Using a new technology known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), a team of Belgian scientists and Professor John Coleman Darnell of Yale have determined that Egyptian petroglyphs found at the east bank of the Nile are about 15,000 years old, making them the oldest rock art in Egypt and possibly the earliest known graphic record in North Africa.
The site of the rock art panels is near the modern village of Qurta, about 40km south of the Upper-Egyptian town of Edfu. First seen by Canadian archaeologists in the early 1960s, they were subsequently forgotten and relocated by the Belgian mission in 2005. The rediscovery was announced in the Project Gallery of Antiquity in 2007.
The rock art at Qurta is characterized by hammered and incised naturalistic-style images of aurochs and other wild animals. On the basis of their intrinsic characteristics (subject matter, technique, and style), their patina and degree of weathering, as well as the archaeological and geomorphological context, these petroglyphs have been attributed to the late Pleistocene era, specifically to the late Palaeolithic period (roughly 23,000 to 11,000 ago). This makes them more or less contemporary with European art from the last Ice Age — such as the wall-paintings of Lascaux and Altamira caves.
“The palaeolithic rock art at Qurta reveals that the well-known cave art of the late Pleistocene in Europe was not an isolated phenomenon. Qurta puts North Africa firmly in the world of the earliest surviving artistic tradition, and shows that tradition to have been geographically more wide-spread than heretofore imagined,” commented Darnell, professor of Egyptology.
The authors of the study note that while archaeologists generally did not dispute the estimated age of the images, proof in the form of indirect or direct science-based dating had hitherto been lacking.
In 2008, an interdisciplinary team of scientists directed by Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels (Belgium) discovered partly buried rock art panels at one of the Qurta sites. The deposits covering the rock art, in part composed of wind-blown sediments, were dated at the Laboratory of Mineralogy and Petrology (Luminescence Research Group) of Ghent University (Belgium) using OSL dating. This technology can determine the time that has elapsed since the buried sediment grains were last exposed to sunlight and offers a direct means for establishing the time of sediment deposition and accumulation. Based on analysis provided through this method, it was determined that the petroglyphs at Qurta are at least 15,000 years old. This is the first solid evidence that the rock art dates from the Pleistocene age, making it the oldest graphic activity ever recorded in Egypt and the whole of North Africa.
The fieldwork for this study was funded by the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Endowment for Egyptology of the Yale Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. The laboratory analyses were supported by the Fund for Scientific Research – Flanders. In addition, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo and Vodafone Egypt offered administrative and logistical support.
The dating results will be published in the December issue of Antiquity (Vol. 85 Issue 330, pp. 1184–1193).