Saturday, 16 August 2014

Adventures in the Western Desert (2)

The forgotten civilization, and the birth of hieroglyphs.

Landsat satellite picture of the dunes of Saad Plateau, resolution 100 m.

As you can see from the satellite the Northern part of the Gilf is totally engulfed by the Great Sand Sea. This is a formation of dunes between 50 and 100 m. high which is near impassable by an offroad. For better or worse all 12 of us  had to push our cars on scales, and follow them on foot, till we reached an interdune corridor: it had taken the best of a day to do some 15 km.

The GSS is the largest extention of dunes in the world, with the Taklamatan desert in China. For  centuries the GSS had prevented exploration of the remotest reaches of Egypt, giving rise to legends such at the Lost City of Zerzura.

Exiting the Gilf - Picture by Georg Zenz

Marc trying to keep abreast with our Landcruiser, by me.

 The day after our departure from the Gilf, I showed Andras on the map the old coordinates of where Patrick Clayton, and Dr. Spencer some 70 yrs before had discovered the glass strewn fields. 
In fact Andras steered the Landcruiser convoy by the readings of the GPS receiver only, with no need of maps. 

Suddenly there we were, in an interdune corridor, all spread with pebbles of the most various colours. The glass pebbles, if any, seemed lost among them. But by walking in rows, in a scanning mode, never leaving eye contact with the ground, Georg and I soon begin to score, with findings of the precious glasss that had graced Tutankhamun's necklace. 

Green-yellow, extremely viscous, and yet clear and hard, with wisps of dark dust trapped inside, it is clearly a matter generated in a cosmic explosion. I later discovered in the evening that if you hit two chunks together it will make sparks, i.e. it is triboluminescent, a feature that must have caught the imagination of the early stone splintering cultures, thus giving it a magical aura. 

One day later by the remnant of a thermal lake, I discovered a lovely arrow head in sculpted glass, that might have had a ceremonial role in the Propitiation of the Hunt - as a vector of the sun arrows (See Leo Frobenius).

Hanna on top of a Mud Lion (Thermal Lake)
Note that to this day an ejecta crater for the glass has not been found. Farouk El Baz of NASA's remote sensing facilities detected  in 2007* a v. large one between the Gilf and Libya, he christened the Kebira crater, and made the assumption LDG might have come from there.  Indeed nearby the glass is strewn for 6500 sq. km. Later analysis  by samples collected at Kebira showed however that the signature between the crater matter and the glass is different.

A Kebira Crater's picture, seen from man's height
According to Wallis-Budge 'Egyptian Magic' the scarab over the heart of the Pharaoh had a protective aim. The heart was the seat if the Ka the soul that transmigrated into immortality.  The Egyptians might have considered  that a green-yellow stone of cosmic origin was a good candidate to protect the Ka, and to sculpt the scarab with. Again a solar symbol, since the scarab rolling its ball of dung is a symbol of the resurgent Sun, and thus of the soul of the immortal Pharaoh. (W. Budge, 'Egyptian Magic')

After having spent a night by a prehistoric circle of stones, we reached the next stage on our return trip, Abu Ballas, Pottery Hill as it had been dubbed by English explorers in the 1920's. 

Our Landcruisers at Abu Ballas, one of us is on top.
The conical hematite red hill is entirely surrounded by jar fragments, going from Pharaonic to Roman times. This shows that it was a staging post for caravans. The jars were still in one piece at the beginning of last century when the Caliphe decided to have them destroyed so they couldn't act as a water depot for raiders coming from the South (Tibesti raiders, Libyans) who had preyed on the oases, up to Dakhla.

Abu Ballas in the 1930s. Jars are still whole.

Abu Ballas today, everything is broken.
Indeed one of the remarkable findings at AB is a Libyan warrior of Pharaonic times, next to some hieroglyphs. There is also a little cave whose entrance is prevended by a seal of the German Henri Barth Institut, which is doing research there. To them is also due the exploration of the so called Abu Ballas Trail (more about it later). One of them, Kuhlmann, speculated that King Tut's glass might have been traded there by the fellows of the Libyan warrior. 

 Libyan Warrior at Abu Ballas
It dawned on me that from times immemorial the road of Libyans invasions  might have gone from Khufra Oasis to the Gilf and hence to Abu Ballas by making use of the last water sources, and depots of jars.

Keep in mind that at the Uweinat three borders meet: Chad, Libya and Egypt - as shown there by some ruined iron military structure - but we had crossed the borders, various times insouciantly.

Picture of Zayed and Salama at Wadi Bakht,

I climbed to the top of Abu Ballas, with other fellow travelers to have a breath taking view of the road behind us, and of the receding dunes of the Great Sand Sea. Next to me was Salama,  fumbling with something on the ground, with a large smile. He presented to me what looked like a long piece of wood and encouraged me to touch it, without releasing it.

 I complied, and I felt it was alive. At the same time I saw that Salama was holding a head with eyes and a wispy tongue. A snake! A long beige body made of scales, with a white belly. To this day I don't know it it were a local adder, of the same kind that bit Cleopatra! Salama broke in one of this neighing laughs, as if it were a good joke.

Salama and the  snake he is offering me.
On our return way, along the military tar road to Dakhla oasis, nothing remarkable happened, except that we were caught  by a khamsin while we were dining between the calcium formations of the White Desert. It was ending badly, as it had begun. By dinner time, looking for camp with no possible fire, I would have lost my way in the sand blizzard, if energetic Andras had not caught me in time. 

Our Toyotas in the White Desert, as the khamsin is beginning to blow.
Where is the camp do you know? - he asked with a little unassuming smile. I pointed  into the deep haze. He laughed at me. 'rather it's there' he pointed in the opposite direction. By going into nothingness, I could have died, such is the Khamsin. Nothing is ever far in Egypt from the Desert, the Land of the Dead, as it is called.

The morning after, still shuddering at the risk incurred, I looked at the jerrycans on the rooftops of the Toyotas, and asked Andras: 'They look all empty, is that what they are?' 'Yes, he answered, all we have left is a box of mineral water bottles'. 
This is a testimony to the exact planning of the expedition leader, which I hadn't suspected. Chapeau!, as they say in French.
I enjoyed all the more a couple of iced cold beers, with the group in Dakhla Oasis, the same afternoon.
For some years after this foray, I tried to keep abreast with the other expeditions, progressively shifting my interest from Geology to Archeology.

