|12 February 2005
Hammers threaten Libyan rock carvings
Halfway up the steep escarpment of the Messak Settafet plateau is one of Libya's national treasures: rock engravings, some possibly dating back 9,000 years or more, created by a prehistoric culture. Carvings of humans among elephants, crocodiles, giraffes and hippopotamuses reveal what scientists have now confirmed: rather than barren and dessicated, it was once lush and green at Wadi al-Hayat (the Valley of Life, also known as Wadi al-Ajal) in the Fezzan region of south-west Libya.
A team of British researchers led by Tertia Barnett, an archaeologist working for English Heritage, along with an archaeologist from the Libyan Department of Antiquities in Tripoli, are working with an urgency that might seem unusual considering the ancient subject matter. But the search for petroleum could spell doom for the rock art. Criss-crossing the desert are seismic survey lines where enormous hammers have been used to ping the underlying rock layers in search of oil deposits. These boulder-shattering blows and the construction of roads and pipelines are expected to increase exponentially now that international sanctions have been lifted from the country.
Before the last Ice Age, the Sahara was even larger and more inhospitable than it is today. Then, some 10,000 years ago, a shift in climate brought rainfall. In the ensuing years of plenty, a pastoral way of life thrived. The desert came back with a vengeance about 3,000 years ago and, as the remaining surface water supplies dwindled, the inhabitants were forced to dig for it below the ground. A better understanding of how people adapted to these drastic environmental changes is more than academic, says team member Nick Brooks, a climatologist at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and cofounder of the Saharan studies programme at the University of East Anglia. Perhaps the best insight we have into the culture of the prehistoric Saharans is the rock art they left behind. But this is a field in its infancy, says Barnett. So far, dating the engravings is "extremely difficult" and determining what these images actually meant to the people who inscribed them will require many years of study, if we can ever know.
But how much time remains for Libya's rock art? "Oil exploration is indeed a problem," says Sa'ad Abdul Aziz, director of the nearby Germa Museum who coordinates archaeological research for the Department of Antiquities. Aziz admits there are very few Libyan archaeologists and none who specialise in prehistory. "The situation is rather bleak," says Professor David Mattingly, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester with 25 years' experience in Libya. A plan for a system of national parks that would protect the most vulnerable areas has been on the table for years, he says, but with little progress. "The major problem is that the Department of Antiquities is under-resourced." The lifting of the embargo could in principle provide the funds needed to preserve and protect the country's prehistoric relics.
Source: The Guardian (10 February 2005)
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