A Pharaonic trail ... ?
UPDATE: The recent discovery of the inscription of Mentuhotep II at Jebel Uweinat is a dramatic proof that the theories surrounding the Abu Ballas trail were correct!
In the mid nineties, during his walking expeditions, Carlo Bergmann discovered a number of pottery caches similar to the one at Abu Ballas. The excavation of the new sites, and the re-examination of Abu Ballas by Rudolph Kuper and the HBI team yielded the startling results that all these pottery depots, along the trail leading from Dakhla towards the Gilf Kebir date from ancient times, the oldest dated finds contemporary with the XVIIIth Dynasty.
About this time Michele di Vincenzo and Giancarlo Negro made the surprising discovery that the scarab in the famous pectoral of King Tutankhamun was made of a carved piece of Libyan Desert Glass.
Giancarlo Negro made a further discovery at the hill adjacent to Abu Ballas. A series of faint engravings half way up the hill can possibly be interpreted as a serekh, or horus name of an egyptian king (photos and tentative reconstruction courtesy Giancarlo Negro).
Examining of the above 'engraving' early November 2002, I came to the conclusion that the reconstruction was based on a special lighting condition at the time the photo was taken, and misleading results of image enhancement. Most of the lines continue beyond the reconstuction, and I cannot distinguish a serekh or any other drawn scene. It is possible that the lines are natural in origin.
All above led to speculation that the ancient egyptians, at least during the XVIIIth Dynasty, ventured out to the deep desert, in search of mineral resources, and possibly trading with the inhabitants of the Gilf, Uweinat and even Kufra. However the hypothesis was very questionable, as no written inscription had been found anywhere outside the immediate vicinity of oases. This contradicts with the practice of the ancient egyptians to record any such ventures, as attested by the innumerable inscriptions in the eastern desert.
It was again Carlo Bergman who came up with another sensational find. Some 100 kilometres from Dakhla he came upon a sandstone hill that had a number of paintings and engravings, but more importantly a series of unmistakable hieroglyphic inscriptions. The main inscription dates from the 27th year of King Khufu, while the second from the reign of his son, Redjedef, both of the 4th Dynasty, about 2400 bc. One inscription names the spot as "Redjedef's water mountain", indicating it's status as a possible water depot.
Carlo Bergman has recently put up a new website providing for the first time some detail on his amazing discoveries, including detailed description of "Djedefre's Water Mountain" and exciting new finds in the same area. The site is mostly in german, but there is an excellent english summary, and the many photos have english captions.
Note: some of the conclusions presented on the site are open to debate, and there had been a sad rift between the German archaeological community in Egypt and Carlo Bergmann, the background of which I am not aware of. By posting this link, I acknowledge Carlo's discoveries, however I do by no means support or endorse any of the arguments and controversies from either side, in which I wish to remain impartial until I hear the details from both sides !
With all the evidence emerging, it was possible to synthetise all the knowledge on the subject, and this was excellently done by Klaus Peter Kuhlmann in his paper, The "Oasis Bypath" or The Issue of Desert Trade in Pharaonic Times, published in Tides of the Desert, Africa Praehistorica 14 (obtainable from the HBI). The main conclusions are that the ancient egyptians in fact made only short desert ventures. The height of these seem to have been the 4th Dynasty, attested by Redjedef's mountain, and the Chephren quarries near Abu Simbel, but all these are no more than 100 kms away from inhabited places. After these early ventures it was realised that the Western Desert has little mineral potential. The desert trails were more likely be used by the "Libyans", descendants of the old neolithic inhabitants, who traded with Egypt, and possibly patrolled the deeper desert on behalf of their Egyptian patrons. The raw material for the Tutankhamen scarab was more than likely a stray find by a Libyan away from the main LDG area, which somehow made it's way to Egypt. (We have found worked LDG samples 300 kms from the source area, no more than 70 kilometres from Abu Ballas.) It's unique occurrence is proof that there was no regular supply of this exotic material. Similarly the "Egyptian" engravings at Abu Ballas are most likely the produce of desert nomads who have been in contact with Egypt.
More recently (2007), Frank Förster summed up everything we knew about the Abu Ballas trail to that point in an excellent article in the online journal BMSAES (British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, direct link to the article in PDF file here).