The Signs of Which Times? Chronological and Palaeoenvironmental Issues in the Rock Art of Northern Africa
Palais des Academies, Rue Ducale, Brussels
3rd, 4th and 5th June 2010
Colloquium introduction by Dirk Huyge and Francis Van Noten
Apologies that these notes haven’t been posted sooner but I wanted to add some links for those who weren’t familiar with the speakers or subjects. Unfortunately I haven’t added as many links as I would have liked but I wanted to post these notes in a timely manner.
The Signs of Which Times was organized by Dirk Huyge and Francis Van Noten under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences. Its scope, the rock art of the entire Saharan region, attracted a mixture of some of the most illustrious names in rock art research together with those who have just completed or are just completing their research at post-graduate level.
As its name implies, the colloquium was intended to address the issues of chronology and environment in rock art studies. It is perhaps worth stating my own reasons for attending the colloquium. Although rock art is not one of my primary interests I would very much like to use it as a dataset integrated with other archaeological datasets because rock art is present in several of my research regions, an ambition which is fairly impossible at the moment (due to lack of absolute dates with which it can be tied into other archaeological data). I am also seriously interested in how research into localized manifestations of climate change, in the form of geographically discrete environmental conditions, would open up an understanding of when and how people would have been able to move through and use the Saharan landscape.
Around one third of the papers were in French, as were the following discussions. As speakers were allocated 15 minutes rather than the usual 20 minutes many decided to ensure delivery of all the information by speaking very quickly – I was fine when this was done in English but struggled hopelessly with machine-gun French, because my French is terribly rusty. Fortunately most of the other delegates were either bi-lingual or impressively multi-lingual so I was in a small and somewhat irrelevant minority. Moral of the story: if you want to engage in North African rock art studies either as a serious research topic or as a serious hobby you really need to speak French, which is probably the lingua franca of rock art in North Africa. This is absolutely not a complaint. It is, however, very important to take note of the obvious caveat that my following review is a somewhat lopsided one. I am making generalizations about a colloquium in which there were some lectures where I only had a superficial understanding of the main points of the presentation.
If anyone who attended wants to make any corrections please feel free!
Much of the research presented was preliminary, and as a formal Proceedings of the colloquium is planned I have not given any detailed summaries of the papers presented. The following is an overview of some of the themes and trends revealed by the colloquium. I will give details of the Proceedings and when its publication is planned when I know more myself.
Each paper was allocated 15 minutes, and at the end of each session there was a half hour discussion period which was well used.
The colloquium was opened by Paul Bahn who discussed the history of rock art studies in north Africa, and raised the problem of modern vandalism to rock art sites. Although there are some big names in north African rock art they tend to be known mainly amongst other north African archaeologists. Paul Bahn is something of a poster boy for rock art so his opening address was a good way of reinforcing the profile of Saharan rock art research.
If I could go back in time and add a wish list item to the introductory lectures, I think that I would have found it of considerable use to have had a summary of the current state of rock art research in North Africa, as a logical follow-on to Paul Bahn’s lecture. There have been many suggested and detailed chronologies for rock art sequences in the Sahara and it would have been good to have had these in the back of the mind for contextual purposes. It has to be said, of course, that everyone else at the colloquium was probably already fully aware of these!
There were, as at all conferences, strong papers, weaker papers and four no-shows including Savino di Lernia, Selima Ikram, Ahmed Skounti and John Darnell (Darnell’s and Skounti ‘s PowerPoint’s were presented by others who were also presenting their own research). I was particularly sad that Di Lernia was absent because his paper had the potential of uniting some of the more disparate data, and I have read so many of his papers that it would have been good to hear him in person.
The main approaches in the papers presented focused on the creation of relative chronological sequences of rock art, of which there were six methods discussed: superimposition, animal types, (e.g. savanna or domesticated), human activities (e.g. hunting or herding), patination/varnish, stylistic composition and weathering. Nearby archaeological remains were also referenced. The value of micro-erosion techniques was discussed but was largely rejected as a valid method. In other words, many of the presentations were concerned with identifying reliable ways of putting different rock art scenes in relative sequences using one or more techniques. The resulting sequences are relative, meaning that they suggest which styles are older than others but cannot fit them into a calendrical (absolute) sequence. It is the inability of rock art research to date rock art which isolates it so thoroughly from other datasets and keeps it at a stage which is almost equivalent to the culture-history approach of the 1950s and 1960s where, in the absence of scientific dating methods, archaeology was dedicated to the building and, where possible, the cross-referencing of relative sequences. When radiocarbon dating was invented, and calibrated using tree ring data, it became clear many sequences were too short or too long, and were often placed in the wrong periods as a result for the belief that ideas diffused from more advanced cultures. It may well be found that rock art chronologies will experience similar revisions in the future. Unfortunately, most of the rock art regions being discussed at the colloquium were too far apart from each other for conversations about cross-referencing of sequences to be possible.
