PREHISTORIC ART SITE IN SOUTHERN EGYPT DISCOVERED ALMOST 50 YEARS AGO NOW BEING DATED
A Canadian archeologist is being credited — nearly 50 years after the fact — with discovering a prehistoric petroglyph site in southern Egypt that is now being described as a "Lascaux-on-the-Nile" because of its similarity in age and style to France's world-famous, cave-wall gallery of Stone Age cattle, deer and horses.The inscribed Egyptian images of extinct wild oxen, hippopotami, fish, gazelle and other animals — now firmly dated to a time in the late Pleistocene era at least 15,000 years ago — are being hailed as the oldest rock art in North Africa and as a pivotal discovery in the evolution of artistic behavior by ancient humans.
It has taken nearly a half-century for experts to obtain a reliable age for the animal figures, which number close to 200 and are found etched into a sandstone cliff high above the banks of the Nile River at Qurta, about 600 kilometers southeast of Cairo. That's where the young Canadian scientist Philip Smith — a University of Toronto archeologist from Fortune, N.L. — was working in 1962 and 1963 as part of a federally sponsored series of "rescue" digs aimed at preserving traces of ancient Egyptian settlements before their potential destruction from the building of the Aswan Dam. Smith, who went on to a distinguished 40-year career at the University of Montreal, was probing an archeological site from thousands of years before the Egyptian pyramids were built when he "accidentally" discovered the carvings at Qurta.
Now 84 and long retired from archeological field work, Smith told Postmedia News that he remembers scrambling up the cliffs to take a photograph of a dig site on the plain below when he suddenly spied scores of animals carved into the rocks. "They were everywhere on the rock," Smith said. "But we weren't able to date it directly. At that time there was no way of dating art on the cliffs themselves." He recalls, though, that he "speculated that it was certainly pre-pharaohnic — before the pharaohs — and probably pre-neolithic, before the introduction of agriculture. But, of course, I wasn't able to go much further back than that."
Years passed. Then decades. No further study of the Qurta animal engravings was carried out, and even knowledge of their whereabouts was lost to a younger generation of scientists. Then, about five years ago, Belgian archeologists working on paleolithic sites in Egypt found evidence of prehistoric rock art at a different site and began a broader study that turned up the Canadian research at Qurta from the early 1960s. That led to the latest research on the Qurta carvings, to be published in the December edition of the journal Antiquity by a team of scientists from Belgium and the U.S.
They used a process called "optically stimulated luminescence" to test the wind-blown sediments accumulated on the etchings to determine the last time the most deeply buried grains of sand were exposed to sunlight. Their study pegs the creation of the artwork at between 15,000 and 19,000 years ago. That places the Egyptian carvings in roughly the same timeframe as the famous cave paintings of animals at Lascaux and other Ice Age sites in Europe.
"The paleolithic rock art at Qurta reveals that the well-known cave art of the late Pleistocene in Europe was not an isolated phenomenon," study co-author John Coleman Darnell, a Yale University professor of Egyptology, states in a summary of the study. "Qurta puts North Africa firmly in the world of the earliest surviving artistic tradition, and shows that tradition to have been geographically more widespread than heretofore imagined."
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