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Exploring the Archaeological Landscape of the Hamada Deserts of Western Sahara
Western Sahara is situated south of Morocco and north and east of Mauritania, and has a narrow border in the east with Algeria. It covers approximately 126,000km2 and, with an estimated population of around 550,000 people, is one of the least densely populated places on earth. It has some of the richest fishing grounds on the west coast of Africa, and also it has extensive deposits of potash, which is used in the production of fertilizer. Mauritania was a Spanish colony from 1884 until 1976 when the Spaniards withdrew. This is contested territory with both Morocco and Mauritania laying claim to it. Spanish withdrawal led to Moroccans entering from the north, quickly followed by the Mauritanians from the south, both eager to carve up the country. The Frente Para La Liberacion de Saguia el-Hamra y Rio de Oro, or POLISARIO as it is more commonly known, quickly emerged to try and defend the rights of the indigenous Sahrawi people. They fought an extensive and bloody guerrilla campaign against both armies, forcing Mauritania to withdraw in 1979 and to recognise the POLISARIO as the legitimate government of Western Sahara. Morocco continued undeterred until a ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1991, which saw Morocco controlling two thirds of the country, with the POLISARIO controlling the remaining area. The line of separation between the two forces is commonly known as The Berm, which is a 3m high bank of sand and stone.
This impressive feat of engineering can trace its genesis to the Great Wall of China, the Hill Forts of Iron Age Europe, Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, the trench systems of WWI in France, the Maginot Line, the Berlin Wall, the US Mexico wall, the Indo Bangladesh Wall, and the Israeli Palestinian Wall. It commences some 200kms inside Morocco and extends for over 2000kms in a southwest direction to the Mauritanian border. It has one of the longest minefields in the world deployed on the POLISARIO side. Interestingly, on the POLISARIO side of the berm, an artistic group named ARTIFARITI has been established to use art to bear witness to the conflict and to look at and depict this barrier in different ways in an attempt to focus people’s perception and understanding of the concept of barriers and separation. Equally interesting are the strong points dotted along the wall and visible on Google Earth, these bear a striking resemblance to the Iron Age hill forts such as Maiden Castle in Britain.
The United Nations established an unarmed military observer force called MINURSO in 1991 to monitor the ceasefire and oversee the proposed elections that were a part of the ceasefire agreement. To date both sides are in disagreement as to who should be allowed to vote in any such election. The author, who is an officer with the Irish Defence Forces, was deployed until recently as an UNMO (United Nations Military Observer) in the Moroccan controlled North West zone and was based near the town of Smara.
Before concentrating on Western Sahara, it is worth noting a few points about the Sahara itself, which blankets much of the northern third of the African Continent, or some 5.6 millionkms2. The Sahara Desert extends eastward from the Atlantic Ocean some 4800kms to the Nile River and the Red Sea, and southward from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Mediterranean shores more than 1500kms to the savannah called the sahel. More than sixteen times the size of France, the Sahara Desert blankets nearly all of Mauritania, Western Sahara, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Niger; the southern half of Tunisia; and the northern parts of Mali, Chad and Sudan. Often associated with majestic sand dunes extending for kilometre after kilometre, this image of the Sahara is somewhat misleading as the typical sand dune terrain only covers approximately 15% of the entire Sahara. The climate is, of course, one of extremes, and temperatures can often exceed 52° C with the hottest air temperature ever recorded by meteorologists occurring in Libya in 1922. This was a staggering 58 °C. Night-time temperatures can drop significantly and the desert can be a bitterly cold place after dark. The prevailing winds, emanating from the northeast, drain practically all the moisture from the air as they head southwest, and they generate severe sand and dust storms that distribute sand over vast distances.
The area that I patrolled covers approximately 46000kms2 and is comprised of what is mainly rocky desert or Hamada. There are few of the large sand dunes associated with most people’s perception of the Sahara, and the terrain is marked by numerous ephemeral lakes and rivers, which occasionally emerge as a result of the infrequent rainfall. In the west the land is flat, stretching for miles and miles of relative nothingness, with only a few stark wind-scoured acacia trees to break the monotony. Towards the east the land is divided by numerous ridges, flat plateaus and a number of sunken valleys with evidence of up-thrusting and folding in the exposed rock layers. There is significant coverage of a soft siltstone that overlies a younger marly deposit and, from the fossilised plants and even imprints of bird’s feet visible, it is obvious that this layer was associated with a period of abundant water coverage. This rocky surface has now broken up due to weathering and this is often intermixed with abundant scatters of flint nodules. The terrain is tough to negotiate and a journey of 50kms can take many hours. The heat is incessant during the months of July to October and sand storms are a frequent reminder that this is not a region for the faint hearted.
