Crying cows, Algeria
At the base of an inselberg at Tegharghart, south of Djanet, is a site that has come to be known as ‘Crying Cows’, because of the way teardrops appear to roll down the faces of the animals.
These skilfully engraved images depict long-horned cattle with their heads bowed. Thought to date between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago, today these images stand alone in a vast wilderness of sand and rock. However, this environment was once wetter and more fertile, and this site may have been close to a local watering hole where animals regularly drank and bathed. Indeed, even today during the rains, the depression in the sand at the base of the inselberg fills up with water, which gives the appearance that the cows are bending their heads to drink.
These engravings are incorporated in a local myth that tells of a shepherd who engraved the crying cows after travelling night and day with his herd to a spring he thought would quench their thirst. Finding it dry, he captured in stone his cattle’s grief as he watched them die one by one. Climatic data has shown a number of significant cooling events in the North Atlantic, one of which – dating to around eight thousand years ago – resulted in a period of aridity lasting a number of centuries across the Sahara, and may coincide with these engravings and of the associated myth.
In artistic terms, the execution of this panel of engraved cows is extremely accomplished and testifies to someone who was not only a skilful carver but who we might even regard as a sculptor in the modern sense, who understood both materials and the interplay of light and shade in the reductive process of carving. But even more than this, the artist understood the environmental conditions in which he was working. It has been observed that the depth and thickness of the engraved lines has been carefully calculated to ensure that as the sun travels across them during the day, they appear to move. This sense of movement is made most acute as the evening shadows, falling into each groove, give the cattle a sense of mass and movement. Other artistic devices, such as double lines with recessed areas and internal polishing, evoke a perception of depth and density. The interplay of light and shade is consummately adept and dynamic, and the sculptural quality of the image sensorially evocative. This is the work of a practised craftsman, who demonstrates a deep of understanding of materials, techniques and the natural environment.