Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The date and context of rock art in the Sahara

Note:  This important paper describes recent methodologies used to date rock art sites in the Messak Settafet, Libya (See map "Lake Megafezzan" in the right sidebar for the location of the Messak Settafet.)

Messak Settafet Pastoral Neolithic Rock Art

The date and context of neolithic rock art in the Sahara:  engravings and ceremonial monuments from Messak Settafet (south-west Libya)

Savino di Lernia, Marina Gallinaro
Antiquity Volume: 84  Number: 326  Page: 954-975

(Link) original paper
(Link) free text (figures not available)

Discussion:  Refining rock art chronology of the Messak

"On the basis of these first indications, we can argue that the practice of deliberately decorating rock panels for cattle burials (inside monuments or in their immediate vicinity) was well established at the height of Middle Pastoral Neolithic cultures--archaeologically bracketed between 6100 and 5100 BP (e.g. di Lernia 2002). The interval 5500-5100 appears to be particularly important, since all elements represented in Pastoral style are either directly associated with the dated monuments or are older than the age of the monument itself."

"If we were to consider the mid sixth millennium BP as the focal stage for the Pastoral style associated with ceremonial monuments, then we could extend, on stylistic grounds, the chronology obtained from these stone monuments to panels located nearby and, more generally, to the rock art of the Messak which shows this particular style. We should note that many of the art works found in ceremonial monuments--placed there either intentionally as grave goods (the engraved tethering stone of Site 07/39-C1/2) or simply used as building materials (Site 556 & 07/39-C4/1)--show naturalistic traits, typical of the Messak school (cf. Le Quellec) or Pastoral style (cf. Mori). This style (which has several internal variations probably mirroring specific groups' traditions) is the most widely represented in the region of the Messak: we cannot give a precise figure--we are talking about thousands of engraved panels and a systematic database is still lacking--but we could suggest that most of the Messak rock art was probably created during the Middle Pastoral Neolithic."


"The new evidence from the Messak therefore offers another aspect of the multifaceted Middle Pastoral Neolithic--the existence of ceremonial sites featuring engravings and the furnishing of the surrounding landscape with hundreds of decorated panels. For the time being, we suggest that these contexts, where animals were ritually slaughtered, hosted ceremonies attended by hundreds of people (given the large quantity of available meat), as also hypothesised for sites in Egypt and Niger (Applegate et al. 2001: 487; di Lernia 2006)."

"The harsh and rugged Messak plateau was a hostile environment even during the 'wet' Middle Pastoral Neolithic, as indicated by the very scarce settlement remains, suggesting either a low density or a light and very mobile settlement pattern.  By contrast, rock art sites, ceremonial sites, funerary contexts and quartzite quarries dominated the landscape use of the region. Ongoing laboratory studies and future fieldwork will hopefully provide decisive evidence for understanding the nature of the relationships between these specific segments of the Messak archaeological record."

"For the time being, the rock art of the region has at last been assigned to its proper archaeological context, firmly dated and associated with specific rituals."


  1. It does not say anything about the alleged pre-Neolithic art, does it?

  2. All of the Messak sites mentioned in this paper have turned out to be Neolithic (about 6000BP.) However, I believe they are refining their dating techniques, so it's a work in progress.

    I'm about to put up another post on current work at Messak which will describe their continued efforts at this site.

  3. Current work indicates that there is a long record of occupation in the Messak, extending back to the Middle Stone Age. However, most of these finds have not yet been specifically dated, unlike the Pastoral Neolithic sites.


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