Chariots in the Sahara

A number of sites we have been cataloguing recently, located in the Libyan Desert, notably the Fezzan region, have included paintings of chariots in a variety of forms, dating to the Horse Period, from up to 3,000 years ago. This has stimulated some interesting questions about the use of chariots in what appears to be such a seemingly inappropriate environment for a wheeled vehicle, as well as the nature of representation. Why were chariots used in the desert and why were they represented in such different ways?

The chariot has been one of the great empowering innovations of history. It likely originated in Mesopotamia about 3000 BC due to advances in metallurgy during the Bronze Age, and has served as a primary means of transport until quite recently in the historical period across Africa, Eurasia and Europe. Chariots provided rapid and efficient transport, and were ideal for the battlefield as the design provided a raised firing platform for archers . As a result the chariot became the principal war machine from the Egyptians through to the Romans; and the Chinese, who owned an army of 10,000 chariots. Indeed, our use of the word car is a derivative of the Latin word carrus, meaning ‘a chariot of war or of triumph’.

The chariot in the Sahara was probably introduced by the Garamantes, a cultural group thought to be descended from Berbers and Saharan pastoralists. There is little textual information about the Garamantes, documentation comes mainly from Greek and Roman sources. Herodotus described them as ‘a very great nation’. Recent archaeological research has shown that the Garamantes established about eight major towns as well as numerous other settlements, and were ‘brilliant farmers, resourceful engineers, and enterprising merchants’. The success of the Garamantes was based on their subterranean water-extraction system, a network of underground tunnels, allowing the Garamantian culture to flourish in an increasingly arid environment, resulting in population expansion, urbanisation, and conquest.

On average there are about 500 drawings of chariots across the Sahara, from the Fezzan in Libya through the Aïr of Niger into northern Mali and then westward to the Atlantic coast; but not all were produced by the Garamantes. It is still not certain that chariots were driven along the routes where their depictions occur; remains of chariots have never been found west of the Fezzan. However, the Fezzan states were thriving trade routes and chariots are likely to have been used to transport salt, cloth, beads and metal goods in exchange for gold, ivory and slaves. The widespread occurrence of chariot imagery on Saharan rock outcrops has led to the proposition of ‘chariot routes’ linking North and West Africa. However, these vehicles were not suited for long-distance transport across desert terrain; more localised use is probable, conducted through middlemen who were aware of the trade routes through the desert landscape. Additionally, the horse at this time was a prestige animal and it is unlikely that they facilitated transport across the Saharan trade routes, with travellers rather utilising donkeys or oxen.

The absence of archaeological evidence for chariots has led to the suggestion that some representations of chariots may have been the result of cultural diffusion, transmitted orally by nomadic peoples traversing the region. Artists may never have actually seen the vehicles themselves. If this is the case, chariot symbols may have acquired some special meaning above their function as modes of transport. It may also explain why some representations of chariots do not seem to conform to more conventional styles of representations and account for the different ways in which they were depicted.

Figs. 7 and 8 may or may not depict chariots. The rectangular shape in the top left of Fig. 7 and to the left in Fig. 8 are potentially abstracted forms of the chariot similar to the ‘flattened out’ depictions above in Figs. 5 and 6. The representation in Fig. 7 sits alongside distinguishing figures of the Horse Period when chariots were being used, such as geometric bi-triangular figures, spears or lances, women wearing long dresses, and animals drawn in a fairly naturalistic style.

Beside the schematic and simply depicted chariots, there is also a group which has been termed the ‘flying gallop chariots’ (Fig.3 above and Fig. 9 below). Their distribution includes the whole Tassili region, although there are fewer in the Acacus Mountains. They resemble the classical two-wheeled antique chariots, generally drawn by two horses, but sometimes three, or even four. The driver is usually alone, and is depicted in a typical style with a stick head. The majority are shown at full speed, with the driver holding a whip standing on a small platform, sometimes straining forward.

In a similar manner to the schematic chariots, the depictions in Figs. 3 and 9 display the entire platform and both wheels of the chariot. In addition, more than one horse is depicted as a single horse in profile with numerous legs indicating multiple horses; an artistic technique first seen during the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe. Interestingly, in the Libyan rock art of the Acacus Mountains it seemed that animals could be conceived of in profile and in movement, but chariots were conceived of differently, and are represented in plain view, seen from above or in three-quarters perspective.

Why are chariots depicted in a variety of ways, and what can we say about the nature of representation in relation to chariots? It is clear that chariots are able to be depicted in profile view (Fig. 1), yet there are variations that digress from this perspective. In relation to the few examples we have come across so far in the Acacus Mountains in south-western Libya, one observation we might make is that the ways in which chariots have been represented may be indicative of the ways in which they have been observed by the artists representing them; as a rule from above. The rock shelters in the Acacus are often some height above the now dried up wadis, and so the ways in which they conceived of representing the chariot itself , whether as a flying gallop chariot, a chariot drawn by a bovid or as an abstraction, may have become a particular representational convention. The ways in which animals were represented conformed also to a convention, one that had a longer tradition, but chariots were an innovation and may have been represented as they were observed; from higher up in the rockshelters; thus chariots were conceived of as a whole and from an aerial perspective. The ways in which environments affect our perceptions of dimension, space and colour are now well-established, initially through cross-cultural anthropological studies in the 1960s, and becoming better understood through more recent research concerning the brain. Of course, this is speculation, and further research would be needed to consider all the possibilities. But for now, we can start to see some intriguing lines of enquiry and research areas that these images have stimulated.

Vast trading network across the Sahara Desert not only facilitated the spread of goods, but the routes served as a conduit for cultural diffusion through the spread of knowledge, ideas and technologies. Chariots were both functional and symbolic. As a mode of transport, as a weapon of war, as a means of trade and exchange and as a symbol of power, the chariot has been a cultural artefact for 4,000 years. Its temporal and spatial reach is evident not only in the rock art, but through the British Museum collections, which reveal comparisons between 2D rock art and 3D artefacts. Similarities and adjacencies occur not only in the structure and design of the chariots themselves but in their symbolic and pragmatic nature (Figs. 10–14).

A hoard of 100,000 Roman coins from the Diocletian period (not the above) were unearthed near Misurata, Libya, probably used to pay both regular Roman and local troops. Such finds demonstrate the symbolic power of the chariot and the diffusion of the imagery.