Today the region is arid with summer temperatures reaching into the high 50° C and occasionally reaching 62° C. This, however, was not always the case and the history of this region is one of significant changes to the physical environment, between arid phases when the region is virtually uninhabitable, and humid phases when the region undergoes a transformation into a savannah type environment with abundant rivers and lakes. Tens of thousands of years may separate these oscillations and during the lastglacial maximum c.21000 BP, the Sahara was much larger than it is today and the aridity associated with this glaciation was due to the reduced moisture available in the atmosphere, decreased solar heating of the land surface, and also changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulation. In general, aridity is associated with glacial periods and humidity with interglacials. There is evidence that a much cooler climate prevailed during the last glacial period and that this gave way to a more humid climate at approximately 10000 BP. This more moist climate may well have been triggered by the strengthening African monsoon that was penetrating into the Sahara and was also helped by rainfall generated by the mid latitude weather systems in the early Holocene until c.8000 BP. This period saw the monsoon belt drift north leading to the development of numerous rivers and lakes, but this milder climate gradually changed to a more arid one and by c.5000 BP aridity was taking a grip on the Sahara. It has been suggested that in the period from 10000 BP the area now known as Western Sahara, due to its relatively humid climate, may have acted as a refuge for floral, faunal and human populations during the Holocene (Brooks et al. 2005). The distinct cultural innovations in lithics and pottery has led some to believe that populations moving into the area during times of aridity in their own regions, lost contact with their former groups and developed individual characteristics in lithic production and domestic ware. More research is needed in this area before any conclusions can be drawn.
|Bifacial lanceolate point (arrowhead) which would be pastoral/Neolithic in date (5-3KYA) found in Houza.|
Africa has the longest record of human occupation in the world and its landmass equates to more than one fifth of the habitable area of the globe. The continent plays a central role in our understanding of human evolution, the prehistory of our species, and the development of complex societies. Some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in the region is from the site of Ain Hanech in Algeria where Oldowan tools were found, dating to c.1.8 mya (Sahnouni et al. 2002). There is evidence from the broader Saharan region for Aterian occupation circa 90 to 60000 BP and may even be earlier in sites such as Ifri n’Ammar and Dar es Soltan 1 in Morocco, which are dated between 145 and 110 kya respectively (Scerri 2012). The evidence, however, is more scant in Western Sahara and this may well be due to the lack of archaeological investigation because of the recent conflict. Whether driven by drought further south or east, it does appear that this area of the Sahara was certainly reoccupied from approximately 10000 BP, and that these hunter-gatherers soon developed a more sedentary lifestyle as they optimised the abundant resources of elephants, cattle and giraffe. The Sahara may not have been a barrier to movement of peoples northward ‘Out of Africa’ in the early Holocene humid period, but because of the presence of linked lakes, rivers and waterways it may have acted as a green corridor that allowed animals and humans to migrate northwards (Drake 2010).
Pastoralism emerged in the 7th and 6th millennia BP and lasted until the final desiccation of the Sahara at approximately 5000 BP, which saw the arrival of hyper arid conditions that continue to the present. Because of the conflict, Western Sahara was off limits to foreign archaeologists from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s and today, access to the Moroccan army-controlled area needs to be co-ordinated through the government in Rabat in Morocco, while access to the POLISARIO controlled side is through their headquarters in Algeria. Needless to say, the political situation does not appeal to many visitors. Research was conducted in the region during the period of Spanish colonisation but this is difficult to access. However, there has been recent work, mainly on the POLISARIO side, by Nick Brooks (Brooks et al. 2005). Brooks has worked in the field of Saharan archaeology and geoarchaeology since 1999 and has found that the development of complex societies in the middle Holocene was a response of the precursor societies to deteriorating environmental conditions including the start of the desiccation of the Sahara after c. 8000 BP (Brooks et al. 2006). He links the archaeological and paleoenvironmental evidence to demonstrate that the cultural history of the Sahara is intimately linked to a succession of humid and arid episodes with humid conditions fully established by c.10000 BP. This led to a re-occupation of the Sahara by hunter-gatherers from sub-Saharan Africa. This occupation was to reduce again with the onset of aridity after c.5000 BP.
The two primary features of the prehistoric occupation of this region are the extensive lithic evidence and numerous burial cairns scattered over the desert floor. These lithics appear to date mainly to the Holocene but some of the lithics may well be from the Pleistocene due to their rougher working and their similarity to lithics found elsewhere. The site of Erqueiz Lahmar in the eastern part of the country has produced Late Acheulean hand axes and Mousterian cores (Brooks et al. 2003). In relation to the burial cairns, they range from simple mounds to more complicated conical tumuli, stepped platforms, and cairns with a semi-circular forecourt. Dating of these structures is, of course, problematic without excavation, but the presence of worked stone adjacent to many of the tombs identified would suggest a mid to late Holocene date. Brooks has suggested a date of c.6000 BP for similar monuments near Tifarati on the eastern side of the berm (Brooks et al. 2006). De Lernia (2006) states that there are many later Islamic burial cairns dotted throughout the region but these tend to occur in groups, often with more modern individual burials attached. These are often of double-ended construction type seen across the Sahel and are almost certainly associated with travel routes. In many cases the cairn would have had an association with a known local or religious person who died while travelling.
