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Analysis and Typology of prehistoric ‘female representations’ in the rock art of the Chufu region, Egyptian Western Desert

Analyse et typologie des «représentations féminines» préhistoriques dans l’art rupestre de la région de Chufu, Désert occidental égyptien
Nourhan Moustafa
p. 11-34
Traduction(s) :
Analyse et typologie des «représentations féminines» préhistoriques dans l’art rupestre de la région de Chufu, Désert occidental égyptien [fr]


De nombreux témoins géologiques, environnementaux et archéologiques dans le Désert occidental égyptien indiquent le rôle important que le désert a joué dans le développement des cultures nilotiques, en particulier à la fin de la préhistoire. Le processus a commencé avec l’assèchement du désert vers 5 000 avant notre ère et s’est achevé avec la création du premier État égyptien. La région de Chufu abrite un nombre incalculable de pétroglyphes, incluant les représentations anthropomorphes féminines qui forment un groupe extrêmement important et intriguant. Cet article explore ces motifs dans leur ensemble régional, en appliquant des analyses statistiques, spatiales, stylistiques et contextuelles.

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1From the late nineteenth century onwards rock art discoveries were reported from the Egyptian Western Desert. A lot of work has already been accomplished by different excavation and survey missions and most rock art sites have been systematically documented and interpreted (Krzyżaniak 1990, 1991, 2004; Krzyżaniak & Kroeper 1985, 1991, 1993; Kuciewicz et al. 2007, 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015; Kuciewicz & Kobusiewicz 2011, 2012; Polkowski 2015a, 2016; Polkowski et al. 2013). Unlike some other regions of the Western Desert sites, Chufu region’s rock art has not intensively been studied, as there is a limited number of publications dealing with the area (Kuper 2014/2015; Atallah & Moustafa 2022).

2The landscape of the Chufu region is hilly with countless sandstone inselbergs, ranging from small single rocks to large hills up to 50 meters high (Riemer 2006: 501). The main site Chufu 01/01 is situated about 60 km southwest of the Dakhla Oasis. It is marked by a small, flat-topped light brown sandstone hill, about 20 m high. On its eastern side, the rock face is a natural step enlarged already in prehistoric times to shape a terrace 3 to 4 m wide and 42 m long, and bordered by a dry-stone wall, preserved up to 2 m high in some parts (Kuper & Förster 2003; Wagner & Heller 2012). Behind the terrace, a high rock arises, which gives the hill its unique form among the hundreds of small hills in the region. On the rock face, there are numerous depictions of savanna fauna evidencing that the site was already used in earlier prehistoric times. Hieroglyphic inscriptions bear witness to the repeated presence of Egyptian expeditions during the reign of pharaoh Cheops (Chufu) and his son Djedefre in the remote Western Desert (Kuper & Förster 2003; Berger 2006; Wagner et al. 2006; Wagner & Heller 2012; Kuper 2014/2015).

3In December 2000, Carlo Bergmann was the first who spotted Chufu 01/01 hill and later named it “Radjedef´s water mountain” following Kuhlmann (2002). The first archaeological excavations in the hill were carried out by the Collaborative Research Centre (Sonderforschungsbereich) SFB 389 (ACACIA) of Köln Universität, including a small test excavation in the terrace of the Chufu hill in Spring 2002. The site was registered in the ACACIA data pool under the name Chufu 01/01 (Kuper & Förster 2003; Wagner et al. 2006; Wagner & Heller 2012).

4Due to the wealth of archaeological sources resulting from the first excavations, it was considered necessary to start an extensive systematic excavation for the Chufu region. A new project was thus launched at the beginning of 2006, under the name “Chufu 01/01–A pharaonic desert station and its context in landscape archaeology” which was a project of the German Archaeological Institute (K. P. Kuhlmann, H. Parzinger) and the University of Köln (R. Kuper), funded by the German Research Council (DFG). The focus of this fieldwork project was the main site Chufu 01/01 and its archaeological surroundings (Wagner & Heller 2012). During the field campaigns, 1,600 hills in this area have been inspected. As a result, a total of 158 archaeological sites have been discovered and investigated, including 112 rock art sites.

5The graphic repertoire in the Chufu region is mainly dominated by animal engravings which include antelopes, ostriches, giraffes, and unidentified quadrupeds and to a lesser extent by anthropomorphic figures. Unspecific lines or geometric symbols rank in third place, including the so-called water mountain symbol (see Fig. 15) and other zigzag lines.

6In terms of style and elaboration, the most remarkable type of prehistoric rock art recorded in the Western Desert of Egypt is the female anthropomorphic motif. Hans Winkler (1939) was the first to find, describe, and interpret this type of presumed woman in the eastern part of the Dakhla Oasis. These female representations were usually executed in a specific style, while diverse techniques are evidenced, such as pecking, incising and a combination of both. With further discoveries, the existence of this striking motif expanded widely to include the so-called “Ladies Hill” (listed as site Meri 99/36 in the ACACIA data pool) (Riemer 2006, 2009), and at numerous hills in the Chufu region (Berger 2006; Riemer 2009; Wagner & Heller 2012), both regions are situated between 50 and 80 km southwest of Dakhla Oasis. Additionally, the North Kharga Oasis Survey (NKOS) has led to discover several kinds of petroglyphs including female anthropomorphic figures in the environs of Kharga Oasis (Ikram 2009).

7These female figures are mostly depicted in profile with just a few shown in frontal view. They are usually characterized by a schematic upper body composed of a simple head, stick-like trunk, and truncated arms. The motifs generally have exaggerated lower body anatomies, showing steatopygous obesity, or perhaps a voluminous skirt, which is sometimes decorated by geometric patterns (Winkler 1939; Berger 2008; Polkowski et al. 2013). The identification of breasts has led to many debates: Riemer (2006, 2009) and Berger (2008) defined all frontal protuberances on the upper body as breasts. On the basis of illustrations, James (2010: 113-120; 2012: 75) argued that they were rounded arms, pinpointing that there were no examples of figures displaying both arms and breasts. But Kuciewicz, Polkowski and Kobusiewicz (2015: 280) have mentioned an example of a female figure that is depicted with both arms and breast. According to position and form, as a close (semi) circle or oval, protuberances are more likely to represent breast, especially since arms are straight or curved lines. Furthermore, there are some figures depicted with a deeply engraved oval or round area in the place of the breast, indicating that they were not meant to be arms but breast.

