There are two essential points in any rock-art research: time and meaning. The former constitutes the basic precondition for an effective study of the evidence, while the understanding of the latter is the ultimate objective of the research. This paper starts with an overview of the methodological achievements of rock-art research in Northeast Africa concerning the dating and understanding of the original meaning of regional rock art. Subsequently, it focuses on the unintentional significance of rock art and discusses several themes worthy of elaboration but little explored so far. All of them unfold from two simple questions – “where” and “who” – with a view to outreaching from the imagery itself to the people who stood behind it to obtain social and other testimonies on the artists and their worlds – testimonies they themselves might have been unaware of or unwilling to give.
A large amount of diverse archaeological sources is at hand in Northeast Africa for the study of the past developments and the civilisation process in the region. Frequently represented among these is rock art – non-utilitarian anthropic marks made on natural, unmovable rock surfaces by means of techniques involving reductive (petroglyphs) and additive (pictograms) processes (Bednarik 2003: 16). Since the beginning of systematic rock-art surveys and research in Egypt and Nubia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of panels bearing depictions of wild and domestic animals, human figures, boats, and varied symbols and (geometric) signs dating from the Late Palaeolithic until the Islamic Period have been brought to light in the Nile Valley and the adjacent deserts in Egypt and Sudan.1 And both the corpus and the number of publications dealing in one way or another with rock art of this region2 are still growing with the ongoing projects both in Egypt and Sudan.
In both these countries, which form the main focus of this overview (Fig. 1), rock art recorded up to the present appears to consist of several regional and local traditions, and a regional approach to their evaluation should be adopted (e.g. Huyge 2003: 60-68; 2009a: 4-7; Kleinitz 2007a: 230-231). Nevertheless, they all share certain characteristics for which they can be grouped very broadly into one specific “rock-art province”. First, a nearly absolute majority of rock art in the Nile Valley and the adjacent deserts are petroglyphs made by pecking, hammering, incision, rubbing, and other techniques involving reductive processes. Coloured or incrusted petroglyphs, in which techniques involving reductive and additive processes are combined (Fig. 2), and genuine rock paintings made by application of paint, on the other hand, occur only sporadically in the Nile Valley and the adjacent deserts of Egypt and Sudan.3 Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat at or near the present-day border of Egypt, Libya, and Sudan are an exception to this rule as two areas with rock paintings par excellence (e.g. Winkler 1939; Rhotert 1952; Van Noten 1978; Le Quellec et al. 2005; Zboray 2009). These, however, appear to refer more to the central Saharan (especially the Round Head and the Bovidian) artistic repertoire (Huyge 2009a: 4) or recent phases of rock art in the Ennedi plateau (Muzzolini 2011: 624) rather than to the Nilotic region. Second, as compared with the central Sahara and other areas, the figures animating rock surfaces in Egypt and Sudan are smaller in size, usually not exceeding 40-50 cm. Last but not least, from the point of view of iconography (themes, styles, syntax), the rock art from this “province” shows close correlation with other two- and three-dimensional objects (of art) often found in well-documented and dated archaeological contexts. This not only extends the possibilities of more effective chronological-cultural seriation of the available rock-art record but also enables discerning (at least) certain layers of the original meaning of some of this rock art as well (Huyge 2003: 59; 2009a).
This paper has two objectives: first, to provide an overview of recent methodological achievements of rock-art research in Egypt and Sudan as to dating and understanding the original, intentional meaning of the rock art; and second, to consider the potential of this “engaging, but obscure class of archaeological material” (Chippindale & Nash 2004: 1) if viewed as a historical document and investigated for the unintentional significance.4
The Signs of Which Times?
Solid dating constitutes a fundamental starting point for an effective study of any archaeological material. The same applies to rock art, in which only the determination of the age of the evidence – i.e., the ascertainment of “signs of which times” (Huyge et al. 2012) we are dealing with – opens paths to a comparison in both synchronic and diachronic perspectives and to an interpretation of the significance5 of the evidence. Nevertheless, rock art in itself is rather difficult to date. A broad variety of methods and approaches, involving direct observation of the varied aspects of the evidence as well as natural scientific analyses (including physical and chemical methods in particular), are usually applied to organise the material on a time scale (e.g. Chippindale & Taçon 1998; Chippindale & Nash 2004: 3-7).
