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Egyptologists wary of Iowan’s discovery

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CAIRO, Egypt — Cave drawings an Iowa pilot stumbled on in the Egyptian desert and experts initially said could date back to 7000 B.C. are now considered suspect, with one leading Egyptologist dismissing them as fakes no more than 20 years old.

Egyptian archaeological authorities announced the find in June, saying it seemed to span three eras and included writing that could represent a transition between languages during the early Pharaonic dynastic period from 3000-2500 B.C.

Now experts have begun to cast doubt on the drawings, discovered by George Cunningham of Algona, Iowa, while he was hunting for fossils in the desert outside Cairo.

"There are suspicious aspects about the drawings that don't fit into what we know about that period of Egyptian history," Mohammed el-Saghir, head of the Pharaonic and Greco-Roman sector of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in an interview Friday.

El-Saghir, who earlier said he was certain the drawings were of value after seeing photographs of them, said scientific tests were being conducted to verify their age. Thousands of pre-dynastic rock drawings have been found in the deserts of southern Egypt, but never in northern Egypt, el-Saghir said.

Kent Weeks, a prominent Egyptologist, said one look at photographs of the find was enough for him to dismiss them as poor imitations.

"I am 100 percent certain that these drawings are fake," he said. "It looks as if someone has seen some photographs in a book on ancient art and slightly misremembered them when they came to paint them."

"I've seen other fake pre-dynastic offerings, but this is the most audacious and least convincing," he added.

Cunningham said he would be disappointed if the drawings turned out to be fake.

"When I first saw it, there was a doubt in my mind — that it was too good to be true," said Cunningham, who trains helicopter pilots in Egypt for an oil company. "When the group of Egyptian archaeologists came to see it, my impression was that it was genuine."

Originally, antiquities officials had speculated some of the drawings could date to 7000 B.C., during the Mesolithic period of semi-nomadic fishermen and hunters. Others, they said, could be from Egypt's pre-dynastic history (3400-3100 B.C.), a time of conflict when the country was divided into north and south. Egypt then was inhabited by hunter-gatherers and farmers who also produced pottery and carvings.

Weeks said the drawings, which depicted hunting, mortuary and religious scenes, would have been cut into the rock, not painted, if they were genuine.

"We have no painted rock drawings from that (pre-dynastic) period because they would have eroded, particularly if they were in limestone, in as little as 75 years," said Weeks, a professor at the American University in Cairo.

Weeks said the exaggerated breasts and buttocks on the female figures, livestock without horns and painted temples holding royalty or deities were uncharacteristic of pre-dynastic Egyptian art.

One marking, he said, looks like a North American teepee.

In one scene, two mummies flank columns of geometrical designs. Some experts had speculated those markings could represent a transition between languages, either before or after hieroglyphics.

Weeks claimed they were a nonsensical "hotchpotch" of designs.

"They look like a combination of geometric designs that would look more at home in North America," he said. "The mummy figures are not Egyptian. Ancient Egyptians used a much more formal and rigorous pose."