Don's Diary

January 19, 2001

Fly to Luxor: goodbye cold, wet Britain.

Final preparations for the Eastern Desert survey. As always, Ancient World Tours have the logistics well in hand. Our team of volunteers - including seasoned desert travellers - meets for the final briefing. We are using new recording sheets, so we must familiarise ourselves with them before we find our first rock art site. We check our global positioning system sets, synchronise watches and head for bed - our last comfortable night's sleep for a week.

Into the Eastern Desert. Only two hours after leaving the Nile valley, we rediscover a major site of rock art, first noted in the 1980s but never fully published. Detailed recording takes up much of the morning. After lunch we head for another promising wadi (dry valley). To our frustration, the entrance is blocked; turning round, we find a spectacular site directly opposite. A flotilla of boats pecked into the cliff face some 6,000 years ago: our first major discovery of the week.

Concentrate on a single area, the Wadi Umm Salam. Expeditions have passed through, but there has never been a systematic survey. We set off and discover a new site after only 100m.

Team one starts recording. Further sites follow in swift succession. Half an hour later, all five teams are busy. One site occupies an extraordinary location: a natural waterfall and whirlpool (now dry), around which ancient cattle herders must have sat, while their animals grazed in the valley below. All around, the rocks are carved with scenes of tethered cattle. A nearby rock face is littered with more drawings: ostriches, hunters and superhuman figures in boats. The afternoon yields 13 more sites, none of them previously recorded - 29 sites in one day: a record.

Break camp at 7am, after the usual 5.30am wake-up and hot breakfast prepared by our wonderful team of Egyptian drivers. We find yet more sites, including drawings showing a family of cattle herders. It is poignant to see images of the people who created the art of the Eastern Desert. Time is pressing and we have to leave. We drive over a mountainous pass and through a lunar landscape to reach our next camp. Time to erect the tents and explore the vastness of the desert before sunset.

Take a wrong turn and end up at a sheer cliff face with huge seams of alabaster. This must be the most dramatic desert landscape on earth. Disturb a colony of rock hyrax as we drive to the Bir Mineh gorge for lunch. Our camp is on a windswept dune. By sunset, every tent and every piece of clothing is full of sand.

Drive to the coast for lunch by the Red Sea. The last leg of our journey takes us to Hurghada, onwards to Cairo, and home.

Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist and fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge. He led the Eastern Desert survey in December 2000. Volume one of the survey report is available by mail order from ISIS, price £25. Telephone ISIS on: 01256 353944.

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