B 350 - The Monument of Taharqo on the Jebel Barkal Pinnacle
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III. Climbing the Pinnacle

Jebel Barkal had presented us with a puzzle that could not be solved without our actually climbing the pinnacle, so this now became our goal. We now needed the advice and services of a professional rock-climber.  After our return from the Sudan, we inquired in the Boston area and were put in touch with Paul Duval, one of the outstanding climbers in New England.  Paul was intrigued by our story.  After looking at the photographs we had taken, he convinced us that the pinnacle could be climbed, and he said he was ready to do it.  Although I had no previous climbing experience, I felt it was necessary for me to climb with him, since someone with Egyptological training needed to examine the inscription and do the recording.  Thus over the next year, he trained me in the basics of rock climbing so that I felt confident enough to undertake the task. By February of 1987, we were ready and embarked on our second season, this time with an expanded crew of five: Cynthia, Paul, myself, and two outstanding Egyptologists, Lynn Holden and Nathalie Beaux.

On our first day back at Jebel Barkal, February 19, 1987, we ascended the mountain to plan our strategy for the climb. Paul proposed that we rappel off the cliff at the point of the three holes and descend to the notch (where the pinnacle joined the mountain), 22 m below.  This would allow us to get the feel of the rock and the ropes and to examine any potential obstacles.  Then, establishing another anchor point there, we would rappel the remainder of the way down to the top of the rubble embankment at the base of the cliff.  In all, it would be a drop of about 45 m.  If there were no problems, we would repeat the drop to the notch the next day, and from there try to climb up the backside of the pinnacle.

Securing the drop rope, Paul hooked it to his rappel device, climbed over the edge of the cliff and lowered himself down (fig. 7). No sooner had his head disappeared from view than he shouted up to us that he could see a series of manmade holes on the backside of the pinnacle shaft descending all the way to the notch.  This was something unanticipated, for we had not seen them before (since to do so, one would have to lean dangerously over the precipice).  These holes suggested that something much more elaborate than a bridge had been constructed here.

Fig. 7:Paul Duval lowers himself into the gorge between the Barkal pinnacle and cliff (Feb. 1987).  Photo: Cynthia Shartzer.

When Paul reached the notch, he called for me to start down, and I edged myself over the rim.  Then I, too, gained the same view.  As my eye followed the pinnacle shaft downward, I could see clearly that it bore a number of square or round-topped holes descending to the point where Paul sat in the rock saddle (fig. 8). These were not toe- or handholds; they were too far apart from one another, typically 1 1/2 to 2 m.  As  I descended further, I observed just what I had begun to suspect: another series of corresponding holes on the cliff wall (fig. 9).  It was now obvious that a number of wooden beams, varying in length from 1 to 9 m, had been lifted into the gorge in antiquity and fitted into pairs of opposing holes.  These beams had been set horizontally to create stages or platforms on which men could stand so that they could cut more holes for other beams raised and set ever higher.  In such a way, men were able to climb up between the widening gap until they had reached the top of the pinnacle.  The holes suggested that altogether there may have been as many as thirteen levels of beams between the notch and the summit of the pinnacle.  The number of beams may have been as many as nineteen.

Fig. 8:View of the pinnacle shaft from inside the gorge, showing the cut holes used to support horizontal wooden beams set between it and the cliff wall.

Fig. 9: View of the cliff wall from inside the gorge, showing the cut holes corresponding to those on the pinnacle shaft.

As we quickly realized, the three cut holes on the cliff edge had not supported a suspension bridge.   They had supported the lifting device by which all the beams had been raised into the gorge.  The holes indicated that the type of device was a double shaduf.

A shaduf - as it is universally called by its Egyptian Arabic name - is a simple lever device still used by farmers along the Nile Valley, in the absence of motorized pumps, to raise water from one level to another (fig. 10a).  It consists of an elevated horizontal beam (i.e. fulcrum), supported by two vertical posts.  A long pole, weighted at one end, hangs from the beam by a rope and swings up and down on it like a seesaw.  One end of the swinging arm is shorter and weighted so that the longer end, which is used to lift the desired burden, is counterbalanced.  When used for irrigation, the longer end of the arm has a bucket suspended from it by a rope.  The farmer, standing under this arm, pulls down on the rope, which drops the arm and submerges the bucket in water at a low level.  The man then releases the rope; the shorter, weighted end raises the long arm and the bucket again; and the farmer can then tip the bucket and empty it into a trough or canal at a higher level (fig. 10b). Since it is easier to pull down on something than to lift it up, the shaduf much simplifies a heavy lifting task.  Such machines were evidently invented in the Bronze Age.  They are earliest depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings of Dynasty 18 Davies 1903, 41, pl. 32; 1933, 70-73; Arnold 1991, 70-71).

