Somalia/Somaliland

Highlight images

Country overview

Image count

788 images

Date range

Mostly 3,000 BC onwards

Main areas

North-west, north-east, south.

Techniques

Engravings, brush paintings

Main themes

Cattle, anthropomorphs, geometric symbols

Introduction

Somalia is a country located at the corner of the Horn of Africa, bordered by Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. Somaliland self-declared independence from Somalia in 1991 although the government of Somalia has not recognised this and views it as an autonomous region. A cultural and economic crossroads between Middle East, Africa and Asia, this area has historically been the centre of trade routes that linked these regions. It also has a very rich rock art heritage which has only recently been started to be studied in depth. Most of the known depictions correspond to painted or engraved cattle scenes, often accompanied by human figures, dogs and other domestic animals, although some warriors, camels and geometric symbols (sometimes interpreted as tribal marks) are common too.

2013,1023.15855

Figure of painted cattle and human figures, with a semi-desert plain in the background. Laas Geel, Somaliland. 2013,1023.15855 © TARA/David Coulson

Geography and rock art distribution

The geography of Somaliland is characterized by a coastal semi-desert plain which runs parallel to the Gulf of Aden coast, crossed by seasonal rivers (wadis) which make possible some grazing during the rainy season. Farther to the south, this semi-desert plain gives rise to the Karkaar Mountains. These mountains, which run from Somaliland into the region of Puntland in Somalia, have an average height of 1800 meters above sea level and run west to east until Ras Caseyr (Cape Guardafui) where the north and east coasts of the Horn of Africa meet. Southward to the mountains there is a big, dry plateau known as the Ogo, whose western part (the Haud) is one of the few good grazing areas in the country. The Ogo plateau occupies much of central and eastern Somalia, which to the south is characterized by the two only permanent rivers in the country, the Jubba and the Shabeele, born in the Ethiopian highlands and running to the south. Regarding rock art, the distribution of the known rock art sites shows a high concentration in Somaliland, with only some sites located to the south in the Gobolka Hiiraan region. However, this distribution could be a result of lack of research in other areas.

Research history

A reconstruction of rock art research history is challenging due to its contemporary history. To begin with, during the colonial period the country was divided in three different territories (British, Italian and French) with very different trajectories, until 1960 when the British and Italian territories joined to create Somalia. In British Somaliland the first studies of rock art were carried out by Miles Burkitt and P.E. Glover in the 1940s, and the first general overview was published in 1954 by J.D. Clark, as a part of a regional synthesis of the Horn of Africa prehistory, followed by limited research done by Italians in the north-east region in the late 1950s. Since then, research has been limited, with some general catalogues published in the 1980s and 1990s, although political instability has often prevented research, especially in the south-eastern region of Somalia. In fact, most rock art information comes from wider regional syntheses dedicated to the Horn of Africa. In the early 2000’s the discovery of the Laas Geel site led to a renewed interest in rock art in Somaliland, which has allowed a more systematic study of archaeological sites. Nowadays, about 70 of these sites have been located only in this area, something which shows the enormous potential of rock art studies in the Horn of Africa.

Themes

The rock art has traditionally been ascribed to the so-called Ethiopian-Arabican style, a term coined by Pavel Červiček in 1971 to remark the strong stylistic relationship between the rock art found in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. According to this proposal, there was a progressive evolution from naturalism to schematism, perceptible in the animal depictions throughout the region. Wild animals seem to be largely absent but for Djibouti, while cattle depictions seem to have been fundamental elsewhere, either isolated or in herds. Such is the case with rock art in this region, where cows and bulls are the most common depictions, in many cases associated to human figures in what seems to be reverential or ritual scenes. In some of the sites, such as Laas Geel, the necks of the cows have been decorated with complex geometric patterns interpreted as a kind of mat used in special occasions to adorn them.

Along with cattle, other animals were represented (humped cows or zebus, dogs, sheep, dromedaries), although to a much lesser extent. Wild animals are very rare, but giraffes have been documented in Laas Geel and elephants and antelopes in Tug Gerbakele, and lions are relatively common in the schematic, more modern depictions. Human figures also appear, either distributed in rows or isolated, sometimes holding weapons. Geometric symbols are also common, usually associated with other depictions. In Somalia, these symbols have often been interpreted as tribal or clan marks. With respect to techniques, both engraving and painting are common, although paintings seem to be predominant.

Chronology

As in many other places, the establishment of accurate chronologies for Somaliland rock art is challenging. In this case, the lack of long term research has made things more difficult, and most hypotheses have been based in stylistic approaches, analysis of depictions and a small set of radiocarbon data and archaeological excavations. According to this, the oldest depictions could be dated to between the mid-3rd and the 2rd millennium BC, although older dates have been proposed for Laas Geel. This phase would be characterized by humpless cows, sheep and goats as well as wild animals. These sites would indicate the beginning of domestication in this region, the cattle being as a fundamental pillar of these communities. From this starting point the relative antiquity of the depictions would be marked by a tendency to schematism, visible in the superimpositions of several rock art sites. The introduction of camels would mark a chronology of the end of the first millennium BC, while the date proposed for the introduction of zebus (humped cows) should be placed at between the 1st Centuries BC and AD.

Since the 1st millennium BC human figures armed with lances, bows and shields start to appear alongside the cattle, in some cases distributed in rows and depicting fighting scenes against other warriors or lions. The moment when this last period of rock art ended is unknown, but in nearby Eritrea some of these figures were depicted with firearms, thus implying that they could have reached a relatively modern date.