Information trickled slowly, the main issue being how far Pharaonic expeditions had pushed into Africa. It was known that from time to time they had procured precious minerals, and Elephant tusks for the ceremonial needs of the Pharaoh and his court. 

But these could be temporary things, no Pharaonic inscription was known in the Gilf or the Uweinat. 
I even discussed what might have happened with Barbara Barich, head of Archaeology at Rome, Uni and former head of mission at Dakhla. 

She mantained that nomad Saharans had fluctuated between the deep wadis of the Sahara and the Valley of the Nile, according to climate and water fluctuations.

The Henri Barth Institut, the German mission there, however remained far more dismissive. One thing were the (savage) Libyan tribes, another the Egyptian civilisation on the Nile. The only way  to allow intermittent contact had been the fragile Abu Ballas Trail. The posits of classical Egyptology didn't suffer to be revised. Pharaonic Egypt was the son of the Nile.

Foerster map. Abu Ballas Trail, and archaeological sites. 
The real discoveries came after a few years. While Sahara specialists were still discussing  how LDG, that precious mineral might have reached the Pharaoh, Carlo Begmann a self taught archaeologist, was exploring with his camels during a decade the many parallel paths connecting Dakhla to the Gilf Plateau. He did it on foot, and I can only refer you to his findings

Among the most extraordinary is his discovery of a military and trading post established by the Pharaohs deep in the Sahara. 
In what he dubbed Djedefre Water Mountain (DWM) Carlo Bergmann found 'Watercastle' pictograms, and posited that those were the first hieroglyphs ever. I'll let him speak,  Please help yourself to a map of Egypt like this, and look at the bifurcation, DWM is at the beginning of the Northern branch:

Map from Zerzora Expeditions
I took some notes from Carlo:

"Among the many proofs that are emerging of an African origin of Egyptian Civilisation is the matter of how hieroglyphic writing was born. Carlo Bergmann, the German explorer, claims he has an answer. By following a line of cairns that departed from the pharaonic police station south-west of Dakhla he found a stone temple, a conical hill about 30 metres high and 60 metres in length. “On its eastern side there is a natural terrace with an average width of 3 metres and a length of approximately 35 metres, about 7 metres above the ground and fenced by a dry wall of stone-slabs... 

Djedefre Water Mountain by Bergmann
"When setting my foot onto the terrace my eyes glanced over a breathtaking arrangement of hieroglyphic texts, of cartouches of Chufu (Cheops) and of his son Djedefre, of short notes from stone-masons, of two figures of a pharaoh smiting the enemies and of enigmatic signs ("water mountain-symbols") evidently placed on the rock-face in willful order. All these engravings were depicted in the midst of representations of animals and human figures from Prehistoric and Old Kingdom times...  In one cluster of "water-mountain symbols" closed vertical double lines with numerous horizontal strokes are incorporated...In two cases, the mysterious pictograms are connected with a "water-mountain symbol" respectively a double waterline. "

Animals and Watermarks, by Bergmann
"After a second thought I interpreted the arrangement as a map. Dating most probably to Late Neolithic period the "map" shows 10 wells and a number of irrigated fields, two of them connected with a water-source.

"This map led me to Biar Jaqub where I (on two expeditions) identified the locations of all the wells. They and the surrounding area comprise an ancient "lost" oasis (Wilkinson´s 2nd Zerzura). The map, therefore, is the oldest one in the world...” Bergmann claims. Not only he boasts having found an ancient oasis which might have fed the myth of Zerzura, but also he detected there the origin of hieroglyphic writing:  

“As proved by similar finds at Abydos (symbols of irrigated fields on tiny clay- or ivory-palettes) the representations used by pre-dynastic people for artesian wells and irrigated fields were, later, incorporated into the hieroglyphic language. Their being depicted at Djedefre´s Water-Mountain and at Biar Jaqub, therefore, is striking evidence that the Western Desert of Egypt was one of the places where the development of the early stages of the hieroglyphic language took place... "

Hence, the area of Djedefre´s water-mountain and Biar Jaqub can be considered as one of the possible birth places of the hieroglyphic writing system. The author believes that at the end of the Neolithic wet-phase  (with the influx of drought-striken desert dwellers) these early roots of hieroglyphic writing were transferred from the desert to the Nile Valley.

Blue parts are mini glaciations, i.e. dessication periods in the desert.

We now have some very good proof that the first language must have been pictographic, at the very beginning of our Western languages, 7000 yrs ago when there were still hunting-gatherers roaming the steppes of the then verdant  Sahara, and the Pharaonic civilization was still in its cradle.

Explorer Carlo Bergmann has done an impressive work of mapping the extent of penetration of Egyptian expeditions towards the Gilf, and the traces they left, thus providing an explanation about how LDG might have reached the Pharaoh (see below). But he also documented Egyptian penetration by donkey in the farthest reaches of the Sahara, by an accumulation of Water Depots along the Abu Ballas trail, and parallel trails.

All very remarkable, considering that even today, because of the hard conditions (30mm of rain/Year only) no deep expedition can survive for more than 15 days, since it must bring with it its own jerrycans of water and gasoline on the roof, and is therefore is limited by weight. That was the reason why research was delayed by decades, while most mysteries remained such.

Instead, by dropping transportation by car and reverting to the traditional  desert animal, the camel, Bergmann multiplied autonomy, and at its slow pace, chances to spot archaeological features that had been missed by earlier car expeditions.

Warning: technical part. You can safely skip to the conclusion, if Egyptology leaves you cold, or you find the tale too long.

Below  some interviews I had with Carlo Bergmann in 2005-2008:

Q: how  did you come to discover the Abu Ballas Trail ? - the ancient highway connecting the Nile to the extreme reaches of Southen Egypt, the Abu Ballas Trail, in short ABT.  Did your traveling by camel make any  difference?

A: I came to discover the ABT because Abu Ballas had been found in 1917 by Ball and Moore and, later, the pottery there had been analysed and age-checked by a French archaeologist. He dated the pottery to Middle Kingdom times. This is a period where camels were not yet used as beasts of burden in Egypt. If donkeys were used there must have existed water-depots between Abu Ballas and Dakhla. These I wanted to find. As I found traces of the road itsself, there was the need to follow it further to the southwest up on top of the Gilf Kebir Plateau and into the vicinity of a mine-field. This is the place how far I got.
The travel by camel has the advantage of slow movement and precise observation of the surroundings. One can "read" the landscape and stick to the faint traces of old trails much better than travelling by car. 

