Countless prehistoric sites, representing many thousands of years of human activity, can be found scattered throughout Egypt’s Western Desert. These sites remind us that, at times, various Stone Age societies lived here long before pharaonic civilisation flowered in the Nile Valley some 5,000 years ago. They were only able to do so because of the various ‘humid’ periods that punctuated the hyper-arid conditions that now prevail in the Western Desert. The increased rainfall during these wetter phases created savannah-like environments in which lakes and pools formed, providing vital water sources for humans and animals alike.
The most significant prehistoric sites surviving in the Western Desert are arguably the Neolithic settlements. Today, these sites, which roughly date from 9000 to 3500 BC, are little-known outside academia and are somewhat overshadowed by the spectacular archaeology of pharaonic Egypt. However, their importance is undeniable, as they bear witness to the beginnings and development of a sedentary prehistoric lifestyle centred on domesticated crops and animals, which would ultimately give rise to one of the greatest ancient civilisations the world has seen.
The best-known and most impressive archaeological evidence for Neolithic settlement in the Western Desert has been found at Nabta Playa, a large wind-carved basin or playa, located about 60 miles west of Abu Simbel and some 19 miles north of the Sudanese border. The Combined Prehistoric Expedition (CPE), under the directorship of Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild, carried out the first series of excavations at Nabta Playa (in the 1970s and 1990s). The team investigated the remains of hundreds of encampments and settlements, around the edges of the shallow, but large, ephemeral ‘palaeo-lake’, making many important discoveries as a result.
The earliest people probably arrived from the Nile Valley around 11,000 years ago, as their stone tool technology parallels that of the Arkinian, a Late Palaeolithic culture named after the village of Arkin which now lies below the waters of Lake Nasser about 50 miles south-east of Nabta Playa. Archaeological traces of the simple circular and oval huts (made from mats, skins, or brush) of these early ‘Sudanese’ settlers have been found at various sites around the former lake at Nabta Playa. In the Middle Neolithic period (c.6100-5600 BC), these were replaced by more sophisticated dwellings, comprising circular stone huts with sunken floors and walls made from vertical slabs, or wooden-framed huts with wattle-and-daub walls. Wells and bell-shaped pits, for the storage of wild plant foods, and the remains of hearths have also been found, and many thousands of artefacts have been recovered from these sites, among them pottery decorated with distinctive impressed motifs.
The earliest ceramics at Nabta Playa date to around 11,000 years ago, representing one of the earliest examples of pottery production in Africa – and, indeed, in the world. Evidence of the ingenuity of these early settlers has also been found in the form of small, perforated pottery discs with serrated edges (made from pot sherds), which were mounted on sticks and rolled across the wet clay of unfired pots to produce decoration prior to their firing. Pottery, however, is generally scarce at the Nabta Playa sites, and much more commonly found are ostrich eggshells (inscribed with various motifs) used as containers for water (and perhaps blood and milk, too). Other finds include huge numbers of perforated jewellery beads made from ostrich eggshells, and various stone tools, ranging from the microliths of the first settlers to the bifacially flaked arrowheads of Nabta Playa’s final, Late Neolithic inhabitants (c.5500-3500 BC).
The first domesticated cattle in Egypt?
During their archaeological investigations at Nabta Playa, Wendorf and Schild recovered hundreds of wild animal bones, mainly from hare and gazelle, that had been hunted by the first Neolithic inhabitants during the Early Neolithic ‘El Adam’ phase of settlement (c.8700-7800 BC). Also found was a small assemblage of cattle bones and teeth, which were identified as belonging to a domesticated descendant of the wild aurochs (Bos primigenius). Wendorf and Schild argued that, after the summer rains, herds of cattle were brought into the desert by Early Neolithic pastoralists, who had perhaps made the trip to Nabta Playa from the Lower Nubian Nile Valley. However, several scholars have questioned the idea that these people combined hunter-gathering with the keeping of domesticated cattle, as it was not until the mid- 6th century BC that definitive skeletal evidence for these animals is found in the archaeological record of Egypt’s Western Desert. The issue of whether domesticated or wild cattle were exploited (perhaps more so for milk and blood than for meat) by the earliest Neolithic communities in the Western Desert remains controversial and an ongoing source of scholarly debate.
Burials and megaliths at Nabta Playa
Intriguing evidence for the ritual and ceremonial practices of the Late Neolithic cattle pastoralists of the Western Desert has been found at Nabta Playa, comprising both burials and megalithic monuments. The earliest evidence comes from the ‘Valley of the Sacrifices’, a large wadi on the northern side of Nabta Playa, and consists of cattle burials (one dated to c.5400 BC), which were found below ten sandstone cairns on its western bank; the burial of a young woman was also recovered from below a sandy mound in the wadi.
At the mouth of the Valley of the Sacrifices, there was a small stone circle measuring about 4 metres in diameter. Erected around 4800 BC, its narrow sandstone slabs were probably aligned on the midsummer sunrise. This fragile monument was in danger of being destroyed and was therefore moved to the Nubian Museum, Aswan, where it was reconstructed. Lying approximately 500 metres to the west of its original location is the ‘Ring Hill’ monument, a concentric stone circle comprising two rings of horizontal stone slabs. The skull of a boy about 3 years old (buried c.3700 BC) was found in a burial shaft within the smaller, inner ring.