8This research depends mainly on documentation and photographs of the “Chufu 01/01” project. Photography is the most common method for recording rock art sites. It usually enhances the observation and the assessment. However, using it for petroglyphs depicted in Nubian sandstone does not always provide favorable results due to various factors (Rainey 2001). In some cases, natural or intentional damage caused by weathering, abrasion, or deliberate destruction reduces the distinct contrast of some figures, making it difficult to determine how the engravings were executed (whether by pecking, engraving, or incising), and also reducing the ability to detect the relative chronology through superimposition (Förster 2013). These damaging factors occasionally lead to destroying some attributes and affecting the identification of figures.

9Within the region, a corpus of 181 female anthropomorphic figures has been recorded in 35 rock art sites (Fig. 1). But as the present researcher could not access all photographs for the main site Chufu 01/01, analyses have been performed on 175 female figures only. These issues should be considered while reading the analytical results.

Figure 1 – Satellite map of a 8x11 km section in the Chufu region (SW Egypt), showing the statistical distribution of the female figures

Figure 1 – Satellite map of a 8x11 km section in the Chufu region (SW Egypt), showing the statistical distribution of the female figures

(modified after Kuper 2014/2015: 294, Fig. 19)

10Within the Chufu region, the representations of these female figures fluctuate from very schematized or simplified forms to more elaborated or sophisticated examples. Some decorative elements have been identified, such as the head decoration which is identified mostly as a few short or long simple lines expressing hair or even a type of hairdo placed upon the head. Necklaces consist of a few curved lines around the base of the neck or hanging down on the chest. Back aprons can be described as a few long lines. The lower body may be amply adorned with various geometric patterns that can be described as parallel or intersecting, curved and diagonal lines? or they can be interpreted as woven fabrics and sometimes decorated with pecked dots. Besides, the line contouring the lower body is occasionally ornamented by a lot of slash lines that have been added after finishing the depiction of the lower body.

11Many scholars have written on the cultural significance of these female figures so far. Winkler (1939) was the first to explain them as real statuettes and the pregnant figures as deities. Krzyzaniak & Kroeper (1991) used the existence of a potentially masked figure and a scene of an animal probably sacrificed to propose that they are goddesses or female sorcerers. James (2012) viewed that fertility explanations count on very tenuous links. Kuciewicz has linked the notable association between the presumed ‘pregnant giraffes’ and female figures as an indication that reinforces the fertility interpretation (Polkowski et al. 2013). Furthermore, Polkowski (2019) has connected these images with the process of the flow of life forces.


12During the 20th century, rock art researchers changed their study techniques from descriptive to analytical, which subsequently increased the ability to read and comprehend rock art scenes (Lenssen-Erz 1992, 1999). For reaching an interpretation of these female motifs, three main levels of analysis are considered. The first is to identify their attributes and features, the second is to search where they are distributed over the region, and the third is to explore their cultural significance by identifying what they meant to the artists or producers (Taçon 1999).

13Spatial distribution, statistical, and stylistic analyses have been performed. In addition, the relations between the female figures and different motifs that appeared in proximity to them in panels are analyzed. Furthermore, a comparative study between female figures from the Chufu region and their parallels within the Western Desert of Egypt are carried out.


14At the preparation level, the photographs were first classified, so all the supposed female figures’ photos were detected from the comprehensive data of the Chufu project. Then, the colour and contrast of the photographs has been enhanced using Adobe Photoshop, and 40 figures were traced by the author using Adobe Illustrator. Regarding the organization of the data, every female figure in the region has systematically been labelled and recorded, as F1, F2, and so on. By making the female figures the focus of every scene, the motifs which have appeared with them were recorded and analyzed to study the relation and to understand the scenes meaning. This consequently enables the extraction of data that otherwise would not be available (Lenssen-Erz 1989).

Spatial distribution analysis

15The exact location and the direction of each panel with female figures were recorded in every site. Using that, the researcher has conducted a systematic spatial distribution analysis of the supposed female figures within their natural and cultural contexts in the Chufu region. The analysis includes maps to clarify distribution. This type of analysis usually helps in the reconstruction of social identities which permits one to set up hypotheses about how the landscape was used (Lenssen-Erz 2008).

Statistical Analysis

16To improve the identification of the supposed female figures in the Chufu region, there was a necessity to systematically decompose the figures into their basic components or features and study them separately. Thus, a statistical analysis was done to quantify the female figures, their anthropomorphic and sexual attributes, their decoration patterns, and the motifs in relation to them.

Stylistic Analysis

17Style–as recurrent sets of attributes–has long been an important analytical tool that permits one to find similarities and differences in rock art images, revealing new information and interpretations of the art (Taçon & Chippindale 1998; Sanz & Fiore 2014). Then, relying on the statistical results, a systematic stylistic analysis was carried out on the supposed female figures in the region by studying their forms, decorations, and relations to other motifs in various scenes. The researcher systematically described, quantified and interpreted their main characteristics. Then the researcher compared them, looking for similarities and differences to classify them into meaningful units. The typological classification would depend mainly on the observation of formal morphological variations.

Typological classification

18Style has long been a core concept in the field of the archaeology of art (Sanz & Fiore 2014). The reasons behind this are: firstly, the fact that the creation of artworks entails the manipulation of form, color, size, etc. During this process, frequent patterns can be noticed to witness the underlying stylistic rules and habits. Secondly, its significance as an analytical tool is used to find continuities and discontinuities and pinpoint the visual similarities in the archaeological record, which usually supplies archaeologists with information about the spatial and temporal distribution of ancient societies and allows them to create stylistic sequences. And in order to apply a typological or stylistic analysis to a sample of archaeological images or motifs, the images must share common features to be a base for comparison. These features may include their form, color, or size, as well as their making techniques, or their position (Sanz & Fiore 2014).

