Located at the top of a sandstone outcrop in the Air Mountains in the Sahara is the unique & exceptional petroglyph of two life-size giraffes. The petroglyph is thought to have been created between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. The site itself contains 828 engraved images [704 animals, in majority bovids, giraffes, ostriches and antelopes, rare lions and rhinos and camels, 61 human figures, and 159 indeterminate figures].

In January 1999 the Bradshaw Foundation undertook the moulding of this petroglyph, in association with the Trust for African Rock Art, the National Geographic Society, UNESCO and the Niger government.

The Dabous site, about half-way between Agadez and Arlit, a few miles west of the tar road between those two towns, was mentioned for the first time by Christian Dupuy (Dupuy 1987). In November 1997 a field trip organized by TARA (Trust for African Rock Art) and attended by Dr Jean Clottes visited the site for a preliminary survey.

The two giraffes, one large male in front of a smaller female, were engraved side by side on a slanting slab on the outcrop (about 80 m long, 60 m wide and up to 8 m high). The bigger of the two giraffes is exactly 5.40 m tall (6.35 m from the tip of its ears to the extremity of its hind leg). Both were made by combining several techniques: scraping and smoothing of certain areas, deep engraving of the outlines, low-relief carving (2 to 3 cm deep) of the dots all over the body. As is the case for numerous representations of giraffes in the Sahara (Le Quellec 1993:428-429) and for other petroglyphs at Dabous, each animal has a long sinuous line winding down from its mouth with an engraved human at its other end (ancient attempts at domestication, or rather a symbolical relationship between humans and giraffes ?).

The problem was that these petroglyphs, truly exceptional both because of their size and technique, were very vulnerable. Their easy access meant they would receive more and more visits, because they were already well known locally which is why we ourselves had been taken there in the first place. The fact that they had been engraved not on a cliff wall but on a slab meant that they were particularly exposed to the elements and to human degradations, both involuntary (people trampling them) and voluntary (tourists taking samples or making graffiti). When examined closely it could be seen that the concern was well grounded: the sandstone was breaking up in various spots. Already some fragments had gone (lower neck of the bigger giraffe) and bigger pieces were loose (neck of the smaller animal). In the near future there was a real risk that those extraordinary petroglyphs would be darnaged and gradually destroyed.

For this reason it was essential to consolidate whatever should be on the surface in order to strengthen the most vulnerable spots and to mould the slab where the giraffes had been engraved, i.e. an area of about 30 sq.m. The techniques to make moulds of extensive engraved surfaces are now perfectly mastered when they are implemented by professionals and are harmless to the original engravings. A mould would allow the making of replicas identical to the petroglyphs and so an exact memory of them would be kept for ever should they be degraded.

The expedition was organized and led by David Coulson (Chairman of TARA). Because the area of the Air is a listed UNESCO Heritage Site, Jean Clottes approached their Paris Headquarters to clear the proposed plan. UNESCO consulted with the Niger Government who then granted official permission. Two Cabinet Ministers, M. Rhissa Ag Boula, Minister of Tourism, and M. Harouna Niandou, Minister of Environment and Water Affairs, accompanied by the Prefet of Agadez (seen below with the President and Chairman of the Bradshaw Foundation, Robert Hefner III and Damon de Laszlo), paid a visit and saw our work and the site. Our project was funded by the National Geographic Society (scientific study) and by the Bradshaw Foundation (moulding). In addition to official support we must mention the keen interest that the local Tuaregs showed for the work under way: many came to see us, asked for explanation, showed pride for what they saw as their heritage and gave us information on several so far unknown rock art sites in the neighbourhood.

Moulding petroglyphs is often looked down upon for two reasons. In a majority of cases in the past such mouldings were made by people who did not entirely master the necessary techniques and who degraded the originals, leaving horrible-looking latex or plaster remains in the hollows and around the petroglyphs which were thus permanently defaced. On an unknown petroglyph site about thirty miles from Dabous we saw the traces of such vandalism. Another criticism: moulding changes the chemistry of the surface rock and prevents any future varnish study.

In order to avoid both dangers, it was decided on the one hand to have the work done by a professional company (Ateliers Pierre Merindol in Avignon, France), and on the other hand to protect and keep unmoulded several 25 cm x 5 cm patches which would thus enable future research on the varnish. To make absolutely sure, a preliminary expedition with few people (D. Coulson and two specialists of the Merindol firm) took place in November 1998. They tested their products on neighbouring unengraved rocks so that they could select the ones that were best and be 100% sure about their harmlessness.Before being moulded, the rock surface was carefully cleaned and the disintegrating spots were consolidated. The silicone mould covered the whole slab (30 sq.m.), except for the four above-mentioned patches which were protected with aluminium paper and a layer of clay so that they could be perfectly isolated. The mould was covered with a superimposed plaster cast to be used as a crib in order to avoid any stretching or shrinking and to preserve the exact relief of the rock. Because of the wide surface involved, both plaster and mould were taken off in three pieces which had been previously deliniatated. After this the surface was cleaned again and restored to its original appearance. After our work, the site could not be left to fend for itself without any protection. It was decided that TARA would pay for the salary of a permanent guard for the next two years, and also for a well to provide water for him and for the local Tuaregs.The first aluminium cast of the giraffes was gifted to the near-by town of Agadez, at the International Airport Terminal. Tourists arriving in Agadez would thus be made aware of the importance of the rock art in the region and thereby provide an income to the local population in the form of expeditions.
Subsequent casts have been displayed around the world, including the ‘Dawn of the Human Spirit’ Exhibition, and there is now a permanent exhibit cast at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC. In 2000 the site was listed by UNESCO as one of the world’s most endangered monuments.We were faced at Dabous with a major preservation problem concerning exceptionnally important petroglyphs in a country whose technical and financial resources could not ensure that they would be protected in the long term. The operation we carried out was long, expensive and difficult. We did it according to the principles of the Bradshaw Foundation, TARA and the National Geographic. After our work, the petroglyphs are in a better condition than they ever were since their making and all possible protective measures have been taken on the spot. Their moulding ensures that they wiII Iast forever. The technique of moulding, provided adequate means are used - as should always be the case out of respect for rock art - should henceforth be rehabilitated.

To read more about the Dabous Giraffe carvings click the link below:-

Dabous Giraffe Carvings