A number of chronologies of regional rock art had been elaborated prior to the late 1990s, including that by Almagro Basch & Almagro Gorbea (1968) for Lower Nubia, Hellström (1970) for the area of the Second Nile Cataract, Davis (1984a) for the earliest rock art in the Nile Valley, and Červíček for Nubia (1978; 1984) and for Upper Egypt and Nubia (1986; 1992-1993). These chronologies used some of the following methods. A close observation of similarities and differences in thematic, stylistic, syntactic, technical, and locational aspects of rock art, together with a detailed study of both vertical and horizontal stratigraphy (comparing the degrees of patination and weathering) of the motifs and styles of representation on the individual panels was used to elaborate relative chronologies. Moreover, the close correlation between the rock-art imagery and the regional, archaeologically known prehistoric and historical cultures made it possible to date a bulk of the regional rock art absolutely per analogiam, using the rich iconography characteristic of these cultures and deriving from well-dated archaeological contexts. Given the main subject-matter of the regional rock art, this has been the case in particular of representations of animals, humans, and boats (Fig. 3), which find close parallels in pottery decoration, reliefs and with other two- and three-dimensional objects (for typologies and chronologies of boat representations, see in particular Engelmayer 1965; and Červíček 1974: 98-138).
Furthermore, the presence of datable imagery or rock inscriptions on rock surfaces in the Nile Valley and the adjacent deserts was used to establish termini ante quem or post quem for otherwise undated motifs found beneath, over, or next to the datable evidence (e.g. Červíček 1992-1993). Comparisons with secondary drawings on built monuments, which can provide a terminus post quem for certain types and styles of motifs, were made to some extent (in particular Červíček 1984). Only exceptionally it was possible to obtain a terminus ante quem for rock pictures by dating the archaeological deposits covering the imagery – this was the case of the intensively patinated curvilinear and geometric designs at Site ix at Abka in the area of the Second Nile Cataract that were covered by archaeological deposits 14C dated to 6300 ± 400
Recent chronologies of the rock art of Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat (Zboray 2012), the Fourth Nile Cataract region (Kleinitz 2007a), and the Eastern Desert of Egypt (Lankester 2013) show that these “traditional” tools and methods, including the comparative one, remain fundamental for the seriation and dating of regional rock art. Nevertheless, a number of advancements have lately been made as to their elaboration or extension of their range. First and foremost, the first direct dating of petroglyphs was performed at el-Hosh in Upper Egypt. The studied rock-art assemblage is characterised by curvilinear designs probably representing labyrinth fish traps (for excavated examples of these, see Myers 1958: Pl. xxxiv). These are often associated with geometric and figurative motifs, including circles, ladder-shaped drawings, human figures, footprints and crocodiles (e.g. Huyge et al. 1998). The
Attempts at direct dating of pictograms have been made as well, with results relevant for dating methodology in general rather than the actual chronology of regional rock art. At Locality HK64 at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, the method was applied to date two monochrome paintings rendered in a black, soot-based pigment, of a boat manned by five oarsmen and of a horned quadruped, probably a bovid (Friedman 1992; 1999). However, for the boat datable on the basis of typology no earlier than the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1759-1539
Where correlation with dated iconography and/or direct dating of the images is impossible, the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental context of the rock art, established through an exhaustive study on the intra-site as well as regional level, has been considered, specifically the known and often temporally limited duration of the occupation of a particular area, changes in the subsistence detected in the archaeological record, and the more or less known time of introduction or disappearance of certain species of animals believed to provide either terminus post quem or ante quem for their occurrence in rock art (e.g. Riemer 2009; Judd 2009: 79). Such contextual archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence has recently been employed for a chronological and cultural attribution of some of the geographically limited traditions of prehistoric rock art in the Western Desert of Egypt. This has been the case of the imagery recorded in the Djara Cave on the Limestone Plateau (e.g. Classen et al. 2009), around and to the southwest of the Dakhla Oasis (e.g. Riemer 2009: 40-41; Fig. 4), and in the Wadi el-Obeiyd cave near the Farafra Oasis where a portion of the imagery could be dated also through vertical stratigraphy with archaeological deposits (e.g. Barich 1998). Most importantly, a broad array of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data (e.g. Linstädter 2005; Kuper & Riemer 2010) has been used to elaborate a framework for absolute dating of the hunter-gatherer (before ca. 4400 cal
The archaeological, palaeoenvironmental, and geomorphological context, combined with the intrinsic characteristics, patination, and degree of weathering, were first employed also for a tentative chronological and cultural attribution to the Late Palaeolithic Period (ca. 19,000-18,000
An important contribution to the understanding of the chronology of regional rock art on the opposite end of the time scale and to the refining of the dating methodology is expected from a long-term project concerned with the recording and study of the petroglyph-like drawings of Meroitic (ca. 300
The above-stated results constitute important achievements in rock-art research in Northeast Africa both from the point of view of understanding and extending the chronology of regional rock art – in particular with respect to the confirmation of Late Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic rock-art horizons in Egypt and Nubia – and from the point of view of the dating methodology in general. An important move has been made from more general chronological frameworks covering extensive parts of the entire “rock-art province”, which entailed a considerable simplification (recently Huyge 2003), to more regional frameworks that address regional variations and particularities discernible in the individual areas. Nevertheless, it is necessary to base more of the regional chronologies on quantified rock-art data (recently only Huyge 1995) and, furthermore, to refine the chronology within the individual periods, instead of settling for a mere interval dating of the rock art into millennia-long horizons. For instance, we remain ignorant of whether the individual rock-art styles discerned in the hunter-gatherer rock-art horizon in Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat strictly succeeded or possibly overlapped one another (cf. Zboray 2012), or whether the rock-art activity in both hunter-gatherer and pastoralist horizons was restricted in time or spread over the long millennia of the two major chronological units (cf. Riemer 2013). Only finer-resolution chronologies based on quantified data may provide a controllable basis for solid spatial and temporal comparisons and for a well-founded interpretation of the significance of the evidence.