Q: how did you begin your explorations?

Begmann at DWM with neolithic inscription and a Watermountain one
A: I began travelling by camel in 1982, after having graduated as an economist. [Note: he was a Ford's representative in Egypt] but I decided to change my life  by taking post doctorial studies. I got in contact with an egyptologist by travelling to Sudan and Jordania to Sudan with camels and once there I got  the Desert Fever… Now every year I spend 6 months in the desert, this is my life, you know.

I changed my job, what I wanted to do was more fulfilling and I could not believe from the beginning this Egyptologist idea that the Western desert of Egypt was empty land, the land of the dead and so on...  I travel alone. It is impossible to do otherwise, you can get in such troubles otherwise, so I decided to do it on my own. I started my exploration from Dakhla.

Q: I am amazed that you could reach the edge of the Gilf Kebir from Abu Ballas alone on camel: more than 440 km!

A: I had portable water, sacks of beans... One travels slowly because when one finds out ancient remains, one cannot pass them. Often I wouldn’t get anything to eat from eleven in the morning to three or four o clock until the sun is low, and then one can see the profile, the shadows of the old trails. On the other hand you cannot see them at all traveling by car.

 When not researching my average is 40-42 km per day on foot, with the camels behind me. If I see something then it is only 4 or 5 km per day, sometimes less. If I see the remains of a track, it is a privilege to find it, and one has to stay in the corridor and look for further remains. So one has to 'bite' into the track and stick to it.

Q: what do you mean by trail, what is there to see? Is there pottery?

Along the ABT I foud more than a thousand jars altogether, about a third were still complete, in different depots. (By comparison At Abu Ballas the archaeologists  claimed there were between 2 and 4 hundred.)

Carlo Begmann on the Abu Ballas Trail

Q: this means the there was a Middle Kingdom trail to the Gilf?

A: Yes, yes. At Abu Ballas they claim there is 6th dinasty material. At Bir Jakub, half way between Dakhla and Abu Ballas, there is some 6th dinasty pottery.
To the West instead it’s Middle kingdom and some is from Ramses the Second. There is also roman pottery.

Q: what is your assumption, a caravan to Libya or to Tibesti?

A: Well, Tibesti is the most probable place. Close to Peter and Paul craters there is a semi precious stone that could have been mined. It was used in old kingdom times to make beads. Abu Ballas trail could lead to it...But I have to continue my search behind the minefield.
At any rate one can see in part the trail (ABT). It is still there, not in the sand, but in the hard gravel...And it is 4000 years old. And you can see its beginnings at Superintendent Mery’s rock.  
You see alamats (cairns), as road signs, they are all over the trail, at a hundred meters’ distance each. I found more than 7-900 alamat on this road. I got their GPS waypoints for some of them, but I couldn’t stop for all of them. 
But the trail could lead to Chad for trade reasons as well, for elephant tusks.

Q: do you believe that the first Zerzura was in the Gilf as Almasy thought?

A: Well, Some say there are many Zerzuras... I called mine, the one I found (at Bir Jaqub) the second Zerzura. Wilkinson mentioned it as at two days’ marches, while the first one, at Wadi el Melik,  is at seven days’ marches’ distance, in the Gilf.
Almasy’s one in the Gilf is OK because I saw trails leading to it from Dakhla oasis. There is no doubt for me that Almasy’s is Wilkinson’s first Zerzura, at the moment [at Wadi el Melik]. 

Count Almasy with waddan
A: From Biar Jaqub there  are about 5-7 roads leading to the West. One of them I followed up to the western fringes of the Gilf. It is marked by a few alamat and at places of rest one finds "Clayton Rings" (pottery devices to hold water in water jugs) which have been dated to late predynastic period. Because of these finds the road I followed must be very old.

 I have not the financial means to explore the 5-7 roads further to the west. I would like to perform this work and I am in a position to obtain a permission for it, but I lack the money. 
Most certainly, one of the roads will lead to LDSG-area. About 40km west of DWM I already found a windscreen filled with charcoal and some small fragments of  LDSG. 

Q: I thought it interesting if you could find a direct route from Dakhla to the Saad plateau. You mentioned a piece of silica glass found by archaeologists at Djedefre Water Mountain. Would this point to a road west to Saad Plateau -  where the glass strewn fields are - from there?

A: Yes. it would lead from Dakhla to Dedjefre to the windscreen and then continue to somewhere, more to the northern part of the Gilf. 

Q: Kuhlmann made two separate assumptions about Silica Glass: either it was prospected by the Pharaohs, or it was traded by the nomads with them.

King Tut's necklace, with a Silica Glass scarab at its center
A: The latter could have happened at Bir Jakub because there are [ancient rock drawn] calendars there, and a water supply, or it could have happened at Abu Ballas. 
You see it is my aim to find Pharaonic traces in the Gilf. I am looking for inscriptions there. Andras found what he considers a Libyan figure (in 2003) on the western side of the Gilf. It shows two naked persons, one has feathers on his head, which typical of Libyans. 

the 'dancers' found on top of the Uweinat By Andras Zboray
(you can find his most complete collection of rock art here)

Now this is in contradiction to what egyptologist think. They used to think the Libyans were in the coastal district, not so deep to the south in this remote area of the Gilf.

 If there are chances to detect settlements of them and charcoals, and one can date the material near the rock pictures, it would give a new fantastic insight. 
One could  get closer to an answer if the desert dwellers like the Libyans were supplying the pharaonic civilisation with the desert glass.

I would like to emphasise a point, however. That the Abu Ballas Trail consists of 4 different roads. One of them has been used recently, since camel bones have been found on it. But we also we have old representations which have been dated as Old Kingdom times. 
So the road has been used for a long time. It does not lead to Khufra, as Almasy speculated when he found Abu Ballas, but further to the south west. 

On the other hand DWM is situated at the northern end of Wilkinson´s 2nd Zerzura. In the German text on my website I have outlined  why the Chufu-expeditions went there to fetch pigments. Because there was water available! 
A line of alamat (cairns) is leading from DWM towards the West. And as shown in the film -  2nd German TV, 2001 "Unternehmen Cheops - Die Seidenstraße der Pharaonen" - archaeologists have found a piece of Lybian Desert Silica Glass - LDSG, at DWM. It has been checked by scientists. So there is no doubt about its quality.

