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Late Neolithic megalithic structures at Nabta Playa (Sahara), southwestern Egypt.
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Located 100 km west of Abu Simbel, in southernmost Egypt, Nabta Playa is a large, internally drained basin, which during the early Holocene ( ca. 11,000 - 5500 calibrated radiocarbon years ago) was a large and important ceremonial center for prehistoric people. It was intermittently and seasonally filled with water, which encouraged people to come there, and today it contains dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of archaeological sites. People came from many regions to Nabta Playa to record astronomical events, erect alignments of megaliths, and build impressive stone structures.
From around 65,000 years ago until about 12,000 years ago the Western Desert was hyper-arid, at least as dry as today and perhaps drier. This began to change after 12,000 years ago when the summer rains of tropical Africa began to move northward, bringing sufficient moisture for a wide variety of sahelian grasses, trees and bushes to grow, and for a few small animals to exist, mostly hares and small gazelle, but also including a few small carnivores. Even with the rains it was still very dry; the annual rainfall was no more than 100 - 150 mm per year, and it was unpredictable and punctuated with numerous droughts, some of which caused the desert to be abandoned for lengthy periods. The earliest (11,000 - 9300 years ago, calibrated) settlements at Nabta were composed of small seasonal camps of cattle-herding and ceramic-using people. These early cattle are regarded as domestic (Wendorf and Schild 1994), and it may have been in the Western Desert that the African pattern of cattle herding developed, wherein cattle serve as a "walking larder" and provide milk and blood, rather than meat (except for ceremonial occasions) and are the economic basis for power and prestige. Pottery is very rare in these sites, but distinctive. It is decorated over the entire exterior with complex patterns of impressions applied with a comb in a rocking motion. The source of this pottery has not been identified, but it is among the oldest known in Africa, and older than pottery in Southwest Asia. These early people probably came into the desert after the summer rains from either farther south or the adjacent Nile Valley, in either case searching for pasture for their cattle. Each fall, when the surface water in the playas dried up and there was no water for them or their cattle, they had to return to the Nile, or perhaps to the better watered areas to the south.
By 9000 years ago (8000 bp, uncalibrated), the settlements were much larger, and their inhabitants were able to live in the desert year-round, digging large, deep wells and living in organized villages consisting of small huts arranged in straight lines. The many plant remains in these sites tell us they were collecting large numbers of edible wild plants, including sorghum, millets, legumes, tubers, and fruits. Around 8800 years ago (7800 bp, uncalibrated), they began to make pottery locally, possibly the earliest pottery in Egypt. A few hundred years later, around 8100 years ago (7100 bp, uncalibrated), sheep and goats occur for the first time at Nabta, almost certainly introduced from Southwest Asia, where domestic caprovids had been known for over 2000 years. There must have been many changes in the settlement system to accommodate these new animals; the settlements are very large and contain numerous hearths, but there is no evidence of huts or houses.
A major change occurred in the character of the Neolithic society at Nabta occurred around 7500 years ago, following a major drought which drove the previous groups from the desert. The groups who returned to the desert now clearly had a complex social system that expressed a degree of organization and control not previously seen in Egypt. They sacrificed young cows and buried them in clay-lined and roofed chambers covered by rough stone tumuli, they erected alignments of large, unshaped stones, they built Egypt's earliest astronomical measuring device (a "calendar circle" which appears to have been used to mark the summer solstice), and they constructed more than 30 complex structures having both surface and subterranean features. A shaped stone from one of these complexes may be the oldest known sculpture in Egypt.
These structures are important because they indicate the way the people were able to organize work, celebrate their culture, and perhaps express their religious beliefs, and furthermore, they tell us that the Saharan people may have been more highly organized than their contemporaries in the Nile Valley.
Nabta: A Regional Ceremonial Center
A regional ceremonial center is a place where related but widely separated groups gather periodically to conduct ceremonies and to reaffirm their social and political solidarity. Even today in many parts of Africa these centers serve as foci of religious, political and social functions for the entire group. Nabta seems to have been such a center for pastoralists living in the southwestern portion of the Egyptian Western Desert. It probably began to function as a regional ceremonial center during the Middle Neolithic (8100-7600 years ago), when groups residing in other nearby basins gathered there for ceremonial and other purposes during the summer wet season when the playa was at its largest extent. This gathering occurred on a dune along the northwestern shore of the playa where there are hundreds of hearths and more than two meters of accumulated cultural debris.