19James (2012) examined a number of 129 female figures from different sites in the Egyptian Western Desert by performing a presence and absence analysis. He analyzed the anthropomorphic attributes (arms, hands, legs, feet, and head) with their possible range of combinations and the sexual traits (breasts, penis/sheath, vulva, pubic triangle, and beard) with their possible range of combinations. The final component of his presence/absence analysis turns to the integral attributes which he identified as the defining characteristics of the motif cited by authors (pronounced belly, exaggerated lower body, head decoration, and decoration of lower body) with their possible range of combinations as well. Notably, he did not classify the pronounced belly and the exaggerated lower body to be secondary sexual attributes or even sexual identification markers.

20This part of the study research is dedicated to recording the most frequent types of female figures in the region. A presence or absence value was also assigned to the attributes of each of the depicted female figures. Firstly, the anthropomorphic and sexual attributes were carefully chosen. The anthropomorphic attributes are the assemblage of head, arms, hands, legs, and feet. The sexual characteristics are breasts, exaggerated lower body, penis sheath, and bulging belly. The figures from the Chufu region never display pubic triangles and beards. In addition, the decorative elements were not considered for the analysis. Secondly, all the available anthropomorphic and sexual characteristics combinations were examined (Fig. 2). Finally, for defining the frequent types, a precondition was developed that the detected type should comprise at least three primary characteristics including one of the anthropomorphic attributes. There is only an exception for the schematized representations because they are frequently depicted but they lack anthropomorphic attributes. This allowed the classification of the supposed female figures in the region into four main categories (Fig. 3).

Figure 2 – Diagrammatic representation of characteristic combinations within female figures

Figure 2 – Diagrammatic representation of characteristic combinations within female figures

Figure 3 – Examples of the four types of female figures observed in the Chufu region

Figure 3 – Examples of the four types of female figures observed in the Chufu region

Photo: J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper

21As a result, the most frequent type (type A: HBE), which was recorded at 36.57% (n=64) of the total corpus data, consists of a combination of the head, breast, and exaggerated buttock or dress characteristics. It is followed by the bulged belly type (type B: HBBbE), which shows a combination of head, breast, exaggerated buttock or dress, and bulged belly characteristics, at 22.86% (n=40). Then, the schematized type (type D), which is considered a simplified version of the female figures, makes up 21.14% (n=37). Finally, the type with a distinguished frontal appendage (type C: HBPE) at 4.57% (n=8) (Fig. 4). This type is usually displayed combined with type B (HBBbE).

Figure 4 – Percentages of the most frequent female figure types in the region

Figure 4 – Percentages of the most frequent female figure types in the region

22Interestingly, the systematic typological categorization is not only restricted to the Chufu region females, but can also be utilized for other sites with comparable examples. To apply this system to other sites, it has to be assured that all anthropomorphic and sexual characteristics comprising the female figures were inserted within the system, so the actual frequent types can be determined.

The bulged belly problem (type B: HBBbE)

23Interestingly, many of the supposed female representations have been depicted with an obese or bulged belly. This striking type was first mentioned by Winkler (1939), and during recent years these figures have been discovered also on other sites within the wider oases vicinity, like the so-called “Ladies Hill”, labeled as Meri 99/36 (Riemer 2006, 2009), and in the Chufu region. Within the total corpus (n=175), 22.86% (n=40) have been depicted with the bulged belly characteristic, distributed over 13 sites. The interpretation of this characteristic has been a matter of contention, however, Winkler (1939) and Berger (2008) see that the curved line of the ladies’ abdomen symbolizes pregnancy or fertility, depending on the position of the bulged belly on the body, which consequently can be considered as an indicator of sex. James (2010: 147) asserted that the bulged belly feature cannot be defined as a sexual attribute by itself.

24From the results of the possible frequency and combinations analysis (Fig. 5), it emerges that all the so-called pregnant ladies have been depicted with heads, which is strongly suggesting that all of them are anthropomorphic figures. 95% (n=38) of the total bulged belly figures combine head, exaggerated buttock or dress, and bulged belly attributes. And 87.5% (n=35) display head, breast, exaggerated buttock or dress, and bulged belly attributes.

Figure 5 – Combinations of the bulged belly (Bb) characteristic with other attributes

Figure 5 – Combinations of the bulged belly (Bb) characteristic with other attributes

(E) exaggerated buttock, (B) breast, and (H) head (as percentages)

25Considering the structure of the female figures, the researcher hypothesizes that the breast is considered an essential sexual attribute (the classification here is not strictly biological), and the exaggerated buttock or dress–which is frequently decorated with various geometric designs–can be considered a minor sexual attribute. Therefore, the frequent appearance of the bulged belly characteristic combined with both breast and exaggerated buttock attributes indicates that the bulged belly attribute can be a minor sexual attribute as well. And concerning the interpretation of the bulged belly attribute, it is problematic to assert whether it indicates pregnancy or symbolizes fertility, but in view of the results mentioned above, it can at least be considered as a sexual identification marker.

The ’paired figures’ representations (type C: HBPE & type B: HBBbE)

26The supposed female figures sometimes appear in pairs and occasionally with a line attaching one to the other. Generally, the pairs consist of two figures facing each other but with different attributes, one of them usually with a bulged belly, unlike the other figure whose dress appears with a frontal appendage that looks like a belt, a front apron, or possibly a penis sheath. The dresses or buttocks of these second figures are slimmer to the extent that sometimes they are depicted as schematic figures. Therefore, some researchers (James 2010) viewed both sexes in these pairs and interpreted them as a couple scene.

27These remarkable ‘paired figures’ representations were first mentioned by Winkler (1939), in particular those who are joined by a horizontal line. Berger (2008) and Polkowski, Kuciewicz, Jaroni and Kobusiewicz (2013) also have reported on the presence of these representations. The existence of these representations expands to Kharga Oasis, with Ikram (2009) writing about female figures, pointing out that they often appear in pairs. Additionally, Riemer (2006) indicated the occurrence of paired female figures in the Meri area. In the Chufu region, there are 19 pairings (38 individual figures), which form 21.7% of the total corpus data (n=175).

