Ancient Spider Rock Art Sparks Archaeological Mystery
Archaeologists have discovered a panel containing the only known example of spider rock art in Egypt and, it appears, the entire Old World.
by Maria Ballos
The rock panel, now in two pieces, was found on the west wall of a shallow sandstone wadi, or valley, in the Kharga Oasis, located in Egypt's western desert about 108 miles (175 kilometers) west ofLuxor. Facing east, and illuminated by the morning sun, the panel is a "very unusual" find, said Egyptologist Salima Ikram, a professor at the American University in Cairo who co-directs the North Kharga Oasis Survey Project.
The identification of the creatures as spiders is tentative and the date of it uncertain, Ikram told LiveScience in an email. Even so, based on other activity in the area, the rock art may date to about 4000 B.C. or earlier, which would put it well into prehistoric times, before Egypt was unified, noted Ikram, who detailed the finding in the most recent edition of the journal Sahara.
It was discovered in a valley in the Kharga Oasis, in the western desert, about 108 miles (175 km) west of Luxor. The main panel, shown here, contains a few spiders. The spider at far left is beside a “star” that may actually be an attempt to depict a web.
The images that look like combs are more enigmatic and could be insects the spiders are trying to trap, plants, or even silken tubes spun by the spiders. The panel’s date is uncertain but based on other signs of human activity found nearby it could date back to around 4000 BC or earlier, well into prehistoric times.
The broken off part of the panel, shown here, shows creatures drawn in a different way. There appears to be an attempt to display eight limbs but theyare not flexed and look different than the spiders in the main panel. It’s possible that this is an attempt to depict a harvestman, an insect that looks like a spider.
Kharga Oasis is located 108 miles (175 km) west of Luxor in Egypt’s western desert. Egyptologist Salima Ikram co-directs the North Kharga Oasis Surveywhich is examining archaeological sites in the area and gathering data to reconstruct what the environment looked like in the past.
Evidence of human occupation at the Kharga Oasis goes back well into prehistoric times and, indeed, it is still inhabited today. This image shows the Temple of Hibis which was built about 2,500 years ago.
Why spider rock art was created at the Kharga Oasis is a mystery. The ancient Egyptians appear to have had little interest in drawing spiders. Ikram notesthere are rare examples of spider hieroglyphs from religious texts that deal with the “opening of the mouth” ceremony. An example of this ceremony, depicted in a Theban tomb, is seen here showing the gods Anubis, Isis and Nephthys.
A possible answer to this mystery may lie in the spider Argiope lobata, which inhabits the eastern and western deserts of Egypt. This creature is knownfor its ability to tolerate the noon hour sun by shading itself in its own web, something that may have been of religious importance to the ancient people of the oasis.
Ikram notes that spiders do play a role in the mythologies of several cultures around the world including Greek, Akkadian and (in the New World) Cherokee. This image shows a shell gorget, depicting a spider, obtained from a mound on Fain's Island, Tennessee.
Regardless of the reasons why the ancient people of the Kharga Oasis created these drawings, they left behind something unique. The only known example of spider rock art in Egypt and, it appears, the entire Old World.