Desert Roads Lead to Discovery in Egypt

Over the last two decades, John Coleman Darnell and his wife, Deborah, hiked and drove caravan tracks west of the Nile from the monuments of Thebes, at present-day Luxor. These and other desolate roads, beaten hard by millennial human and donkey traffic, only seemed to lead to nowhere.
In the practice of what they call desert-road archaeology, the Darnells found pottery and ruins where soldiers, merchants and other travelers camped in the time of the pharaohs. On a limestone cliff at a crossroads, they came upon a tableau of scenes and symbols, some of the earliest documentation of Egyptian history. Elsewhere, they discovered inscriptions considered to be one of the first examples of alphabetic writing.

The explorations of the Theban Desert Road Survey, a Yale University project co-directed by the Darnells, called attention to the previously underappreciated significance of caravan routes and oasis settlements in Egyptian antiquity. And two weeks ago, the Egyptian government announced what may be the survey’s most spectacular find.

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the archaeologists had uncovered extensive remains of a settlement — apparently an administrative, economic and military center — that flourished more than 3,500 years ago in the western desert 110 miles west of Luxor and 300 miles south of Cairo. No such urban center so early in history had ever been found in the forbidding desert.

Dr. John Darnell, a professor of Egyptology at Yale, said in an interview last week that the discovery could rewrite the history of a little-known period in Egypt’s past and the role played by desert oases, those islands of springs and palms and fertility, in the civilization’s revival from a dark crisis. Other archaeologists not involved in the research said the findings were impressive and, once a more detailed formal report is published, will be sure to stir scholars’ stew pots.

The 218-acre site is at Kharga Oasis, a string of well-watered areas in a 60-mile-long north-south depression in the limestone plateau that spreads across the desert. The oasis is at the terminus of the ancient Girga Road from Thebes and its intersection with other roads from the north and the south.

A decade ago, the Darnells spotted hints of an outpost from the time of Persian rule in the sixth century B.C. at the oasis in the vicinity of a temple. “A temple wouldn’t be where it was if this area hadn’t been of some strategic importance,” Ms. Darnell, also trained in Egyptology, said in an interview.

Then she began picking up pieces of pottery predating the temple. Some ceramics were imports from the Nile Valley or as far away as Nubia, south of Egypt, but many were local products. Evidence of “really large-scale ceramic production,” Ms. Darnell noted, “is something you wouldn’t find unless there was a settlement here with a permanent population, not just seasonal and temporary.”


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