Newfoundlander finds a rock of ages

Steve Bartlett
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Carvings at least 15,000 years old, testing determines decades after discovery

Belgian archeologist Wouter Claes poses with a panel with wild bovid at the Qurta II site. — Submitted photo/© RMAH, Brussels

New testing indicates rock drawings discovered by a Newfoundlander in Egypt nearly 50 years ago are at least 15,000 years old.

That means Philip Smith found the oldest rock art in North Africa, something that will “introduce a new set of challenges to archeological thought,” according to a new article in the scholarly journal Antiquity.

It’s not such a big deal to Smith, though.

The 84-year-old, Fortune-born archeologist doesn’t rank the discovery at the top of his career highlights.

“I hope I’ve done something more solid than that,” he said recently on the phone from his home in Montreal.

Smith “happened to run across” the drawings — primarily of wildlife — in 1962-63 on a cliff beside the Nile River at Qurta.

The Government of Canada had sent the young University of Toronto professor there to help preserve the remanents of ancient Egyptian settlements before the sites were flooded by a large dam that was being constructed.

“I wasn’t really looking for the drawings,” he recalled. “I was climbing up a cliff to take photographs of the area below. … And then I discovered I was looking at a whole range of animals engraved and chiselled into the rock face of the cliff.”

He said the find astonished him.

He returned the next day for a closer look and was struck by how different it was from other ancient drawings.

It turned out there were at least 180 images in the rocks. The majority were animal figures like birds, hippopotami, gazelle, fish and hartebeests (large antelope).

Smith took photos, made sketches and did tracings.

He suspected the rock drawings predated Egyptian pharoahs and were probably created by hunters and gatherers before the neolithic period (when agricultural practices began).

He studied the drawings and wrote about them.

“I tried to convince people in those years that it was quite old. But I could never find anybody who agreed with me,” he said.

“There was no similar art known anywhere. People would roll their eyes. … They were skeptical, and quite rightly so.”

With no way of accurately dating the rock art, the drawings soon “slipped away into my unconscious,” Smith said.

He moved on to other projects, and didn’t think about the Egyptian cliffs much until a few years ago, when he heard some archeologists were working in the area.

A team of Belgian and U.S. researchers discovered similar drawings in the vicinity, leading them to the work of Smith and the Canadian team from the 1960s.

Using a process called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating — which measures the elapsed time since the sands covering the drawings were exposed to sunlight — the scholars determined the drawings were at least 15,000 years old.

“Whereas this makes the Qurta rock definitely the oldest discovered in North Africa thus far, its true age remains unknown,” states the article in Antiquity.

“It is clear that the buried drawings … were already considerably weathered before they became covered by sediment. It seems likely therefore that the rock art is significantly older than the minimum ages obtained by means of OSL.”

On top of posing a challenge for archeological thought, it’s being suggested the drawings will add to the understanding of the origin of art. Their age makes them contemporary with art from the ice age.

“Qurta puts North Africa firmly in the world of the earliest surviving artistic tradition, and shows that tradition has been geographically more widespread than heretofore imagined,” one of the researchers, John Coleman Darnell — a professor of Egyptology at Yale — told the university’s news service.

Even though the dating of the rock and the potential impact adds to the aura of his discovery, Smith is a little uncomfortable with the testing.

He explained archeologists have been burned by OSL in the past.

Plus, he said, the Belgians did the analysis on a piece of rock that fell off the cliff and was embedded in the sand below.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it is quite old, but I wouldn’t be convinced by the evidence produced so far,” he said.

Still, he said he agrees the drawings are significant because they prove people were creating art before the neolithic period, “and this is quite something for Africa.”

Rocks along the banks of the Nile are a world away from the stones along the shores of the Burin Peninsula’s southwest tip.

Asked how a young fella from Fortune ended up exploring ancient civilizations more than 50 years ago — when young men traditionally entered the fishery — Smith replied “mostly by serendipity, a series of chances, and decisions, good or bad.”

His interest in archeology was piqued as a youngster because his family had an encyclopedia that featured ancient sites.

He worked for a business in Montreal after obtaining an undergraduate degree in Nova Scotia.

During a trip to Mexico, Smith saw that country’s archeological sites and said he felt that would be a more interesting way to make a living.

A few years later, he was admitted to Harvard as a graduate student. Among his experiences there; being part of an expedition that found a number of Neanderthal skeletons that were 50,000 or 60,000 years old.

“That was thrilling,” he said.

After finishing at Harvard, Smith’s work took him around the world, including to France, where he did his doctoral dissertation on the pre-history of the country, and to Iran, where he spent a dozen or so years researching the origins of agriculture there.

He said he feels some of that work is more important than the discovery of the Egyptian drawings.

“The work I did in France years ago seems to have made more solid impact, at least on my fellow archeologists,” he said.

“That’s true also for my work in Iran.

“The work in Egypt was simply a one-shot affair, during an emergency, and as things happened, I never went back to Egypt.”

A few years after that one-shot affair, Smith moved on to the Université de Montréal, where he taught for four decades.

He retired a few years ago, although he’s still researching and writing.

One topic of interest involves his home province.

Smith said he’s spent many years exploring the custom of winter-housing, where people relocated from the outports into the woods during the winter.

“It’s a curious thing for people of European descent to do,” he said. “It’s very much like the seasonal movements of aboriginal people, including the Beothuk. … I’m still working on it. I’m thinking of writing a book about it eventually.” Twitter: @bartlett_steve

— with files from Postmedia News

Organizations: University of Toronto, Harvard, Université de Montréal Postmedia News

Geographic location: Egypt, North Africa, Montreal.Smith Nile River Canada U.S. France Iran Africa Nile Montreal Nova Scotia.During Mexico

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