Understanding the Meaning of “Images of the Past”
Rock art is a direct testimony left behind by prehistoric and historical peoples of themselves and their lived and thought worlds as they experienced them and conceived them. As such, it has a theoretical potential of revealing quite a different kind of information about the past societies compared to lithics, ceramics, bones, and other more material remains, which tell us about the technological and economic developments rather than thought, perception, and religion (Chippindale & Nash 2004: 1). However, the original, intentional meaning the images of the past once had for the creators and their communities – those who shared the same norms, values, and understanding of the world – is difficult to grasp without what Taçon & Chippindale (1998: 6) call “informed knowledge”, i.e., some source of insight into the content, meaning, and motivation passed on directly or indirectly from those who made and used the rock art.
With prehistoric rock art in general and most historical rock art as well, there is no possibility to obtain any true insights due to considerable chronological gaps and significant intellectual and mental shifts that have obliterated and entirely severed the link between us today and the more distant past. Some researchers thus do not concern themselves with uncovering the original meaning of rock art at all (recently e.g. Judd 2009 for the prehistoric rock art of the Eastern Desert of Egypt). Others, on the other hand, are of the opinion that it is still possible to “read” and understand prehistoric rock art. Diverse domains including psychoanalysis, phenomenology of religion, or anthropology of shamanism are exploited (Le Quellec 2006: 166) and comparisons with chronologically or spatially more or less distant ethnographic evidence are made in order to unlock the ancient minds and unveil the past and forgotten meanings. However, the argumentation in favour of any such approach is usually axiomatic. When any such theory is accepted, it appears to be functional at first glance. The problem rests in the fact that using one and the same image each one of the theories can lead us to markedly different conclusions (cf. Le Quellec 2006).
Using ethnographic parallels from Australia, South Africa, and Northwest America, where the rock-art practice and tradition were alive until recent times, and the oral traditions recorded about Libyan and Nubian rock art (e.g. Frobenius 1927), P. Červíček viewed and interpreted the rock art of Upper Egypt and Nubia, “just as any rock art, as primarily religious in character, at least as far as its origins and the bulk of its classical specimens were concerned”. Based on this premise, its “themes were numinous beings, religious symbols and myths; to execute a rock picture was a cultic act in itself: to renovate the image a deity painted of itself in the primeval age or to commemorate a religious ceremony, for example” (Červíček 1986: 71; also Červíček 1992-1993; 1994).
In his overview of the history and methodology of ancient Egyptian rock-art hermeneutics, D. Huyge critically examined this dogmatic religious interpretation and other three motivations that had been put forward to explain the ancient Egyptian rock-art tradition: ideology introduced in Predynastic iconographical research by B. Williams & T.J. Logan (1987), and magic and totemism proposed in the early years of rock-art research by J. Capart (1904: 207-210, 213-214). Of these, he considered religion – if not carried to extremes – and ideology as more satisfactory approaches to the interpretation of Egyptian rock art than magical and totemistic interpretations6 that were grounded on indirect ethnographical comparisons (Huyge 2002: 192-194).7
Huyge subsequently proposed a strategy for rock-art interpretation based on the study of 11 petroglyph localities at Elkab, one of the important Predynastic and dynastic centres in Upper Egypt (Huyge 1995). His representative sample of “classical” Egyptian rock art (Huyge 2003: 63) comprised 509 rock drawings. Of these, 354 (ca. 70%) could be attributed on the strength of internal criteria combined with external reference sources to seven distinct chronological horizons, with the earliest Horizon i corresponding to the Middle Predynastic (Naqada i, ca. 3900-3650
His evaluation of the local rock art and its varied aspects (themes, styles, syntax, lateralisation, location, etc.) from the individual periods in the light of the archaeological-historical context provided by the diverse diachronic and synchronic iconographical, archaeological and other sources available in Egypt allowed him to suggest a range of meanings and motivations for the local rock art corresponding to religious, ideological and other mental shifts traceable in the course of time in the culture-historical record (Huyge 2003: 71). For the earlier periods (Horizons i-v, ca. 3900-1070
His interpretative analysis constitutes an example of a quality regional study that appears to successfully uncover some levels of meaning and motivation of the local rock art. For instance, the ideological concerns suggested for Horizon iii (Terminal Predynastic and Early Dynastic Period, ca. 3300-2650
The above-stated drawbacks are understandable, given mostly by the limits of the otherwise carefully collected and studied corpus. However, a more substantial problem consists in the fact that his discussion (see Huyge 2002: 202; but cf. Huyge 2003: 67-70) lacks a reflection of the presence of multi-ethnic component since Predynastic times not only in Upper Egypt but also at Elkab itself (e.g. Weigall 1907: 25-26, quoted in Friedman 2001: 37-38; Kemp 1977, quoted in Friedman 1992: 105). A consideration of “non-Egyptian” authorship and “audience”, whose distinctive archaeological signature has long been known at Hierakonpolis (e.g. Friedman 1992; 1999; 2001) and recently unearthed also at Elephantine (e.g. Raue 2002; 2008) as well as in the First Nile Cataract region and the Eastern Desert of Egypt (e.g. Gatto 2009), would enable a variant reading of some of the imagery. For instance, the images of cattle might have represented not only “sacrificial beasts” or “bestial allegories of kingship” but also creations of herders working within another, “non-Egyptian” mindset and value system. Given the presence of diverse ethnic or cultural groups, a non-Egyptian type of symbolism could have been underlying some of the rock art not only in areas further afield – in Lower Nubia or in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, as suggested by Huyge (2002: 204; 2003: 69-70) – but also in the particular case of Elkab and Upper Egypt in general (see e.g. Friedman 1999).
