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Rock art research at Qurta

Dirk Huyge (Director) & Wouter Claes (Vice-Director)

In 2007, the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels started rock art research at Qurta, on the east bank of the Nile, along the northern edge of the Kom Ombo plain. The project was funded by Yale University. Three sites have been identified on the upper part of the Nubian sandstone cliffs bordering the Nile. The majority of the rock art consist of naturalistically drawn animal figures. The bulk of these animals are representations of wild cattle or aurochs, but birds, hippopotamus, gazelle and hartebeest are also present. In addition, there are also several highly stylized representations of human figures (mostly shown with protruding buttocks, but no other bodily features) and a small number of probable non-figurative or abstract signs. All the images are very darkly coloured, bear a substantially developed patination and/or rock varnish and show traces of intensive weathering. This in itself is already an indication of considerable antiquity.

Based on the particularities and the nature of the rock art, its general geographical and archaeological context, there is little doubt that the rock art repertoire at Qurta is extremely old. It can most probably be attributed to the Late Pleistocene Ballanan-Silsian culture which is dated to about 16000 to 15000 BP. As such, Qurta constitutes the oldest graphic activity recorded in Egypt until now. Whatever its precise chronological position in the Late Pleistocene, the Qurta rock art is quite unlike any other rock art found elsewhere in Egypt and Africa. It moreover provides clear evidence that Africa in general and Egypt in particular possess prehistoric art that is both chronologically and aesthetically closely comparable to the great Palaeolithic art traditions known for a long time on the European continent.

Selected bibliography:
- D. Huyge, M. Aubert, H. Barnard, W. Claes, J. C. Darnell, M. De Dapper, E. Figari, S. Ikram, A. Lebrun-Nélis & I. Therasse (2007), ‘Lascaux along the Nile’: Late Pleistocene Rock Art in Egypt, in: Antiquity –Project Gallery, vol. 81, nr. 313 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/huyge/index.html).

- D. Huyge (2008), Côa en Afrique: Art rupestre du Pleistocène récent le long du Nil égyptien – Côa in Africa : Late Pleistocene Rock Art along the Egyptian Nile, in : INORA, nr. 51, p. 1-7.

- D. Huyge & W. Claes (2008) : ‘Ice Age’ Art along the Nile, in: Egyptian Archaeology. Bulletin of the Egypt Exploration Society, p. 25-28

Since 2009, the Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab is focussing its research on the settlement area of Elkab. Two excavation seasons in 2009 and 2010 revealed the presence of a vast habitation area, situated within the Late Period ‘Great Walls’, immediately west of the temple area. This habitation dates back to the late Early Dynastic Period and the early Old Kingdom. Furthermore, in one of the test pits habitation remains from the Predynastic period were found. During the 2012 season, additional test pits were excavated northwest of the temple area in order to further explore the Predynastic occupation. These test pits, continued in February-March 2015, revealed not only additional Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom settlement remains, but also several stratified occupation horizons that date back to the Predynastic period. The oldest horizon can be dated to the Badarian, suggesting that the site of Elkab was continuously inhabited in late prehistoric and early historic times for over 1500 years. 

The current excavations in the settlement area of Elkab are of great significance. Stratified settlement sites are extremely rare in Egypt and Elkab is one of the very few places known where the development of a large provincial town can be studied in detail. Moreover, its origin most probably dates back to the early Predynastic Badarian period (ca. 4500 BC). Whether or not the Badarian settlement at Elkab still had a temporal or seasonal character, there is hardly any doubt that from the Naqada I period onwards, the site was continuously inhabitated until Greco-Roman and Coptic times. 

The horizontal distribution of the different features in the excavation trenches and test pits and the geomorphological study of the surrounding landscape have demonstrated that the oldest phases of occupation (Badarian through Naqada) were spatially restricted to a large aeolian sand dune that emerged above the floodplain and did not yet extend into the alluvial plain. During the Early Dynastic period and the early Old Kingdom, the settlement continued to develop on the sand dune but also expanded into the floodplain, undoubtedly as a result of growing population pressure. It may have extended over a considerable surface, possibly four to five hectares. Several well-preserved mud brick buildings have been excavated attesting to a clear urban planning.

The preliminary results of the archaeological work at Elkab indicate exciting research opportunities with regard to our understanding of both Predynastic and early pharaonic settlement dynamics. Egyptian prehistoric and dynastic settlement patterns, organisation, and transformation are still very poorly documented. Our understanding of these phenomena is limited and heavily biased. As such, Elkab presents a unique research case for the study of both a Predynastic settlement and an early pharaonic town. Even more importantly, it may elucidate the way in which a small prehistoric settlement in Upper Egypt gradually evolved and transformed into a fully urbanized society of historic times.   Funding for the 2015 campaign at Elkab was provided by Gerda Henkel Stiftung (Düsseldorf, Germany). In addition, the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) and Vodafone Egypt offered administrative and logistic support.  

