The Date and Context of Neolithic Rock Art in the Sahara: Engravings and Ceremonial Monuments from Messak Settafet (South-West Libya)

Article excerpt



Rock art was reported from the Sahara in the nineteenth century by Heinrich Barth (1857-58), and since then thousands of rock art representations have been carefully recorded, mapped and published. However, these have yet to play their part in the reconstruction of North African prehistory, at least partly due to difficulties with dating. The situation is frustrating because central Saharan rock art represents an outstanding record of the ideological values of ancient human groups. Moreover, the level of socio-cultural interpretation based on archaeological investigation has increased significantly, potentially allowing for integration between different aspects of the archaeological record throughout the Holocene, from the first hunting-gathering communities to the emergence of early state polities, such as the Garamantes (e.g. Mori 1965; Barich 1987; Cremaschi & di Lernia 1998; Mattingly 2003; Liverani 2005).


This paper presents an approach designed to shed new light on the chronology and socio-cultural context of central Saharan rock art on the Messak plateau in south-west Libya (Figures 1 & 2). This step forward has been made possible through the study of engraved stones excavated from ceremonial monuments with firmly associated archaeological contexts which could be dated by AMS radiocarbon determinations.

Dating methods

Previous methods of dating have been based upon stylistic assumptions (Breuil 1952), studies of varnish or weathering (e.g. Graziosi 1942; Lhote 1958; Mori 1965; Muzzolini 1991; Le Quellec 1998), and the consideration of rock art within the wider context of the landscape (e.g. Chippindale & Tacon 1998; Chippindale & Nash 2003). Another approach relied on the probable dates of prevalence of the animals depicted. Early and Middle Holocene phases were substantially wetter and greener than today, thanks to the northward shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone of the African monsoon, whereas after 5000 BP arid conditions tended to prevail (e.g. Hassan 2002). However, short and severe dry spells punctuated the entire Holocene; the major climatic events in the study area are dated to around 7500-7100, 6400-6100 and 5000-4700 BP (Cremaschi 2002; di Lernia 2002). Thus, chronological relationships between environmental conditions and the animals which are represented in the rock art are implied, although they are far from being sufficiently precise. In general, 'Wild Fauna' typical of humid Sudanese environments may represent the earliest Saharan rock art. Possible cultural associations are suggested with Early Acacus hunter-gatherers, archaeologically dated to the Early Holocene (c. 10 000 -9000 BP). Anthropomorphic human figures with rounded heads occur with wild animals, especially Barbary sheep and antelopes. Late Acacus foragers, radiocarbon dated in our study area to around 9000-7400 BP, may represent the cultural context. The most widespread representations, with hundreds of decorated sites throughout the Sahara, are of domestic cattle. On the basis of archaeological data, this 'style' (with many internal regional variants) may have persisted for a very long period, from around 7000-4000 BP, and may be associated with Pastoral Neolithic groups. According to the supporters of the 'short' chronology (e.g. Muzzolini 1992; Le Quellec 1998) all prehistoric Saharan rock art should be associated with these food producing groups. The 'Horse/Bitriangular' style associates domestic horses with what look like aristocratic figures, and can be archaeologically dated to c. 4000-2500 BP. 'Camel' paintings and engravings are widespread, depicting Camelus dromedarius in association with palm trees, orchards and possible outlines of fortified sites indicating Garamantian cultures (sixth century BC-third century AD).


The analysis of rock varnish has made an important contribution to dating Saharan petroglyphs in the Messak. …