Sand, Stones, and Bones: The Archaeology of Death in the Wadi Tanezzuft Valley (5000-2000 BP), ed. SAVINO DI LERNIA & GIORGIO MANZI
Arid Zone Archaeology Monographs, Vol. 3. Università degli studi di Roma “La Sapienza”. 2002. 356 pages. ISBN 88-7814-281-6. (€60)

This book forms the first of a series of three planned volumes devoted to “The Archaeology of [the] Libyan Sahara”. The project is directed by Mario Liverani and focuses upon Wadi Tanezzuft during the early Holocene in order to better understand marginal environments. The period studied covers the transition between the Late Pastoral (c. 5000-3500 BP) and the Garamantian (c. 500 BC – AD 500) phases of North African prehistory. The book consists of fourteen chapters following a relatively traditional scheme of introductory chapters (Chapters 1-3), field and laboratory research type papers (Chapter 4-13) and ending with a concluding report summarising the entire project (Chapter 14). The editors describe the project as being an attempt to merge varying subfields, such as relatively traditional archaeology, geology, anthropology, palaeobiology, zooarchaeology and molecular genetics.

The first chapter, written by the volume editors, evaluates a variety of topics within the archaeology of death in the Saharan region. Special focus is placed upon the rituals and beliefs of the later Prehistoric populations of south-western Fezzan in Libya, with evidence also being collected for neighbouring regions such as Niger, Algeria and Egypt. The choice of research region is said to be the result of the nature of the archaeological record, as the area is characterised by strong erosion associated with increasingly arid conditions, associated with disturbed and otherwise altered settlement features. The authors also note that the position of Acacus massif corresponds to a crossing point between modern genetic boundaries related to human gene flow across the Sahara. This chapter provides a valuable introduction to the aim of volume, which is to take a combined approach interlinking physical anthropology and archaeology, in order to reconstruct cultural and micro-evolutionary trajectories of the past populations / societies. Prior to this research project, the knowledge of the history of the Sahara consisted only of survey data, with some archaeological excavation of settlements and rock art studies and information upon the palaeobiology, and the funerary practices and rituals associated with death was very limited.

In the second chapter, Mauro Cremaschi and Savino di Lernia provide a summary of regional approaches to mortuary archaeology and attempt to insert the current study into a theoretical framework. Attention is drawn to the important relationship in the study area between climate, environment and “cultures”, as analysis is undertaken of the fragmentation of the Late Pastoral communities and the different adaptations employed to cope with increasingly arid environments. In this chapter, in contrast to the first, the authors state that the choice of research area (the Wadi Tanezzuft west of the Acacus scarp) was due to this area escaping the aridification of the neighbouring areas for several millennia. The authors note problems of representative sampling within the study as sampling was undertaken by covering the area by 4WD vehicle in 2km wide strips, and employing fieldwalking when areas of interest were noted from the vehicle. This approach seems a sensible method to use in such a harsh and vast environment. The authors recommend using a regional approach, integrated with high resolution studies in certain sample areas associated with selective excavation. As a result, the surveyed area covers 2500 km2, in which 119 funerary sites and 560 stone structures were located.

Chapter 3, by Sandra Sivilli, is a synopsis of the history of studies relating to North African megalithic architecture and mortuary archaeology. This is a distinct chapter from rest of volume, and is described as an exploration of the links between the political contexts of archaeology, colonialism and the nature of early archaeological studies in the region. The chapter certainly describes the history of research into both North Saharan and North African tumuli, bringing in mention of past diffusionist thinking and concluding with some discussion of more recent research employing 14C dates as evidence for population movement.

Chapters 4 and 5, written by many members of the project, describe the systematic fieldwork in the Tanezzuft Valley. The authors hope that the exhaustive publication of field data through appendices and a complete graphic and photographic documentation may aid future research. These chapters also include a discussion of the relationship between the representativeness of the sampling and the type of archaeological evidence.

The first of these chapters includes a discussion of the term “megalithic architecture” as it has different interpretations in other studies and may encompass tumuli that are little more than heaps of stones. Within the study area, large boulders are very rare, and neither quarries nor transported rocks were found. There follows a useful and thorough description of a method in which to categorise megalithic stone structures into eleven types, ranging from simple stone alignments and tumuli to crescents and bazinas. This chapter may therefore become a valuable resource to others working upon similar features.

A minor error is found here as the western edge of the study area is the Algerian border (and not the eastern edge as written). This issue highlights a major problem with the volume. Mapping is relatively poor throughout. A simple map is required that clearly locates the area subdivisions used in the text, as regions are referred to but cannot be clearly located without some indication of their relationship to each other. The reader is often left unsure as to whether sample areas are immediately proximate or at vast distance.

The authors compare the quantity of funerary monuments with the ethnohistoric record of the local population size and hypothesise that 500-1000 people lived in the Wadi Tanezzuft in late prehistory. From the number of funerary monuments in the region and this estimate of population size, they predict that about 14 individuals should be buried in each structure. In reality only about 1 to 4 people are found buried per structure, and hence the project’s research question changes to ask where the rest are buried.