Susan Searight’s short presentation highlighted many of the problems with relative dating techniques, but there were many promising approaches presented over the three days. Examples of presentations looking at local relative sequences include Maria Guagnin’s use of patination and palaeolake data in Libya, Andras Zboray‘s use of superimposition and weathering in the southwest Western Desert of Egypt, Joachim Soler i Subils’s presentation about new work in the western Sahara (click here for an earlier paper), Per Storemyr‘s use of varnish to assess geometric rock art in the region of the First Nile Cataract, Lauren Lippiello and Maria Gatto’s use of style, patination, palaeoclimate and superimposition at Khor Abu Subeira South (Aswan) and Francis Lankester’s use of stylistic comparisons with Nile iconography to develop a chronolgy of boat engravings in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. As a result of many of these presentations it seems clear that the value of varnish/patina as a way of dating rock art is highly variable and completely dependent upon localized conditions. Where used it is clear that a very sound research design is required. Dirk Huyge, Heiko Riemer and Karin Kindermann all made use of surrounding archaeological data (pottery and lithics) to attempt to refine dates for nearby rock art. The strongest proposals were those where a number of different types of method were available to the researcher.
As well as relative sequences the potential value of scientific applications to the dating problem were discussed. Dirk Huyge presented the results of luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating on rock art at Qurta. Qurta has lovely naturalistic rock art sometimes picked out in bas relief – you can read about it and see some of the images here and here. The main technique used, luminescence dating, measures the time when light last reached a deposit. The technique was used on the sediments sealing engraved rock art which had been concealed by hill-slope deposits. The dates from the layers beneath the upper deposits span a period which gives a terminus ante quem (time before which) for the rock art. Although the dates span a wide period for each of the sealed layers tested they area all squarely located in the Pleistocene (late Palaeolithic) and possibly at least 15,000 years old. The results seem to be confirmed by radiocarbon dates taken on microfaunal remains from another engraving at the same levels from which the OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) dates were taken. They confirm again the Pleistocene age of the rock art. The circumstantial arguments that the team advanced in their Antiquity article are therefore now supplemented with real proof. These dates are also consistent with the surrounding archaeology which has produced no artefacts more recent than the Palaeolithic, and the art itself which shows animals which were more consistent with Pleistocene rather than Holocene conditions. There were no challenges to either the techniques employed or the dates themselves, in spite of the presence of the team’s OSL specialist who was on hand to answer any questions. Susan Searight says that scientific dating is soon to be tested on a rock art panel in Morocco. Sadly, Joachim Soler i Subils reported that radiocarbon tests in the western Sahara were unsuccessful.
One of the key strengths of the colloquium, which was the sheer vastness of its geographical scope, was also a minor difficulty common to most gatherings of this type. The work being carried out across the Sahara has very different histories. Some areas have been studied for many decades, whilst others are in the very earliest stages of exploration. Some areas have, as Susan Searight put it, good archaeological data with no rock art whilst others have good rock art data with very little archaeological excavation in the vicinity. Some sites were in the western Sahara, some in Libya, others in Egypt, all of which have very different climatic, geological and geomorphological influences at play. An excellent summary of eastern Saharan climatic and environmental conditions by Stefan Kroepelin was unmatched by anything equivalent for central and western regions. There were only two lectures which attempted to define similarities and differences over broad areas of the Sahara to address the idea of possible linkages amongst groups who could have moved over 100s of kilometres. Most of the research presented was, as you would expect, very localized. This was inevitable but it also highlighted how fragmented the state of knowledge about the use of the Sahara by the rock art painters actually is.