Nevertheless, Huyge’s balanced approach constitutes an important contribution to the development of a methodology for the study and interpretation of regional rock art, as he works with a controllable, quantified (albeit small) sample of rock art, as he employs the principle of proceeding from the known (ancient Egyptian iconographic, written, and other sources) to the unknown (rock art), and as he stresses the necessity of good knowledge of the local context. However, without comparative and quantified data sets from Upper Egypt, Lower Nubia, and elsewhere, the applicability of his interpretative constructs and claims on a larger scale remains uncertain (also Huyge 2002: 204).
Lately, attempts have been made to use the rich corpus of ancient Egyptian iconographical and textual sources to “read” the complex prehistoric rock-art imagery preserved in the Cave of Swimmers (Wadi Sura i) and the Cave of Beasts (Wadi Sura ii) in the Gilf Kebir area (Fig. 7). The first proponent of this approach was J.-L. Le Quellec, who paid primary attention to two motifs confined to the relatively small area of the southwest corner of Egypt (e.g. Zboray 2012): the enigmatic figures of a headless “beast” – a composite of different animals – and the small figures of “swimmers”. To him, these two motifs seemed to represent early illustrations of a mythology of the next world, as known from the ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, the Book of Caverns, and the Book of the Dead. In Le Quellec’s “reading”, the “swimmers” were compared with the deceased floating in the primeval ocean, or the Nun, and the “beasts” with zoomorphic demons threatening to swallow the deceased, in particular with the Devourer known from the famous scene of judgment of the deceased in the Egyptian mythology (e.g. Le Quellec et al. 2005: 208; Le Quellec 2008).
The same approach was subsequently adopted by M. Bárta, who claimed to identify other compositions with an apparently strong relation to the ancient Egyptian civilisation, namely a forerunner of the Pharaonic etiological composition showing the sky and earth as the sky-goddess Nut supported by the earth-god Geb, and an early representation of the “smiting-the-enemy” composition of the Pharaonic times used from the Late Predynastic Period onwards to express the triumph of an Egyptian ruler over his enemies (e.g. Bárta 2010).
Both these attempts have been severely criticised and rejected by varied scholars as far-fetched, highly inconclusive, and highly speculative (e.g. Huyge 2009c; Zboray 2012: 229; Förster & Kuper 2013; Huyge 2014a; but also Le Quellec 2010: 66-68; positively Tassie 2014: 136-139). Objections were made primarily against their uncritical selection (and, in some cases, inaccurate copying) and premature interpretation of single motifs out of context, without previous thorough documentation and careful (stratigraphic etc.) analysis, and against their disregard for the spatial and temporal gap existing between the rock art of this area, dated based on the regional archaeological and palaeoenvironmental context to ca. 6500-4400 cal
Both these attempts and the subsequent critical reactions are of relevance for refining the strategy and methodology of interpreting regional rock art. In this case, we encounter another example of an application of the interpretative principle that proceeds from the known (ancient Egyptian civilisation) to the unknown (prehistoric rock art), similarly to D. Huyge and the case of the Elkab rock art discussed above. It is fundamental, however, that unlike that of Huyge, the approach of Le Quellec and Bárta is not strictly regional. Therein lies the main weak point of their attempts: they work with an analogy that is more than insignificantly remote both temporally and spatially.