28There is still some debate about the interpretation of this paired figures phenomenon. While Winkler (1939) found them impossible to be explained, Polkowski, Kuciewicz, Jaroni and Kobusiewicz (2013: 107) pointed out that the line which connects the two figures “may be interpreted literally, or as a symbolling joining, or as a metaphor for the sexual act”. James (2010: 151) viewed that these pairings are likely to be representing copulation or sexual scenes, rather than two females standing together. Polkowski (2019) has mentioned a possible association between the pair representations and the act of procreation or sexuality.

29Trying to explore these paired figures in more detail, the author initiated a study of the attributes of both figures at first individually, attempting to interpret any unfamiliar characteristics. By exploring the supposed and more doubtless female partner, engraved mostly with a bulged or possibly pregnant belly, four attributes were detected on these figures: the head, the breast, the bulged belly, and the exaggerated buttock or dress.

30Moving to the supposed male figures, it is noteworthy here that a part of the potential male partners in the paired figures of the Chufu region was depicted as female figures with a frontal apron or possibly a penis sheath. But 21.05% (n=4) of the total paired figures (n=19) were represented as stick-like male depictions, or schematic silhouettes (arrow men), and the female partner in this notable form have never been depicted with a bulged belly characteristic (Fig. 6).

Figure 6 – Chufu 07/69

Figure 6 – Chufu 07/69

An example of paired figures with a schematic depiction of a male (arrow man type)

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper

31Coming back to the male partner that was depicted with a frontal appendage, there are five individual attributes on these figures which are the head, breast, exaggerated buttock, penis or penis sheath, and back apron. Recognizing rock art with sex and gender content is not simply a matter of identifying genitals in pictures of humans (Hays-Gilpin 2004). The debate derives mainly from the interpretation of the mysterious frontal appendage characteristic which arguably represents simply a frontal apron or a penis sheath. Since the front apron characteristic is more common in African rock art, these ambiguous figures were compared to some examples of women with front aprons from Namibian rock art sites (Pager 1998, 2000).

32Accordingly, it was noted that the examples wearing the front apron are not wearing any other clothes, unlike the figures in the Chufu region whose exaggerated buttocks are more likely to be a dress–which might make an additional front apron superfluous. Additionally, the front apron characteristic was not noted before in the rock art of the Egyptian Western Desert. Moreover, it should be considered that this characteristic always appears in the pair-type representations in combination with a supposedly pregnant woman, which might indicate that this appendage is a penis or a penis sheath.

33Additionally, it is noted that most of the figures displaying penis sheaths were depicted with simple parallel lines on their backs forming a downward pointed tail (Fig. 7). This characteristic is comparable to examples found in the west of Jebel Uweinat (Libya). As Noguera and Zboray (2011) suggested, these women are wearing back aprons. The back apron is a piece of garment widely known in the ethnographic studies of sub-Saharan Africa (Eastwood & Eastwood 2006). But it has to be taken into account that there are substantial differences between the back aprons on the Chufu female figures and the back aprons on Jebel Uweinat figures, as the back aprons in the supposed male figures in the Chufu region are consisting of few long lines, unlike the Jebel Uweinat examples. Furthermore, they start from the trunk of the figure body, unlike the Libyan examples whose back aprons are attached to their buttocks.

Figure 7 – Chufu 01/08

Figure 7 – Chufu 01/08

Highlighted paired figures with a penis sheath and downward lines on the back of the supposed male, enhanced with white lines

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper

34Table 1 weighs the presence of the six individual attributes that can be found on both figures in paired configurations, comprising: Head, Breast, Bulged or pregnant belly, Exaggerated buttock or dress, Penis or penis sheath, Back apron.

Table 1 – A comparison between the individual attributes’ presence of both supposed males and females in the paired figures representations




Bulged Belly

Exaggerated Buttock


Back apron

Supposed females







Supposed males







35It is obvious from the comparison that there are no paired figures displaying both the pregnant belly and the penis sheath, indicating that each figure has attributes that cannot be found in the other. Even though 63.16% of the supposed male partners have breasts, it was also noted that the exaggerated buttock feature in the supposed males is always slimmer than it is in the supposed females. Furthermore, the supposed male partners never appear alone or in a group but only in pairs with another pregnant woman. Additionally, the representations of paired figures with the stick-like male type (arrow men) never display the supposed female partners with pregnant bellies (see Fig. 6). In other words, in pair representations, the bulged belly characteristic on female partners only appears with the penis sheath on supposed males. From the highlighted results, these paired figures cannot be considered simply as two females standing together, but it should be illustrated as a couple scene, for a male with a penis sheath and a woman with a pregnant belly. This can subsequently be interpreted as a sex scene or a fertility symbol, that was adopted by the autochthonous dwellers.

The schematized representations (type D)

36Notably, extremely simplified figures have sometimes been observed, and identified as ‘h’ or ‘b’ shapes. These schematic figures consist of just a few lines with a few individual differences. This schematic form was first mentioned by Winkler (1939), followed by Berger (2008), Polkowski (2015a, 2016), and others. The interpretation was that they are the result of a simplification or reduction process executed on the supposed female figures. In the Chufu region, 21.14% (n=37) have been depicted in the schematized form, distributed over 11 sites.

37The different forms of execution vary between ‘h’, ‘d’, and ‘b’ shapes. Of the total corpus (n=37), 29,73 % (n=11) were executed as ‘h’ shape, but the dominant shape is ‘b’ or ‘d’ which makes up 70.27% (n=26). Despite all these schematized figures do not display any anthropomorphic attribute, their structure implies that they can be interpreted as a simplified format of the supposed female anthropomorphic representations.

Categorical distribution

38Rock art images are the productions left behind by people in places where they lived, where they shortly occupied, or even where they only passed by. Therefore, types’ frequency distribution is an essential guide that allows Sanz & Fiore (2014) to study the duration and intensity of any occupation, the boundaries, intersections, and their evolution over time. Moreover, style spatial distribution is considered by authors as a key indicator for the diffusion of cultural norms (Sanz & Fiore 2014). After classifying the female figures into four main types, their diffusion was studied by detecting their categorical frequency distribution in the Chufu region (Fig. 8).

