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10 December 2011
Oldest rock art in Egypt discovered

Using a new technology known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), which can determine the time that has elapsed since buried sediment grains were last exposed to sunlight, 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 rock art, situated near the modern village of Qurta, on the east bank of the Nile about 40km south of the Upper-Egyptian town of Edfu, is characterized by hammered and incised naturalistic-style images of aurochs and other wild animals. On the basis of their intrinsic characteristics, their patina and degree of weathering, as well as the archaeological and geomorphological context, these petroglyphs had been attributed to the late Pleistocene era, roughly 23,000 to 11,000 ago.
     In 2008, a team of scientists discovered partly buried rock art panels at one of the sites. The deposits covering the rock art, in part composed of wind-blown sediments, were dated recently at the Laboratory of Mineralogy and Petrology of Ghent University (Belgium). This testing revealed a minimum date at least 15,000 years ago for the creation of these artworks, making them more or less contemporary with European art from the last Ice Age - such as the wall-paintings of Lascaux and Altamira caves.
     How can we explain that the rock art of Qurta, executed in Egypt over about 15,000 years ago, is stylistically so similar to what we discern in Ice Age Europe at about the same time? Can one speak of direct influence or cultural exchange over such a long distance? It is not as improbable as it seems. Finds of Pleistocene rock art in southern Italy and Sicily bear analogies to the Egyptian rock art. In northern Libya, near the coast, a cave site is known with similar naturalistic images of aurochs. Considering the fact that the level of the Mediterranean Sea at the time of the last Ice Age was at least 100m lower than it is today, it cannot be excluded that Palaeolithic people established an intercontinental exchange of iconographic and symbolic concepts.
     "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 John Darnell.

Edited from Yale News (10 November 2011), Antiquity (December 2011)

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