picture 1:Vieving the outside world, earth and sky, from inside the Cave of the Swimmers
Results of two 4WD-trips to Gebel Uweinat
and to the Gilf Kebir
Carlo Bergmann and Christian Kny
The aims of the winter 2009/10 4WD-trips to Gebel Uweinat and to the Gilf Kebir were:
A.) to continue the search for the last remaining way stations that are expected to have once existed on the section of the road to Yam and Tekhebet (RYT; previously named Tariq Abu Ballas – TAB) which lies in that region of Egyptian soil, between the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat.
From some of the settlement remains visible at the foot of the cave discovered by Borda near Peter and Paul (CC-21; Andras Zboray classification) (picture 2) and at the Kny-rock shelter, it now seems likely that these sites may possibly have functioned as RYT-way stations. Results of a TL- and a 14C age test expected in the near future may shed more light on this matter. If the tests are positive, the region in which the two settlements were found would have to be viewed as being still inhabited during 6th dynasty times and also at the end of the First Intermediate Period.
picture 2: rock paintings on the ceiling of the cave discovered by Borda (CC-21)
B.) to examine the known rock art sites at Gebel Uweinat and at the Gilf Kebir in order to:
- -> identify possible traces of Egyptian influence on the rock art of the area, especially at Wadi Sura (namely, in the Cave of the Swimmers (picture 1) and in the Foggini Cave (picture3)), which lies in the direction towards which the ancient Kufra Trail and its side paths are heading
- -> or, conversely, to identify elements in the material culture of the region´s prehistoric populations that would support the amazing work of Miroslav Barta (Professor of Egyptology, Charles University, Prague) carried out in November 2008 which proposes that early Egyptian mythological concepts have to be regarded as mere refinements of ideas developed amongst the Neolithic cultures of the Western Desert long before the pharaohs namely, the concept of chieftain or king, the etiological concept of the sky and earth and afterlife beliefs. (Miroslav Barta et al, Ostrovy Zapomneni. Dokoran 2009, pp. 69 – 76; see also Miroslav Barta, Swimmers in the Sand, Prague 2010, available through Amazon)
picture 3: rock paintings in the Foggini Cave, detail ; courtesy of Christian Philipp)
If the first conjecture holds true, these rock art motifs of the Gilf Kebir region which contain elements of the above concepts would have to be considered as “imports” from the Nile valley, thus being late corruptions of religious ideas and concepts of social stratification that echo cultural developments from the distant shores of that river, but there are serious objections to this idea. The Kufra Trail (see “The Kufra trail – another pharaonic period road to the southwest” on this website; in preparation) departs from the RYT at circa 40 kilometres southwest of Mery´s rock, descending from the western escarpment of the Gilf Kebir at a point in the close vicinity of Wadi Sura. Artifacts so far lifted from the trail have established that it was certainly in use in the period around 2,000 BC which places it in Middle Kingdom times, but is it at all conceivable that cultural concepts so evidently epitomised in the Wadi Sura rock art were brought along by Nile valley travellers on their way from Dakhla oasis to the west? To rule out such a possibility a careful survey of the area was deemed necessary.
The second view proposes a cultural diffusion travelling in the opposite direction. In this case the Wadi Sura rock art with its inherent religious ideas and indications of early social stratification have to be considered as independent developments of truly archaic age. With the exodus of the savannah/steppe population (from which the authors of the rock paintings definitely originate) at the end of the Neolithic Wet Phase (circa 5,300 BC) these mythological and social concepts were gradually transferred to the Nile valley where, much later they became key elements of Pharaonic civilization. Such a development would correspond well with the diffusion of a small body of written signs which were created around 4.600 BC in Biar Jaqub and which anticipated the hieroglyphs on the much later Pharaonic monuments (see “On the origins of the Pharaonic script” on this website).
On the 3/11/2010 we received the 14C dating results covering four out of the eight organic samples that were collected during the 2009/2010 surveys. Astonishingly, they revealed that the rock art in question may have been created around BP 6,800, cal BC 5,700 (hillock featuring settlement remains and a house-temple; two datings) and that the art embellished caves seem to have been frequented for ritual and religious reasons or for habitation purposes up to BP 5.500, cal BC 4,400 (Cave of the Swimmers) and BP 4,800, cal BC 3,600 (cave in the vicinity of the latter) thus, nullifying the first hypothesis mentioned above. These time values also modify Le Quellec´s assumption that had tentatively dated the Wadi Sura rock art to a period around 4,500 +/- 500 years BC. (J.-L. Le Quellec, Une nouvelle approche des rapports Nil-Sahara d´apres lárt rupestre. Archeo-Nil 15 (2005) p. 73) It will be interesting to see how the four remaining and eagerly awaited datings will fit into this remarkable chronology, the first archaeologically based chronology for the Wadi Sura area.
