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13 April 2012
Palaeolithic rock art at risk in Egypt

In 2007, one of the most important recent archaeological discoveries in Egypt was made in Wadi Abu Subeira, near Aswan: A team led by Adel Kelany of the Supreme Council of Antiquities found a stunning assemblage of petroglyphs dating to the Late Palaeolithic era, circa 15-20,000 years ago.
     The rock art is comparable to the better-known occurrences at Qurta, 50 kilometres to the north, where Dirk Huyge and his Belgian team has recently confirmed this type of rock art as definitely belonging to the Late Palaeolithic era, and thus comparable to the great "Ice-Age" art in Europe - especially in the Late Magdalenian period. According to Huyge, the Egyptian occurrences clearly "introduce a new set of challenges to archaeological thought".
     Fifteen to twenty thousand years ago the waters of the Nile were much higher than today, with the broad Wadi Abu Subeira perhaps reaching several kilometres into the Eastern Desert - a great habitat for wildlife in the otherwise hyper-arid environment, and a great place for humans to fish and hunt, and to access the interior of the desert and perhaps the Red Sea.
     It was along this wadi that the Late Palaeolithic people made their art. They pecked many aurochs (wild ox), hartebeest, fish, hippopotami, and even a very large, beautifully executed Nubian ibex. Over the millennia, erosion has probably destroyed many pictures, and most are now found on boulders and slabs. However, some are still in-situ, implying that it is possible to reconstruct site distribution.
     Wadi Abu Subeira was also a place of great mineral wealth for ancient peoples. The slopes feature massive amounts of silicified sandstone (quartzite), used for making tools as far back as the Early Palaeolithic. The stone was superior for making grinders, an activity that may have started in the Late Palaeolithic, which saw the small beginnings of "proto-agriculture" - the systematic collection and processing of wild plants.
     Like the rest of the Aswan region, Wadi Abu Subeira is also rich in iron ore - hematite and ochre. When ground to pigment, Palaeolithic and later humans made heavy use of the wonderful red colour. It is thus very likely that the Subeira deposits were exploited in the Palaeolithic.
     There is still a need for red pigments, and hematite and ochre can be made into steel. Iron mining in the wadi has greatly intensified after new concessions were given to various companies by the Egyptian mining authorities - concessions so extensive they may wipe out nearly all archaeology from the wadi.
     Until recently, the greatest risk was related to clay mining for the Egyptian ceramics industry. However, since the clay is occurring in thin layers, most of the work was underground, and Adel Kelany and his team have been able to work with the clay mining companies to ensure as little destruction of archaeology as possible.

Edited from Archaeology & Conservation Services (6 April 2012)

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