The oldest known representation of a pharaoh has been found carved on rocks at a

desert site in southern Egypt, according to new research into long forgotten engravings.

Found on vertical rocks at Nag el-Hamdulab, four miles north of the Aswan Dam, the images depict a pharaoh riding boats with attendant prisoners and animals in what is thought to be a tax-collecting tour.

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"We don't know with certainty who the king represented at Hamdulab is. We can guess on paleographic and iconographic grounds," Maria Carmela Gatto, associate research scholar in Egyptology at Yale University and co-director of  thee Aswan-Kom Ombo archaeological project in Egypt, told Discovery News.

Indeed, the style of the carvings suggests that the images were made at a late Dynasty date, around 3200-3100 B.C. This would have been the reign of Narmer, the first king to unify northern and southern Egypt, thus regarded by many scholars as Egypt's founding pharaoh.

Dating back more than 5,000 years, the rock drawings appear to feature the earliest known depiction of a pharaoh, according to Gatto and colleagues.

"There are depictions of local rulers since the first half of the fourth millennium B.C., but Hamdulab seems by date to be the earliest datable representation of a king wearing one of the recognizable crowns of the ruler of all Egypt, engaged in a labeled royal ritual," John Darnell, professor of Egyptology at Yale University, told Discovery News.

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Discovered in the 1890s by the archaeologist Archibald Sayce, the carvings remained unnoticed for over a century. In the 1960s, Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habachi photographed Sayce's drawings of the rock images, but never published them.

When one of Habachi's pictures resurfaced in 2008, Gatto investigated the site, discovering an entire rock art gallery.

"Sayce's imperfect hand copy did not concern a single

rock art scene, but was rather an excerpt from one of a number of scenes located at short

distances from each other," Gatto, Darnell and Belgian archaeologist Stan Hendrickx, wrote in December's issue of the journal Antiquity.

The researchers investigated a total of seven carvings, which feature scenes depicting hunting, warfare, and nautical festival events.

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The most extensive rock art picture, nearly 10 feet wide, shows five boats, one of which carries an anonymous king holding a long sceptre and wearing the White Crown, a conical shaped headpiece that symbolized rulership of southern Egypt.

The king is followed by a fan-bearer and preceded by a dog and two standard-bearers.

A falcon

standard appears below the king, while three of the boats boast a standard with bull horns.

"Both the falcon

and the bull are royal symbols, emphasizing the royal character of the boats," the researchers wrote.

At the bottom of the tableau, another boat features a decorated vaulted cabin, which according to the researchers represents a shrine. The vessel is then transformed into a "divine boat," placing the tableaux in a religious context.

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In front of the royal boat are four bearded persons holding a rope, likely representing people towing the ship.

"The entire scene depicts the moment that the religious procession

of pre-Dynastic Egypt became the triumphant

tour of a tax-collecting monarch," the researchers said.

A four-sign hieroglyphic inscription labeled the imagery as a "nautical following."

According to Gatto and colleagues, this is likely related to a royal and ritual event known as the "Following of Horus"– a biennial tax-collection tour of the king and his court to demonstrate royal authority

throughout the land.

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"These tableaux show not only the earliest datable image of a king in one of the canonical crowns of pharaonic Egypt, but also the presence of the Following of Horus in the border area between Egypt and Nubia at the dawn of the First Dynasty," Darnell said.

"The carvings may therefore be the earliest record of tax collection we have from

Egypt, and the first expression of royal economic control over Egypt and most probably also

Nubia," the researchers concluded.

Photos: 1.The scene with the royal boat procession. Heavily damaged, the carving has been virtually restored. Credit: Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell and Maria Carmela Gatto.

2. A general view of the rock art gallery. Credit: Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell and Maria Carmela Gatto.

3. Animal representations with mythological animals on the right. Credit: Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell and Maria Carmela Gatto.

4. A boat with three male persons, probably prisoners, behind and slightly below the stern. Credit: Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell and Maria Carmela Gatto.