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By John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell
The Oriental Institute
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 149, Spring 1996, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)

By mid-November and into December, the weather is perfect for desert work: the breeze is soft, cool, and refreshing, the sun hot but not scorchingly so. Sunlight strikes the earth at a bit more of an angle, so that in mid-to-late afternoon all the features of the desert landscape stand out magnificently, in the same way as do the hieroglyphs carved on the temple walls, when light is raked across them at a sharp angle. Having begun the season's work at other desert sites, it was at last possible for us to return to the Wadi el-Huôl, which had been attacked by antiquities' thieves in the 1994/95 season. Ever since our encounter with the thieves that season, we have been obliged to make elaborate security arrangements well in advance of any visit to the site, and it had taken some time to set up this trip. We could see immediately upon our return that the remainder of a large stela which had been badly damaged last season had been removed from the rock face, but we were later told that it had been taken to an official magazine by the Qena inspectorate. Otherwise, the site was less disturbed than we had feared it would be after a long summer away. Vandals are still visiting the Wadi el-Huôl, however; during that first day of work, a minivan full of intruders approached the wadi and fled upon seeing our vehicles. Two men on foot, apparently their accomplices, scrambled madly away from us. We have encountered men in the desert before: we customarily exchange greetings and salaams , so the unusual behavior of these individuals suggested that they were up to no good. We would like to believe that illicit activity at the site will decline as word spreads that (a) nothing easy to steal and sell can be found and (b) people who get very angry at intruders and who carry a shuba (a large heavy staff covered with gamoosa hide and festooned with brass studs) are working there at unpredictable intervals.

If we cannot physically save the site, we can copy with vigor: we have so far copied over 170 different graffiti, ranging from individual figures to long hieratic texts. We estimate that approximately the same number remains to be copied and as many as fifty have been stolen or destroyed. It is more difficult than one might imagine to copy graffiti from these rock faces; we sometimes wonder how in the world the original artist executed his work. We have occasionally had to assume interesting contortions in order to position ourselves for proper copying and checking. We are certain at least one or two of the ancient authors were left-handed (in a couple of places, portions of rock jutting out make a right-handed writing posture impossible). In some cases, ancient and modern ground levels are drastically different. The floor of the wadi, scoured and deepened by the roaring torrents of desert flash floods, has dropped considerably from prehistoric times to the present, so the earliest petroglyphs are far out of reach, and Middle Kingdom pharaonic graffiti must be copied from a ladder or while balancing on a slippery, five-inch ledge (small feet, agility, and good muscle tone are prerequisites for this area). Even if we had no dated inscriptions, we would have no trouble determining which areas were favored for resting and carving graffiti at different times of the year. Area B at the Wadi el-Huôl is in shade all day and enjoys a cool breeze that was already positively icy early this season: a summertime spot. Copying here requires constant adjustment of light reflected off large mirrors in the wadi bed; if there is no one to lend a hand, we get plenty of exercise scampering up and down the cliff face to nudge the mirror every few minutes. Area C, on the other hand, must have been a good place to warm oneself: it is virtually always in the sun, a fact we enjoy more in winter than towards the end of the season. The most opportune time to copy and photograph inscriptions also depends on the time of year, due to the angle of the sun.

Though the effort we must expend to record these graffiti is considerable, the work is quite rewarding. Every inscription is unique, the result of an individual desiring to express himself, usually spontaneously it seems. There are many references to Hathoric "holiday" celebrations, even a little sketch of a man playing a lyre, his head thrown back and his mouth wide open in song. There is a Middle Kingdom letter carved in the rock, addressing a wab -priest. The priest is asked to adore certain deities, some of whose names and epithets are known only from Sinuhe's letter to Sesostris I. One of the most exciting texts is a faintly incised inscription already partially effaced in ancient times, which says it is "the beginning of the book of the scribe of Hu, Ankh." This amazing excerpt is filled with unusual imagery describing the appearance of a man in Thebes, "the foreigners [falling] to him, he slaying in this mountain, the mountain in which is the might ... "; he spends the night hungry and sees the morning sky like a flame; "his joy is instructing the watchmen." What we seem to have is a contemporary account of the very beginning of the rise of the Theban Seventeenth Dynasty, when the grip of the Hyksos on the northern portion of the country had not been loosened. The vivid details of struggle in the gebel suggest that the Wadi el-Huôl, then as now, has been the stage for dramatic conflict! After the golden days of spending the day on holiday, complete with the Hathoric elements of music and drink, the high stone walls of the wadi rang with the echoes of the sounds of combat as the Thebans reasserted their mastery over the strategically important routes of the Upper Egyptian deserts.

The impressive range of evidence of ancient activity in such remote settings continues to fascinate us. We are looking forward to the second half of this year's season, when our work will continue at Gebel Tjauti and the Wadi el-Huôl, as well as several other desert road sites.

John Coleman Darnell received his Ph.D. in Egyptology from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where Deborah Darnell is a Ph.D. candidate. They are both employed with the Epigraphic Survey, John as Senior Epigrapher and Deborah as Epigrapher and Librarian. For the past four seasons, the Darnells have been working on their own project, a study of the ancient road system of the Theban desert.

Revised: July 30, 2007

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