As the basic precondition for the interpretation of this region’s rock art – a systematic and thorough documentation and presentation of the evidence in the Cave of Beasts – has just been fulfilled (Kuper 2013), careful analysis of the complex imagery and (re-)evaluation of both local and regional archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence should now open paths to a more constructive response to the two above attempts in the form of still-lacking better-grounded suggestions as to the meaning and reading of this extraordinary rock art. Nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that the question of whether and to what extent it is permissible to “read” this complex of individual motifs, compositions, and scenes as well as other regional prehistoric rock-art corpora using ancient Egyptian sources will remain in the centre of both methodological and interpretative discussions.
The Unintentional Significance of Rock Art
The understanding of the meaning the images once had for the creators and their communities no doubt represents the ultimate goal of any rock-art research. We may choose another approach, however: to view their works as historical documents and look for what they told us about themselves and their worlds unintentionally by creating their distinctive images at particular places and by engaging or not engaging in “dialogues” with the landscape and with other graphic – both pictorial and inscriptional – and material remains. Such an approach to rock art adopts a different perspective and opens a whole range of promising themes. In the following, I draw the attention to a number of (interconnected) issues that revolve around the simple questions of “where” and “who”.
Rock Art in Settlement Landscapes
Rock art is a very tangible evidence of human presence in a particular region that is found in the majority of cases exactly where it was meant to be (Chippindale & Nash 2004: 1). The occurrence of suitable rock supports constitutes the fundamental precondition for the creation of rock art. Nevertheless, rock art is not found wherever the geomorphology allows its creation, but only at certain places. Its location is the result of human choice. With these characteristics, rock art opens paths for research into the (changing) perceptions and (symbolic) uses of particular landscapes and may improve our understanding of settlement histories as well. Such investigations have been facilitated in Northeast Africa in recent years by the incorporation of rock-art research into broader regional projects that combine archaeological survey, excavation, environmental and landscape studies, study of settlement patterns, etc. (Huyge 2003: 71; most recently e.g. Osman, Edwards et al. 2012; Kuper 2013; for a similar approach combined with preservation and management concerns pursued in the central Sahara, see e.g. di Lernia & Gallinaro 2011; Gallinaro 2013). In the Fourth Nile Cataract region, for instance, patterns of former uses of landscape differing both in space and time have recently been brought to light through the study of chronologically-organised rock-art data in varied landscape units of the area (e.g. Kleinitz & Olsson 2005; Kleinitz & Koenitz 2006; Kleinitz 2007a; 2007b; 2008). In the same region, a detailed attention has also been paid to the investigation of rocks with evidence of their use as sound-making devices (Fig. 8) and, thereby, of the acoustic aspects of the local ancient landscapes (e.g. Kleinitz 2004; 2010).
The location of rock art on regional maps is usually indicated by means of simple dots. However, most rock-art landscapes are quite hierarchized, consisting of stations of clearly diverse ranks. These range from panels bearing single figures created during a single rock-art event to surfaces on which pictorial statements made at one time by some artists were added to, modified, or even reduced (destroyed) by others who felt the urge for one reason or another to leave their own characteristic trace on the panels, to appropriate the existing images, to charge them with extended, updated, or new meanings, or to make them fit the changed realities (Suková 2011a: 12-57; Huyge 2014b; Figs. 2, 9). For the marked spatial and temporal dynamics of the rock-art evidence or its distinct qualitative aspects, some rock-art stations emerge clearly as “Places”, i.e., as locations that had a special significance in a particular period or acquired one in the course of time. An engaging study of such higher-ranking sites and contextualisation of the rock-art evidence may thus plot onto regional archaeological maps varied vernacular shrines (e.g. Edwards 2012: 151 for the Third Nile Cataract; and Varadzinová forthcoming for Lower Nubia; Fig. 10), places of festivals and gatherings (e.g. Friedman 1999 for Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt), simple “meeting places” or places of dialogue (e.g. Polkowski et al. 2013: 111-115 for the Dakhla Oasis), or places of social or other significance (Suková 2011a: 12-57 for Lower Nubia) that would otherwise remain invisible in the profane archaeological landscapes (see e.g. Trigger 1965 for the low number of prehistoric or historical indigenous shrines or “special sites” detected in Lower Nubia by traditional archaeological methods). A recent example of two Late Nubian rock shrines (Varadzinová forthcoming) has shown that such identifications can also be made using the rock-art documentation collected in the 1960s within the framework of the
Authors, Figures, “Audience”
The understanding of any rock art can hardly be achieved without asking the questions: “Who were the authors of the images?”, “Who were the ʻaudienceʼ of the rock art?” – meaning those who were there at the time when the rock art was created or anytime thereafter to see and (re)interpret the rock art – and, in the case of anthropomorphs, “Who were the figures represented on the rock-art surfaces?”. These questions emerge with a particular urgency in the area of Lower Nubia, a dynamic interface and zone of shifting frontiers between ancient Egypt to the north and the kingdoms of Kerma, Napata, and Meroe to the south. In the course of millennia, phases of development of local polities (A-Group, C-Group, X-Group, Christian Kingdoms) alternated there with phases of dominance by or influence from the adjacent early states, and in different times there were frequent encounters of groups of varied ethnic (or cultural) origin and identities (Török 2009). Moreover, the growing archaeological evidence of the presence of a multi-ethnic component in Egypt since Predynastic times shows that even in Egypt herself the situation was more complex than previously thought based on the picture painted in ancient Egyptian iconographic and written sources (recently e.g. Smith 2003).
