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Astronomical Monuments

November/December 1998

Recent discoveries in the Sahara Desert provide strong evidence of the existence of an ancient ceremonial center, and include what may be the oldest known sculpture in Egypt.

Professor Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University led the NSF-supported team of archaeologists who explored the Nabta Playa in southern Egypt. The Nabta Playa, located near the Tropic of Cancer, is a kidney-shaped depression left by a seasonal lake that existed, on and off, for 6,000 years--from 11,000 years ago until about 4,800 years ago. "The Nabta area is full of prehistoric sites because of the presence of the lake there," explains Wendorf. "This is a region drier than Death Valley. Wherever and whenever there was water, people were going to be there."

Archaeologists uncovered a number of fascinating remains in the Nabta Playa, including an alignment of sandstone slabs, clay-lined tombs containing cattle, and an ancient "calendar"--a circle of sandstone slabs containing pairs of stones that aligned with sunrise on the summer solstice. The existence of the calendar circle, in particular, points to a society that understood, and in fact measured, astronomical phenomena.

In addition, a shaped stone from one of these complexes may be the oldest known sculpture in Egypt, according to Professor Wendorf.

Ancient seasonal lakes such as the Nabta Playa were formed by summer monsoons, whose shifting presence brought "wet phases," or periods of annual rainfall to regions that were otherwise arid. The lakes contained water only after summer rains, when water would come from large surrounding areas and drain into the basin.

It was during the last of these "wet phases" that the megaliths in Nabta Playa were constructed. The only complication for archaeologists: The wet phase lasted nearly 2,000 years. "We don't know for sure if these structures are contemporary," says Wendorf. "They may have been built all at one time, they may not. Some single structures may represent activity spanning more than a thousand years."

Regardless of the exact date of origin, these discoveries have led scientists to postulate that Nabta was a regional ceremonial center, a lakefront ritual ground where people from the wide surrounding area gathered to affirm their social and political solidarity. This center is the only one of its kind in the Egyptian and Sudanese Sahara, as well as being the oldest known ceremonial phenomenon in Africa.

Wendorf was joined in his work by scientists from the University of Colorado, the Geological Survey of Egypt, and the Polish Academy of Sciences--a group aptly named the Combined Prehistoric Expedition. To continue what they describe as ongoing archaeological research into the emergence of social complexity in the Eastern Sahara, the Combined Prehistoric Expedition will spend one more NSF-funded season exploring the Nabta Playa.

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