Belgian Archaeological Mission to Elkab discovers important fragment of unique Old Kingdom royal statue.
(pdf press release at bottom of page)


The Belgian mission to Elkab continued its work from 9/1 until 19/3/2000, directed by Dr Luc Limme and Dr Dirk Huyge (Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, and sponsored by the Fund for Scientific Research-Flanders). Continued was the investigation of the 2nd Dynasty cemetery on the lower slope of the main rock necropolis. So far more than 30 tombs have been excavated containing skeletons of both adults and children in contracted position. Many of the tombs are lined with unworked sandstone slabs. They are arranged in three circular structures, possibly originally covered by a mound and having a tumulus-like appearance. The grave gifts include pottery, stone vessels, faience and stone necklaces, and bone bracelets. In addition, a number of test trenches was sunk in the area immediately North of the town enclosure (between the Northern wall and the small temple of Tuthmosis III). Several thoroughly looted and/or previously excavated shaft and mastaba tombs of the Old Kingdom were found, including a large, well-preserved mudbrick mastaba structure with an offering niche on its Eastern side. Associated with this structure was a huge amount of pottery, mostly votive beer jars, datable on typological grounds to the 4th Dynasty. In the main rock necropolis epigraphical work was continued and completed in the tomb of Setau (EK4), dating from the Ramesside period (20th Dyn). 2015:

Overviews of past and current research 

  •  Bruffaerts J.-M. 2012: Jean Capart, pionnier des fouilles belges en Egypte, in Bavay L., Bruwier M.-C., Claes W. & De Strooper I. (Eds): Ceci n’est pas une pyramide… Un siècle de recherche archéologique belge en Egypte, Leuven: Peeters, 20-31 [https://www.academia.edu/5115543/Jean_Capart_pionnier_des_fouilles_belges_en_%C3%89gypte].
  • Huyge D. & Limme L. 2012: Elkab après Capart: Du campement préhistorique à la ville gréco-romaine, in Bavay L., Bruwier M.-C., Claes W. & De Strooper I. (Eds): Ceci n’est pas une pyramide… Un siècle de recherche archéologique belge en Egypte, Leuven: Peeters, 46-61 [http://www.kmkg-mrah.be/sites/default/files/files/huyge__limme_2012_fr.pdf]. 
  • Limme L. 2008: Elkab, 1937-2007: seventy years of Belgian archaeological research, British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 9, 15–50 [https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Limme.pdf]. 

Most recent publications

  • Rowland J., Marikova Vlckova P., Hendrickx S., Herbich T., Claes W. & Huyge D. 2009: Old Kingdom settlement remains at Elkab (Upper Egypt): Preliminary report on the 2009 field season, Bulletin des Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire 80, 21-50.
  • Hendrickx S., Huyge D. & Newton C. 2010: The walls of Elkab, in Bietak M., Czerny E. & Forstner-Müller I. (Eds): Cities and urbanism in Ancient Egypt, Vienna: Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 145-169. 
  • Huyge D. 2010: Onder de vleugels van Nechbet. Leven en sterven in Elkab tijdens het Oude Rijk, Ta-Mery 3, 26-35. 
  • Huyge D. 2012: Urbanisme anno 2600 v. Chr./Urbanisme en l’an 2600 av. J.-C., Science Connection 37, 3-7.   Huyge D. 2013: Death and life in Old Kingdom Elkab, Ancient Egypt76, 28-37. 
  • Huyge D. 2013: El-Kab, in Bagnall R.S., Brodersen K., Champion C.B., Erskine A. & Huebner S.R. (Eds): The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2376-2377.   Claes W., Hendrickx S., Devillers A., Hart E., Kindermann K., De Dapper M., Ikram S., Storms G., Swerts C. & Huyge D. 2014: From the early Old Kingdom to the Badarian. Preliminary report on the 2012 excavation campaign in the settlement area of Elkab,in Mączyńska A. (Ed.), The Nile Delta as a Centre of Cultural Interactions between Upper Egypt and the Southern Levant in the 4th Millennium BC (Studies in African Archaeology 13), Poznań, 73-93.
  • Hendrickx S., Claes W., Devillers A., Storms G., Swerts C. & Ver­eecken S. [forthcoming]: The pottery from the Early Dynastic and the early Old Kingdom settlement at Elkab (excavation season 2010), in Bader B., Knoblauch C.M. & Köhler C. (Eds): Vienna 2 - Ancient Egyptian Ceramics in the 21st Century: Proceedings of the International Conference held at the University of Vienna 14th-18th of May, 2012 (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta), Leuven: Peeters.  

Press release ElKab 2015

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