Rock Art in the Sahara
Women with dancer and herd
194 x 225 cm (masking-out, opened unfold)
Wadi Taleschout, Messak Mellet

The Messak plateau in Southwest Libya hosts in its partly flat rocky deserts, partly deep carved and remote valleys an abundant number of rock art examples. They belong to the UNESCO world heritage. These prehistoric works of art are generally discussed under archeological considerations. Our purpose is to put them in a greater artistic and esthetic context.

In the Messak Massif in Libya’s southwest as well as in the Hoggar Mountains (Tefedest) and Tassili’N’Ajjer (Oued Djerat) in southeast Algeria there are – next to rock paintings - unique and famous Rock Art preserved as can hardly be found in this quantity, quality and extensiveness anywhere else on earth. These are part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Geographically, the massif is divided into the Messak Settafet (Black Messak) and Messak Mellet (White Messak). It can be reached from Germa or Ghat with off-road vehicles and accompanied by Libyan guides.

Other than rock paintings where colour is being applied to the rock’s surface, Rock Art are engraved, sculpted or cut into it. Rock Art are predominantly to be found in the Messak Massif, rock paintings in the Akakus Mountains. Our attention is mainly focused on Rock Art.

It frequently happens that different drawings are resting on the same material support, on rock, sometimes on top of each other (or mixed up). This often makes it difficult to tell picture elements apart and to decide which of them belong to which whole.

Rock Art can be documented through photographs, rubbings-off and by outlining them.

These Rock Art are unique cultural testimonies some of which are up to 12'000 years old. That would seem to indicate that the desert has been populated at different periods of time depending on changing climatic conditions.

It seems that 20'000 BCE the first human beings settled in the present day Sahara. They were hunter-gatherers which were the first ones to make animal drawings into rock. Up to 4'500 years from now there was a damp climate favoring cattle breeding; after that a dry period seems to have set in which ended pastoral life and led to people looking around for different, more fertile areas. Only about 3'000 years ago climatic conditions were suitable again for settling in these areas.

Thus the Sahara hasn’t been an “empty quarter” in the past as its present day state seems to suggest. Meanwhile the desert with its wide outlooks for many people takes up the meaning of a think space and a source of inspiration. But in reality the Sahara has been populated time and again, maybe even much more densely than we believe when considering the frequency of rock art.

According to Joachim Willeitner (Libyen, Ostfildern 2006) Sahara Rock Art can be divided into the following eras:

12'000 – 6'000 BCE: Bubalus Age, period of early hunters.
7'000 – 6'000 BCE: Round-head Age, presentations of man where the head is positioned directly onto the trunk as a round form.
5'000 – 2'500 BCE: Cattle Age, damp period setting in, domesticated animals, hunting.
1'500 up to the beginning of the Common Era: Horse Age. After a temporary dry period which made people leave that region the settlers come back again.
Beginning of the Common Era up to the present: Camel Age. Rock pictures where camels can be seen which have taken the place of horses ever since then.

The Rock Art also show scenes of everyday practical life and reproductions of all kinds of tools. Also explicit sexual depictions occur. In addition there are abstract signs to be found, spirals for instance.

“The pictures of the wild animal period are often being associated with religious or magical ideas. Such interpretations are not safeguarded through corresponding knowledge about this old culture, neither through the analysis of the rock pictures per se, but meanwhile have to be viewed as mere speculation” (Karl Heinz Stierle, Der Brockhaus in Text und Bild [Brockhaus in words and pictures], 2002).

One of the difficulties in motif determination is that people in the past didn’t view reality as we do now, and that they lived in geographic spaces where there couldn’t have been much contact among them. So there couldn’t have been a common artistic idea or anything like a homogenous conception of art. This makes research into motifs more difficult.

Yet we’d like to know nothing better than what the creators of these works have thought. But there are limits to that. “Probably we’ll never be able to totally decode these pictures”, write David Coulson and Alec Campbell (Afrikanische Felsenbilder [African Rock Pictures], Weingarten 2003).

What’s of prime importance to palaeontologists while classifying motifs and on what they focus their attention doesn’t go, on the other hand, into the extraordinary visual creative power and the unbelievable ability to think in abstract terms, even though both are remarkable from a modern artistic point of view.