The lithic evidence is abundant to say the least and I have very rarely stopped anywhere in the Hamada desert without noticing worked stone (Figures 2 to 7). Considering the bulk of my patrolling covered an area of 450km from north to south and 200km from east to west and, with the exception of one town, it is otherwise uninhabited apart from nomadic settlements, then the prehistoric habitation must have been significant. While it is hard to extrapolate population sizes from lithic scatters, (it is possible to produce over 10000 pieces in as short a period of time as a few days), and considering that these lithics could potentially cover some millennia, it could well be that small groups of 20 to 30 people with relatively high mobility travelled independently through the region and perhaps came together seasonally on the lakes in much larger groups (Dr. Tim Reynolds, pers. comm.).
Flint and chert appear to be the more common lithic choices, and these are often found adjacent to some of the many ancient lakes and watercourses that crisscross the region. In common with other sites where I have discovered lithic scatters, there appears to be an orientation towards the use of high ground overlooking water sources; for example on the Golan Heights I discovered evidence of Yarmukian presence c.5000 BC, which consisted of flint and chert debitage and pottery at the edge of a plateau overlooking the Yarmuk River (Mc Donald 2007) and on the north west coast of Ireland, I discovered evidence of Neolithic activity in the form of lithic scatters and a polished stone axe on a bluff overlooking the estuary of the River Erne (Mc Donald 2009) Thus it seems that there is a direct relationship between tool working sites and the landscape in which those tools may be used. Perhaps it is just a matter of economy of effort, but it is easier to produce and sharpen tools adjacent to where you will use them again and again, rather than carrying them from a distant production site.
|Also from the Houza region appears to be a plain platformed flake with what looks like inverse retouch on one edge. The opposite edge appears to have a retouched notch.|
Dating of these monuments is difficult without excavation but they may cover the period c.5600 to 1200 BP with even earlier dates in the seventh millennium BP for burial cairns with just cattle remains interred (Savilli 2002). Nicoll (2004) cites the earliest evidence for cattle domestication in the eastern Sahara where at 7000 BP desiccation increased and advanced rapidly. Cattle herding played an important role in developing societies as it bridged the hunter-gatherer tradition with pastoralism, especially in times of scarce resources. The fact that cattle herding provided a ‘walking larder’ where milk and blood could readily help sustain communities that found their traditional foraging resources diminished due to the onset of aridity, helps to explain the new importance of cattle and perhaps why it was cattle that were initially buried in funerary monuments rather than humans.
|Burial Monument in the Smara region with an extending arc facing the camera and the cairn sloping to the rear.|
In fact it appears that cattle burials appear c.7000 BP and according to Di Lernia (2006) the reason for this is a direct response to the arrival of increased aridity at that time. He attributes a number of technical innovations which occurred in the Holocene Sahara to be a response to aridity in direct comparison to Wendorf and Schild (2003) who claim the exact opposite: that it was in periods of increased moisture that technical and economic innovations developed. In support of this, they believe that the initial spread of cattle into the Egyptian Sahara c.9000 BP and the subsequent movement into the Central Sahara c.7000 BP occurred during moist periods when facilities for water and grazing are available. De Lernia (2006), however, believes that megalithic architecture (cattle burials) spread throughout the Sahara in relation to mid Holocene arid periods and this aridity had a twofold effect: it created a ‘push’ effect in increasing migration across the Sahara, and it provided a stimulus to offer sacrifices to the gods for better climatic conditions. The effect of increasing aridity may have led a community to engage with their gods by erecting monumental funerary structures, perhaps slaughtering cattle and symbolically burying them, in an attempt to ‘appease’ these gods. It no doubt increased the sense of belonging to a specific tribe and indeed the very act of constructing a tomb would serve not alone as a monument for the dead but as a territorial marker for the living and also lay claim to the area for the tribe in what must have been a time of increased demands for scarce resources. What prompted the change from cattle to human burial from c.5600 BP is not clear but may have been prompted by a change in the social stratification within the tribe and the emergence of a nobility in society that is reflected in the change from the burial of the remains of multiple cattle to the internment of often a single human.
