Plea to Protect Predynastic Rock Art to Save the Deep Past of Egypt

August 10, 2023

In some of the harshest landscapes found anywhere in Egypt, archaeologists have discovered a stunning collection of petroglyphs (rock art) and inscriptions that date from the fifth millennium BC up through the first millennium AD. The former images are especially remarkable, since they show that the roots of the revered ancient Egyptian culture can be traced all the way back to the Neolithic period .

To make sure these prehistoric petroglyphs are recorded, Egyptologists from the University of Bonn in Germany and Aswan University in Egypt are planning to create a database of all the rock paintings they can find in the southern Egyptian desert near Aswan, where most of these images are located. This is being done at least in part because the rock art is currently threatened by construction-related activity taking place in the area.

The culture of ancient Egypt has been studied, written about and explored by scientists and historians for centuries. But before the earliest pharaohs united the dispersed peoples of Egypt around 3,100 BC, a rich and vibrant culture had already developed in the region. The earliest rock art in the country was left by artists who lived between five and seven thousand years ago, and the iconography and style of their work clearly distinguishes it from engravings left by the ancient Egyptians of pharaonic times .

“This cultural treasure in the northeast of Aswan has been largely undocumented, let alone published,” Egyptologist and acclaimed petroglyph discoverer Dr. Ludwig Morenz of the University of Bonn said in a press release issued by his university. He pointed out that most of the Neolithic petroglyphs are found in remote spots in dry riverbeds (called ‘wadis’ in Arabic).

Unfortunately, scholars may not have much time left to learn more about Neolithic Egyptian culture by studying these rock images. There are concerns about how much longer this incredible storehouse of cultural information from prehistoric times will remain safe from harm—and hence the urgency to create a comprehensive database of the prehistoric imagery, before it is too late.

The problem is the relentless advance of modern civilization, which has different priorities than the ancient inhabitants of what was considered a sacred region.

“Especially in recent years, there has already been serious destruction of this cultural asset,” said Dr. Morenz, who played a key role in the discovery of these truly ancient images.

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Some of the petroglyphs, which are mainly comprised of faded dots that the untrained eye will struggle to see, have been defaced or destroyed by quarrying taking place in the area. This destructive activity is increasing, and there is a fear that many if not most of the ancient rock paintings will eventually be damaged if nothing is done to reverse current trends.

 “Such losses can hardly be prevented completely, given the vastness of the area,” Dr. Morenz conceded, “but all the more important is at least good documentation.”

If the hundreds of petroglyphs and their accompanying descriptions are accurately and thoroughly documented through photography and mapping, they will never be completely lost to history, regardless of what happens to them physically.

Seeking the True Origins of Ancient Egyptian Art and Religion

Working closely with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the University of Bonn’s Egyptology Department has already documented a few of the petroglyphs and inscriptions.

“These rock images are a great treasure for science, which will be systematically developed in the coming years in cooperation between the University of Bonn, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and especially the Aswan Inspectorate,” said Aswan University doctoral candidate Mohamed Abdel Hay Abu Baker, who is leading the current study of rock images in the Aswan Inspectorate.

Abu Baker will be collaborating with University of Bonn experts to create an extensive archive of rock art images found in the southern Egyptian desert, motivated by the hope that there is still time to complete this ambitious and historically important project before the destruction is too extensive.

Among the images that Abu Baker has discovered and recorded so far, one in particular has drawn a lot of attention. This image was from the latter part of the fourth millennium BC, and the petroglyph shows a boat being pulled with a rope by 25 men with raised arms.

Predynastic rock image, with ruler boat being pulled by 25 people, ca. 3200 BC, Wadi al Agebab. (© Mohamed Abdel Hay Abu Baker)

Predynastic rock image, with ruler boat being pulled by 25 people, ca. 3200 BC, Wadi al Agebab. (© Mohamed Abdel Hay Abu Baker )

 According to Dr. Lorenz, this is a depiction of a ritual known as the great procession of the gods. Filled with sacred iconography, this picture reveals vital details about the metaphysical beliefs of people living around 3,200 BC, or not long before the first pharaohs created a united Egypt and launched the ancient Egyptian culture.

“This rock image gives us insights into the sacred design of an apparently remote landscape, the Wadi al Agebab,” Dr. Morenz explained.

During excavations that started in 2015, Dr. Morenz himself was credited with the discovery of many fascinating rock paintings dating to Neolithic times . This included a faint but still distinguishable depiction of a hunting scene near the Qubett el-Hawa necropolis just outside Aswan. Notably, this discovery occurred in an area where rock art from ancient Egyptian times was also present in abundance. This highlighted the cultural continuity that connected the long-lost Neolithic people of southern Egypt with those who lived during the legendary pharaonic period (3,100 to 332 BC).

With respect to the image of the precession of the gods, its discovery may provide clues as to how rock art evolved as a showcase for religious ideas and experiences.

“Here, the high importance of religion and especially the cult of the gods in the still pre-Egyptian society of the second half of the Fourth Millennium is revealed as a culture-creating factor,” Dr. Morenz said.

Once the new database is complete, the experts will be able to further explore the similarities and the differences between Neolithic period Egyptians and their much more heavily studied successors, to help trace the development of the region’s distinctive cultural and metaphysical concepts.