Among the more interesting elements in the cultural debris at this gathering site were numerous bones of cattle. While present in most sites, bones of cattle are elsewhere never very numerous, good evidence that they were kept primarily for their milk and blood, rather than for meat. This pattern resembles the role of cattle among modern African pastoralists, where cattle represent wealth and political power and are rarely killed except on important ceremonial or social occasions, such as the death of a leader or a marriage. This so-called "African Cattle Complex" may have begun in the Western Desert of Egypt.
The role of Nabta as a regional ceremonial center is also indicated by a north-south alignment of nine large (average, 3 x 2 x 0.5 m) quartzitic sandstone slabs set upright about 100 m apart, and partially imbedded in playa sediments near the gathering area along the northwest margin of the seasonal lake. The blocks were unshaped, and many of them are now broken; however, they can be refitted. Outcrops of similar sandstone occur in the vicinity, some less than a kilometer from the alignment. The alignment cannot be dated precisely, but it is probably Late Neolithic in age, and if so it was erected between 7500 and 5500 years ago. It is similar to the large stone alignments found in Western Europe, where they are dated to the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, about the same age as the Nabta alignment. There are other alignments known farther south in both East and West Africa, but they are thought to date much later, to the Iron Age.
About 300 m beyond the north end of the Nabta alignment is a "calendar circle" consisting of a series of small sandstone slabs arranged in a circle about 4 m in diameter. Among the ring of stones are four pairs of larger stones, each pair set close together and separated by a narrow space, or gate. The gates on two of these pairs align generally north-south; the gates on the other two pairs form a line at 700 east of north, which aligns with the calculated position of sunrise at the summer solstice 6000 years ago. In the center of the circle are six upright slabs arranged in two lines , whose astronomical function, if any, is not evident. Charcoal from one of the numerous hearths around the "calendar" dated around 6800 years ago (6000 bp +- 60 years, CAMS - 17287).
Another 300 meters farther north of the calendar circle is a stone-covered tumulus containing the remains of a complete articulated young adult cow buried in a chamber that was dug into the floor of the wadi, surrounded by a clay collar, and roofed with limbs of tamarisk. The chamber was then covered with broken rocks forming a mound 8 meters in diameter and a meter high. A piece of wood from the roof yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date between 7400 and 7300 years ago (6470 bp +- 270 years, CAMS - 17289). In the same area seven other similar stone tumuli containing the remains of cattle were excavated, but none of them had subsurface chambers; instead, the bones of the cattle, a few of which were still articulated, were simply placed among the stones.
Among the most interesting features at Nabta is the group of thirty "complex structures" located in an area about 500 meters long and 200 meters wide, on a high remnant of playa clays and silts about a kilometer south of the large settlement which yielded so many bones of cattle. Each of these structures consists of a group of large, elongated, roughly shaped or unshaped sandstone blocks set upright to frame an oval area about five meters in length and four meters in width, oriented slightly west of north. In the center of this oval there is one, sometimes two, very large flat slabs laid horizontally. Two of these structures have been excavated, a third has been tested, and drill-holes have been dug at two others. All are basically similar, although they differ in some details. All of the excavated and tested structures were built over mushroom-shaped tablerocks, the tops of which were deeply buried (from two to three and a half meters below the surface) in heavy playa clays and silts. These tablerocks are quartzitic lenses in the underlying bedrock which were shaped by erosion of the softer surrounding sediments before the overlying playa sediments were deposited. How the Nabta people managed to find these tablerocks deeply buried below the surface is not clear, but it may have been mere chance and occurred during the excavation of a water well. Except for the structures, however, there is no other archaeological material in this area, which is highly unusual for the Nabta Basin, where archaeological sites of various ages occur almost everywhere.
The excavation of the largest of these complex structures disclosed that before the upright stones were erected, a large pit about six meters in diameter and four meters deep had been dug. The table rock at the base of the pit was shaped by removing the irregular edges, leaving a convex perimeter on three sides. The fourth side, at the north end, was worked by flaking to form a straight edge. The top of the table rock was also smoothed. The pit was then partially refilled with playa clay to a level about a half meter above the top of the table rock, and then an enormous (ca. 2.5 tons), carefully shaped stone was brought in and held in position by several small slabs. The base of the shaped stone was 2.5 meters below the surface. What this "sculpture" represents is not clear; it is shaped on only two sides, and its sculptors used the natural bedding in the rock to achieve a wide, curved surface which they smoothed. In some views the stone vaguely resembles a large animal. After the shaped stone was placed in position, the pit was backfilled completely, and the surface architecture of large upright stones and two large horizontal central stones was erected directly over the tablerock.