Fig. 10a: Photograph of a typical Egyptian shaduf used for irrigation (reference needed)

Fig. 10b: Multiple shadufs in operation, as pictured in the Description de l’Égypte (Tome II: État moderne, première partie [Paris: 1812], pl. IV), from a drawing by M. Cécile).

Archaeological research at the pyramids of Meroë, undertaken in the 1970’s by Friedrich W. Hinkel, has provided dramatic proof that the shaduf was used not only in irrigation but also in heavy construction.  The builders of the Kushite royal tombs used the shaduf to lift stone blocks to their respective levels, a method that accounts for the steep angles of the Meroitic pyramids (Hinkel 1982; 1984, 462-468).

The fulcra of these shadufs were single cedar logs set upright in the centers of the pyramids.  Hinkel actually found the remains of these logs still embedded in the stone masonry in the pyramid axes.  From this one can conclude that the shaduf was a common lifting device used in ancient Egyptian and Nubian construction whenever its unique features were compatible with the task at hand.  Probably never was its use so dramatically applied, however, as it was at Jebel Barkal.

The row of three holes on the top of the cliff suggested that the cross-beam/fulcrum had been held aloft by two stout upright posts, set in the larger end holes.  A smaller post, set in the middle hole, was evidently necessary to prevent the fulcrum beam from bowing in the middle under the weight.  This arrangement suggests that there had been two shadufs mounted here on either side of the center pole, working in tandem.  As suggested by the mortar imprint in the lower (western) hole, the outer posts were each about 30 cm square in section.  The center post was about 20 cm square.  The posts were probably 3 to 4 m in height. Since the holes for the large posts were only about 60 cm deep, one may assume that the posts were given added stability in the vertical position by triangular wooden side supports, which would have prevented their wobbling when in use.

This apparatus would probably have been used in the following manner.  To the lifting arm of each shaduf, reaching out over the gorge, a long rope would have been attached, which would have extended to the bottom of the cliff (i.e. to the level of the top of the rubble embankment), some 45 m below.  Counterbalancing this long length of rope would have been the opposite, weighted end of the arm, poised over the mountaintop.  Since a means of varying the counterweight was necessary, the rear end of each shaduf arm was probably fitted with a heavy net bag to which workmen could add or subtract stones to adjust the weight.  When a beam was to have been raised into the gorge, a gang of men would have cut it at ground level to a pre-measured length and carried it up the 30 m high slope to the east side of the pinnacle shaft.  Finding there the ends of the ropes of both shadufs, the men would have pulled down on the arm of one shaduf and attached the beam by its middle to its rope.  The men on the cliff top would have made the counterbalance heavier than the beam to be lifted so that when the men below released tension on the rope, the beam rose.  If they wished, they could let it rise to the maximum height allowed by the sweep of the shaduf arm, which was perhaps 7 to 8 m.

At this point, with the lifted beam suspended in a stationary position by the first shaduf, the men at the bottom of the cliff would have pulled down on the arm of the second shaduf.  One or more men stationed at the level of the suspended beam would then have had the ability to transfer the beam to the rope of the second shaduf while it was still attached to the first.  Once attached to the second shaduf, the beam could then have been disconnected from the first. This hypothesis assumes that the ropes of each shaduf were knotted with periodic loops or fixed at intervals with small metal hooks, which would have allowed for easy transfer of a beam from one rope to the other during its ascent.  Once the beam was attached to the second shaduf, the men below, as before, would have released tension on its rope so that the beam would rise again to the next level.  The process could be repeated as many times as necessary to raise the beam to the desired height, as long as at each step of the way men were stationed securely there to transfer it from one rope to the other. In this way, then, the beams could have been lifted into the gorge with relative ease.   There they could have been suspended indefinitely, while other men, standing on the beams already set in place, chiseled new holes to receive them. We can assume that the beams were already roughly cut to their required lengths while they were still on the ground.  Obviously, during this operation, the men at the bottom of the cliff and in the gorge had to work closely with the men at the top of the cliff.  One may imagine that there was much shouting of questions and commands from one level to another and back again, much in the manner of the way in which we ourselves had to work.

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