Academic journal article Rock Art Research

Enigmatic Engraved Images Found in the Pre-Historic Rock Art of the Sahara

Academic journal article Rock Art Research

Enigmatic Engraved Images Found in the Pre-Historic Rock Art of the Sahara

Article excerpt


For several decades now, the literature devoted to Saharan rock art has regularly contained articles on engraved images that resist interpretations and hypo- theses concerning their meaning. These petroglyphs are ovoid in shape, with one end wider than the other, provided with appendages or 'antennae', sometimes long, sometimes short, with or without internal deco- ration (Fig. 1).

These petroglyphs, whose shape brings to mind a flask, have been called 'fish-traps' (nasses) or 'pseudo fish-traps' by many researchers. We shall list later the various interpretations that have been put forward for these forms. Some are particularly fanciful, others more serious, but none are satisfactory. As far as we know, the image is exclusively engraved.

One of the interests of this type of rock art image lies in the fact that, as far as we know at present, it seems unique in the world and specific to the Sahara. No comparable form exists on other continents; among today's civilisations, for all their many variations, such forms, objects, signs or symbols just do not exist. No ethnological work refers to any use of these 'objects' by the populations of the Sahara or anywhere else in the world. No archaeological excavation has yet dug up any comparable object.

So here we are faced by a real puzzle, and it is understandable that prehistorians, archaeologists and ethnologists should be particularly interested in trying to solve it.

After the general definition of the three basic models of these images (Fig. 1A, B, C), the aim of this article is to show their almost pan-Saharan distribution and, at the same time, their very great regional variability. Some regions seem to have specific forms of these models, which could indicate cultural particularities, but in several regions morphological varieties of these forms can be found.

We shall try, finally, to flesh out briefly certain inter- pretative hypotheses, while regretting the impossibility of proposing an undisputed explanation. In the end, we can only agree with Bednarik when he writes '[t]he number of such hypotheses we have in rock art is incredible, whereas the amount of truly convincing, hopefully objective data we have is minuscule' (Bednarik 2006: 87).

Information about these figures

The model studied here is highly specific and cannot in any way be assimilated with the numerous ovals, ovoids and 'sandals' described by many authors. Among the characteristics of our model there has to be:

* A distinct constriction (or 'neck') of the narrow part, never present in ovals or sandals.

* Two symmetrical antennae on the left and right of the 'neck', never in the wide part.

Interior decoration of our model (Fig. 1) occurs frequently and is very varied: there are, for instance, cupules, generally two, sometimes four, in the wide part of the body. This obviously does not turn the image into a sandal with its lace-holes.

An full inventory of these figures cannot be estab- lished: new examples are found regularly in different parts of the Sahara (already at the beginning of the 1970s, Simoneau (1971: 114) estimated that there were at least a hundred of these images in southern Morocco - today the figure has risen to over 200). One thing is certain: the fact of having been engraved is more likely to indicate a transcultural practice than a specifically cultural one, taking into account the very large geographical distribution of these figures. The question of the chronological place to be given to these images is tricky, as we shall see. This adds to the overall puzzle concerning their presence in the Sahara (Fig. 2).

Almost always engraved on sub-horizontal surfaces, on flat slabs or on the top of large rocks, the figures that interest us here are very easy to recognise, even when they have different interior designs and the antennae are well or little developed. Following a bilateral symmetry, there is a more or less oval 'body', one end of which is narrowed. …

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