Q: and then there is the question of the prehistoric ‘map’ at Djedefre WM. Did you retrace all of the wells? Weren’t they covered with sand?

 Bergmann's map of the wells

A: The wells are gone. You find playas on the lee side of hills. It’s a land of thousand hills. In this area the playa was up to nine meters high. Because of the region having dried out, maybe around Middle Kingdom, or New Kingdom times, the playa has been swept away by the wind. And the wells have been put - this is my hypothesis - into the playa, into the ground. And when the wind swept away the playa, it swept the boreholes of the playa as well. You only see a sign with a watermark symbol.. I checked the hill but I am not a geologist, and I don’t want to dig. One would want to get debris and find wells that are close to the signs on the flanks of the hills and drill into the sandstone, but I cannot do it.
by Bergmann
Q: so the main proof are the playas corresponding to wells on the map?

A: not only playas but the water mountain symbol on the rock faces of the hills. At Djedefre WM you find eleven WM symbols in a certain order. Two of them connected with camels and irrigated fields. I had the idea that this was done on purpose on the rock face at Djedefre WM. And this could be a map. And so I went and Kuhlmann said: no, you are crazy, you’ll never find any. So I went around with my camels on 2 trips and found all these signs. It is a land of thousand hills between which you find small wadis with the remains of the playa, up to 9 meters high. And at the rock faces of ten of these hills you find the watermarks symbols. 

I have talked to Miroslav Lama, a  professor in Prague, egyptologist. He has analysed the WM symbols as a root of the old egyptian language. As Kuhlmann says it is a combination of mountain and water. It is a pictogram but it might be the root of a hieroglyph. The French have found one in Dakhla combined with hieroglyphic text from a person called Supervisor Mery.

Archaeologists from the Henri Barth Institut went at Djedefre WM and they found pottery sherds, ‘kitchen pottery’, and  rock pictures of the oasis dwellers there - the Sher Muktar culture from Dakhla. These people were living in a symbiotic relationship with the first Egyptian people coming from the Nile valley, up to Middle Kingdom times. They could have been the [first] Oasis Dwellers. 

Thanks to the pottery finds you have the first proof that the Oasis Dwellers were out there at the time, because they were in a layer where you found  Old Kingdom pottery, of Djedefre and Cheops pharaohs. In Bir Jakub we were lucky that in addition to pictorial remains we had pharaonic text.

Q: but you say that the WM pictogram is found in asssociation with hieroglyphs also in Abydos, on the Nile?

A: Yes it was Dreyer's expedition digging there, at Umm el Kab, and he went trough all the rubbish material and found a small pieces of pottery and ivory tablets where you have these roots, before the pharaonic language began. And you among them thisere  this irrigated field system, the same you have on Djedefre WM rockface.

By Bergmann
The sign with parallel, crossed lines, is associated with a Sa Wadjet sign. Did Sa Wadjet (the Son of the Cobra)  attach his name as a traveler to an older pictogram? If he had done it on purpose and drawn the irrigated fields perhaps it would mean that he was a peasant, doing agriculture at the time of the Middle Kingdom in Bir Jakub. This would be fantastic, but we should find organic material to date  it in order to prove it, and I can’t do the digging myself.

Q: The origin of hieroglyphs begining at the very start of Pharaonic Civilisation was rather a mystery, was it?

A: yes but Dreyer with his work brought some insight in it. He found a list of king names of the First and Second dynasty in Abydos, on the Nile. The fields symbol is the same there and in Abydos. He found the root of a hieroglyph, a field's symbol, not the water mountain one. In Djedefre we have already a combination of different signs.

In Dakhla oasis  you have the water-mountain sign without the ears on top. You have this kind of bucket with the waterwaves in it. And buckets like this are along the watermountain symbols as well at the different sites. 

Photo of Watermountain with ears - the mountains. By Bergmann.

Q: how did you do 440 km from Abu Ballas to the North of the Gilf?

A: In fact I did 1040 kilometres in a row  the first time I was looking for the Abu Ballas trail, from Sudan to Abu Munhar. The camels then were very strong ones, and I conditioned them, in wintertime, not to drink and work hard for 18 days.
 And I did about 43 km per day, in the average. I went from Bir Oju in north western sudan to Bur Tojur, then to the Djebel Uweinat, then to Abu Ballas, Regenfeld and Abu Mungar where I got water. It is I believe, a world record."

To recap, the discovery of the Silica Glass at the heart of the Pharaoh focussed the archaeologists' attention to the means that Ancient Egyptians might have used to connect such a distant region like the Gilf to the Nile.

From pottery shards with the drawing of a donkey, they guessed that they had used donkey caravans. Meanwhile  Bergmann was discovering the staging posts of the caravans, with water depots and the hierogyphic roots inscribed there.

By checking the superposition of pharaonic signs and the Desert Dwellers' animal drawings,  Bergmann realised the influence that  the Desert Dwellers of the Sahara might have had on the early kingdoms of the Nile.

This led to  the thesis of the recent book 'Black Genesis' (2011),  that Ancient Egypt had its roots in African communities. Suddenly it was all the buzz for African internet navigators, feeling proud about the contribution of their black countries might have given to the oldest civilization, and the longest lasting, of the African Continent.

The book mentions Bergmann's pioneering work, but it's not all. In 2011 Bergmann went to an Egyptology  meeting in Prague, where he published his results about these proto-hieroglyphs in a PDF, among the papers of the meeting.

Even before, his discovery of Djedefre Water Mountain had been published by a German academic review in 2003. It was at last public recognition for more that 20 years of solitary exploration.

His conclusion?

"Contrary to the prevailing opinion in Egyptology, it was not bureaucratic needs which facilitated the invention of a written language but rather, necessity per se (that is, the vital necessities of life itself). This event was triggered off in the Western Desert of Egypt by gradual degradation of environmental conditions which slowly began to take effect at the beginning of the Predynastic period, circa 5.000 BC.

[i.e. water signs were created  by the need of Sahara Dwellers to label surviving water sources]

"Thus, the precursor writing of the Pharaonic script which had resulted as a consequence of an adaptation process to climatic change, had already come  into existence in the Western Desert of Egypt more than 1000 years before tribes, societies and/or (unknown) bodies of people, had developed their bureaucratic procedures & structures [in the Nile area]."

