African Archaeological Review

, Volume 31, Issue 3, pp 407–423 | Cite as

Patina and Environment in the Wadi al-Hayat: Towards a Chronology for the Rock Art of the Central Sahara

  • Maria Guagnin
Original Article


This paper proposes a broad chronological framework for the engravings of the Wadi al-Hayat that is based on environmental parameters rather than stylistic observations. During the Holocene, the climate of the central Sahara changed from savanna to desert. This environmental background informed the experience of the engravers and underpinned the weathering of rock surfaces. To establish a link between images and climatic sequence, 2,466 individual animal engravings were analyzed with regard to the depicted species, patina and the location of the panel in relation to the dated shorelines of the al-Hayat palaeolake. Based on their patina, engravings are grouped into a broad, four-stage chronological sequence. The chronological relevance of this framework is tested in three different ways. The dates and sequence of the introduction of domestic animals match their depiction across the four engraving groups. The habitats of the depicted wild animals reflect a dramatic change from savanna to desert that is consistent with climatic records and the physical process of the patina formation. In addition, Early and Middle Pastoral engravings are shown to be in locations that correspond to the high lake levels of the African Humid period. Late Pastoral and Garamantian engravings are also recorded in areas that only became accessible once the palaeolake had dried up. Although the proposed methodology cannot provide precise dates for individual engravings, it can be used to establish a broad chronological framework that allows us to place the rock art within its archaeological context.


Sahara Rock art Palaeoenvironment Chronology Patina Pastoral period 


Ce papier propose un large cadre chronologique pour les gravures rupestres de Wadi-al-Hayat, qui est fondé sur des paramètres environnementaux plutôt que par des observations stylistiques. Pendant la période Holocène, la région du Sahara a changé de climat de la savane à celui du désert. Cet environnement a façonné l’expérience de ces gravures et a soutenu l’altération des surfaces rocheuses. Pour établir un lien entre la chronologie des images et celle du climat 2,466 gravures individuelles de faune ont été analysées en espèces, en patine et dans la localisation de panneaux pertinents à la date des littorales du paléolac de al-Hayat. D’après leur patine les gravures sont systématiquement classées en quatre stages successifs. La pertinence chronologique d’une telle structure est testée en trois façons différentes. Premièrement les dates et l’ordre de l’apparition de la faune domestique correspondent à leur représentation à travers les quatre groupes de gravures. Puis l’habitat de la faune sauvage représentée, reflète un changement dramatique du climat de la savane à celui du désert. Ceci correspond effectivement aux archives climatiques ainsi qu’au processus physique de la formation de la patine. Ensuite les gravures faites au début et au milieu de la période Pastorale se manifestent dans les lieux qui correspondent aux hauts niveaux d’eaux des lacs durant la période africaine humide. Les gravures ultérieures des périodes Pastorale et Garamantian sont aussi enregistrées dans des secteurs qui sont devenus accessibles seulement après le dessèchement du paléolac. Quoique cette méthodologie ici proposée ne puisse fournir de dates précises sur les gravures individuelles, elle peut cependant établir généralement une structure chronologique qui nous permet de classer l’Art Rupestre dans son contexte archéologique.



This paper is based on the results of the author’s PhD research at the University of Edinburgh, which included the creation of a database to record and identify individual animal depictions, their patina, state of preservation, stylistic properties and any superimpositions and modifications. This research was partly funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Fieldwork in Libya was directed by Tertia Barnett, who kindly made the record of the rock art panels available for my research. The Wadi al-Hayat rock art survey was funded by the Society for Libyan Studies and a British Academy small research grant. My participation in the Wadi al-Hayat rock art survey and additional survey work were funded by the University of Edinburgh Abercromby Fund and a University of Edinburgh Small Project Grant. Thanks to Nick Drake (King’s College London) for the valuable discussions and improvements on the manuscript and to the anonymous reviewers for the constructive comments and helpful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of ArtUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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