Figure 8 – The frequency distribution of the female figures’ four types over Chufu region sites

Figure 8 – The frequency distribution of the female figures’ four types over Chufu region sites

39Chufu sites were classified into four categories: sites that contain four types, sites that contain three types, sites that contain two types, and sites that contain only one type. As a result, the site Chufu 01/08 is the only site that contains the four types of depicting female figures. In addition, there are seven sites containing three types; while Chufu 07/56, Chufu 07/70, and Chufu 06/27 sites display types (A, B, and C), Chufu 06/28, Chufu 07/76, Chufu 01/03 and 01/06 sites present types (A, B, and D). Moreover, six sites contain two types and twenty sites contain only one type.

Contextual approach

40The comprehension of the context of any motif usually increases the ability to reach a satisfactory identification and interpretation for them. Therefore, reading the scenes or the compositions is considered an essential factor in understanding and analyzing the individual figures and their relations to each other (Lenssen-Erz 1989, 1992, 2001). In the Chufu region, the supposed female depictions were noted singly or in groups (Fig. 9) with other anthropomorphic representations and were sometimes combined with several types of animals or with geometric signs such as the so-called ‘water mountain’ symbol.

Figure 9 – Chufu 07/31

Figure 9 – Chufu 07/31

Part of panel 1. An example of a scene of grouped female figures (grey spots for the deeply engraved parts)

Photo: J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author

41Thus, the main aim of this part of the analysis is to explore the recurrent combinations of female figure types and other motifs. In other words, the formal relations in space (patterns of combinations and scenes) will be analyzed, looking for similarities in the way they are distributed through the panel to find out if different rules of arrangement exist (Sanz & Fiore 2014).

42Therefore, the female figure types panels were examined to find out which types were mostly depicted alone and which were displayed in groups with other anthropomorphic figures. Furthermore, the aim was to assess which types were related to animal representations and types that stand in conjunction with the geometric signs.

43This analysis shows that type D was mostly engraved alone (without any anthropomorphic figures in the same panels). All type C figures were expectedly depicted in pairs. Type B was preferentially depicted in a group of anthropomorphic representations rather than singly. Additionally, type C was the most frequent type depicted in proximity to zoomorphic representations. It is followed by type B, as one can see a slight difference in results between both. Moreover, type D is the most frequent type that was combined with geometric signs.

Animal representations are combined with female figures

44Winkler (1939) was the first to pinpoint the association between the supposed female figures and animal representations in the same panels. The relationship between the female figures and the faunal representations received great attention from the scholars of the Dakhleh Oasis Project (DOP), as they reported especially on the association between giraffes and female figures (Krzyżaniak 1990, 1991, 2000; Kuciewicz et al. 2008, 2010, 2014, 2015; Polkowski et al. 2013). Also, Berger (2008) focused on the context of female images. Riemer (2006) mentioned briefly that giraffes and a variety of nonfigurative elements were found in proximity to the female depictions in the Meri area. Ikram (2009) displayed a large panel at Split Rock in Kharga Oasis showing giraffes, oryx, elephants, and female depictions without discussing the context in detail, contrary to James (2010) who studied the context of the female figures by examining the combinations noted on each image or panel.

45In the Chufu region, animal species which were engraved in proximity to female figures vary significantly, as seven species were detected (Fig. 10), and they are: Oryx antelope (Oryx dammah), Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), Undetermined quadruped, Ostrich (Struthio camelus), Bovid, Unspecified birds, Gazelle (Gazella dorcas, Gazella leptoceros).

Figure 10 – Percentages of individual presence of different animal species that appear in proximity of female figures

Figure 10 – Percentages of individual presence of different animal species that appear in proximity of female figures

46Oryx antelopes and giraffes are the dominant zoomorphic motifs in the rock art of the Western Desert of Egypt. The most distinguishable characteristics of the Oryx antelopes’ petroglyphs are very long horns (Fig. 11). Giraffes’ stylistic representations fluctuate from being very schematic to more elaborated styles, and their bodies take on different forms. Usually, giraffes are the easiest zoomorphic engravings to identify due to their remarkable long necks (Fig. 12). Depictions of ostriches can simply be identified by their long necks and legs. Bovid depictions on their part are characterized by distinctly angular heads. Birds form another group of zoomorphic rock art motifs causing difficulties concerning species identification. Gazelle depictions identification is also a problematic issue, but generally, they are identified by their shaped horns, directed backward (Polkowski et al. 2013; Kuper 2014/2015; Polkowski 2018).

Figure 11 – Chufu 07/87

Figure 11 – Chufu 07/87

An example of a depicted oryx antelope from panel 1

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author

Figure 12 – Chufu 01/03

Figure 12 – Chufu 01/03

An example of a depicted giraffe from panel 15

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author

47The combinations of the female figures with various animal species were clearly performed on purpose and not an accidental juxtaposition. However, they are mostly depicted in a static posture, it is not easy to interpret the meaning, or the message conveyed by them. Winkler (1939) suggested that the scenes might mean that the animal is about to be sacrificed to the deity (the female figure). Kuciewicz, Jaroni & Kobusiewicz (2008, 2010) proposed that the scenes display female figures walking with or leading the animals, or maybe the animals being led to the female figures. Huyge (2002) linked the giraffe representations with the solar cult.

Geometric signs combined with female figures

48Generally, the geometric signs combined with female figures in the region can be divided into two main categories: the meanders or zigzag lines, and the so-called ‘water mountain’ symbol.

The meanders or zigzag lines

49The meanders or the zigzag lines appear widely in the Egyptian Western Desert rock art. They can be described as wavy, zigzag, or meandering lines, having bends of irregular sizes and angles, and in parts can even be straight (Fig. 13). Sometimes they can be rolled up forming a sort of spiral-like design (Polkowski 2015b). Winkler (1938; 1939) first gave these lines a descriptive name the ‘wavy’ lines, later it was named ‘meandering’ lines (Storemyr 2009).