According to egyptologist Herman Te Velde, in a PDF at Groeningen Uni, the evolution of hieroglyphs was not unlike that of modern news. First Egyptians combined drawings of animals and people in a composition, then they added signs of sounds, resulting in what was a a relatively simple rebus to interpret.

Egyptians didn't invent the alphabet  but a syntax of images, with labels. Exactly like we do with photographs today, when putting together  a reportage.

One can also see an evolution from rock drawings depicting social ceremonies in the Sahara to the hundreds of hieroglyphs of the Nile that were needed to keep accounts of agricultural produce belonging to the Pharaoh. 

The earlier animalism however never left the hieroglyphic writing, pointing to an earlier African origin.

Let me conclude, with a vision of what might well have been  the Queen of Zerzura, taken more than 30 years ago in Timbuctu, on the southern edge of the same Sahara.

 The Queen of Timbuctu, a Touareg nomad, playing a welcome song for her guests.

To the nomads of the Sahara the desert has never been impassable.


Where not otherwise stated, pictures are by me. The Interview with Carlo Bergmann is copyrighed to Giles Stanhope-Wright.

Here you have a quick course in hieroglyphs, a  PDF, by Wallis-Budge,  the early curator and father of Egyptology at the British Museum. Very easy to understand!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

An Adventure in the Western Desert of Egypt (1)

(1) The 2002 expedition and the pharaoh's jewel

The March 2002 expedition

'The Desert is the skeleton of the Earth' I kept hearing this sentence of Theodore Monod, a  naturalist and explorer of the Sahara, when our convoy of three 4x4 Toyotas left suddenly the military tar road, 700 km from Cairo, and made a wide arc into into flat yellow nothingness.  It was March 2002, and two years before I had written a feature for New Scientist  about the most mysterious mineral of all, Libyan Desert Silica Glass. The purest glass on Earth, that I had found resulting from a mighty meteoritic explosion. (see article below)
Chianti Camp, Almasy's breakfast place. Tins and bottle are still there, in the crack of a rock. (all photos, unless otherwise stated, by me)

In the scorching heat,  in the three bumping Landcruisers, there was a mixed European crowd, with different aims, from birding to archaeological exploration. Andras Zboray, our expedition leader, had as a task to find and catalogue  new rock paintings in the Uweinat Mountain, and in the Gilf Plateau.  I had to check the strewn fields of Libyan Desert Glass, a cosmic material that had been found at the center of a King Tutankhamen necklace.

A sample of Libyan Desert Glass (yellow dominant)

According to achaeologists between 7000 and 5.000 yrs b.C., before the last general dessiccation, those barren lands  had seen the first men and the beginnings of a civilization, at the end of the hunter-gatherer phase, as documented by one the largest collections of Prehistoric Art in Africa found in shelters and caves. Mind you, if you look at the Michelin map, the most detailed yet in Africa, you'll draw an absolute blank, there are no roads, and not even paths. Just sand and geological formations. The lines drawn retrace just earlier explorations.

Andras and I also shared an Arab legend about the place: where was the legendary kingdom of birds,  the Lost City of Zertura which had for so long mesmerized the explorers of the 1930s?
People like Arabist Wilkinson and Count Almasy, the explorer, had been drawn to this forgotten, superarid corner of the World, just for this reason.

Almasy's car trying to cross a Dune of the Great Sand Sea, circa 1930.

The city of the Black Queen and King, who owned the greatest treasures of the Ancient World. A Lost City, the rarest mineral in the World, and a long forgotten civilization, were motivations enough for us to travel for two weeks, making a periple of 2000 km, all off road.

Note that we were bringing everything with us,  water in jerrycans, never to waste,  other jerrycans of gasoline, but also food. As for spares we were ready to cannibalize one of the Landcruisers, which had been bought second hand in Cairo.
The Toyotas seem to totter at times, so oberburdened were their roofs. The duration of the stay was calculated,  on the basis of the weight the three Toyotas could carry, never to exceed 15 days, based on each of us' personal water consumption, some 1,5 liters per day each. Not enough to wash oneself with!

Nobody could reach us easily 700 km from the Nile, although we had a satellite phone, which batteries must be spared. In case of an accident, our only hope of rescue was an Egyptian military helicopter, that we had paid for in advance.

Temperatures went between 40 C and -5 C, ideal for the Sahara. If you have been there you know that it can be done, due to the lack of humidity. In March however the deadly desert wind, the Khamsin, blowing from the South, can rear its ugly head.
Accordingly, the first two days as we began exploring the reliefs in the outer reaches of the Gilf Plateau, we were caught in a Khamsin. A running yellow, stinging fog of particles so strong that it obliterates everything, from one meter onwards. All you can do is bury yourself fully dressed in your miserable tent, which shakes as a living beast. 

Cameras of course need special care.  Knowing my customer, I had brought a tank built Praktica BC1,  with  a 35-70, and an additional 28 mm, that I kept always wrapped in a plastic bag. Sandstorms can also make your batteries suddenly flat. The BC1 however has also a mechanical shutter at 1/60, and is sturdy enough to stand the incessant bumps of the Toyota. The digitals of our group instead went flat, but there was also a spray of mechanical Leicas. Those, like my Praktica, kept working flawlessly. 

If I think in retrospect, I should have brought at least a lens shade, and a 300 mm or even a 600 mm lens. Innocently I believed that a Wide Angle would have been all I needed, but the desert is so vast, and in places so featureless, that a WA is completely redundant. Teles are welcome, the longest the best. Distances are so vast  that they flatten the features, and details vanish in the horizon flare. Lenses don't need to be fast anyway: there is so much light that you'll always be shooting in the vicinity of f/16, with a 100 ISO film!

Seen from some relief the Toyotas' convoy must have looked to progress slow as  snails, across the imposing landscape of rocky flats and dunes.. But in fact our beduin drivers, Salama, and Mahamud, pushed the Landcruisers as frenzied camels, taking long curves to avoid the most cutting rocks that would have made our tyres explode. They did so with ease, to the sound of Arabic party dances, yelling as if they were running some beast.

