Religion, Sacrifice, and the Mystery of the Table Rocks in Nabta Playa
Nabta Playa is a remarkable site composed of hundreds of prehistoric tumuli, stelae, and megalithic structures located in the Nubian Desert, approximately 100 kilometers west of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt. They are the result of an advanced urban community that arose approximately 11,000 years ago, and left behind a huge assembly of stones.
The megaliths can be found in several separate clusters, arranged in an approximately north-south direction. In the northern most area of the site, there is a group of around ten tumuli (mounds of earth and stones raised over a grave), which are made from sandstone, and have been found to contain the remains of cattle.
The cattle graves
Most of the tumuli found in the cluster were composed of unshaped stones that contained piles of bones belonging to cattle, goats, and sheep. However, one tumulus stood out above all the others, as it was larger, and dug into the ground surrounded by a clay frame. Inside, archaeologists found the remains of an entire young cow, dating back around 7,400 years. The cow had been covered with broken rocks that formed a mound eight meters in diameter and one meter high.
The skeleton of a young cow found in a chamber under a tumulus. Photo credit: Romuald Schild
The discovery was significant as the piles of cattle bones and the construction of the tumuli for the remains suggest that the animals were sacrificed and that much effort went into their burial. The practice of sacrifice is usually associated with a belief in a god or gods and so this finding, combined with the discovery of megalith alignments and stone circles, suggest that Nabta Playa may have been used as a regional ceremonial centre, which was unprecedented in Africa at that time. Although similar megalithic structures have been found in other areas, they are generally dated much later than those found in Nabta Playa.
The enigma of the table rocks
Another significant feature of Nabta Playa is the series of small megalithic stone complexes that had been built directly on top of table rocks. Table rocks are large mushroom-shaped rocks that are naturally formed by erosion. Over thousands of years, they became buried by several metres of clay and silt, so one question that has mystified scientists since their discovery is, how did the people of Nabta Playa find them? There would have been no visible trace of the rocks at that time. One suggestion is that they were discovered by accident during digging for wells, but it would seem to be somewhat of a coincidence for so many table rocks to have been located in this way.
Lifting a table rock from one of the pits. Photo credit: Romuald Schild
Once located, the people of Nabta Playa further shaped the table rocks to have convex sides and one straight edge that faced north. They then placed another large shaped stone placed horizontally on top of the table rock, which some believe had been sculpted to resemble a cow or other large animal. A number of other rocks were placed to hold the ‘sculpture’ in position, and the pit was then filled in with sediment. Scientists believe that the ‘sculptures’ date back to between 5,500 and 5,000 years ago. Testing was carried out by dating charcoal found around the structures, although this is not a full-proof method.
It is not yet known why the ancient people created these unusual structures. They may have had a practical function, like the calendar circle (see part 1), or they may have represented something that held meaning at the time. Perhaps more excavation work may reveal more of the secrets of this unusual place.
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The end of the Nabta civilization and the rise of the great Nile cities
Around 5,000 years ago, the civilization of the megalith builders of Nabta Playa collapsed when there was another climatic change and the deadly desert returned once again to the area. The inhabitants of the region were forced to migrate to a more habitable area, but the question remains – where did they go?
Some archaeologists, such as J McKim Malville, believe that the people of Nabta made their way to the Nile Valley, stimulating the growth and development of the great Nile cities that subsequently arose in Egypt.
“Within some 500 years after the exodus from Nabta, the step pyramid at Saqqara was constructed, indicating that there was a pre-existing cultural base, which may have originated in the desert of Upper Egypt. An exodus from the Nubian desert at 5000 years ago could have precipitated the development of social differentiation in pre-dynastic cultures through the arrival in the Nile valley of nomadic groups who were better organized and possessed a more complex cosmology." (Malville, Wendorf, Mazar & Schild, 1998)
According to Schild and Wendorf, there is enough evidence to suggest that at least some of the roots of ancient Egyptian beliefs, magic, and religion, originated with the people of Nabta Playa. For example, some of the stalae at Nabta Playa are aligned with the brightest star of the pattern of seven stars known as the Big Dipper, which forms part of the Ursa Major constellation. Records indicate that this star was also very important in ancient Egyptian cosmology. Furthermore, the row of three megaliths within the calendar circle of Nabta Playa are believed to represent Orion’s Belt, which also held an important place within ancient Egyptian astronomy. Wendorf and Schild (2004) point out another intriguing feature:
“Perhaps the most convincing tie between the myths and religion of Ancient Egypt and the Cattle Herders of the South Western Desert are the groups of Nabta Basin stelae. The stelae here face the circumpolar region of the heavens. According to the early Egyptian mortuary texts known as the Pyramid Texts, this is a place where the stars never die and where there is no death at all”.
The series of associations between the complex and structured societies that developed over thousands of years in the Nubian Desert, and the great Nile cities of ancient Egypt, suggests that the rise of the influential and powerful civilization of ancient Egypt extends back much further than initially believed.
Featured image: Megaliths from Nabta Playa displayed in the garden of the Aswan Nubia museum (Wikimedia Commons)
F. Wendor and R. Schild (1998). Late Neolithic Megalithic Structures at Nabta Playa (Sahara). Available from: http://www.egyptologie.be/nabta_playa_W&S.htm
F. Wendorf and R. Schild (1998). Nabta Playa and its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 17, pp 97-123.
F. Wendorf and R. Schild (2004). The Megaliths of Nabta Playa. Focus on Archaeology, Academia 1, no. 1, pp 10-15.
M. Gaffney (2006). The Astronomers of Nabta Playa. Atlantis Rising, 56, pp 42-43.
J. McK Malville, R. Schild, F. Wendorf, and R. Brenmer (2007). Astronomy of Nabta Playa. African Sky, 11, p 2.