Algeria is Africa’s largest country geographically and has long been noted for its rich concentrations of rock art, particularly in the Tassili n’Ajjer, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. More than 15,000 paintings and engravings, some of which date back up to 12,000 years, provide unique insights into the environmental, social, cultural and economic changes in the country across a period of 10,000 or more years. The area is particularly famous for its Round Head paintings, first described and published in the 1930s by French archaeologist Henry Lhote.View featured rock art site
Mostly 10,000 BC
Animals, symbolically or magically charged figures, hunting, pastoralism, scenes of everyday life, trade and transport using horses and camels
Paintings from the Round Head Period
Algeria is Africa’s largest country geographically and has long been noted for its rich concentrations of rock art, particularly in the Tassili n’Ajjer, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. More than 15,000 paintings and engravings, some of which date back up to 12,000 years, provide unique insights into the environmental, social, cultural and economic changes in the country across a period of 10,000 or more years. The area is particularly famous for its Round Head paintings, first described and published in the 1930s by French archaeologist Henry Lhote.
Algeria is situated in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordered on the west by Morocco and on the east by Tunisia and Libya, with a long Mediterranean coastline to the north. The Atlas Mountains cross Algeria east to west along the Mediterranean coast. The northern portion of the country is an area of mountains, valleys, and plateaus, but more than 80% of the country falls within the Sahara Desert. Rock art is located in the Algerian Maghreb and the Hoggar Mountains but the richest zone of rock art is located in the mountain range of Tassili n’Ajjer, a vast plateau in the south-east of the country. Water and sand erosion have carved out a landscape of thin passageways, large arches, and high-pillared rocks, described by Lhote as ‘forests of stone’.
Rock art in Algeria, notably the engravings in South Oran, has been the subject of European study since 1863. Notable surveys were made by A. Pomel (1893-1898), Stéphane Gsell (1901-1927), G. B. M. Flamand (1892-1921), Leo Frobenius and Hugo Obermaier (1925), Henri Breuil (1931-1957), L. Joleaud (1918-1938), and Raymond Vaufrey (1935-1955). Henri Lhote visited the area in 1955 and 1964, completing previous research and adding new descriptions included in a major publication on the area in 1970.
The rock art of the Tassili region was introduced to Western eyes as a result of visits and sketches made by French legionnaires, in particular a Lt. Brenans during the 1930s. On several of his expeditions, Lt. Brenans took French archaeologist Henri Lhote who went on to revisit sites in Algeria between 1956-1970 documenting and recording the images he found. Regrettably, some previous methods of recording and/or documenting have caused damage to the vibrancy and integrity of the images.
Early rock art
The earliest pieces of rock art are engraved images reflecting a past vibrant fertile environment teeming with life and includes elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus and fish as well as numerous predators, giraffe, and plains animals such as antelope and gazelle. When human figures are depicted in this period they are very small in stature and hold throwing sticks or axes. More than simply hunting scenes, they are likely to reflect people’s own place within their environment and their relationship with it.
Round Head Period
The area is especially famous for its Round Head paintings. Thought to be up to 9,000 years old, some of these paintings are the largest found on the African continent, measuring up to 13 feet in height. The Round Head period comprises depictions of figures with round, featureless heads and formless bodies, often appearing to be ‘floating’. Some features or characteristics of Round Head paintings found on the Tassili plateau are unique to the area, and the depiction of certain motifs may have held special significance locally, making particular sites where they occur the locus of rites, ritual or ceremonial activity. The majority of animal depictions are mouflon (wild mountain sheep) and antelope, but they are represented only in static positions and not as part of a hunting scene.
The subsequent Pastoral Period, from around 7,500-4,000 years ago, portrays a very different world to the preceding ethereal Round Head period and coincides with the transition from a temperate Sahara towards aridification. Images are stylistically varied, which may attest to the movement of different cultural groups. Depictions now include domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and dogs; scenes portray herders, men hunting with bows, and representations of camp life with women and children – in essence, scenes that reference more settled communities.
Desertification across the Sahara required new methods of traversing and utilising the landscape; depictions of horses (often with riders) and of chariots indicate this change. Horse-drawn chariots are often depicted at a ‘flying’ gallop and are likely to have been used for hunting rather than warfare.
Libyan-Berber script, used by ancestral Berber peoples, started to appear in association with images. However, the meaning of this juxtaposition of text and image remains an enigma, as it is indecipherable to modern day Tuareg.
The last defined period stylistically is characterised by the depiction of camels, representing an alternative method of negotiating this arid and harsh landscape. Camels can travel for days without water and were used extensively in caravans transporting trade goods and salt. Depictions in this period continue to include domestic animals and armed figures.