The other excavated structure also had been erected over a tablerock, and it too had a large stone over the tablerock, but work on that stone was limited to a few flakes removed from one end. The third complex structure was only tested. It was one of eight that were tightly clustered and interlocked together. The units were smaller, constructed of smaller stones, but had the same configuration with a large horizontal central stone. The test excavations recovered charcoal from a shelf on the edge of the pit under the structure, and this charcoal yielded a calibrated radiocarbon age between 5600 and 5400 years ago (4800 +- 80 years bp; DRI 3358). This is the only date available for these structures, and it is about 1500 years later than we had estimated from the stratigraphic evidence. This cluster differs from the other complex structures, and it may relate to a late phase in this phenomena; however, there is no other reason to reject the date.
Drilling at two other structures showed that they had also been erected over buried tablerocks. Although only two of these features were excavated completely, and a third only tested, it is highly likely that most of the others were also built over deeply buried tablerocks that may or may not have been modified, and may also have large worked stones in the fill above the tablerock. These complex structures appear to be unique to Nabta; they are not known to occur in the Nile Valley, or elsewhere in the Western Desert. It should be noted, however, that they are difficult to recognize (they were regarded a bedrock outcrops for many years), and they may be more widespread in the Eastern Sahara than now believed.
We had expected to find burials of elite individuals below the central stones, but no traces of human remains were seen, although the excavations were carried beyond the limits of the original pits dug to expose the tablerock. The function of the complex structures remains unknown, however, it may be useful to consider the implications of their presence at Nabta.
The construction of the megaliths and the large complex structures at Nabta required significant effort, indicating the presence of a religious or political authority with control over human resources for an extended period of time. They, together with the calendar circle and cattle burials, represent an elaborate and previously unsuspected ceremonialism in the Neolithic of the Eastern Sahara. Although the evidence remains insecure and thus it cannot be demonstrated that these Saharan cattle pastoralists had a ranked society, this is, nevertheless, a strong possibility.
The discoveries at Nabta Playa suggest the possibility of a previously unrecognized relationship between the Neolithic people living along the Nile and pastoralists in the adjacent Sahara which may have contributed to the rise of social complexity in ancient Egypt. This complexity, as expressed by different levels of authority within the society, forms the basis for the structure of both the Neolithic society at Nabta and the Old Kingdom of Egypt. It was this authority at Nabta which made possible the planned arrangement of their villages, the excavation of large, deep wells, and the construction of complex stone structures made of large, shaped and unshaped stones. There are other Nabta features which are shared by the two areas, but which appear suddenly and without evident local antecedents in the late Predynastic and early Old Kingdom in the Nile Valley. These include the role of cattle to express differences of wealth, power and authority, the emphasis on cattle in religious beliefs, and the use of astronomical knowledge and devices to predict solar events. Many of these features have a prior and long history of development at Nabta.
The geographic position of the Nabta center is also of interest. Nabta may have been a contact point between the early Neolithic groups along the Nile who had an agricultural economy and the cattle pastoralists in the Eastern Sahara. The functional separation of these two different economies may have played a significant role in the emergence of complexity among both groups. The evidence for Nilotic influence on pastoralists is not extensive and is presently limited to ceramic technology, domestic caprovids, and the occasional trade of shells of Nile species and rare stones from the Nile gravel. However, there are many aspects of political and ceremonial life in the Predynastic and Old Kingdom that reflects a strong impact from Saharan cattle pastoralists.
The likely possibility of a symbiotic relationship between the cattle pastoralists in the Sahara and the Neolithic groups in the Nile Valley points to a potentially important role for the Nabta regional ceremonial center. Among East African cattle pastoralists regional ceremonial centers, because of their integrative role, are frequently placed near boundaries between different segments of a tribe, or between different tribal groups. The Nabta center could well have served that purpose, it could have been located between several groups of pastoralists, and between pastoralists and the Neolithic farmers along the Nile, 100 km away.
It has long been assumed that Egypt borrowed the concepts of complexity from Mesopotamia; however, it is now generally recognized that a process like social complexity cannot be diffused from one area to another, but instead develops from local causes. It might occur, for example, when there are two radically different economic systems in close physical proximity, as is found where agriculturists have close relationships with pastoralists. Pastoralists usually live in tense harmony with their village neighbors, but from time to time they will take advantage of a weakness and take control. It is in this setting that the socially complex Late Neolithic cattle pastoralists and their regional ceremonial center at Nabta is of particular importance.
