Dating Egypt's Oldest `Art': AMS [sup.14]C Age Determinations of Rock Varnishes Covering Petroglyphs at El-Hosh (Upper Egypt)

Article excerpt

The occurrence of rock art in the vicinity of the village of El-Hosh, situated on the west bank of the Nile, about 30 km south of Edfu (FIGURE 1), had been known for over a century (Chester 1892), but until our 1998 mission the petroglyphs had not been properly documented. The rock art at El-Hosh includes a substantial number of archaic-looking, curvilinear designs, capped with mushroom-shaped protuberances, and associated in a number of cases with a wide range of abstract motifs, anthropomorphic figures and zoomorphs. Our aim was to establish the chronological and cultural-historical framework for these petroglyphs by sampling carbon-bearing substances in patina and rock varnish formed within them. That carbon could then be applied for direct dating using the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) [sup.14]C method (Tuniz & Watchman 1994; Watchman 2000). We describe here the main results of this procedure indicating that part of the rock art at El-Hosh pre-dates the early 7th millennium BP (mid 6th millennium cal BC). It is therefore well beyond the age of any other graphic activity recorded in the Nile Valley.


Curvilinear `fish trap' designs

The 1998 rock-art survey was conducted in a 6x2-km stretch along the Nile between the village of El-Hosh in the north and the mouth of the Wadi el-Shatt el-Rigal in the south. A multitude of rock-art sites was located containing several thousands of petroglyphs. Some of these had already been briefly explored in 1926 and 1937 by the VIII. Deutsche Inner-Afrikanische Forschungsexpedition (Cervicek 1974:37-9) and the Sir Robert Mond Desert Expedition respectively (Winkler 1938: 9; 1939: 5).

On the basis of its principal subject matter (boats, anthropomorphic figures and various species of animals), the bulk of the rock art at El-Hosh belongs to the late prehistoric (Predynastic) and early dynastic periods (~4000-2650 BC). Many of the themes represented can closely be related to the iconographical repertoire of the early Nilotic pastoral-agricultural civilizations. There are, however, a substantial number of intensively patinated, curvilinear designs, capped with mushroom-shaped or cordiform protuberances, that appear to date from another epoch. Three different sites with such archaic-looking designs were identified: Gebelet Jussef, Abu Tanqurah Bahari and Abu Tanqurah Kebli. These sites, large rocky exposures (isolated hills) of Early Cretaceous Nubian sandstone, are further subdivided in petroglyph localities and rock-art panels, often containing many engravings (FIGURE 2). Frequently appearing in small clusters, and on occasion as isolated figures (FIGURE 3), in a considerable number of cases these curvilinear designs are seemingly associated with a wide range of abstract and figurative motifs, including circles, ladder-shaped drawings, human figures, footprints and crocodiles.


The El-Hosh curvilinear designs may be representations of fish traps (Huyge 1998a; 1998b), as their outlines bear remarkable similarities to the ground plan of a universally known fish-trapping device, namely the labyrinth fish fence (Von Brandt 1984: 163-5). The general purpose of such a trap is to channel and barricade fish into a confined space (a catching chamber) where they can easily be speared, netted or simply collected by hand. Textual and iconographical evidence (from both classical authors and modern ethnographers) attests to the use of this kind of fishing gear in the Nile Valley and the Delta (Brewer & Friedman 1989: 31-2; Boulanger 1907: xlii-iii). Importantly, the remains of possible early examples of such traps, built of piled-up stone blocks, have been recovered in Lower Nubia (Myers 1958).

Remarkably, the El-Hosh rock art contains several examples of superimposition in which these `fish trap' designs are superimposed by `stylized', bushy-tailed giraffe drawings. …