Dakhleh Oasis – Petroglyph Unit (Egypt)
The Petroglyph Unit of the Dakhleh Oasis Project – Prof. Michał Kobusiewicz from the Poznań branch of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Ewa Kuciewicz and Eliza Jaroni, both from the Archaeological Museum in Poznan – took to the field between 14 and 26 February 2006, assisted by Fred Hardtke from Sydney University, whose help can hardly be overestimated. They concentrated on an area between hills codenamed 1/06 and 9/06, found near the southernmost extremity of the so-called “Painted Wadi”, in a place where it fans out into the open desert. The area had been recorded provisionally in the previous season and this year the unit proceeded with the documentation.
While more sites were explored and the glyphs traced, examined and photographed, the following brief concentrates on two of the discovered panels of rock drawings in an attempt (not as romantic as it sounds) to discern the “touch” of an individual artist.
The first of the sites in question, Site 2, is an isolated conical outcrop jutting up from the desert like some obelisk. On its south side there is a conveniently flat surface that served as an excellent “drawing board”, although at first glance it was difficult for the documentalists to see more than a tangle of lines and hollows. But then, the picture started to come alive!
At top left there is a schematic representation of one of the “ladies of the oasis” with a strange heart-shaped head and below her two more ladies, standing with their backs turned to the fourth, depicted as but a mere stick-like human figure. The right side of the panel is filled with animals. A creature shown more or less on the same level with the “ladies” is a quadruped, maybe a giraffe, its legs formed like four vertical incisions in the rock. A careful look reveals the back end of an animal with raised tail, made by rubbing technique. It looks as if one animal was smoothly incorporated into the other. Indeed they appear to share the trunk, but not the legs, since the additional pair of legs observed in front could belong to the animal at back. The neck of the animal is incised, like the legs, but the head seems to belong to the animal at back for it is rubbed. Quite an interesting case – and its meaning is unknown. Below again two giraffes, one pecked and the other partly pecked and partly incised, both slightly bent. Was it because of insufficient space? Even the muzzle of the pecked one is turned down so as not to cover up the other image. This attention to avoiding superimposition can be construed as proof of the animals being made more or less at the same time. On the whole, petroglyph artists do not seem to have been very concerned with what was not their current work. Finally, there is the giraffe with long neck stretched horizontally to the right, framing in a sense the “double animal” depicted above it, its legs once again mingling with those of another one above it.
None of these minute details, which may turn out important for the final analysis of the rock drawings, was obvious to the unit team before it actually got down to tracing line after line on paper.
The three hills of Site 4 are quite fascinating to look at: two twin hills framing a tower-like form in the middle. It was on this central outcrop that a flat panel of rock had once invited ancient man to express himself in drawing. Interestingly, nothing but a few scratches can be seen on one of the lateral hills.
The scene is indeed impressive – almost 4m long and 2m high. It is surprisingly like a parade of animals and humanlike figures, all apparently heading for a place somewhere to the left. What we have here is a masterly use of various petroglyph techniques, creating an almost homogenous unity (with a few exceptions, which seem to have been added later on). The attention to detail and the consistency in the use of techniques are truly the mark of a master artist. Altogether we count eight giraffes, only one of which (at the back) is incised. Two small animals in the front, below the ostrich, have a trunk, neck and head only outlined, very delicately rubbed in the rock, whereas the legs are already sharply incised. Four giraffes following them are completely different, most of them carefully pecked. The second one is made with picketage, but the rest skillfully combine picketage and incision, the latter technique being reserved for horns, ears, tail endings and legs. The tails are exaggeratedly long, with bushy endings, while the legs are so finely outlined, especially in the case of the first animal, that they seem not legs anymore, but some kind of “twigs”. The degree of stylization and the skill in depicting animal mannerisms – how it moves, stands, etc. – testifies to the hand and eye of a true artist. Note also the giraffe in-between the pecked ones: its outline is incised while the rest is rubbed. Again the animal silhouette is one of great beauty.
A Seth animal figure of clearly Dynastic origin is superimposed on the animals in the central part of the panel and it is almost like a stamp, establishing the chronological sequence.
Now, let us take a look at the “ladies” walking with the animals (or are they leading them perhaps?). There are three of them in the lower row, very much like one another, their square bodies and barely thickened heads made in sunk relief. They have been individualized in surprising ways. For example, the middle one has only one hand, presumably because poor planning of the composition left no room for it. But the third one, for no obvious reason, has no hands at all. Finally, there is the figure at the front of the procession, very simple and schematic, but with the apparently round head being composed of a set of small dots arranged in a circle.
A careful look at the right side of the panel reveals an analogous figure emerging from under the animals. Can it be that the ladies were earlier than the rest of the animals? Or does it hint at a change of the artist’s vision already in the process of creation? The entire panel gives the impression of a meticulously created composition, a kind of gallery located in an exposed place, inviting a stop and a rest. As a matter of fact, the site as a whole poses some interesting questions. There is a kind of watch-post structure of stone on one of the side hills and the view of the desert stretching to the south is boundless indeed. The shaded shelter of the rock art “gallery” creates a convenient and safe resting place.
Documenting petroglyph sites on a daily basis, we cannot forget that rock art is the work of individual human beings, a reflection of their emotions and needs at specific moment in their lives, whether for better or for worse. Behind these works of art, for that is what they are for us today, stand however special and unique stories of ancient men. These stories will most likely never be heard or understood by us, yet the very awareness of this fact allows us to look at these rock drawings with an entirely different eye.