Figure 13 – Chufu 08/02

Figure 13 – Chufu 08/02

An example of irregular representations of the meandering lines.

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author

50The most common interpretation of these meanders by scholars is that they are snakes. For example, Jesse (2005) proposed the possibility that these wavy lines represent snakes. While Ikram (2009: 79) was reporting on the ‘Snake Wadi’ in Kharga Oasis, she provided two suggestions, the first is also that the meandering lines may be snakes, but the second is that it might state an ancient map showing intersecting wadis. Regarding chronology, Polkowski (2015b) analyzed the petroglyphs that exist in the direct vicinity of the meandering lines. As a result, he viewed that they are one of the motifs that constitute the rock art repertoire of the middle and/or late Neolithic, if not Epipaleolithic, in the Dakhla Oasis.

51The context analysis also shows that 27 meanders or zigzag line motifs were recorded in proximity to female figures in the same panels. It is worth noting that almost all meanders in the region are heavily weathered or patinated, making them difficult to identify.

52The similarity between meandering lines and zigzag lines that fill out the so-called ‘water mountain’ symbol has triggered some researchers to relate both to each other–which is quite possible. So, the meanders have been considered as signs that were used to mark the existence of water. But the problem is that many of the meandering lines are not regular enough to represent waves in the move. In addition, meandering lines appear in other sites that do not contain the so-called ‘water mountain’ symbols.

53Furthermore, the hypothesis that they represent sort of prehistoric maps cannot be applied to all of them, because most of them are depicted in too even or regular form to be considered as maps. Moreover, considering them as snakes is not persuasive, especially in the Chufu region rock art, as they have no heads or any sort of figurative elements. Therefore, the discussion of these meanders or zigzag lines is still open and far from reaching any conclusion.

The so-called “water mountain” symbol

54The so-called “water mountain” symbol is another dominant motif among the rock depictions in the Chufu region. Kuhlmann (2005) was the first to name this type of petroglyph a “water mountain”. Generally, the symbol is composed of a slightly rounded rectangular frame with two small humps on top of its upper corners, filled with zigzag lines (Fig. 14). It was thought previously that this striking motif is restricted to the Chufu region, but according to Kröpelin & Kuper (2006-2007), this emblem was also found at the site named “Gala El Sheikh” in the Sudanese desert, west of Dongola, with a total of four emblems which are perfectly matching the symbols in the Chufu region in character, shape, and size.

Figure 14 – Chufu 01/01

Figure 14 – Chufu 01/01

A typical example of the so-called “water mountain” emblem

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper

55Kuhlmann (2005) suggested that the frame represents the hieroglyphic sign ‘dw’ for the mountain, and the zigzag lines represent the hieroglyphic sign ‘mw’ (𓈗) for water. Following on this assumption, this ideogram was probably used to indicate the location of the wells. This would additionally imply the knowledge of writing and indicate an early-dynastic origin of the ideograms. But it is not confirmed yet by any archaeological evidence and remains therefore speculative.

5682 so-called “water mountain” motifs were recorded in the Chufu region. 26.83% (n=22) of the total corpus of these motifs were depicted in proximity to the supposed female figures. In order to explore this symbol, the characteristics that compose these motifs have been determined and analyzed. Considering the symbol character and shape, three main features have been detected:

  • Frame (77: 93,9%);

  • Zigzag lines (71: 86,6%);

  • Two humps (29: 35,4%).

57The definition of these characteristics is self-explanatory. As the frame of these emblems is usually a slightly rounded rectangle, the humps look like the peaks and sometimes just short lines on the upper corners, while the zigzag lines are not always regular, there are also examples with crenelated lines.

58In the main site Chufu 01/01, the most noteworthy epigraphic composition exists (Fig. 15), where a cartouche of Djedefre, king Cheops’ son and successor, is enclosed by a frame surmounted by two humps. It looks as if the zigzag lines were deliberately erased and replaced by the cartouche of the king (Kuper & Förster 2003; Wagner et al. 2006; Kuper 2014/2015). This petroglyph indicates that the latest possible date for the so-called ‘water mountain’ sign goes back to the 4th dynasty, particularly in the reign of Cheops and Djedefre, around 2600 BC (Berger 2012; Riemer 2009).

Figure 15 – Chufu 01/01

Figure 15 – Chufu 01/01

A cartouche of Djedefre is depicted in one of the “water mountain” frames

Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper

59Coming back to the possible explanations for this emblem, Kuhlmann (2005) suggested that the symbol resembles a pre-script stage, for example ‘water between mountain’ or ‘lake’. But this hypothesis is not confirmed yet. Because the emblems were designed in a variety of shapes. As the frame often does not correspond to the mountain hieroglyph, and the interior shows different patterns, e.g. crenelated lines.

  • 1 Kuper R., Wagner G., Heller K. & Schönfeld P. (2008) – Preliminary Report on the Field and Study Se (...)

60According to the excavation report1, at site Chufu 07/31, a test excavation was conducted at the foot of the small hill, directly beneath a panel with the so-called “water mountain” emblems. Traces of a probable prehistoric grave were uncovered with fragments of badly preserved human bones and a few ostrich egg beads. However, there is no direct connection between rock art and the grave.

61The discovery of the representation of the “water mountain” emblems in the Gala El Sheikh site in Sudan asserts that there was probably a relationship between the ancient dwellers of the Chufu region and the Gala El Sheikh site, as these symbols have not yet been found elsewhere in the Sahara. Additionally, this suggests a line or a network of communication across the Eastern Sahara as late as the early third millennium BC. But if the emblems represent a population roaming the desert at that period, one would expect them elsewhere, too. Kröpelin & Kuper (2006-2007) suggested that this emblem might be a symbolic inventory adopted by patrolmen recruited from desert people, possibly taken along on a portable kit and transferred from there onto rock surfaces. In this case, the occurrence of identical designs at far distant locations could find an explanation.