There are many features in the religious beliefs and social systems of early Egyptians which are not found in Mesopotamia. Among the ancient Egyptians, cattle were the central focus of the belief system. They were deified and regarded as earthly representatives of the gods. A cow was also seen as the mother of the sun, who is sometimes referred to as the "Bull of Heaven." The Egyptian pharaoh was regarded as the embodiment of two gods, Horus, for Upper Egypt and Seth, for Lower Egypt, but he was primarily Horus, son of Hathor, who was a cow. Horus is also sometimes depicted as a strong bull, and images of cattle are prominent in Predynastic and Old Kingdom art; in some instances images of bulls occur with depiction's of stars. Another important Old Kingdom concept was Min, the god of rain, who is associated with a white bull, and to whom the annual harvest festival was dedicated.
It is significant that the emphasis on cattle in the belief system of the Old Kingdom was not reflected in the economy. While cattle were known and were the major measure of wealth, the economy was based primarily on agriculture and small livestock - sheep and goats. Also, cattle were not important among the preceding Neolithic in the Nile Valley, which suggests that the Old Kingdom belief system was imposed from the outside, perhaps in the traditional fashion, a conquest by pastoralists who periodically come in from their "lands of insolence" to conquer their farming neighbors (Coon 1958:295-323; Khazanov 1994). It is tempting to suggest that the impressive cattle burials at the A-Group site of Qustul (Williams 1986), in Egypt south of Abu Simbel, may relate to just such an event. At the moment these interesting possibilities must be regarded as speculative; the data on the structure of the Saharan pastoralist societies remains inadequate, and the character of the early Neolithic in the Nile Valley in Nubia and Upper Egypt is poorly understood, but a study of the interaction between the Sahara and the Nile may throw significant light on the processes that led to the rise of Egyptian Civilization.
Malville, Wendorf, Mazar, and Schild
1998 NATURE 292:488-491 2 April 1998.
Wendorf and Schild
1998 "Nabta Playa and its role in Northeastern African Prehistory" JOUR. OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGY 17:97-123.
Please send comments or questions to Max Baldia.
Contact: J. McKim Malville, (303) 492-8766
Jim Scott, 492-3114
March 31, 1998
OLDEST ASTRONOMICAL MEGALITH ALIGNMENT
DISCOVERED IN SOUTHERN EGYPT BY SCIENCE TEAM
An assembly of huge stone slabs found in Egypts Sahara Desert that date from about 6,500 years to 6,000 years ago has been confirmed by scientists to be the oldest known astronomical alignment of megaliths in the world.
Known as Nabta, the site consists of a stone circle, a series of flat, tomb-like stone structures and five lines of standing and toppled megaliths. Located west of the Nile River in southern Egypt, Nabta predates Stonehenge and similar prehistoric sites around the world by about 1,000 years, said University of Colorado at Boulder astronomy Professor J. McKim Malville.
The Nabta site was discovered several years ago by a team led by Southern Methodist University anthropology Professor Fred Wendorf. A 1997 GPS satellite survey by Malville, Wendorf, Ali A Mazar of the Egyptian Geological Survey and Romauld Schild of the Polish Academy of Sciences confirmed one of the megalith lines was oriented in an east-west direction.
A paper on the subject by the four researchers will appear April 2 in the weekly British science journal, Nature.
This is the oldest documented astronomical alignment of megaliths in the world, said Malville. A lot of effort went into the construction of a purely symbolic and ceremonial site The stone slabs, some of which are nine feet high, were dragged to the si te from a mile or more distant, he said.
The ruins lie on the shoreline of an ancient lake that began filling with water about 11,000 years ago when the African summer monsoon shifted north. It was used by nomads until about 4,800 years ago, when the monsoon moved southwest and the area again became hyperacid and uninhabitable
Five megalithic alignments at Nabta radiate outward from a central collection of megalithic structures. Beneath one structure was a sculptured rock resembling a cow standing upright, Malville said. The team also excavated several cattle burials at Nabt a, including an articulated skeleton buried in a roofed, clay-lined chamber.
Neolithic herders that began coming to Nabta about 10,000 years ago -- probably from central Africa -- used cattle in their rituals just as the African Massai do today, he said. No human remains have yet been found at Nabta.
The 12-foot-in-diameter stone circle contains four sets of upright slabs. Two sets were aligned in a north-south direction while the second pair of slabs provides a line of sight toward the summer solstice horizon.
