Sudan

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

163 images

Date range

Mostly 6,000 BC – 30 BC and Medieval Christian

Main areas

Nile valley

Techniques

Engravings, brush paintings

Main themes

Boats, cattle, wild animals, inscriptions

Introduction

Sudan’s known rock art mainly consists of paintings and engravings on exposed rock surfaces and rock shelters, largely of animals, human figures and ancient river boats. Most of the published rock art is found in disparate geographical areas in the northern section of the country: around the Nile valley and close to the country’s north-western and north-eastern borders. Images include wild fauna such as antelope, domestic animals like camels, and depictions of boats, which along with inscriptions and religious imagery can attempt to date these images.

Geography

Sudan covers nearly 2,000,000 km² and is geographically diverse, dominated in the north by the desert of the southern Sahara and divided by the River Nile, which flows north from the capital city of Khartoum at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles and is joined by the Atbara River in the east. East of the Nile is the arid Nubian Desert, which is part of the larger Sahara, flanked at the north east by the Red Sea Hills and at the south by clay plains. To the south and west of the country are semi-arid zones with seasonal watercourses, with the west dominated by the Jebel Marrah volcanic massif, and the Nuba mountain range near the southern border.

Research history

Historically, rock art research in Sudan has either been incorporated into larger investigations of the area’s rich archaeological history, or, as in the Nubian Nile valley, the result of archaeological salvage projects, aimed at documenting and conserving archaeological sites and artefacts in advance of engineered flooding events, such as the construction of the Aswan High dam in the 1960s and the Merowe dam in the early 2000s. This has resulted in significant rock art and rock gong discoveries, such as that noted near the Second Cataract (Žába, 1967) and more recently around the Fourth. Rock art remains vulnerable to damming initiatives – that at Sabu is currently under threat by the Kajbar Dam proposal at the Third Cataract. There is great scope for further research.

Rock art types

The rock art of Sudan is varied across both time periods and geographical regions. Numerous pecked depictions of domestic cattle can be found in the Red Sea Hills (Pluskota, 2006) as well as depictions of both domestic and wild animals closer to the River Nile, such as those found at Jebel Gorgod in a mountainous area near Sesebi (Schiff Giorgini, 1972). Engravings, like those around the Second, Third, and Fourth Cataracts (areas of rocky rapids) are varied in subject matter and in date, ranging from Neolithic engravings of wild and domestic fauna to those with Medieval Christian imagery, for example around the Dal Cataract (Mills, 1965). These are mixed with others from about 4,000 BC onwards which may be contemporary with the Predynastic cultures and Pharaonic periods of ancient Egypt and in northern Sudan, Nubian Kerma culture (known to the ancient Egyptians as the Kingdom of Kush). These include depictions of Nile river boats and later hieroglyphic inscriptions.

The peripatetic nature of these traceable signatures highlights the need to look beyond modern boundaries when considering ancient rock art traditions of Africa. For millennia prior to the creation of the current Egypt/Sudan border, the highway of the river allowed movement between Egypt and Nubia, the people of the region leaving their marks on a narrow area of fertile land that fostered riverine animals like crocodiles, which are occasionally depicted in the rock engravings. From the 4th millennium BC, following several temperate millennia, savannah animals like giraffe lost their habitat in the increasingly arid environments to east and west, but remain reflected in the rock engravings of what is now desert.

The range in styles and dates for Sudanese rock art emphasises its nature, not as a particular artistic style, but as personal and cultural manipulations of a specific medium. A number of stone percussive instruments known as rock gongs, which produce a sonorous tone when struck and are often apparently associated with cattle engravings, have stimulated discussion about the uses of rock art sites as multisensory ritual venues.

Chronology

The understanding of much of Sudanese prehistory as it relates to rock art remains subject to debate. Some of the best-preserved and most varied rock art of Sudan’s desert regions is situated only metres from the Egyptian border in the far north-west corner of the country, in a valley of Jebel Uweinat – the enormous sandstone and granite outcrop which serves as a boundary between Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Numerous paintings and engravings are found here, including images of wild animals, such as giraffe and antelope, humans, dogs and many cattle. Some of these paintings have been compared with other styles of rock art in the wider Sahara, including the later Pastoral Period (Muzzolini, 1995). Others have proposed that a different set of paintings in these sites may be older, with a stylistic link (although fragile) with the Round Head Period (Van Noten,1978). However, the scholarly community recognises the inherent difficulty of formulating conclusions of direct links with wider rock art practices. In areas around the Nile, where there are similar animal engravings, rock art is also from a wide range of time periods.

Ascribing dates to rock art like that at Jebel Uweinat is also uncertain and is more difficult than dating images such as the depictions of Nile river boats or later Christian cross engravings like those found near the Third Cataract, where similar motifs are replicated on contemporary pottery and corroborated elsewhere in the archaeological record. Occasionally rock art may be found in a dateable stratigraphic context- a giraffe engraving at Gala Abu Ahmed in Wadi Howar, an ancient Nile tributary, was recently dated to before 1,200-1,300 BC in this way (Jesse, 2005). In general, other clues are necessary, for example known domestication dates: wild animal images are often superseded with depictions of animals like horses and camels. These were only widely known in northeast Africa from the second and first millennia BC respectively and are therefore unlikely to be older. However, this is not an exact science: examination of the superimpositions and levels of patination on some Nile valley cattle engravings show that they were made over thousands of years up to the not too distant past. Faced with such challenges, classifying rock art by design style, while problematic, can prove useful in envisioning chronology.