Discussion and Conclusion

62The diversity of the female figure types may indicate that rock art in the region was a sort of public activity. In other words, the producers of these images were not a specific group of the community. Many artists who have uneven levels of talent could have been allowed to engrave and express their thoughts and/or ideas about these females, but they would clearly have a joint cultural background.

63In light of the results, 2.29% (n=4) do not display any sexual characteristic. 4.57% (n=8) are defined as males, and 93.14% (n=163) are assigned as females. In the course of analyzing the decorative elements within the main four types, type C was noticed to be the most decorated type with 87.50% (n=7) of the total type C examples, followed by type B which makes up 52.5% (n=21) of the total type B examples, then type A at 46.88% (n=30) of the total type A examples, and type D at 5.41% of the total type D figures (table 2).

Table 2 – Comparison between the four types of female figures depictions in the Chufu region displaying their frequency in various criteria











Frequency in %





Decorated figures frequency within each type





Single figures frequency within each type





Grouped figures frequency within each type





Figures appearing with animals frequency within each type





Figures appearing with Geometrics frequency within each type





64Out of the total corpus of female figures in the region, 62.86% (n=110) do not display any of the decorative characteristic. The reason behind this may be that usually it demands too much time, effort, and labor from the artist to produce such a decorated figure, while it is effortless for her or him to depict a schematized or simple figure conveying the same meaning.

65The categorical frequency distribution of the four types in the region does not provide any meaningful diffusion. Therefore, the Chufu region did not only display an environment in which ancient dwellers found and exploited the resources to satisfy their basic needs, but it also offered them a remarkable landscape with countless sandstone inselbergs where they were able to move between, engraving their images.

66Regarding the contextual analysis, the artists preferred to depict the supposed female figures in groups rather than alone. Furthermore, the female figures depicted in groups were much more decorated and sophisticated than the single ones. This can be an indication that the artists intended to depict these combinations and integrations elaborately, thus creating scenes to convey a meaning that would be different according to the context of each case.

67While Churcher, Kleindienst, Wiseman and McDonald (2008) were analyzing the mid-Holocene fauna, they suggested that the Dakhla Oasis is inhabited by many various animal species. But it was noted that the Neolithic engravers for some reason chose to depict only some selected species (Riemer 2009; Polkowski 2016). And this is also obvious in the Chufu region animal depictions repertoire, which consists of some selected species and lacks predator depictions. For example, the female representations were frequently depicted with specific species e.g., antelopes and giraffes. Generally, scenes or compositions of female figures depicted in association with animals can be interpreted as an indication of the animals’ taming, hunting, and various interactions between ancient dwellers and different savannah animals. This demonstrates how the autochthonous inhabitants were able to adapt to the environmental conditions and use the available natural resources effectively for improving their living conditions and developing their community.

68The relationship between the meandering lines and the females is not easy to be explained as well, especially since there is not any tangible or witnessable action from the females towards them, which opens a new debate if they just are decoration marks or whether they have a symbolic meaning.

69Concerning the so-called “water mountain” emblems, all proposed interpretations can be divided into two main directions. The first tends to interpret it literally as a pre-stage of the script, representing lakes. Especially at the main site Chufu 01/01, a connection between the emblems and possible temporary water sources can be quite possible. The second direction shows that it can be a symbolic sign adopted by the ancient dwellers. At any rate, the interpretations of this emblem are still far from reaching any conclusive answers.

70Notably, the concomitance of the so-called “water mountain” motifs and the supposed female figures, particularly the schematic type (type D), was observed in the Chufu region. Furthermore, the zigzag lines within the emblems are reminiscent of the decoration on some of the female figures. The interpretation of this phenomenon is hard to be determined, especially since this exceptional emblem is still vague. In any case, more evidence is needed to narrow down this speculation, especially after the discovery of the corresponding examples at Gala El Sheikh, Sudan.

71Aiming to explore these female figures, three main regions in the Western Desert of Egypt which testify to comparable examples were examined to be evaluated and compared with the Chufu region ones, finding the typological parallels. These regions are the Dakhla Oasis, the Kharga Oasis, and the Meri area. The basis for the comparison between the female images in the Chufu region and their parallels in Dakhla Oasis is mainly Winkler and DOP publications. In addition, the comparison between the female figures in the Chufu region and their parallels in Kharga Oasis would mainly be NKOS publications (Ikram & Rossi 2004; Ikram 2009, 2018). Finally, the comparison between the female figures in the Chufu region and their parallels in the Meri area depended on the few published images (Riemer 2006, 2009) and others provided courtesy of R. Kuper.

72As a result, the Meri area looks to have very limited types of depicting female figures, compared to Chufu region female figures. Also, the Kharga Oasis do not display many types, but the Dakhla Oasis presents more types of female figures than the Chufu region. Moreover, the techniques of their execution in the Dakhla Oasis were more varied: not only incising, engraving, and pecking techniques were used but also sunk relief and rubbing.

73The variety of female figures’ styles and decorations in the Dakhleh Oasis implies that Dakhla Oasis can be considered as the core area for presenting these images in the Egyptian Western Desert. Accordingly, its autochthonous inhabitants were the primary producers who inspired other engravers of various sites in the vicinity and spread their culture in the Western Desert of Egypt. Therefore, the widespread distribution of female figures suggests expanded influences and exchange. It also highlights the significance of these images for the producers.

74Unlike portable forms of art which can be dated through the archaeological context where they exist, direct prehistoric rock art dating is still problematic and an extremely difficult issue. Thus, rock art scholars usually depend on certain indirect pieces of evidence such as iconography, style, degree of weathering, and relation to other archaeological remains to date any artwork (Sanz & Fiore 2014).

75Much recent effort for dating the female figures has made use of the archaeological finds in the assessment. As a result of the DOP research, several cultural units of Dakhla Oasis were identified, belonging to the early to mid-Holocene. These units are the Masara or Epipaleolithic (ca. 8300–6500 calBC), Bashendi Neolithic, which is divided into Bashendi A (ca. 6400–5650 calBC), and Bashendi B (ca. 5400–3800 calBC), and the Sheikh Muftah culture (ca. 3800–2200 calBC) that extended from the late Predynastic period until the end of the Old Kingdom (McDonald 1998, 2001, 2002, 2009).