Because of Nabtaís proximity to the Tropic of Cancer, the noon sun is at its zenith about three weeks before and three weeks after the summer solstice, preventing upright objects from casting shadows. These vertical sighting stones in the circle corresp ond to the zenith sun during the summer solstice said Malville, an archeoastronomer. For many cultures in the tropics, the zenith sun has been a major event for millennia
An east-west alignment also is present between one megalithic structure and two stone megaliths about a mile distant. There also are two other geometric lines involving about a dozen additional stone monuments that lead both northeast and southeast from the same megalith. We still dont understand the significance of these lines Malville said.
During summer and fall, the individual stone monoliths would have been partially submerged in the lake and may have been ritual markers for the onset of the rainy season. The organization of these objects suggest a symbolic geometry that integrated deat h, water and the sun Malville said.
Although some believe the high culture of subsequent Egyptian dynasties was borrowed from Mesopotamia and Syria, Malville and others believe the complex and symbolic Nabta culture may have stimulated the growth of the society that eventually constructed the first pyramids along the Nile about 4,500 years ago.
The Nabta culture may have been a trigger for the development of social complexity in Egypt that later led to the Pharaonic dynasty he said. The Nabta project was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation.
The site also contains a wealth of cultural debris, including small, fire-blackened stones from ancient hearths built along the ancient lakeshore as well as manos, metates and carved and decorated ostrich eggshells.
Images of the project can be downloaded from the World Wide Web at http://www.colorado.edu/PublicRelations/Egypt.html
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Nabta Playa is an internally drained basin that served as an important ceremonial center for nomadic tribes during the early part of the Holocene epoch. Located 100 km west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, Nabta contains a number of standing and toppled megaliths. They include flat, tomb-like stone structures and a small stone circle that predates Stonehenge and other similar prehistoric sites by at least 1000 years.
The site was first discovered in 1974 by a group of scientists headed by Fred Wendorf, an Anthropology Professor from Southern Methodist University in Texas. The team had stopped for a break from their uncomfortable drive from the Libyan border to the Nile Valley when, as Wendorf stated, we were standing there minding our own business, when we noticed potsherds and other artifacts." Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Wendorf returned to Nabta several times. He determined that humans had occupied the Nabta area off and on for thousands of years, dating from as early as 11,000 years ago up until about 4,800 years ago. Although the area was occupied for more then 5,000 years, the majority of the stone structures and other artifacts originated between 7,000 and 6,500 years ago. It was considered by most to be the height of human occupation at Nabta.
Nabta became a habitable area because of a climatic change that occurred over North Africa around 12,000 years ago. This climatic change was caused by a northward shift of the summer monsoons. This shift brought enough rain to the Nabta region to enable it to sustain life for both humans and animals. Although it was a small amount of rain, usually around four to eight inches (10-15 cm) per year, it was enough to fill the playas with water for months at a time. Between 11,000 and 9,300 years ago, Nabta saw its first settlements. The people living at Nabta herded cattle, made ceramic vessels, and set up seasonal camps around the playa. These people regarded cattle in much the same way as modern peoples of West Africa regard them. The blood and milk of the cattle was more significant than the meat. The ceramics that were found from this period are minimal, but are considered to be some of the oldest identified in Africa.
Once fall came and the playa dried up, these people had to migrate to areas where more water was available, possibly to the Nile in the east or perhaps to areas further south. Larger settlements began to pop up shortly after 9,000 years ago. These people were able to dig wells that supplied them with enough water to live at Nabta year round. They survived on a number of wild plants and small animals like hares and gazelles. By around 8,100 years ago there is evidence for the domestication of larger animals including goats and sheep. This is also a time when the people of Nabta started to produce pottery locally.
Settlements became larger and more sophisticated. One settlement from this period contains 18 houses arranged in two, possibly three straight lines. It also contains numerous fire hearths and these amazing walk-in wells. This settlement also shows the establishment of an organized labor force. This settlement and all the other settlements at Nabta were abandoned for a couple of long stretches between 8,000 and 7,000 years ago when two major droughts occurred. These droughts caused the water table to be lowered to around the same level as it is today, causing Nabta to be hyper-arid and virtually lifeless for long periods of time.
The groups of people that returned to Nabta after the droughts exhibited substantial advancement toward a more complex society that expressed a greater degree of organization and control. This control and organization was probably centered around some ritual or religious belief system. This is the time period when most of the major structures were constructed at Nabta. They constructed five megalithic alignments that radiated from a cluster of stones that has been named E-96-1 Structure A. These megaliths were constructed out of quartzite sandstone that came from exposed sandstone that was at least a half -kilometer away. The stones were erected and embedded into the playa. With the help of GPS satellite technology, recent surveys by Wendorf and University of Colorado at Boulders Astronomy Professor J. McKim Malville have allowed them to map out the exact location of these stone alignments. These studies confirm that one of the alignments of the megaliths form an east-west line and another alignment forms a north-south line.
