When the Desert Dried Up: Late Prehistoric Cultures and Contacts in Egypt and Northern Sudan


The western hinterland of Lower Nubia and Upper Egypt is desert, an area of extreme character, with little rainfall and sparse vegetation, nearly unpeopled and seemingly endless in its extension. Looking closer at that vast region, one recognizes that the desert is not that barren and simple but offers a diversified landscape and an enormous amount of archaeological traces of past human existence. Interest in prehistoric archaeology of the desert developed very slowly in Egypt and Sudan. Most of our knowledge about the prehistoric cultures west of the Nile results from the last 30 years of archaeological research. These areas west of the Nile have traditionally been called the Libyan Desert, but today this name is often replaced by Western Desert in Egypt or West Nubian Desert in Sudan. Systematic research did not start there prior to the 1920s and 30s, a phase that generally saw a boom of desert explorations most of which were initiated or accompanied by members of the Geographical Survey. Gertrude Caton-Thompsons camel expedition over the Egyptian Limestone Plateau from Luxor to Kharga in 1928 and the prehistoric research that she conducted in the Kharga oasis is truly the first major investigation in systematic archaeological excavations and collections, and among the best which has ever been published about the oases. During this period, a small number of desert expeditions by car were devoted especially to archaeology, namely the DIAFE XI and XII (German Research Expedition to Inner Africa) in 1933 and 1935 and the Sir Robert Mond Desert Expedition in 1938, which both set the pattern for rock art research in the Western Desert. These glory days of desert exploration were not followed up until the close of the Nubian campaign, when the Combined Prehistoric Expedition (CPE) set off in 1972 to the Western Desert of Egypt, where they have continued fieldwork until today. A growing number of other long-term missions entered the scene during the following decades, of which the Dakhla Oasis Project (DOP) was the first in 1978 followed by the Cologne University B.O.S. project in 1980 (Settlement History of the Eastern Sahara). Between 1995 and 2007, many of the approaches established by B.O.S. were developed and extended under the umbrella of the ACACIA project at the University of Cologne. Both projects introduced a much more systematic field survey and more comprehensive treatment of archaeological sites in the deserts outside the oases. While most other projects were entirely restricted to specific sites or micro-regions, B.O.S. pursued a proper geographical strategy investigating case sites or areas within a 1,500 km long transect between the Mediterranean coast and the Wadi Howar in Sudan. This transect not only covered the entire climatic and vegetation sequence across the Sahara from the subtropical north to sub-Saharan Africa in the south but also focused on the manifold cultural traditions west of the Nile and their chronology and spatial distribution. Despite the immense historical value of the data that have been collected during the last 30 years in the deserts of Egypt and Sudan, archaeology has virtually recovered only a very few pieces of the puzzle, and most desert regions still remain largely unexplored. This is not surprising, when taking into account that we are dealing with a study area of approximately 1,500 km in north-south direction and 600 to 800 km between the course of the Nile in the east and the borders to Libya and Chad in the west. Nonetheless, however fragmentary our knowledge is, we begin to recognize the important role the desert has played for the cultural development along the Nile. This is basically true for the late Prehistoric Period, which started with the drying of the desert in c. 5,000 cal BC and the beginning of the first fully-fledged Neolithic cultures at the Nile and closed when the Egyptian state constituted and started to explore the desert west of the Nile. This paper will give an overview of the recent state of our knowledge in late prehistoric archaeology of the Libyan Desert in Egypt and Sudan. Since not all of the study areas and the many facets of artefacts can be presented here, the following paragraphs will emphasize those regions and key artefacts which especially display cultural contacts to neighbouring regions, and in particular to the Nile Valley. The paper falls into three parts. The first chapter will introduce the climatic background and its dramatic change during the Sixth to Third Millennia cal BC. The second part is devoted to the cultural development in the Egyptian Western Desert, while the third part views the later prehistoric development from the Laqia region in northern Sudan.


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Riemer, H., Lange, M., Kindermann, K. (2013): When the Desert Dried Up: Late Prehistoric Cultures and Contacts in Egypt and Northern Sudan. Raue, Dietrich, Seidlmayer, Stephan J., Speiser, Philipp (eds), DAI Kairo

Authors Riemer, Heiko and Lange, Mathias and Kindermann, Karin
Type inbook
Title When the Desert Dried Up: Late Prehistoric Cultures and Contacts in Egypt and Northern Sudan
Year 2013
Number 36
Pages 157-183
Publisher Raue, Dietrich, Seidlmayer, Stephan J., Speiser, Philipp (eds)
Series The First Cataract of the Nile. One Region – Diverse Perspectives. DAI Kairo Sonderschrift
Organization DAI Kairo
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