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Rock Art

More than a century after the first reports of prehistoric carvings by the German traveller Heinrich Bart (1856), the rock art of the Fezzan is universally recognized as part of humanity’s cultural heritage. In 1985 the Tadrart Acacus mountains were included on the “World Heritage List” by UNESCO, thus conferring upon them special status, affecting both possible ways of using and managing them, and their conservation and protection.

The first to study the Fezzan carvings systematically, in the late 1930s, was Paolo Graziosi, who formulated some initial interpretative hypotheses.
The first chronological framework was developed at this point, sketching out comparisons between the Sahara, and neighbouring regions, from the Nile Valley to the Mediterranean coast.
Years later, in 1955, Fabrizio Mori organized a small expedition into the interior of the Acacus (Fig. 1), almost completely ignored in previous research, and documented the amazing rock paintings of the Wadi Teshuinat.

Fig. 1 - Fabrizio Mori in the 1950's

Since then, archaeological research has changed considerably, and the analysis of the superimposition of different styles, the study of the patinas covering carvings, and the search for stylistic differences, is accompanied by territorial research, spatial analysis of the painted walls, and attempts to date these works directly, using the organic particles present in the paint - the so-called binding agent - or the micro-particles trapped inside the rock varnish covering the carvings.

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Naturalistic representations and enigmatic carvings: the ‘Bubalus’ or ‘Wild Fauna’ Period

The Tadrart Acacus and the Messak Settafet are punctuated by thousands of carved images, created using different techniques and on various themes, whose date is the subject of a vigorous dispute. On the one hand is the widely accredited hypothesis that these representations were created by the first Early Holocene communities of hunter-gatherers, dated to around 10,000 years ago, in other words a ‘long’ chronology. Other scholars, primarily of the French school, believe that all Saharan rock art is the product of Neolithic pastoralists, starting from around 7000 years ago, in other words a ‘shorter’ chronology.

This is an enormous difference, both in purely chronological terms, and as regards its anthropological implications. The ideological, symbolic and ritual characteristics of hunter-gatherer groups are diametrically opposed to those which developed in the social systems of pastoralists: this is therefore a substantial divergence, which cannot be ignored in drawing up a history of ancient art. The most ancient carvings, according to our interpretation, are the product of those specialized hunters, defined Early Acacus in archaeological terms, who populated the mountains and lowlands of Southern Libya.

At the beginning of the Holocene, around 10,000 years ago, these regions were richer in vegetation, and were populated by animals which have since disappeared.
The art of these ancient hunters has as its subject large animals, probably considered more prestigious, such as Bubalus antiquus, an enormous wild buffalo, already extinct in ancient times: this animal, splendid depictions of which adorn the wadis of the Messak Settafet (Fig. 2), marks the stylistic phase known as the ‘Bubalus’ or ‘Large Wild Fauna’ period. These carvings are executed in a naturalistic, vigorous style.

Fig. 2 - Bubalus antiquus engraving, Messak Settafet

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The marks are deep, often carried out using different techniques – hammering or polishing – and the subjects shown are exclusively wild animals. This is the main reason for which they have been thought to be of greater antiquity than the imposing herds of cattle which characterize the Neolithic pastoral period. The areas with the greatest concentration of these carvings, as we have said, are the wadis of the Messak Settafet, and in particular the Wadi In Elobu, Wadi Tilizagen, Wadi Alamasse to name but a few. The Acacus, too, especially in the innermost parts, has some exceptional rock art.

In the northern area of the Acacus, around the Wadi Auis, and in central and southern regions – especially Imha and In Taharin – we also find examples of an original aesthetic style, represented by schematic carvings which we could describe as ‘abstract’. Defined ‘ichthyomorph’ by Mori, for their obvious similarities to heavily stylized fish, these have been interpreted as the most ancient representations of human figures in the Sahara, and are highly simplified and schematic (Fig. 3).

The relationship between these fairly rare representations, which appear to be distributed at random in the Acacus massif, and the ‘Large Wild Fauna’ carvings is unclear, from both a chronological and cultural point of view.

Fig. 3 - Enigmatic engraving,
Wadi Rahrmellen

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The paintings of the ‘Round Head’ Phase

From as early as around 8500 years ago, the central Sahara was the scene of a flourishing painting tradition, spectacular in both themes and execution, characterized by the presence of anthropomorphic figures with rounded heads or discs completely lacking in facial features. It was this characteristic, widespread throughout the Sahara, which led Henri Lhote to coin the term ‘Round Head’ style. This artistic trend seems to have been confined to part of the Sahara massifs – Tassili-n-Ajjer, Acacus, Ennedi – and spanned a considerable period, probably more than two millennia. These ‘Round Head’ paintings are fairly diverse, varying from simplified monochrome anthropomorphic figures to very large multi-coloured compositions (Fig. 4). This scene is enriched by the representation of wild animals, mainly antelope and Barbary sheep (Fig. 5), of ritual scenes, and enigmatic elements which are difficult to interpret.

Fig. 4 - Round Head dancing human figures,
Tadrart Acacus
Fig. 5 - Round Head Barbay sheeps, from Taharin, Tadrart Acacus

The artistic greatness of the ‘Round Head’ phase lies in the extraordinary evocative power of these paintings: some of the human figures, such as the individuals depicted at Grub or Afozzigiar (Fig. 6), despite their apparent immobility, and the formal disruption of some elements, are strikingly ‘modern’ in appearance.

