Images on rocks in the Sahara provide a glimpse into the development of humans in this now barren land.
The rock art sites of Tadrart Acacus have survived for 14,000 years in the desert of southern Libya, but they are now under serious threat. Since 2009, vandalism has been a continuous problem: graffiti has been spray-painted across the surface of many of the paintings, and people have carved their initials into the rocks. But despite UNESCO’s and other organizations’ calls for the government to intervene with restoration and security measures, efforts to protect this precious ancient site have been gravely hampered by armed conflict and political chaos.
Libya experienced a political revolution in 2011 with the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, and since then the country has been in a state of civil war. Savino di Lernia, an archaeologist at Sapienza University of Rome who has worked extensively in the Tadrart Acacus mountains, explains how dangerous the area—formerly a tourist destination—has become:
Today, the site is inaccessible: no commercial flight connects Tripoli and Ghat, a nearby town (a weekly military aircraft brings food, essential goods and first-aid equipment). The tarred road between Ghat and Ubari is broken up, and clashes between the Tebu and Tuareg tribes increasingly affect the area….Being a Saharan archaeologist today is a difficult job. Researchers fear being kidnapped or even killed.
Yahya Saleh, a local tour guide, mourns the fact that local hunters now regularly scrawl their names across the art: “People do not know the value of this. There are supposed to be people to protect these areas…because if this issue persists, then they will be gone within two years.”
The ongoing vandalism of the Tadrart Acacus sites is only one of the many overwhelming difficulties Libya faces with regard to cultural heritage protection. As di Lernia notes,
Perhaps the greatest threat to Libya’s diverse heritage is the trafficking of archaeological materials, for profit or to fund radical groups….No one has been able to fully assess the situation in Libya. Going to work among the black smoke of grenades, the men and women of the Libyan Department of Antiquities are doing their best. But museums are closed and the little activity left in the field is limited to the north.
Until the fighting in Libya stops and archaeologists can again effectively cooperate with the government and international organizations to restore and protect sites like the rock art at Tadrart Acacus, Libya’s rich trove of monuments and artifacts will continue to be endangered.
Backstory by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee
Another UNESCO video, on rock art in Tassili n’Ajjer
UNESCO webpage for Tadrart Acacus
UNESCO report on the state of conservation at Tadrart Acacus
Ulf Leassig, “Vandals destroy prehistoric rock art in Libya’s lawless Sahara,” Reuters, June 3, 2014
Savino di Lernia, “Cultural heritage: Save Libyan archaeology,” Nature, January 28, 2015
Report on Tadrart Acacus rock art from the AP Archive, January, 2018