In 2008, Wendorf and Schild discovered 30 ‘Complex Megalithic Structures’ (built between c.4600 and 3400 BC and perhaps aligned to bright stars), just south of the Valley of Sacrifices. They made a remarkable discovery buried under the largest of these groups of standing stones: a huge sandstone boulder (weighing 2-3 tons) that had been deliberately shaped to resemble a cow-like animal. Professor John McKim Malville has suggested that this hugely fascinating prehistoric sculpture could perhaps be connected to ‘a complex origin story involving life emerging from the earth’.
The Hidden Valley and Sheikh el-Obeiyid settlements
Further evidence for Neolithic settlement in Egypt’s Western Desert has been found by Italian archaeologists of the ongoing Farafra Oasis Prehistoric Research Project, at the Hidden Valley and Sheikh el-Obeiyid ‘villages’, which date to approximately 7000-8000 BC and lie about 12 miles apart in the Farafra Depression. At these settlements, people lived in circular or oval stone huts resembling those seen at Nabta Playa. Unsurprisingly, these dwellings were built close to ancient lakes that have long-since disappeared. Somewhat unusually, the people of Sheikh el-Obeiyid ‘village’ built their 25 well-built circular and oval huts on a 130 metre plateau above these now-extinct lakes. The inhabitants left behind numerous reminders of their daily lives among the silent ruins of their stone huts, such as the ubiquitous ostrich eggshell containers and beads; grinding stones; bifacial flint knives; axes and arrowheads (some of which were perhaps used for killing people rather than wild animals); nodules of red and yellow ochre that may have been used as pigments for body paint; and long, needle-like bone objects of uncertain function.
Also discovered at the settlement was valuable evidence for the subsistence activities of its occupants, in the form of bones from wild animals and domesticated sheep and goats (originally introduced into Egypt by immigrants from the Levant), and large quantities of grain from wild grass species, of which sorghum is the most common.
It is worth noting as well that Hidden Valley Village lies near Wadi el-Obeiyid Cave, a well-known and important site for rock art, located in a spectacular limestone outcrop. The many fascinating engraved and painted motifs found on its walls are very likely to have been made by some of the inhabitants of the Hidden Valley village.
Gebel Ramlah and Site 270, Dakhla Oasis
Some of the most significant archaeological discoveries relating to the Western Desert’s Neolithic communities have been recovered from the relict shores (now above sea level) of a former palaeo-lake, which lies only about 12 miles north-west of Nabta Playa, near the desert escarpment of Gebel Ramlah. Between 2001 and 2016, archaeologists from the CPE excavated numerous Neolithic settlements in the Gebel Ramlah area. Included among the finds were artefacts such as comb-decorated V-shaped pottery beakers; a necklace made from about 200 ostrich eggshell beads, which featured a central, triangular bone pendant; grinding stones for processing grain; flint workshops; and red ochre processing sites. Most notable of all was the discovery of rare funerary evidence in the form of both isolated burials and extensive cemeteries. The latter featured richly furnished graves containing artefacts such as finely made and distinctive ‘tulip’ beakers, with wide flaring rims; stone palettes used for grinding cosmetics (ochre and malachite); a small but superbly made stone bowl crafted from gneiss; perforated shells; and, most remarkable of all, a sheet of mica (slate) deliberately shaped to resemble a fish (probably a Nile tilapia).
Representing one of the largest Neolithic settlements in Africa, and perhaps also a true village, Site 270 at Dakhla Oasis was inhabited by people of the ‘Bashendi’ culture over a period of 700 years or so, c.6420-5700 BC.
The settlement was made up of at least 200 circular and rectangular stone huts, with some of the latter measuring up to 12 metres long. These dwellings were grouped into several clusters (perhaps six), which may represent distinct social groupings or, perhaps more likely, the shifting of the settlement over time. Domesticated goat bones and artefacts typical of the Neolithic pastoralist communities of the Western Desert were found at the site, such as bifacial flint knives and arrowheads, and stone grinding equipment for processing wild plant foods.
Site 270, and the other Neolithic settlements briefly considered here, represent just a few among many that survive in Egypt’s Western Desert, providing us with much compelling archaeological evidence for the many Neolithic communities who lived here over a period of some 5,000 years. Around 6,000 years ago, as the climate became increasingly more arid in the desert, the last of these communities were forced eastwards to settle in the Nile Valley, no doubt playing their part in laying the Late Neolithic foundations that formed the basis of ancient Egyptian civilisation.
Julian Heath is an author and artist who taught Archaeological Illustration at the University of Liverpool. He wrote the recently published Before the Pharaohs: Exploring the Archaeology of Stone Age Egypt and is a regular contributor to AE, with articles on illustrating excavation finds (AE 101), the ‘Tomb of the Soldiers’ (AE 118) and prehistoric rock art (AE127).
I would like to thank all those individuals who kindly provided the images used in this article. Thanks also to Professor John McKim Malville for his articles on Nabta Playa.