The world of the ‘Round Heads’, represented as we see it today in the rock shelters of Grub, Anshalt, Uan Afuda, Afozzigiar, bears witness to a remarkably rich culture, a universe permeated with symbolism, initiation rites, dance scenes, where men and women, sometimes with masks or objects between their hands, choose and portray their way of understanding the world.

Fig. 6 - Round Head human
figures from Grub,
Tadrart Acacus

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The first pastoralists. Herds and everyday life


Fig. 7 - Domestic cattle from Wadi Teshuinat

Around 7000 years ago, the Sahara was swept by an incredible cultural movement, of amazing richness and artistic power. This is the Pastoral phase, also known as the ‘Bovidian’ period.

Thousands of paintings and carvings decorate blocks of stone, rock walls, isolated stone slabs. The human and archaeological landscape is in a state of constant flux, and the central Sahara in this period becomes probably the world’s largest concentration of prehistoric art. Walking along the wadis of the Messak Settafet is genuinely like strolling around an open-air art gallery (Fig. 7), with extraordinary scenes from everyday life, such as the building of camps, the milking of animals, and exchanges of objects.

This art is narrative, naturalistic, vivid. The centre of the universe has become livestock: herds of large spotted cattle move along the rock walls of Uan Tabu, Tagg-n-Tort, Teshuinat. These animals are portrayed with enormous accuracy (Fig. 8): here the horns take on enormous figurative and symbolic importance, and scenes of both work and social activities are shown.


Fig. 8 - Mounting the camp, Pastoral painting from Wadi Teshuinat

Pastoral art, with its various stylistic and formal expressions, covers a long chronological period, more than three thousand years, and this impressive document seems to highlight changes, modifications, populations, as if it were able to show us the ‘faces’ of its protagonists.

It is during this stylistic phase that somatic types and ‘racial’ features begin to be formally depicted (Fig. 9):
the representation of the body, of facial features, hairstyles, clothing, are only some of the elements which allow us to suggest regional contacts, population movements, cultural integration: the Mediterranean-type pastoralists of Uan Amil, or the Nilo-Hamitic figures of Ti-n-Lalan may indeed represent different areas of provenance and different cultural characteristics.

Fig. 9 - Famous seen from Uan Amil

The pastoral period, long and punctuated by some significant elements of discontinuity, seems to be the outcome of some complex processes, in which different traditions mingle. The pastoral art of the Acacus and the Messak is centred on the cow, the true ideological focus of these prehistoric pastoralists. The importance of livestock in this society is evident, too, in other aspects of their symbolic and ritual world, such as the sacrifice of animals in specific rites, culminating in the votive burial of parts of the animal, sometimes alongside pottery vessels.

Fig. 10 - Cattle 'sacrifice'

The Messak Settafet has provided some spectacular examples of this: along the walls of the wadis – for example at Tin Einessnis – we find carvings of scenes of butchery (Fig. 10), where the animal is shown with dramatically upturned hooves.

Close by, stone structures preserve the remains of the animal, buried over 5000 years ago, an extraordinary cult object for these long-dead pastoralists.

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The ‘Bitriangular’ and ‘Horse’ Styles:
the Garamantes and their ‘flying chariots’

Long ignored, the paintings of the Horse phase, so-called after the introduction of this animal from the east, and thus giving a precise chronological reference point, have recently been re-evaluated within the context of research on the birth of the archaic state in the Fezzan, that of the Garamantes.

Although less accurate from a technical point of view than the more ancient paintings – the paint is less dense, the outlines less certain, and the scenes less complex – the art of this phase maintains a high degree of stylization and consequently of artistic interest, expressed especially in the recurring theme of human bodies represented in ‘bitriangular’ style, and the constant presence of the so-called ‘flying chariots’ (Fig. 11). The representation of these highly spectacular painted or carved chariots, and their distribution in the central Sahara, attracted the attention of the French scholar Henri Lhote, who was the first to suggest that they might be linked to the trade routes crossing the Sahara during the proto-historical period: the first caravan routes.

Recent research by Mario Liverani and his team has demonstrated that the Garamantian civilization had a complex social structure, based on the political, and perhaps military, control of trade routes between the Mediterranean coasts and sub-Saharan Africa. Goods, people, and animals travelled along the caravan routes, and this art provides us with elements to confirm and enrich the historical and archaeological context. It is during this phase that organized irrigation systems and the cultivation of date palms are introduced, - the latter frequently recur in the Acacus paintings (Fig. 12).

Fig. 11 - Garamantian chariot

Fig. 12 - Palms and fences at Tin Annenouin

Mountain passes and aqbas, outposts and check points are marked by deliberately-placed fortifications or settlements, such as Aghram Nadharif, and the rocks are literally covered in ancient Libyan inscriptions; the systematic study of these represents a new field of research, halfway between philology and ethnohistory.

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Current Research

Alongside analyses of style and of the art historical traditions of this region, a new research project has recently begun with the aim of determining the state of preservation of the prehistoric and historical carvings and paintings at the most important sites included within the “Archaeological Park” project. In this sense, the fascinating artistic heritage preserved in caves and rock shelters is being explored according to criteria not generally applied hitherto, so as to understand the spatial relationship between the subjects represented and the wall areas decorated. A systematic sampling of pigments to be examined with radiometric and chemical-physical analyses has also been introduced, whilst selective photography represents a useful aid, helpful in contextualizing both the decorations and the sites, and important for the conservation of these works of art.

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Italian-Libyan Archaeological Mission in the Acacus and Messak - UniversitÓ degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza"
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