Although more research needs to be done, many scientists, including Malville, believe that the alignments had an astronomical significance. Three hundred meters north of these alignments is the stone calendar circle. Compared to Stonehenge, this circle is very small, measuring roughly 4 m in diameter. The calendar consists of a number of stones, the main ones being four pairs of larger ones. Each of these four pairs were set close together to form what Wendorf calls gates. Two of these pairs align to form a line very close to a true north-south line, and the other two pairs or gates align to form an east-west line. The east-west alignment is calculated to be where the sun would have risen and set from the summer solstice 6,500 years ago.
Fire hearths from around the circle date to around 6,800 years ago. Another 300 meters north of the calendar circle is a stone covered tumuli that contained the remains of cattle. One of the tumuli contained a cow that was fully articulated. This particular tumulus was dug into the ground surrounded by a clay frame. It had a roof made from the limbs of tamarisk. It was then covered with broken rocks that formed a mound eight meters in diameter and one meter high. Wood from the roof of the chamber has been dated to around 6,500 years ago. Other tumuli that were found in the area were more basic and consisted of unshaped stones that contained disarticulated cattle bones. They had no subsurface structure and were basically piles of bones covered with stones. These tumuli were dated to about 5,500 years ago.
Another major feature at Nabta is a group of thirty complex structures. These structures are located about a kilometer south of the cattle tumuli measuring 500 meters in length and 200 meters in width. The framework was constructed by using roughly shaped or unshaped stones that were set upright to form a structure that was oval in shape measuring 5 meters by 4 meters. Aside from a few minor details, all of the structures were basically the same. They all face slightly west of north and they all have one or two large stone slabs that lay horizontally in the center of the structure. What makes them unique is that they have been built over large mushroom-shaped tablerocks. The tablerocks were shaped by years and years of erosion and then covered by two to three and a half meters of playa clays and silts.
It is unclear as to how the Nabtians were able to locate these tablerocks. One theory is that they were located by accident when they were digging wells, but nobody knows for sure. The largest excavated structure reveals that a large pit was dug before the erection of the walls. The pit was about 6 m in diameter and 4 m deep. It was dug down to the tablerock. They shaped the rock to have three convex sides and one side that was worked to form a straight edge that face north. In the pit they placed another large shaped stone or sculpture that resembled a cow or some other large animal. The sculpture was placed upright with its axis facing north, the same way as the tablerock below it. The pit was backfilled with playa clay one meter thick in order to support the sculpture. Two smaller stones were also placed in the pit to help secure the sculpture even more. Once the sculpture was in place and the pit was completely backfilled, the surface stones were then erected and placed into position. Testing done on charcoal from around the structures indicates a date to 5,500 - 5,000 years ago. The actual function of the complex remains a mystery.
About 4,800 years ago there was another climatic change. The African monsoons shifted south to approximately the same area that they were prior to 12,000 years ago. The land became hyper-arid again and caused human habitation at Nabta to cease. The cattle worshipping people of Nabta had to migrate to a more livable area. But to where did these people migrate? Some people believe that the people of Nabta eventually made their way to the Nile Valley. Perhaps they were the people responsible for the rise of the Egyptian Empire. This theory is based on the prominence of cattle in the religious belief system of Pre-dynastic Egypt continuing into the Old Kingdom.
In ancient Egypt, cattle were deified and regarded as the earthly representative of the gods. Egyptian Pharaohs were said to represent two gods. Horus represented Upper Egypt and Seth represented Lower Egypt. Horus was the son of Hathor who was depicted as either a cow or a strong bull. Another Egyptian god that is represented by a bull is the god of rain, a very important entity to the people of Nabta, considering that life or death could have been determined by the amount of rain they received. Another point of interest is that pre-Egyptian societies did not place the same importance on cattle in either a social or religious capacity, indicating that outside influence must have played a part in the Old Kingdom belief system. This may have happened because the pastoralists from Nabta came to the Nile to conquer and take over the land from their farming neighbors. Perhaps they simply joined together with the farmers and their beliefs were blended with those of the farmers. No matter how you look at it, given the closeness of Nabta to the Nile, there had to have been interaction between them and ideas had to be exchanged to some degree.
Whether or not the people of Nabta had anything to do with the Egyptian civilization, it is still a site of great importance. It dates to a time when climatic and social changes were occurring. Complex societies or civilizations were starting to emerge not only in Africa, but throughout the world. Nabta helps to provide us with a better understanding of what life was like during this time in history.