Clear-cut identifications of the authors, “audience”, and figures are no doubt more difficult to make in the case of earlier, pre-historic rock art. The first attempts in this respect were made by H.A. Winkler who used some not always clear and consistently applied ethnographic criteria to attribute late prehistoric rock art in Upper Egypt and the adjacent deserts to different ethnic groups (Winkler 1938; 1939). Nevertheless, his definition of the grounds based on which part of the late rock art can be securely attributed to the Blemmyes – the warlike (semi-)nomadic people who inhabited the Eastern Desert of Egypt in Late Antiquity – has gained acceptance (Winkler 1938: 15-17; Huyge 2003: 1386-1387; Fig. 11). Similarly, distinct thematic, stylistic, and syntactic particularities emerging in the chronologically-ordered regional rock-art record, correlated with the varied regional late prehistoric and historical archaeological, iconographic, and textual sources, may constitute “identity markers” attributable to particular cultural, ethnic, or social groups that shared the same norms, values, understanding of the world, and aesthetics. Subsequent mapping of such identity markers – whether in pure, derivative, or mixed forms – in the regional rock-art record may contribute to our understanding of the territorial behaviour, contact, influence, and exchange as well as of the existence of boundaries of different kinds, including those of political units, ethnic or social groups, or cultural or intellectual worlds (see e.g. J. Darnell 2009 for a case study from the Theban Desert; Suková 2011a: 12-57 for evidence of past dynamic interactions attested through additions, modifications, and reductions in rock art in Lower Nubia; and Lenssen-Erz 2015 for co-operation and conflict in the Ennedi plateau). At the present state of research, however, a broader regional study of this type is hindered by the lack of rock-art catalogues from the varied regions within the rock-art province that would allow one to isolate and map such identity markers across space and, at the same time, that would make it possible to study the actual biographies of individual sites in finer detail (e.g. Suková 2011a).
Nevertheless, the question of identity is not limited to the cultural or ethnic groups attested (archaeologically or otherwise) in a particular region; it involves also individuals. As opposed to rock inscriptions that explicitly state the names, filiation, and other information on concrete individuals (see e.g. Žába 1974; J.C. Darnell et al. 2002), rock art offers more discreet means of detecting the individuals in the record. Very promising but little exploited so far are the technical aspects of rock art. In addition to the thematic and stylistic aspects (see e.g. Judd 2006 for a peculiar style of giraffes theoretically attributable to a single author), it is the (groups of) techniques recurring in the same sequences or combinations that allow one to assign particular works – not only pictograms, but also petroglyphs – to one and the same individual (see e.g. Huyge 2009b for some of the naturalistic animals at Qurta; and Suková 2011a: 12-72 for cattle figures in two painted shelters in Lower Nubia). The identification of individuals in regional rock art has several implications. It not only allows one to track the mobility of the individuals (and their groups?) in space, but, more importantly, it can give us an idea of a scale in rock art, i.e., how many individuals might have been involved in the creation of rock art in a certain region during particular periods. A multitude of creators is usually implied, whereas in reality, a particular region might have been covered by no more than a few creative individuals in a given period. This question is of a great interest in particular with respect to the rock art of Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat, where a detailed study of the local record from the point of view of the individuals and scale would bring finer and certainly quite different insights into the past of this region as compared with the definition of a simple succession of as many as four hunter-gatherer societies replaced by a homogeneous culture of cattle pastoralists (Zboray 2012). But again, a detailed documentation of these regions’ rock art must be available for a study of this type to be feasible.
Connected therewith is the question of the “social status” of the authors and the “audience” of (at least some of) the rock art in a particular period, the creation and understanding of which may have required (the right of access to) particular knowledge or resources and/or may have involved an engagement of (rock-art) specialists. While some suggestions have been made in this respect by several authors (e.g. Huyge 2002 for Horizons ii-v in the rock art of Elkab; and Suková 2011a: 82-99 for the Late Nubian rock art), the theme, which requires careful contextualisation of the evidence, still remains rather unexplored.