During a trip in the winter of 2002/3 my companion, Heino Wiederhold, and myself had tried in vain to reach Almasy´s Cave of the Swimmers from Dakhla by camel. We managed to reach the top of the western escarpment of the Gilf Kebir only a stone´s throw away from the famous site in the evening of the 1/21/2003 after a strenuous hike but shortage of water brought our lives to the brink of the abyss and in order to save ourselves, we were compelled, after only a few hours sleep at that spot, to commence the forced march back to Dakhla oasis together with our camels Amur, Maqfi and Rashid without having achieved anything. So at long last, thanks to the financial support of my fellow travellers to whom I feel greatly indebted (namely Christian Kny, Christian Philipp, Uwe George, Uwe Karstens and Dominik Stehle who covered the costs of the two expeditions; in addition to that, Christian Kny generously financed the age determinations ) it was possible, over the course of the winter 2009/2010 to resume the survey; an assignment which had been deferred for almost seven years and which has now yielded some quite remarkable results:
1) In pursuit of the objective outlined above, Uwe George, expedition leader, former editor and cofounder of GEO-Magazine, discovered a sandstone penis at Gebel Uweinat, measuring 2.30 metres in length. (picture 4) Presumably, this is the second Neolithic sculpture found so far in the Western Desert. The phallus comprises of two testicles and a clearly articulated glans. It is suggestive of utilization for ritual purposes.
picture 4: sandstone sculpture of a penis discovered by Uwe George
2.) In the vicinity of Gebel Babein we passed by an exceptionally large Neolithic settlement clustered along the shores of a former lake district where clearly visible blackish limnic sediments of considerable thickness and occurrences of aquatic molluscs bear witness to a once swampy still-water environment. Amidst the dwelling-remains my friend and tour operator Khaled Khalifa, had some years before, discovered a well preserved human skeleton (picture 5) next to which, a single exquisitely decorated pot had been found added as a grave good. A particular motif and traces of a burning technique seen on this ware indicate its old age and it will be interesting to learn exactly to which particular period and to which sedentary ethnic group this grave good belonged.
picture 5: deleted
quarrels regarding, inter alia, the correct way of presenting to readers the
skeleton which was found more or less uncovered at the foot of a dune, I now
concede to the desires of the two expedition members who performed the actual
(for photographical reasons only)
and who executed preliminary anthropometry. Accordingly, I delete picture 5
and instead, recommend to my readers
Recent_discoveries_in_egypt_keller_33.html where, on page “burial on dune” a rather manipulated photograph of the find is shown.Regretably, about the 4WD-trip to the Gilf Kebir, on which I took these guys along, Keller and Kny will publish a book of their own. I expect that more details of the find (particulars which I do not have at hand) will be presented in their publication, including the results of an anthropological analysis contributed by Dr. Bruno Kaufmann, Antropologisches Forschungsinstitut Aesch, Switzerland. Much to my astonishment, Kaufmann ventures to assign European traits to the corpse. (Kny, pers. comm.)
3.) Thanks to Khaled´s longstanding endeavours we also learned about a Neolithic site south-east of Wadi el Gubba, where my friend had spotted the bones of a large animal. At first glance the remains of the quadruped may be assigned to a cow or to a giraffe. If the latter is the case, the find would represent the northernmost occurrence of undated giraffe bones found so far in a settlement context in the Libyan desert.
4.) In the close neighbourhood of some impressive Neolithic rock art, two sacrificial altars were noticed. They attest to a possible ritual or even early religious function of sites that are ornamented with “sacred” or “mythical” iconography.
On our way to Gebel Uweinat we re-visited Biar Jaqub´s water-mountain outpost No 4 and noticed with amazement and also indignation that recently, my inscription had been eliminated. (picture 6) I had left my name including the date of discovery and a remark regarding my camels at the site which I found in February 2001 but obviously, Kuper can´t live with the fact that this location bears a memo of the event. For this reason he, according to hearsay, has ordered his team to eliminate my notes in Biar Jaqub and elsewhere in the desert; another sad example of his attempts to mould collective memory in his favour. To my knowledge, the last time such acts of barbarism happened after the death of pharaoh Echnaton (Amenophis IV; 1,351 – 1,334 BC), a promoter of ephemeral religious reforms, when the king´s successors erased his name, demolished his statues and defaced and destroyed his temples.
Picture 6: Recently erased inscription at Water Mountain Outpost No.4.
Original text: “Wasserberg outpost No 4 / discovered by Carlo Bergmann / + 2
camels / 26. 2.
(typing mistace, corrected 4/7/2010)”
Presumably, this winter´s 4WD-trips mark the end of my survey of Egypt´s Western Desert. During the course of these two recent journies I had to acknowledge that my right eye´s vision has worsened as, for the first time, I was unable to detect Jupiter´s moons at night. Engulfed in the silence of the desert I always enjoyed watching the sky during the hours of darkness, marvelling at its beauty. Such pleasure was already much reduced in October 2004, when my left eye was severely injured in a bus accident on the Cairo-Bahariya road. Bearing the fate of Theodore Monod in mind, I would rather acquiesce to the imperfections and wear and tear caused by my chosen way of life than to doggedly cling to the routines which I cheerfully followed during the past 29 years, but which now, for a poor-sighted man, have lost their meaning . May my camels who, for so many years, patiently carried my dreams, stay on their grazing grounds until they vanish away into dust!