The Theft of Saharan Rock-Art

By Keenan, Jeremy | Antiquity, June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Theft of Saharan Rock-Art


Keenan, Jeremy, Antiquity


`The Greatest Museum of Prehistoric Art in the whole World'. Such was the description Henri Lhote gave to the rock paintings of the Tassili-n-Ajjer, the massif (a designated World Heritage Site) that lies to the northeast of Ahaggar in the Algerian Central Sahara. His expedition spent 16 months in the Tassili in 1956-7 making `discovery after discovery' and copying `hundreds upon hundreds of painted walls'.

Lhote's work is now recognized for its denigration of almost all and sundry. He likened the local people, the Tuareg, who made many of his 'discoveries', to wolves and living by the laws of the jungle. Significantly, he made no reference in his `discovery claims' to Yolande Tschudi, the Swiss ethnologist, whose work preceded his own. Worse still, he undertook what might be regarded today as the systematic vandalism of the sites, not only by liberally washing the paintings to restore their colour, but by collecting and removing copious quantities of material artefacts from the area. Subsequent visitors to the Tassili have followed Lhote's practices, accelerating the denigration of the already highly weathered and delicate rock surfaces (FIGURE 1).

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In January 2000, I undertook a reconnaissance of the main Tassili sites (FIGURE 2) on the hunch that paintings were being physically removed from the rock walls. This was not as inspirational as it may sound, since an article by Jonathan Fryer on Libyan tourism, published on the BBC's website on 21 May 1998, provided a clue. Fryer had been visiting Libya's Acacus Mountains, which run parallel to the Tassili to the east of Ghat. He wrote: `The walls of one cave depict the preparations and ceremonials for a wedding -- or did. For as the Touareg guide explained, since he was last there, only a year before, half of them had gone. Some had clearly been chipped off the rock as souvenirs. Others had simply been washed away, by people throwing water at them, to heighten their colour for photographs'. From the report, one can date the theft at between May 1997 and May 1998.

[Figure 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

My hunch was that this theft was `organized', in which case I would expect the `thief/thieves' to have visited the much richer and better-known Tassili sites in Algeria, which can be accessed clandestinely from the Libyan side of the border.

After 8 days and 150 miles of searching, I found at least one site plundered in this way. …

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