The contemplation of the varied identities of the authors, “audience”, and figures in the regional rock art finally bring us back to the raison dʼêtre the rock art may have had in the past. For instance, some of the Late Nubian rock art appears to have been closely connected with magic, ritual, or divination practices and created either to endure possibly as a permanent fixture in the landscape, or merely to accompany other activities (in more detail Varadzinová forthcoming). A different type of engagement of magic is represented by acts of iconoclasm attested on several rock-art surfaces in Northeast Africa. However, such acts did not concern only potentially “dangerous” figures – such as the “malignant asses” in the Predynastic rock art of Egypt (see Huyge 2009c) or the “beasts” in the rock art of Gilf Kebir (see Le Quellec 2012; and Fig. 7). At a few sites, they are found to have affected also “beneficial” ones, such as cattle and humans (see Menardi Noguera & Soffiantini 2008 for secondarily obliterated heads of cattle at Jebel Uweinat; and Suková 2011a: 12-57 for cattle with erased or cut-off heads and obliterated human figures at Korosko in Lower Nubia). Interestingly, rather than being indiscriminate, such acts appear to have been directed against selected types of cattle and humans: white-painted cattle at Jebel Uweinat, and humans dressed in white kilts and cattle attributable to one or two artists at Korosko (Fig. 12). In the latter case, moreover, we also have evidence of subsequent attempts at restoration of the modified figures of cattle (Suková 2011a: 27-28, 46-47). These attestations have interesting implications. First, they suggest that in certain periods or traditions, at least some of the rock art may have been believed to live its own, parallel life, with the figures represented regarded as true living beings or agents. Second, the motivations for the acts of iconoclasm – and most probably also for the creation and manipulation of rock art in general – appear to have varied from religious, mythical, or ideological concerns to social, economic, or even personal motivations not only throughout the millennia but also within any one particular period and group.
Summary and Conclusion
Time and meaning are undoubtedly the most essential themes in any rock-art research, with the understanding of the former constituting the basic precondition for an effective study of the evidence and the understanding of the latter being the ultimate goal of such a study. While we clearly cannot dispense with time in rock-art research, the quest for the intentional meaning of the images can be substituted to some extent by the study of rock art as historical documents, with a focus on what the rock-art creators told us about themselves and their lived and thought worlds unintentionally by making their distinctive images or conducting specific actions at particular places and by the way they related to the landscape and other graphic and material remains.
In this paper, I have provided an overview of the recent achievements – both from the point of view of methodology and actual understanding – as to the dating and interpretation of the original, intentional meaning of rock art in Northeast Africa with a special focus on Egypt and Sudan. Subsequently, I have proposed several themes that develop from the perspective of the unintentional significance and ensue from two simple questions: “where” and “who”. In following the first of these questions, I have progressed from rock-art regions to rock-art sites and pointed to the potential of higher-ranking sites that may constitute locations of special standing or importance that cannot be detected in the archaeological landscapes using any other evidence in most cases. With the second question in mind, I have endeavoured to outreach from the imagery itself to the people that stood behind the images. An emphasis has been put on enquiring into the varied identities of the figures, authors, and “audience”, which may contribute to the understanding of the past contacts, conflicts, or boundaries on the one hand, and of the specialisation and scale in rock-art creation on the other. While the first question allowed us to discern some of the diverse functions rock-art stations may have had in the past, with the second one we returned to the raison dʼêtre of rock art in general, which is bound to have ranged in any particular period from the underlying understanding of the world by the rock-art creators’ communities – which is the target of most rock-art researchers – to mere situational motivations of some individuals.
For elaboration of the above themes, all of which have been little explored so far, more regional rock-art corpora will need to be published in the form of descriptive catalogues, which are, unfortunately, no longer the norm in rock-art research of Northeast Africa. Whether printed as books or designed as online databases, these should provide a sufficient level of detail on all the varied aspects of the record to allow meaningful comparisons and, in the case of the more complex sites, to discern the history of use of the surfaces for rock art – something which is difficult to carry out on the basis of mere summaries and overviews published from most of recent fieldwork. While the understanding of the original, intentional meaning the images once had will no doubt remain the main goal for most rock-art researchers, by focusing on the unintentional significance of the evidence one may be able to obtain a social or other testimony on the artists and their worlds they themselves might have been unaware of, or unable or unwilling to give.
This study was supported by the Charles University scientific development programme Q11: Complexity and resilience: ancient Egyptian civilisation in a multidisciplinary and multicultural perspective..
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Varadzinová, L. . forthcoming Sacred places in the profane landscapes of Lower Nubia: a case study from the Czechoslovak concessions. In: (eds.), Profane Landscapes, Sacred Spaces. & Bárta, M. Janák, J. New Directions in Anthropological Archaeology. Equinox, Sheffield.
Verner, M. 1973. Some Nubian petroglyphs on Czechoslovak concessions: rock drawings of (I) foot and sandal prints, (II) symbols and signs, and (III) erotica from Czechoslovak concessions in Nubia. Universita Karlova, Praha.
Weigall, A.E.P. 1907. A Report on the Antiquities of Lower Nubia (the First Cataract to the Sudan Frontier) and their Condition in 1906-7. University Press, Oxford.