Much of the colloquium was devoted to presenting new field work findings, and these papers were truly fascinating. I was particularly struck by the uphill struggle facing the Universitat de Girona team in the western Sahara. Not only is their rock art quite unlike that of any other project’s, but the lithic assemblages retrieved in the vicinity don’t fit into any existing scheme. This really is life on the starting blocks. At the other end of the scale the work in the Gilf Kebir has been going on for decades but new discoveries have now been made by the ACACIA group in the vicinity of the Wadi Sura, and by Andras Zboray throughout that area and are being slotted into the bigger existing framework of knowledge about the region.
The colloquium was less useful on the subject of delivering new information about the past environment. Most of the speakers were using palaeoenvironment as a way to assist with dating. There were few examples where the environment was the main subject against which the rock art was set. As mentioned above, Stefan Kroepelin’s excellent presentation on eastern Saharan climate and environment was an exception, providing a good overview of the environmental conditions based partly on a palaeolake sequence from Wadi Bakht in the Gilf Kebir (south west Egypt), and promising new and very detailed results from lake cores from Ounianga (Chad) in the future. I was hoping that the colloquium would attract other climate specialists working with archaeologists so that the latest palaeoenvironmental research from other areas of the Sahara could be discussed, but these were lacking which was a real shame. Di Lernia has done a considerable amount of work trying to tie in archaeology with environmental change so it was a particular regret that he failed to attend. Andrea Zerboni’s presentation of research taking place in the Tadrat Acacus and Messak Settafet (Libyan central Sahara) explained how geological and environmental data are being used together to improve an understanding of Holocene climate change and how these are being used for dating. I would have been interested to hear much more about the lake data. Hopefully more information about this piece of work will be revealed in the Proceedings.
Apart from Tilman Lenssen-Erz‘s paper looking at art production as epistemic regulation in a sociological system in Ennedi using costly signalling theory, Stan Hendrickx’s discussion of Early Dynastic iconography and John Darnell’s suggested sequence of development from art through iconography to hieroglyphs there was little attempt to interpret any of the rock art discussed. This is completely in keeping with the scope of the colloquium which did not have interpretation in its brief.
One of the horror stories revealed by a number of presentations at the colloquium, highlighted by Paul Bahn in the opening lecture and later reinforced dramatically by other members of the colloquium, was the amount of deliberate damage to rock art sites that has been inflicted. This raised the important issue of the conflicting interests of conservation and risk management whilst allowing the public to have access to the sites. The examples presented by Paul Bahn of rock art which has been painted out by someone as revenge for being fired by a tour company, and by Stan Hendrickx of the deliberate destruction of the Naq el Hamdulab royal scene made people gasp out loud. Fortunately photographs taken by Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habachi (whose biography I am currently reading) and stored in Chicago House in Luxor have recorded the Naq el Hamdula scenes. This highlights how important it is to record rock art before either accidental or deliberate damage occurs.
In the light of this it was particularly good that several presentations looked at ways in which rock art is being recorded for posterity using a number of different techniques. For example, Frank Forster’s presentation of the work being carried out at the Mestekawi-Foggini cave (which the ACACIA team refer to as Wadi Sura II) uses 3D laser scanning, digital photogrammetry, and non-destructive investigation of pigments as part of a series of techniques used to record the cave. At Hierakonpolis the threat of quarrying, graffiti and vandalism has made recording existing rock art important, and Fred Hardtke presented his work in this field, using a portable set up involving a camera on an extendable pole linked to a laptop to enable out -of-reach rock art to be photographed.
I was immensely impressed with the way in which different teams are willing to work together. This was particularly highlighted when discussions on the south-western area of the Western Desert of Egypt came up (four of the papers). Heiko Riemer and Andras Zboray referred to each other’s work, and Andras Zboray and Stefan Kroepelin operated an accomplished double-act when answering questions about the environmental context of Zboray’s proposed chronology. The enthusiasm, mutual respect and humour which came over during these discussions made the bad old days of academic one-upmanship seem offensively sterile by comparison. It was also good to get a sense of team members working together. In Algerian rock art research three members of the CNRPAH team delivered a paper together and two Dirk Huyge’s Qurta team were on hand to ask questions about luminescence dating and fauna. Although the cost of traveling to foreign venues is naturally prohibitive these two cases illustrated the value of having multiple team members on hand to contribute to papers and discussions. The half hour coffee breaks and the hour and a half lunch breaks gave everyone the opportunity to mingle and to discuss both their own research interests and those of others. British politicians could learn so much from this
Every researcher, in contributing localized sequences right across the Sahara, provided more pieces of a vast puzzle.
