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Rock art of Libya's Messak

17 Feb 2015
Bradshaw Foundation

Rock art of Libya's Messak: saving the archaeology of Libya and preserving its cultural heritage.

An online article in Nature by Savino di Lernia - Cultural heritage: Save Libyan archaeology - reveals ever-growing concerns for both fieldwork and lab research in Libya, and the threat to its cultural heritage. Nature 517, 547-549 (29 January 2015) doi:10.1038/517547a

fighting cats petroglyph in Libya

Libya's cultural heritage can be found deep into the human past. The Sahara hosts rock art that can be dated back to 10,000 years, with various animal paintings and engravings depicting a wetter and greener environment.

Savino di Lernia also explains the desert's capacity to act as a laboratory for investigating links between past climate changes and developments in human history; human dispersal, domestication and the development of states.

'However, archaeological fieldwork in Libya is at a standstill. Four years after the Arab Spring and the February 2011 Libyan revolution that ended the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, violence remains rife. Recent escalations in fighting have injured and killed people and damaged the nation's cultural heritage, infrastructure and free press. Libyan monuments have been seriously damaged, including the Karamanli mosque, built in 1738 in the capital, Tripoli, and Islamic tombs that date to between the tenth and twelfth centuries at Zuwila, near the west-central town of Murzuq. This, along with concerns about the illicit trafficking of cultural materials, led Irina Bokova, the director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to call for greater protection of Libyan cultural heritage in November last year.'

elephant petroglyph in Messak in Libya

Sadly, this is a common picture, with the destruction of archaeological sites in other war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but for Savino di Lernia who has worked in Libya since 1990, his efforts are focussed here. 

His last field trip to the Messak plateau in the southwest ended abruptly in February 2011 with an emergency evacuation on a military aircraft. Before the revolution, he spent three months each year in the desert studying the prehistory of the Messak and nearby Tadrart Acacus mountains, which lie close to the border with Algeria, famous for their 10,000-year-old rock art. 

'Since then, scientific and cultural relations between Libya and the international community have stagnated. Archaeological tourism - a major source of revenue and jobs for locals such as the Tuareg and Tebu people, the two major Saharan ethnic groups in Libya - has stopped.'

vandalized rock art in Libya

(Photo: Aimen Elsahli/Reuters/Corbis)

The Tadrart Acacus has been a popular destination for groups interested in rock art, but some of the sites were badly vandalized in 2009 (above). Today, the area is inaccessible; no commercial flights to the nearby town of Ghat, deteriorating roads and increasing clashes between the Tebu and Tuareg tribes.

Savino di Lernia notes that under the Gaddafi regime Libyan prehistory was dismissed as folklore, but the revolution promised a more modern view of the archaeological and cultural heritage, 'as a gateway to a shared national identity, a major revenue source and a focus for forging relationships with the rest of the world. Those hopes have been dashed.'

He suggests that the future can be resolved with the building of an online library of rock-art sites, with the involvement of Libyan students and colleagues from other countries, in order to help Libyan scientists overcome their isolation and regain a sense of identity. 'Museum collections that span from remote prehistory to the Islamic cultures should be digitized and made freely available to a global audience. Unpublished collections held by international teams should also be digitized and shared online. International cooperation between local and foreign groups working in Libya must be supported. Travel funding and visas for Libyan scientists to work temporarily overseas should be found. And mobility programmes for scientists such as the European Union's Erasmus Mundus should be exploited. Energy companies and others with commercial interests in Libya should be encouraged to work with local stakeholders to help to train local personnel in scientific research.'

'Without these steps, archaeological research in Libya, already moribund, will soon die. It would be gravely disappointing and paradoxical if after years of neglect under the Gaddafi regime Libyan archaeological heritage is once again be abandoned. As well as a failure of the 2011 revolution, it would be a missed opportunity for a generation of young Libyan archaeologists - and a tragedy for the safeguarding of monuments and sites of universal and outstanding value.'

View the rock art of the Sahara in our African Rock Art Archive:



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