Wilkinson, T. 2003. Genesis of the Pharaohs. Dramatic New Discoveries that Rewrite the Origins of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.
Williams, B. & Logan, T.J. 1987. The Metropolitan Museum Knife Handle and Aspects of Pharaonic Imagery before Narmer. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 46, 245-285.
Wolf, P. 1994. “Felsbildkunst” an den Tempeln von Musawwarat es Sufra. Cahiers de lʼAARS (Actes de l’assemblée annuelle de l’association des amis de l’art rupestre saharien, Ingolstadt 21-23 Mai, 1993), 37-41.
Wolf, P. 1999. Arbeitsbericht über die Dokumentation der Sekundärbilder und Sekundärinschriften von Musawwarat es Sufra. Der Antike Sudan 9, 44-51.
Zboray, A. 2012. A Revision of the Identified Prehistoric Rock Art Styles of the Central Libyan Desert (Eastern Sahara) and their Relative Chronology. In: Huyge, D., Van Noten, F. & Swinne, D. (eds.), The Signs of Which Times? Chronological and Palaeoenvironmental Issues in the Rock Art of Northern Africa. International Colloquium Brussels, 3-5 June, 2010. Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences, Brussels, pp. 217-255.
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Zboray, A. . 2012 A Revision of the Identified Prehistoric Rock Art Styles of the Central Libyan Desert (Eastern Sahara) and their Relative Chronology. In: (eds.), The Signs of Which Times? Chronological and Palaeoenvironmental Issues in the Rock Art of Northern Africa. International Colloquium Brussels, 3-5 June, 2010. , Huyge, D. & Van Noten, F. Swinne, D. Royal Academy for Overseas Sciences, Brussels, pp. 217- 255.
For the history of rock-art surveys and research in Egypt, Lower Nubia, and adjacent deserts, see e.g. Červíček 1974: 3-10; Davis 1979: 274-279; Huyge 2003: 59-68; Le Quellec et al. 2005; Le Quellec & Huyge 2008; Midant-Reynes 2009; and Judd 2009: 5-6; for Upper Nubia and Sudan, see e.g. Jesse 2005; Edwards 2006; Kleinitz 2007a; and Hassan 2010.
See Davis (1979) for a specialised bibliography on rock art of Egypt and Nubia up to 1978. Further references can be found in Analytical Bibliography of the Prehistory and the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt and Northern Sudan (Hendrickx 1995) with additions and updates published yearly since 1996 in the French journal Archéo-Nil: Revue de la société pour l’étude des cultures prépharaoniques de la vallée du Nil. No specialised bibliography is available for the rock art of Sudan.
For coloured or incrusted petroglyphs in the Nile Valley of Egypt and Nubia, see Bietak & Engelmayer 1963: 27; Friedman 1999; Váhala & Červíček 1999: 73; Berger 2010; and Suková 2011a: 73-81; for genuine rock paintings in the same region, see in particular Weigall 1907: 77-78; Whitehead & Addison 1926: 52-53; Winkler 1938: 4, 8-9; Dunbar 1941: 53-55; Smith 1962: 79-91; Bietak & Engelmayer 1963: 27-43; Almagro Basch & Almagro Gorbea 1968: 151-154, 159, 196-198, 201-202, 210-121; Hobbs & Goodman 1995; Barich 1998; Friedman 1999; D. Darnell 2002: 160-161; Suková 2011a; Edwards 2012: 151; and Huyge 2015-2016.
This text is a revised version of the preface to my Ph.D. thesis The rock of Northeast Africa: a case study of the rock paintings from the Czechoslovak concession in Lower Nubia submitted at the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University in October 2014 (see Suková 2015).
By “significance”, I mean the information value of rock-art evidence. Throughout the paper, I differentiate between the intentional meaning, which is that stemming from the beliefs, ideological background, and understanding of the world of the authors and their communities, and the unintentional significance, which is that offered by the artworks if viewed as historical documents or archaeological sources. These two concepts correspond to what e.g. M. Gallinaro calls the “intrinsic value” and the “tangible value” of rock art, respectively (see Gallinaro 2013: 369).
Nevertheless, a hunting magic hypothesis remains the most plausible hypothesis for Huyge to explain the meaning and motivation of the Late Palaeolithic and Epipalaeolithic hunter-fisher-gatherer rock art at Qurta and el-Hosh (Huyge et al. 1998; Huyge 2009b: 115, 118; cf. Storemyr 2008; critically Le Quellec 1998).
In addition to these, a structuralist approach was proposed, inter alia, by W. Davis (1984b) and F. Hassan (1993), but remained of limited bearing in regional rock-art research (Huyge 2003: 71). Last but not least, a shamanistic interpretation was suggested by T. Wilkinson (2003: 137-138) for Predynastic petroglyphs in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, but it was refuted as entirely ungrounded (especially Le Quellec 2008: 27; Le Quellec & Huyge 2008: 94-95).