In a bag separate from the camera, below the seats for freshness, I kept a ten pack of Ecktachromes 100 and some 400 ASA. I later duplicated the BC1 slides with a Digital body and a macro tube. After colour correction in PhotoShop, they are not too shoddy all considered, even ten years later. Some still have an orange dominant though. At any rate the expedition was far more than what they show, you will find an objective account by Andras here:

We really did some intensive exploration, never spending a night in the same place. Our dozen tents had to be raised each evening and broken again each morning. Then, with the setting sun  came the ritual of a sundowner, and then eating  some tastless rice boiled on the fire, with a tin of nameless Hungarian things. You are not there for the cooking anyway,there went the saying :)

Karkhur Talh

But how could I ever describe my arrival at the end of the day to the foot of the mighty Uweinat Mountain, all covered with feather like Zilla Spinosa, light green Acacia leaves, inhabited by the Zerzura bird, that was rumoured to guard the Lost City?
 I have seen the swallow-like black and white birds jumping from branch to branch, but they are so tiny and fleeting that I could never make anything of them with a 35-70. Again the need for a 300mm.

Note that the place had only been discovered by the Egyptian Crown Prince Kemal el Din in the 1910s, with his mixed retinue of camels and Citroen half tracks. Before him, nobody even knew that there was this 1000 m. mountain! And at a rate of exploration of a couple of explorations a year, lasting two weeks each, no wonder that there is still so much left to explore.

However  you can also enjoy just being there, in one of the last places untainted by Man. Sometimes contemplation and utter inner happiness floods  everything, so one forgets even to shoot!
In that mountain made of cyclopean granite boulders we were to discover an old artesian well that might well have watered the last camels of the Warriors of Zerzura, or one the last Tebu tribes that were seen there by an old camel guide at the beginning of last century. 

The expedition from Shaw's Cave
We advanced through the rocky flanks in a row, so not to miss anything, and accordingly we discovered the mountain was as covered by rock drawings, like  a cathedral covered  by frescoes!
The Uweinat must have been a high place for the covens of Prehistoric Saharans, being one of the rare places to still have water a century ago, as related by the witings of the early explorers.

Claire Spottiswoode at rock paintings

Picture Hannah McKeand
Andras was taking pictures and GPS readings simultaneously, documenting the first messages at the dawn of humanity. Some might have been as old of the Palaleolithic when the Neanderthals still roamed uncivilized Europe. They showed horned gods of goddesses, in shamanistic dealings, and even human sacrifices.

Shaman making a charm to an addax

Two prehistoric grinding stones
In a shelter, called the Cave of Swimmers, and discovered in 1930 by Count Almasy, we found the celebrated swimmers, in somehow foetal positions! 
 Water must have literally flowed there at the end of the last Glaciation, some 7000 yrs. ago. Represented in other caves there were pregnant cows and gazelles, and scenes of hunting with spears. But there were also hand prints, made by blowing ocre over the hands. Those have been interpreted as trance devices to make contact with the Other World, across the stone wall!
Count Lazlo Almasy at the Cave of Swimmers, 1930

The Cave of Swimmers

Hand Prints by blown hematite dust
It was then that in dawned on me that we were discovering  the first pictographic language of humanity, born in the Desert from the need of marking the water sources (see Part Two) by a society of hunters-gatherers, whose resources were dwindling. 
Rock paintings indeed convey information as much as photography. They are simply associated with the relevant features, like marks.
Climatologist and archaologists alike tell us that this Saharan culture was born while the waters where retreating from the then verdant Sahara.  With the dwindling waters those herds and populations reatreated towards the Nile, more or less at the rise of the first Egyptian kingdoms. Was that a coincidence that their pictographic language was later to be found superimposed to the hieroglypic language of the Pharaohs? Did the animal gods come from the Sahara?

Meanwhile we were going to look in one of the valleys of the Gilf Plateau, so huge that it can be observed from space, where Count Almasy situates the first City of Zerzura, mentioned by Arabist Sir Gardiner Wilkinson in one of his ancient manuscripts.

The flanks of the Gilf Plateau

Salama checking our engines in the morning
It was not so easy to climb with the Toyotas the craggy and steep flanks of the 300m tall plateau, as huge and steep as Switzerland. Once on the flat top we could push at 60 km/h for hours, and Salama flirted with the ravines.
However  it was harder to descend between the narrow passes to the mysterious valley, described by Almasy  They are precipitous descents among rock flanks, with a sandy bottom. The Toyota must be cranked at full speed and enter the rock walls of the pass at full blast to avoid getting stuck in the sand, by  keeping exactly in the middle - or get shattered - to safely reach the floor of the valley, if luck is with you. 

I got a seat next to Salama, feeling I couldn't leave him alone at the moment of danger.
I thought I would die in a tremendous blast, but with a swift turn of the wheel, and a graceful curve,  we were at last on the sandy bottom of the hidden valley, with Salama laughing like a madman. 

The Wadi el Melik pass - Photo Marc Bovym
Allow me an anticlimax. No we didn't find the Mysterious Kingdom, only a horned skull and bones, attesting that the last inhabitants had pushed there from Libya at the beginning of last century, before the valley dried up completely. The Zilla Spinosa and the Zerzur birds were nagging us again, exactly like Almasy, and the legend,  had described.

 In this valley Almasy was even told a tale by an old camel herder, el Melik, who had said before the Caliphe christened it with his name, among the tribes of old it was known as the Zertura valley.
So if there had been a kingdom it must have vanished long beforeAlmasy's time. 

The Last Addax - Picture Lajos Nemeth
More to the point, as the second leg of the expedition, we still had a mission to find the site of the strewn fields of Silica Glass,  a material so power yelding that it had been incorporated at the heart of a necklace belonging to King Tutankhamun! 

The Pectoral of King Tut with LDG at the heart. Cairo Museum.

How could it have reached his court from a site so remote that had completely dried up before his time, some 7000 yrs. ago? 

That was an even deeper mistery than the origin of the glass that  I had clarified with  top geologists and astrophysicists, as having a cosmic origin.

More would come about how the glass had reached King Tut, by  the camel expeditions of explorer Carlo Bergmann. Thanks to him we would have insights, not only about the travels of the glass, but  also about the dawn of Egyptian Civilisation, and the origin of hieroglyphic writing in the desert.

I was extremely happy of having hit one of the main leading pieces of evidence in the cosmic glass.

 But first things, first: what created the Desert Silica Glass? See below.


( I have inserted some images, not originally in the text, to ease the reading.)