J McKim Malville, News-University of Colorado at Boulder, May 31, 1998
http://www.comp-archaeology.org/WendorfSAA98.html Wendorf, Fred and Schild, Romuald, Late Neolithic structures at Nabta Playa, southwestern Egypt, 1998,
J. McKim Malville, Fred Wendorf, Ali a Mazar, and Romauld Schild,
Megaliths and Neolithic astronomy in southern Egypt, Nature 1998
StarDate Ancient Horizens, Nabta: Circle in the Sand,
Nabta: Circle in the Sand
To the people of ancient Nabta, in the desert of southern Egypt, the summer solstice meant life. Soon after the Sun reached the northernmost point in its annual trek across the sky, monsoons brought precious rainfall. Not much rain, mind you no more than four to eight inches a year, about the equivalent of the annual rainfall in Las Vegas or Phoenix. But for a few weeks, water filled shallow desert basins. Grass grew along the banks, providing fodder for cattle, and wells filled with enough water to sustain small nomadic tribes for the entire year.
To help them predict and commemorate this life-giving event, the people at Nabta built an observatory a 12-foot (4-meter) circle of flat stones, with four pairs of taller stones aligned opposite each other. Two pair provided a "window" on the solstice sunrise, while the other two aligned on an almost-perfect north-south axis.
Tall stones arranged in a circle may have served as a crude observatory at Nabta in the Egyptian desert.
Nabta's calendar circle was used at least 6,000 years ago, and probably earlier at least a millennium before the first stones were laid at Stonehenge in England. Although Nabta's calendar circle is not nearly as grand, it has been nicknamed "the Egyptian Stonehenge."
Nabtans also erected megaliths dark stones that towered up to 10 feet (three meters) above the desert landscape, scattered across a square mile. Some of the megaliths formed north-south and east-west sightlines, like a giant stone compass, and probably remained visible when the summer inundation filled the Nabta basin.
"We see two kinds of astronomy here solstice alignments and cardinal alignments," says J. McKim Malville, a professor of astronomy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the team that confirmed the alignments in a paper published earlier this year. "The cardinal alignments are what you'd expect for people who travel across the desert with no particular way to guide them other than the stars. As they traveled, their tracks were obliterated, so they had to know north, south, east, and west.
"And the presence of lines pointing to the solstice indicates that they knew the summer rains would begin soon after something that was vital to everyday life," Malville adds.
Nabta's calendar circle and megaliths illustrate the interconnectedness of astronomy, religion, and daily life that was common in most ancient cultures. Instead of an academic pursuit, astronomy was an integrated part of daily life. The Sun and stars helped the Nabtans plan for the rainy season and find their way through a hostile environment. In return, the Nabtans probably worshipped the heavens to some extent, or at least incorporated the Sun and stars into their rituals.
The Nabta story has two beginnings. The first took place about 11,000 years ago, when a climate change caused monsoonal rains to move north from central Africa into southern Egypt, well to the west of the Nile River. The second came in 1973, when a team of archaeologists stopped for a bathroom break during the vertebra-twisting drive from the Libyan border to the Nile Valley. The former brought life to the formerly barren dunes of the southeastern Sahara; the latter brought rebirth, as scientists discovered a site abandoned since the earliest days of Pharaonic Egypt.
"We were standing around, minding our own business, when we noticed potsherds and other artifacts," says Fred Wendorf, the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who has led the efforts to map and excavate Nabta. "We happened to be standing right on a site that was 9,000 years old."
The artifacts were inside a kidney-shaped basin, known as a playa, about six miles (10 kilometers) long by four miles (seven km) wide. Bedouin workers named the site Nabta, which means "little bushes," for a few dried plants found at the otherwise lifeless site.
Wendorf returned to Nabta several times during the 1970s. He found that the first humans appeared at Nabta between 10,000 and 10,500 years ago. These small nomadic bands brought their domesticated cattle to the shallow lakes after summer rains, but moved away again when the water evaporated.
Around 9,000 years ago, they began to inhabit the area year-round, digging deep wells, harvesting wild foods, making their own pottery, and building settlements with as many as 50 houses (though not all of them were occupied at the same time). But fickle winds pushed the monsoons away twice over the next 2,000 years, so people moved in and out of the region.
Finally, about 7,200 years ago, the rains returned, ushering in a lengthy period of stability and prosperity for Nabta. Wendorf says it's not clear how many people inhabited the region then. "We have sites with hundreds of hearths, but we don't know how many were in use at one time," he notes. "I have a feeling the number wasn't as big [as before]. But it took some people to build this place."
