerably different topography of Eastern and Western Deserts, the Nile Valley and the Delta have offered very different opportunities, but at the moment the fragmented nature of research throughout these areas means that comparative regional studies and comparison of diachronic developments are very difficult to reproduce.

Future work should clarify the past lives of the Eastern Desert, as every new discovery appears to open whole new vistas into our understanding of how marginal areas were used and how they were perceived.


Copyright Andie Byrnes 2007

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