The Riddle of the Sands

10 July 1999 by Giles Wright
Magazine issue 2194. 

BUFFETED by the might of the hot Khamsin wind that sweeps across the Egyptian Sahara, the mountainous dunes of the Great Sand Sea are the stuff of legends. Here, ancient armies lie buried and the fabulous wealth of lost cities awaits discovery. But in the 1930s, these myths came under threat. Explorers arrived with camels, cars and flimsy biplanes and criss-crossed the blistering sands, searching for a legendary oasis called Zerzura. Though they never found Zerzura, Patrick Clayton, a surveyor with the Egyptian Geological Survey stumbled upon something almost as fantastic.

In December 1932, he was bumping across the dunes towards the high, wind-swept red rocks of the Saad plateau when he felt the tyres of his car crunch across chunks of glass. It was an incredibly clear, green-yellow glass that glittered like gems in the bright sun. Over the next few years he returned on expeditions to collect samples  with LJ Spencer, curator at the British Museum.

When in winter 1934 Spencer and Clayton combed the dunes and the interdune corridors    they found  that the glass was strewn for  an area  of some two hundred square miles, later figures being  3500 km2 ,  and that a mass above ground is 1400 tons.  Another proof   of how large the phenomena must have been is how varied the glass was: color went from yellow to light, sometimes dark green.  Some chunks were so clear they could be used as lenses, some had streams of bubbles, whitish  inclusions, pointing  to a tumultuous origin. Others yet had dark layers  or black swirls, looking like ink dropped in water. Many were layered and could be easily splintered. Indeed Spencer noticed  clusters of LDG chips that looked as debris of  prehistoric workshops.   An archaeological mistery was added to the geological one. 

By  analysing the samples Spencer discovered that it was the purest natural glass ever seen, with 98-99% silica, a composition which had never been observed in  impact glasses formed by meteorites, nor in glass spewed by volcanoes, which is 75% silica at most.  He also discovered that he could heat the material to 1700°C before it began to melt, more than 500°C higher than other natural glasses. It could be dropped into cold water even when it when red hot and it didn't disintegrate.   What was the mighty event that had created such a tough substance?  Sadly,  five years after his trip in the GSS, in 1939, L.J. Spencer wrote "publication of the... notes has been delayed now for five years in the forlorn hope that some clue might turn up to help solve the mystery of Silica Glass of the Libyan Desert"  
Searches for LDG did not resume  until  1971, when  US geologists Barnes and Underwood,  prospecting for oil reached the Saad plateau from the Kufra oasis, finding on their way a fallen aircraft with the corpses of the unfortunate passengers.They collected 26 samples of LDG, but stayed only a few days, not enough to find conclusive geological evidence about the origin of the glass.  
A decade later, in 1981, French naturalist and Sahara doyen Theodore Monod, journeying towards the Gilf Kebir, reported numerous LDG artefacts in the glass dispersion area, and gave his samples to some of the best French labs and universities.

A piece of LDG on location. See the signature of meteoritic dust inside
In 1983, having noticed some extinct lakes (playas) in the neighbourhood of the glass dispersion area,  University of Koln's Ulrich Jux, a geologist who was there with a German arcaeological mission, proposed a hydrothermal origin for the glass. Silica glass may have formed at the bottom of a warm, volcanic lake. Over millions of years, water trickling through hot underground channels close to a volcano could have dissolved silica from the surrounding rocks. When this warm, silica-rich water collected into lakes and cooled, pure silica glass would begin to precipitate out. It would become a gel, that would solidify with time, becoming glass. According to Jux this formation process is demonstrated by the presence of organic remains such as diatoms trapped during the precipitation phase. Such remains supposedly produced macroscopic dark streaks in SG, which were attributed by the american geologists Murali, Underwood, and alii (1989) to inclusions of ET matter. A controversy ensued.
Dating the glass was important to solve the issue. Previously to 1987 no  technology to date events older than 10,000 years had been available: it was a matter of putting the glass samples into an expensive nuclear reactor and bombarding it with neutrons.  In that year German geochemists  dated the glass at 28,5 million years old, by a process called fission track, that measures the rate of decay of radioactive elements trapped in the glass. This was a time, the Oligocene,  when the elephant and the hippo still roamed in Europe, and where Homo Sapiens was still a dream in some monkey's mind. Clearly  it could have nothing to do with the catastrophe that had destroyed Zerzura.  Nor had it to do with  the dried-up remains of the ancient lakes that Jux had spotted near the site. They  turned out to be far too young, just 9000 years old. 

Thermal Lake by Saad Plateau.
In the universities round the world the LDG question was coming to a head:  more than a hundred and forty  papers had been published without conlusive results, when  in  1985  Sahara explorer and archaeologist Giancarlo Negro, heading for the rock paintings of Gilf Kebir,  found Clayton's  bottle among the chunks of Silica Glass.  "I found Clayton's camp in 1985, with petrol and water  tins still constellating the sand.  I was amazed to see that whisky bottle full of sand with a message sticking out, carrying the message 'March 1934. Spencer, Little, Clayton' I was shocked at the sight of a bottle dating some 50 years before, also because that meant that nobody had been there, in Camp 10,  in the interval." He was so intrigued that he decided to carry their torch; after making four expeditions researching Silica Glass from 1991 to 1996, he organised the first international meeting on LDG at the University of Bologna: 'Silica 96'. It was high time to assess the post-war expeditions made  by German, French, American and Italian research teams. More than 170 papers had accumulated.

Could the material have been spewed by volcanoes? Robert Rocchia  from the environmental sciences lab at the French national agency for scientific research (CNRS) in Gif Sur Yvette, who inherited the collection of  Monod's LDG samples.There are at least two ancient volcanic craters in the area (Abu Ballas, El Baz crater),  says Rocchia but they are hundreds of kilometres away from the site of the glass, probably too far away to have been involved.  Moreover, these volcanos have a typical basaltic composition (rather poor in Silica). And Horn and Christian Koeberl, a geochemist at the University of Vienna identified whitish inclusions in the glass as minerals such as cristobalite,and baddeleyite which form at temperatures far higher than those found in volcanic lava.  
The best clue to the origin of the glass lies  in the swirling black marks resembling drops of ink found in  some fragments. Rocchia   bombarded these samples with neutrons in a nuclear reactor to trigger gamma-ray emissions from elements trapped inside. The energy of these emissions can help identify elusive trace elements locked up in the glass. They made an intriguing discovery: the dark samples are very rich in iridium. Now, high iridium levels are typical of extraterrestrial bodies such as meteorites and comets. The proportions of other elements such as ruthenium, cobalt and iron told the same story. The only explanation, says Rocchia, is that the glass formed when a meteorite crashed into the desert . 