It would be useful to develop a connection between archaeologists and the military in order to best detect and preserve sites that either have been off limits to civilians as military training areas or, due to recent or ongoing conflicts, they have not received the attention of archaeologists. There is much that the military can offer to archaeologists, provided of course that military personnel travelling overseas get properly briefed on what they may expect to see while deployed.
Unfortunately, there have been some cases of cultural vandalism by members of the military serving overseas. Ironically, in Western Sahara there have been several instances of military officers deployed in the area, spraying graffiti on and near sites with significant rock art that dates to approximately 2500 BC. In particular, the sites at Slugilla Lawash, Rekeiz Lemgasem and Lajuad (Cueva del Diablo) [here] have blue graffiti sprayed near and in some instances on rock art (Soler et al. 2008). The United Nations has attempted since to inculcate an appreciation of the heritage of a particular country to newly arrived military personnel.
Most armies now recognise the need to educate their troops in the value of cultural heritage and groups, such as the International Military Cultural Resources Working Group (IMCURWG) and Cultural Heritage by Archaeological Institute of America Military Panel (CHAMP), deliver cultural resources programmes to improve awareness to deploying military personnel regarding the culture and history in host countries and war zones. Both of these groups were also active in advising both the US and NATO in relation to the safe guarding of antiquities and archaeological sites in Libya and Egypt during the recent Arab Spring, unfortunately this has not prevented significant looting of vulnerable sites.
There is, of course, a distinction between increased interaction between a more knowledgeable (from a heritage and archaeological perspective) military and the archaeological community and the idea of embedding archaeologists with a specific unit being deployed to a major conflict in an area with significant archaeological remains e.g., Iraq. In a recent article, Cuneo (2010) argues that an embedded expert’s relationship with the military would hinder interaction with local experts, could potentially arouse suspicion, and make the expert become politically affiliated with the homeland of the armed forces with which they are associated.
Finally, to further demonstrate the importance of positive interaction between the military and the archaeological community, UNESCO recently asked the Malian and French forces to protect that country’s ancient cultural heritage sites during the offensive against the Tuareg in the north of the country. It is beginning to emerge that both sides in the Syrian conflict have resorted to looting some of that country’s rich archaeological past and, without a significant neutral military presence on the ground, it is likely that much will be lost. Unfortunately the conditions are not secure enough to gain a proper archaeological perspective of what has been lost, stolen or destroyed. However we must remember it is not just in Mali that ancient sites have been desecrated. In 2001 the Bamiyan Buddhist statues were dynamited by the Taliban despite appeals from fellow Muslims. In 2012, Sufi shrines in North Africa were attacked by militant Islamists in addition to the remnants of the regions pre-Islamic past. In Morocco 8000 year old carvings in the High Atlas Mountains, which depict the Sun as a symbol of pre-Islamic divinity, were destroyed by radical Islamists. But such destruction is not just carried out by Islamic extremists. The Hindus at Ayodhya destroyed centuries old mosques, the Balkans have seen all sides engage in wanton cultural destruction. From the Crusades to the conquest of the Americas, Christian extremists have hacked down and destroyed artefacts and statues of religious rivals and pagans alike. In the 17th century the Puritans destroyed statues and icons in Catholic churches and monasteries. So it appears that the recent events in Mali demonstrate that the wars of today are not just fought with weapons. It behoves all of us with an interest in the past how best to understand and preserve it, to ensure that such acts of cultural desecration become a thing of the past, and we can only accomplish this through explanation and education.
I am grateful for the help and support of Dr. Colin Breen (University of Ulster) who provided insight into the archaeology of the region and to Islamic burials in particular. He also gave useful comments on the earlier drafts of this article. Dating of the lithics has been limited to correspondence with Dr. Tim Reynolds, Birkbeck College, University of London, and I am grateful to him for his insight and description of the various lithics.
About the authorKevin McDonald is a serving Commandant in the Irish Defence Forces. He completed a degree in archaeology at NUIG in 1999. As part of that work, he completed archaeological surveys of Killanena in east Clare and on the crannogs of Loughrea Lake, Co. Galway. He has also developed an interest in exploring the archaeology of military lands, and has written about the lost megalithic tombs of Finner Camp, Co. Donegal, and has discovered a number of previously unrecorded sites at Oranmore, Co. Galway, including a ring barrow and a medieval Moated Site. On overseas postings he has found a late Palaeolithic site on the Israeli occupied Golan Heights with flints and pottery (probably from the Yarmukian culture). He has discovered a previously unrecorded megalithic tombs in both Syria and Chad.
Versions of this paper have appeared in Archaeology Ireland 27(3) 2013 and Nyame Akuma Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists Vol 80 2013.
Versions of this paper have appeared in Archaeology Ireland 27(3) 2013 and Nyame Akuma Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists Vol 80 2013.