76Krzyżaniak (1990) was the first to link the archaeological research of the DOP with rock art engravings and dated female figures to the local Bashendi Neolithic. Huyge (2003) dated the female depictions to the 6th and 5th millennium BC because their distribution mostly corresponds with the local Neolithic (Bashendi A and B) clusters. But Berger (2006) supposed that the Sheikh Muftah culture people are responsible for the petroglyphs in question, due to the distribution of these images within Sheikh Muftah sites. Later he (Berger 2008) confirmed his view by assuming that the depiction of the females with exaggerated buttocks indicates that they belong to the sedentary people of Sheikh Muftah, but this argument neglected the sedentism of the Bashendi A culture. Riemer (2009) also considered the first drying period at ca. 5300 calBC as the terminus post quem for the rock art in the Meri region. Polkowski, Kuciewicz, Jaroni and Kobusiewicz (2013) viewed that the depictions of the female are the work of the Bashendi B unit and possibly lasted to the Sheikh Muftah unit.

77Despite the fundamental problem of dating rock art, 14C data in the Chufu region provide the best age estimate to date the settlements and thus a timeframe for the rock images. In site Chufu 07/31, which presents some female figure depictions, a single burial of an adult male, right below a rock art panel, was excavated and dated to 4370 calBc. On the other hand, and trying to date the female figures by linking them with the rock art context, Kuper (2014/2015) pointed out the frequency of wild animal representations, indicating that they were produced over several epochs with a hunting orientation.

78Consequently, these images in question are prehistoric art, depicted most likely during the Neolithic Bashendi B cultural unit (6th and 5th millennium BC), whose dwellers were nomadic pastoralists, with their subsistence depending heavily on herding cattle and goats. There is a possibility of a continuation in the Sheikh Muftah cultural unit, when the subsistence is also assumed to be pastoral nomadism, depending mainly on herding cattle and goats, with limited hunting that focused principally upon gazelles and hartebeests (McDonald 1998, 2001, 2002, 2009; Riemer 2011).

79However, the final interpretation or the function of these images is still a matter of debate, especially since they lack the visual grammar that allows the identification process. The divinity explanation needs more pieces of evidence to be approved. The same applies to the hypothesis that they can be considered as a fertility symbol adopted by the ancient oases dwellers. Since rock art is always a reflection of society and culture, the widespread distribution of these striking female figures in the Egyptian Western Desert arguably sheds light on the significant roles that were played by women in ancient oases cultures. The engravers deliberate to depict their representations elaborately and in a static posture like statuettes. It seems that women held real social power.


80I would like to acknowledge the supervisors of my MA thesis, on which this paper is based: Dr Mustafa Attallah at Cairo University and Dr Rudolph Kuper at the University of Cologne for giving me access to the documentation of the DFG-project “Chufu 01/01–eine pharaonische Wüstenstation und ihr landschaftsarchäologischer Kontext”. I am also indebted to Dr Tilman Lenssen-Erz at Cologne University, for commenting on an early draft of this paper. In addition, sincere thanks go to both anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions, and to Dr Sheldon Garon at Princeton University and Dr Emmanuelle Honoré at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne for the editing of the English text and its translation in French.

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Table des illustrations

Fichier image/jpeg, 981k
Titre Figure 1 – Satellite map of a 8x11 km section in the Chufu region (SW Egypt), showing the statistical distribution of the female figures
Légende (modified after Kuper 2014/2015: 294, Fig. 19)
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Figure 2 – Diagrammatic representation of characteristic combinations within female figures
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Titre Figure 3 – Examples of the four types of female figures observed in the Chufu region
Crédits Photo: J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,8M
Titre Figure 4 – Percentages of the most frequent female figure types in the region
Fichier image/jpeg, 129k
Titre Figure 5 – Combinations of the bulged belly (Bb) characteristic with other attributes
Légende (E) exaggerated buttock, (B) breast, and (H) head (as percentages)
Fichier image/jpeg, 107k
Titre Figure 6 – Chufu 07/69
Légende An example of paired figures with a schematic depiction of a male (arrow man type)
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper
Fichier image/jpeg, 434k
Titre Figure 7 – Chufu 01/08
Légende Highlighted paired figures with a penis sheath and downward lines on the back of the supposed male, enhanced with white lines
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper
Fichier image/jpeg, 254k
Titre Figure 8 – The frequency distribution of the female figures’ four types over Chufu region sites
Fichier image/jpeg, 182k
Titre Figure 9 – Chufu 07/31
Légende Part of panel 1. An example of a scene of grouped female figures (grey spots for the deeply engraved parts)
Crédits Photo: J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author
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Titre Figure 10 – Percentages of individual presence of different animal species that appear in proximity of female figures
Fichier image/jpeg, 106k
Titre Figure 11 – Chufu 07/87
Légende An example of a depicted oryx antelope from panel 1
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Titre Figure 12 – Chufu 01/03
Légende An example of a depicted giraffe from panel 15
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author
Fichier image/jpeg, 300k
Titre Figure 13 – Chufu 08/02
Légende An example of irregular representations of the meandering lines.
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper, Drawing (with scale: 5 cm) by the author
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre Figure 14 – Chufu 01/01
Légende A typical example of the so-called “water mountain” emblem
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper
Fichier image/jpeg, 183k
Titre Figure 15 – Chufu 01/01
Légende A cartouche of Djedefre is depicted in one of the “water mountain” frames
Crédits Photo J. Hempel, Courtesy of R. Kuper
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,6M
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Nourhan Moustafa, « Analysis and Typology of prehistoric ‘female representations’ in the rock art of the Chufu region, Egyptian Western Desert »Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 19 | 2023, 11-34.

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Nourhan Moustafa, « Analysis and Typology of prehistoric ‘female representations’ in the rock art of the Chufu region, Egyptian Western Desert »Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [En ligne], 19 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2023, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nourhan Moustafa – Faculty of Archaeology, Cairo University, Giza (Egypt)

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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