Surveys revealed 30 piles of stones scattered around the playa. Beneath one pile, researchers found a chamber containing the complete skeleton of a young adult cow. They then turned to a larger pile, which they hoped would contain the burial chamber of an important leader a King Tut's tomb of the Sahara. "We were seeing sugarplums," says Wendorf. The site yielded a large statue that resembles a cow (although it could be a representation of a god or something else entirely) sitting atop a slab of carved bedrock, but no tomb.
During early expeditions to Nabta, Wendorf also noticed some large stones protruding from the sand, apparently at random. "We mapped these big outcrops of rock as bedrock," he says. "We weren't looking for anything else."
But in 1991, as Wendorf walked past one of the rocks, "I thought it looked strange." He found that the stone extended about five feet (1.5 meters) into the playa sediments, with another six feet of sediment beneath it. In all, it measured almost 10 feet tall, six feet wide, and two feet thick (3x2x0.7 meters). "It didn't float there it was quarried about a half-mile away," Wendorf notes. Eventually, Wendorf's team dug trenches around nine other stones two of them intact, the others broken and lying on their sides with similar results.
"I also went a bit farther north, and a site I thought was a house was really a circle of small slabs, with four pair of larger stones set closer together," Wendorf recalls. "Right away, the association suggested it must be a crude calendar. I thought I better get an archaeoastronomer out here."
Malville joined Wendorf and two other researchers, Ali A. Mazar of the Egyptian Geological Survey and Romauld Schild of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, on an expedition in 1997. Malville, who splits his time between archaeoastronomy and astrophysics, has studied possible astronomical sites in India and the American southwest.
At Nabta, team members used a constellation of satellites that can pinpoint any location on Earth to within a few inches to draw highly accurate maps of the site. They also used surveying instruments to obtain true measurements of the cardinal directions.
"The astronomical nature of the site was clear while we were there," says Malville. "These alignments are so simple and straightforward, there's no doubt about them."
Quick calculations confirmed that the rising Sun would have appeared between two sets of stones in the calendar circle on the date of the June solstice about 6,000 years ago. The other pair align just two degrees from a true north-south axis, which isn't bad considering that at the time, no star marked the north celestial pole. (Earth's polar axis points to different locations on the sky over a 26,000-year cycle.)
Both Malville and Wendorf say that the calendar circle probably served a ceremonial or ritual purpose; the small discrepancies in its alignments suggest that it was not a measuring device.
Malville says the Nabtans might also have paid special attention to the solstice Sun because the site lies near the Tropic of Cancer, which marks the Sun's northernmost point. About three weeks before and three weeks after the solstice, the noontime Sun would have appeared at the zenith the point directly overhead. Vertical columns, like the megaliths or the sighting stones in the calendar circle, would cast no shadows as the Sun passed through the zenith a moment that had great symbolic importance to many early cultures.
"The standing megaliths would have been apt devices to acknowledge the zenith Sun near the onset of the rainy season," the researchers write in the April 2 issue of Nature. "Placed in playa deposits, the megaliths would have been partly submerged in the rising waters of the summer monsoon, and they may have been considered to be ritual markers of the onset of the rainy season."
Two megaliths form a north-south line, while three others are aligned east-west. Almost a score of other megaliths appear to form four other sightlines. Malville and Wendorf say these alignments may have pointed to important stars or constellations, although they won't reveal more details until after publication of a second paper later this year. "We have some really interesting new developments, but we're very cautious," says Malville.
The researchers are glad to discuss the possible significance of the Nabta site, though.
"I think it was a regional ceremonial center," says Wendorf. "During the rest of the year, people were widely scattered. But once a year, they gathered at this big playa. We have these megaliths, the calendar circle, the cow burials, which are not found at other places. This may have been a meeting ground between these people and the people living in the Nile Valley."
In fact, the Nabta culture may have spurred the development of the kingdom of Egypt, which rose to prominence about 5,000 years ago. Although the people of the Nile raised few cattle, their early religion incorporated cattle worship, Wendorf notes, suggesting a connection to the cattle-raising Nabtans.
Regardless of what happened in the Nile Valley, wind patterns in the Sahara once again shifted about 4,800 years ago, and the monsoons moved southward. Nabta's lakes evaporated, the wells dried up, and the land become uninhabitable. The culture of Nabta disappeared. The summer solstice no longer brought life; it was simply another hot, sunny day in the unforgiving Sahara.
by Damond Benningfield, executive editor of StarDate magazine and writer of StarDate: Ancient Horizons.