A piece of the LDG on location at Saad Plateau (center of the frame)
This suggestion seems to make good sense. The local Nubian sandstone is rich in silica and should you want to melt thousands of tonnes of the stuff, there is no better way to do it than with a large meteorite travelling at several kilometres per second. Smash it into the ground and the explosive impact would vaporise a huge area of the desert, melting rocks   and sand at temperatures easily high enough to form minerals like baddeleyite and cristobalite. And as the molten rock cools, it turns to clear, green-yellow coloured glass.
A neat explanation, but peppered with holes: photographs taken by the Landsat and Discovery satellites showed no sign of an impact crater at the glass site. NASA's X-SAR radar imaging camera and The European Space Agency's ERS radar satellites both swept the area, this time probing beneath the surface of the sand with microwaves. They drew a blank, says geologist Farouk El Baz, head of the center for remote sensing at Boston University. 
"We have plenty of impact craters on the Earth," says Koeberl, "but this is the only known occurrence on the whole Earth of such glass. Why did it form here and nowhere else?"
Vincenzo De Michele, keeper of minerals at the Museum of Natural History of Milan  and Romano Serra, an astrophysicist at the University of Bologna believe they know the answer. During their expedition in 1996, Serra and de Michele made a thorough search of the site and discovered that the glass is concentrated in two areas: one oval shaped, and the other a ring 21 kilometres across and about 6 kilometres wide. The area at the centre of the ring is empty, says de Michele. Since a geological upheaval couldn't create a feature that small, de Michele and Serra have another theory. 
Imagine that a chondritic meteorite--a brittle lump of stone and organic matter about the size of a house--is crashing into the atmosphere with the energy of ten thousand express trains. The friction and massive shock wave this creates compresses and heats the atmosphere, shattering the brittle meteorite in mid-air. The heat from this explosion would toast the rock and sand beneath. Scientists call this huge blast a "soft" impact and most believe something similar happened above Tunguska in Siberia in 1908, flattening thousands of kilometres of forest .
A soft impact might just explain why the centre of the ring in the desert is free of glass: "The ground could have responded in an elastic way to the blast wave and rebounded, leaving a ring and a central peak which was later eroded" says de Michele. From the size of this ring, Serra calculates that the meteorite must have been 10 to 12 kilometres above the desert when it exploded.De Michele is particularly impressed by the size of the glass chunks: "This points to a thick mantle of glass and to an enormous amount of heat," he says. "Molten silica is highly viscous, yet the streaks in some samples show that it was flowing like a river."

 Picture of Kebira crater, a candidate for meteor impact, next to the Gilf, and South of Saad plateau.

According to Mark Boslough of Sandia National Labs at Albuquerque in New Mexico, a meteorite 30 metres across could create an explosion equivalent to a 3-megatonne nuclear bomb --easily hot enough to melt thousands of tonnes of glass. And when this meteorite hits the atmosphere, a plume of air would rocket outwards into space like the splashes thrown up by a rock as it drops into water. 
As the plume came down, its kinetic energy would heat the atmosphere to more than 2000°C, says Boslough. At this temperature, the hot air would have sprayed infrared radiation onto the desert, melting the sand like sugar beneath a blowtorch.
Serra believes that this  thermal blanket  might have kept the glass sizzling at thousands of degrees for over a week. During this time, bits of meteorite  would have mixed with the silica and after the glass had cooled and solidified, it would have begun to break down into chunks.
Not everyone agrees with this view: "Airblast melting alone would not work," objects Koeberl. "To melt thousands of kilometres of desert, you need a big body. But big bodies don't make airblasts, unless you make unrealistic assumptions about their density and composition. They make impacts on the ground." And because the glass is contaminated, he says, it suggests the meteorite made contact with the glass.
Koeberl believes that a large meteorite raced through the Earth's atmosphere at a very shallow angle and skimmed across the surface of the Sahara like a stone skipping across a pond. In the moments the meteorite spent in contact with the desert, friction would have created enough heat to melt the sand and rock. This process could create far more melted silica than a meteorite smashing straight into the ground. And it wouldn't leave a very deep crater: "In 28 million years a lot of sedimentation and infill can happen," says Koeberl. "The crater might still be there, covered by hundred of metres of sand." 
But there may be a simple way to overcome Koeberl's objections to a soft impact yet still account for the huge amount of melted glass at the site. According to calculations made by Boslough, massive amounts of heat could have come from an impact involving multiple simultaneous soft impacts--when more than one piece of meteorite dropped into the atmosphere and exploded. Much the same thing occurred when pieces of Comet Shoemaker-Levy smashed into Jupiter in 1996. "Close-packed arrays of soft impacts lead to dense plumes, generating higher temperatures," he says. 

                                 a meteorite crashes on jupiter.

Even without a crater, Rocchia prefers to stick with the hard impact theory. Researchers  have found shocked quartz grains inside silica glass, he says: "They are unlikely to result from an atmospheric explosion." But the arguments look set to continue: Koeberl plans to return to the Great Sand Sea to hunt for signs of his crater. Meanwhile, Serra is devoting much of his efforts to studying Tunguska in the hope of strengthening the air blast theory. 
Even if we never learn exactly what created the beautiful desert glass, it is helping us to appreciate how vulnerable our planet is to meteorite impact. "Events like this  or Tunguska are much more frequent than previously thought," says Serra. In fact, estimates suggest that impacts caused by objects 30 to 40 metres across happen once every one or two centuries. Smaller events, caused by 10 to 20 metre objects, may even occur once a month, says Serra. "But soft impacts leave no trace in the geological record and may easily pass unnoticed" says Boslough. This may change as increasing numbers of sensors, orbiting the Earth on satellites, keep watch for their fiery signatures.


our three drivers watching the Gilf

I'll give you in the next instalment the second leg of the expedition, and an insight on the prehistoric origin of the hieroglyphic language, derived from ordinary rock drawings - a notion I will develop with a multiple  interview with explorer Carlo Bergmann.

He discovered what he called Zertura 2, one of the fabled lost cities, along the lost desert paths that Silica Glass might have taken to reach the court of King Tut.

Our camp at Abu Ballas, the Hill of Jars - Picture Hannah McKeand