Only when the chronological and environmental sequences are aligned will researchers begin to see trends across the Sahara in chronological terms. And only when more detailed palaeoenvironmental studies are carried out will the prehistoric occupation of the Sahara be understood in terms of its natural context. It probably remains for innovations in scientific dating techniques to develop reliable methods for tying in rock art with the much greater corpus of archaeological data which can be tied into a calendrical rather than relative sequence.
The colloquium was a great opportunity for multiple research teams and individual researchers to come together and discuss both specific problems and general ideas and issues. The formal discussion periods and the informal breaks offered great opportunities for these discussions to flourish, and my impression was that this was of immense value to those attending.
I learned an enormous amount and look forward to the publication of the Proceedings. Speedy publication will depend on the ability of contributors to submit their papers in a timely manner, but hopefully there will be an update about a planned publication date before too long.
My thanks to Dirk Huyge, Francis Van Noten and the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences for the colloquium as a whole.
The moderators of each session should be congratulated for keeping everyone to their allotted 15 minute slots (a nightmare job done with subtlety, skill and humour).
Particular thanks to all of the contributors for keeping the audience so thoroughly engaged with each topic, and for having worked so hard to present their research so concisely.
This is slightly off topic, but it was mentioned at the colloquium that Karin Kinderman (she of Djara cave for those of you who follow prehistoric archaeology in Egypt) is now heading up a Gilf Kebir National Park project. It was the first official news I had heard that the Gilf was going to become a national park and I have absolutely no other information on the subject. I will try to find out more, so watch this space.
For those of you have visited the Mestekawi-Foggini cave and wondered how far the paintings go beneath the level of the sand (as I have done many times!) the answer, following excavations, is 1.2m below the surface. Unfortunately a small trial excavation and a core sunk into the sand down to 3.5m revealed no archaeological remains.
The venue was ideal in many ways. The Palais des Academies itself was being renovated but signs directed delegates to the building next door where a room had been filled with chairs and where a large projector screen and a podium had been set up. The weather in Brussels was seethingly hot, and although the room became rather sticky towards the end of the final sessions, it never became unbearable and it easily fitted the number of delegates available – around 100 of us, I would guess. A vast and airy hall was used to serve hot and cold drinks and wonderful lunches. The entire event went without either technical or organizational hitches. As the weather was stunningly good and the building was next to the pretty Parc de Bruxelles complete with wooded areas, open grass and fountains, it was great to be able to stretch the legs and soak up the sun on breaks.
It was a distinct bonus that the colloquium was on the route of the Eurostar. The Eurostar lacks frills and, during school Half Term in the UK, was full of families changing at Lille to go to Disneyland and Paris. But it knocked the socks off chewing one’s fingernails over volcanoes and strikes and messing around with getting to an airport, hanging around prior to and following check in, and removing half one’s clothing at the security checks – all for a ridiculously short flight. The train from St Pancras (easily accessible by tube and bus from anywhere in London) took 2 hours and whilst seriously lacking anything remotely resembling finesse it was completely fuss-free. NB – if you travel by Eurostar from St Pancras get your money before you go through passport control because there is no Bureau de Change in the departure lounge. We took a taxi when we arrived in Bruxelles Midi but with hindsight we could have taken the tube because it was only four stops from our hotel, the inexpensive but excellent Hotel Chambord at Porte De Namur, which was a five minute walk from the colloquium venue.
Two examples of ostrich with head, neck, legs and tail but no body,
something which was discussed at the colloquium. One of the
suggestions was that the body had been defined with
material other than paint – for example with feathers
fixed into the space. There’s no way of testing this at
the moment but it is a fascinating thought. Click to see
the bigger image (Mestekawi-Foggini / Wadi Sura II cave).
More useful links
ACACIA Arid Climate Adaptation and Cultural Innovation in Africa
Carlo Bergmann’s Discoveries
Climate Research Unit
Fezzan Rock Art Project
IFRAO Rock Art Glossary
International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO)
International Newsletter on Rock Art
Libyan Desert Rock Art
Nekhen News (Hierakonpolis)
Rock inscriptions at El Hosh, Egypt
Stonewatch World-Wide Rock Art
Theban Desert Road Project
UNE -Dating Rock Art
[The photographs used in this post are mine,
apart from the satellite photograph.
All rock art photos are from western Gilf Kebir]