The power of Saharan rock art

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Creating images in a changing world

The Messak plateau in south-west Libya features some of the finest rock art in the Sahara, including this group of three giraffes, as well as other animal species, mythical creatures, and armed humans.

Today, it seems hard to imagine that the Sahara was once populated by people with large herds of domestic cattle. While the grasslands and lakes that were so important to these communities may be long gone, the images they etched onto stone still survive. This rock art tells the remarkable story of a changing world, as Tertia Barnett reveals.

The Sahara is generally regarded as one of the least inhabitable regions on earth, yet this vast desert contains an extraordinary concentration of rock art. Thousands of images are painted and engraved on boulders, outcrops, and rock shelters across the arid landscape – a fascinating legacy of the communities that once flourished here. But why were so many images created, and what were their significance to the people that made them? New research in Libya is exploring some of the mysteries surrounding Saharan rock art.

First encounters

I first encountered Saharan rock art 20 years ago during the Fezzan Project, an archaeological and palaeoclimatic investigation around the Wadi al-Ajal in south-west Libya, led by Professor David Mattingly of Leicester University. This provided an opportunity to visit the impressive engravings of the Messak, a raised sandstone plateau just south of the Wadi al-Ajal. The eastern edge of this plateau is cut by a network of dry river valleys, whose rocky banks are carved with countless images of wild and domestic animals, strange mythical beings, humans with weapons, and enigmatic symbols. Some animal images are over 2m high, and are depicted with realistic facial features and hide markings. Although I had seen numerous pictures of the rock art, I was astonished by its sheer scale and visual impact.

Giraffes (shown here) and domestic cattle are the most frequently depicted species in the Wadi al-Ajal engravings, suggesting that these animals held particular social value.

The Messak carvings comprise only a fraction of Sahara’s rock art. Further west, in the Acacus and Tassili mountains lie two outstanding concentrations of paintings and engravings, both on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Other equally rich areas include the Draa Valley in southern Morocco and Jebel Uweinat on the Egyptian-Libyan- Sudanese border. Each region’s rock art has distinct characteristics, but its themes are recurrent. It vividly evokes a very different place from today’s desert – a green, well-watered land, teeming with wild animals and herds of domestic cattle. In a landscape where prehistoric remains are otherwise scarce, the rock art provides invaluable evidence of a forgotten people.

New discoveries in the Wadi al-Ajal

Several years after my first visit, I returned to the Wadi al-Ajal with a small team to undertake a survey of the rock art, funded by the Society for Libyan Studies and the British Academy. The aim was to investigate the scale and nature of engravings in this area, and determine their significance over time. Only a handful of engraved rocks had been recorded here previously, and the wadi had long been considered peripheral to the famous concentration of prehistoric rock art further south in the Messak. findings would soon change this view.

Earlier engravings typically cluster around distinctive features, such as the ends of rocky promontories near places suitable for grazing in the past, where mobile pastoral groups could congregate. One consequence is that the rock surfaces are covered with carvings in various styles, which were created over thousands of years

Four seasons of fieldwork revealed an unexpected wealth of rock art: almost 2,500 carved rocks featuring thousands of animal and human images, abstract motifs, markings, and inscriptions. As most images had analogies in the distinctive styles of rock art from the Messak and surrounding areas, it was possible to construct a chronological framework for the Wadi al-Ajal engravings from at least 6000 BC to the present day.

The stylised human figures with weapons that feature in the later engravings contrast with the heavily carved rock surfaces and often realistic animal images typical of the earlier engravings.

We set out to survey a 60km stretch of the wadi around the town of Germa, the ancient capital of the Garamantes. The wide, dry river valley of the Wadi al-Ajal is bordered to the north by an immense sand-sea, and to the south by a high, rocky escarpment defining the northern edge of the Messak plateau. The escarpment was the focus of our investigations, and we spent long, arduous days exploring its steep slopes, examining every boulder and outcrop, and literally leaving no stone unturned. Working on the principal that all evidence of human activity is important in understanding past behaviour, our intention was to assemble a detailed record of every carved rock within the survey area. This included not only recognisable images, but also inscriptions, abstract motifs, and more enigmatic markings such as incisions, pecking, hollows, and gouging. We obtained measurements, descriptions, sketches, and photographs of the content and context of every engraved surface, then entered this information into a digital database during the dark desert evenings at the end of each day.

Recording the rock art involved making detailed measurements, notes, sketches, and photographs for each engraved surface.

To our surprise, however, the earliest engravings lacked known counterparts in the Sahara and, interestingly, a large proportion represented domestic cattle. Was this the first evidence of herding communities in the wadi? Little is known about the social changes associated with the adoption of pastoralism in the Sahara, but there are precedents elsewhere in the world for the depiction of domestic animals by hunter-gatherers. According to one theory, rock art may have been used as a way of coping with the potentially destabilising effect of unfamiliar concepts and entities by absorbing them into an accepted form of symbolic expression. Could the earliest images in the Wadi al-Ajal have been created by local forager-fisher groups encountering domestic cattle for the first time?

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 100 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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