This huge and heavy (almost 4kg!) volume is number 26 in the Heinrich Barth Institute’s distinguished ‘Africa Praehistorica’ monograph series; previous offerings include the world-renowned six double volumes of Harald Pager’s tracings of Brandberg paintings (1989–2006)—the single greatest feat of rock art recording of all time and hence the greatest rock art publication ever produced.
Wadi Sura is Arabic for ‘Valley of the Pictures’; it is located in the extreme west of Egypt on the Gilf Kebir plateau, only 15km east of the Libyan border. The valley was named and made famous 80 years ago by László Almásy’s report (1934) of the Cave of Swimmers (actually a rock shelter), which became known to the general public through the movie The English Patient in 1996. On 11 May 2002, the Cave of Beasts (another rock shelter) was found 10km to the west by Italian businessman Massimo Foggini and his son Jacopo. It is a far bigger and more important rock art site: with its 8000 figures it is the richest in the Libyan Desert, and perhaps in the entire Sahara, and indeed one of the most densely decorated rock art sites in the world. Its densest part averages 100 figures per square metre! The shelter is 20m wide, over 6m high, and is reached after a climb of 20m up a steep sand slope. The paintings and petroglyphs, which cover about 120m2, are far better preserved than those of the Cave of Swimmers, which has suffered a great deal of exfoliation.
One important feature of the Cave of Beasts is that it highlights the existence of hand stencils in Africa. This motif, normally made by spraying or spitting pigment onto the hand, is known on every other continent, and is particularly common in Australia and Patagonia; but Africa had previously only yielded positive hand prints in its southern regions, and some stencils in a couple of little-known western Egyptian sites such as the Cave of the Hands (Darnell 2002), and the Wadi el-Obeiyd Cave in Farafra Oasis (Huyge 2003: 66–68). Indeed, these sites are so poorly known outside the world of Egyptian rock art that most rock art specialists are unaware of the existence of hand stencils in Africa. So it is clearly high time that the hundreds of examples in the Cave of Beasts become better known. It seems that the whole rock face here was originally covered with a ‘wallpaper’ of hand stencils, and later these were superimposed by figures (primarily humans, with animals less abundant), leaving the stencils visible in only a few places.
The site is also of major importance for its ‘swimmers’ and ‘beasts’. The so-called swimmers are humans in a horizontal position, with outstretched and raised arms and legs, and head tilted back. The 18 swimmers arranged in a row are stylistically different from those at the nearby Cave of Swimmers. The several dozen headless beasts—after which the site is named—are unique in the Sahara (there is only one in the Cave of Swimmers). They have no head, only two or three legs, a raised tail, and are a mixture of different animals. They are often surrounded by humans, sometimes touched by them and, in some cases, seem to have swallowed humans.
Previously, information on the Cave of Beasts was only really available through a fine volume by Le Quellec, de Flers and de Flers (2005). Now, however, we have a major monograph in English, with only a few very minor errors of language.
The German team have been involved in a five-year project. It began in 2009 with the complete 3D laser scanning of the shelter; this was repeated in 2011 after a metre (50 tons) of sand covering the lowest figures had been removed. The scanning was combined with high-resolution digital photography (producing images of up to 1000MB), which was carried out by day and night. Very little was found in the removed sand, and coring through 6.5m of sand revealed no archaeological layers. Walking surveys (2009–2011) of the area between the Cave of Beasts and the Cave of Swimmers found 396 prehistoric sites, 74 of them with rock art, and 126 with pottery. Excavations at three sites, together with analysis of the pottery, point to the seventh to fifth millennia BC as the major period of occupation across the area, though this may not necessarily have any direct connection with the rock art, which remains undated.
Where interpretation of the Cave of Beasts’ imagery is concerned, Frank Förster and Rudolph Kuper are refreshingly sceptical, pointing out that it must necessarily “remain highly speculative” (p. 24), especially in view of the often unclear context of figures within a scene, the sometimes poor preservation, and the difficulties of dating.
The book’s text is actually quite short, occupying only the first 80 pages, and the vast majority of the volume comprises countless colour plates. These images are the main purpose of this preliminary presentation of the site: it provides a complete coverage of the paintings at half size, followed by photographs of the most interesting or photogenic groupings. No image enhancement has been used, so the book shows what one sees with the naked eye. Detailed analysis using new techniques such as DStretch will come later.
In short, this massive volume is merely the hors d’oeuvre—what is missing is an overall presentation of the rock art: i.e. the frequency of each motif, their distribution, etc. It is reported (p. 30) that the detailed attribute recording of each figure is so time-consuming that only a quarter have been completed so far, but analysis and interpretation will come in a future volume which we await with the greatest interest.
It is comforting, however, to know that this immensely rich collection of rock art images has been so thoroughly documented and therefore, in a way, preserved for future generations, because even this very remote site is now receiving more than 2000 visitors a year, which inevitably poses a risk of inadvertent pollution and a danger of deliberate vandalism.