The fifth chapter consists of descriptions of the excavations undertaken. Some clear accounts are given of the tumulus excavations, such as the sequence of burials in tumuli 1 & 2 at site 96/129 near Tahalla. The burials consist of a vast range of biologically aged individuals, from neonates, through children and juveniles, to mature adults. These skeletons are found in association with grave goods, including beads (stone, ostrich egg-shell and faience), carinated scrapers and bifacial arrowheads etc. Detail is provided as to the phasing of the construction of the tumuli through analysis of the changing tumuli complex shapes. The authors suggest, with little evidence provided, that this is associated with a change from kinship linkage to the assertion of social ranking in groups. There is much interpretation of the archaeological evidence, and potentially some over-interpretation of the data, such as hypothesising over potential sacrifice of the female in Tumulus 3bis (H1) and its presumed association with the male in Tumulus 3 (H2) at site 96/129, or of the potential mother and child in Tumulus 10 (H2 and H4 respectively) again at site 96/129. When site 96/129 was selected for excavation it was believed to represent a single middle to large cemetery of Late Pastoral phase. Excavation indicated that it dated to the start of the 4th millennium BP and ended around 2500 BP (and thus overlapped with the start of the Garamantian phase). In the following chapter however, describing the textiles and leather, the same site is simply described as a Late Pastoral cemetery, radiocarbon dated to 3800-2700 BP.

Chapter six was outline by Alfio Maspero, who died shortly before completion of the volume, and hence it was finished by other members of the project. It consists of a survey of the organic matter, including leather and other textiles. These studies employed morphological, histological, chemical an immunological methods. The material found was mostly animal leather, with some wool textile being found in the so-called “Royal Tumulus” (of Garamantian period), but no true textiles being found in Late Pastoral phase graves. Dyed textiles and blue dyes were also only found in the “Royal Tumulus”.

The study of the plant macrofossils in Chapter 7, by Michela Cottini and Mauro Rottoli, suggests that the vegetation during the Late Pastoral and Garamantian periods was very similar to today, in comprising of arid adapted species. Wooden sandals made from Faidherbia albida (previously known as Acacia albida of the Mimosa family) were found in a burial at site 00/195. Wild Sorghum was found in a Late Pastoral context. Palm dates are also noted as having been used as funerary offerings in tombs dating to the Garamantian period (approx. 3000BP), which the authors imply suggests some date palm cultivation.

Chapter 8, by Francesca Alhaique, comprises a zooarchaeological study and includes a discussion of the meaning of faunal remains in funerary contexts. The faunal sample from the tumuli is small for the Late Pastoral period, but large for the Garamantian period despite having excavated many more Late Pastoral tumuli. The faunal material was all weathered and poorly preserved, and therefore species attributions were not always possible. A tentative identification was made of Orycteropus afer (aardvark) from Tumulus 10 at site 96/129. This is important as currently aardvarks are only found south of the Sahara. An equid bone was found in 00/195bis. Alhaique notes that this probably originates from Equus africanus (wild ass), but suggests that, as the bone was found in association with a human burial, it may represent E. caballus (domestic horse). The later funerary structures from the Garamantian are described as indicating complex burial rituals, through their interment of Gazella dorcas and ovicaprines. Bones from these species, comprising mainly humeri and metapodials, are found with cutmarks and burning, which Alhaique interprets as indicating use as part of the burial ritual as either a meal or offering. The inclusion of dorcas gazelle, a wild species, amongst small livestock raises questions about the importance of hunting during the Garamantian.

The ninth chapter, by Emanuela Cristiani and Cristina Lemorini, consists of a functional study of the funerary material, considering the deposition with the deceased of unused tools and evidence for particular relationships between the buried individual and the objects, such as of beads and pendants. The deposition with the dead of intact unused projectile points is argued to imply ritual behaviour.

Chapter 10, by Francesca Ricci and others, consists of an inventory of the entire human skeletal sample discovered in the Tannezuft Valley from 1999 onwards. The chapter represents a traditional descriptive approach to skeletal biology. Generally the authors are to be praised for making their sample means data fully available to other researchers, although some researchers may raise eyebrows at the claimed accuracies. There is some unrealistic age determination, with certain adults being placed into 5 year age bands, and some rather meaningless accuracy being claimed, such as measuring long bones to 0.1mm. The latter is complicated by lack of detail as to how certain measurements were taken and thus what they actually consist of, e.g. the medial maximum humerus diameter. Stature estimates are given to 1mm despite the chapter containing a detailed section describing the potential use of a variety of prediction methodologies. The authors also compare two individuals to Howells’ global data set of cranial measurements, but, earlier in the chapter, provide craniometric sample means using slightly different measurements. They do not provide the equivalent Howells measurement data for the sample, hence it is possible that the earlier measurements have been taken as proxies for Howells measurements despite not being collected in the same manner.

Chapter 11, by Emiliano Bruner, Francesca Ricci and Giorgo Manzi, consists of geometric morphometric study of the shape of a sub-sample of the material described in the previous chapter. The sub-sample consists of two individual skulls (H1 from Tumulus 10 at 96/129 and H1 from 00/195). These individuals are compared with material including Somalian, Ethiopian, Canary Islander and Eastern Libyan Oases crania. Morphological continuity is implied in association with interaction with sub-Saharan populations. It would have been useful if this same comparative sample had been employed in the analysis in the preceding chapter.

A study of the skeletal stress markers at site 96/129, in chapter 12, was undertaken by Belinda Arrighetti, Bruna Reale, Francesca Ricci and Silvana Borgognini Tarli. These musculo-skeletal stress-markers are linked to repetitive movements and hence may be linked to occupation and labour. The research is based upon the premise that the duration and amount of mechanical stress placed upon the bone, through repeated action, is linked to the degree of bone resorption or formation in that region. The results indicate that the degree of stress increased by age band of the sample, and the location of the greatest stress, within the vertebral column, changed by age from the thoracic region, through the lumbar region, to the cervical region, and potentially some sexual division of labour.

Preliminary results obtained from ancient DNA studies are presented in Chapter 13, by Carla Babalini and co-workers. Mitochondrial DNA extraction was attempted upon a sub-sample of human teeth from ten individuals. The mtDNA locus was selected due to its maternal inheritance pattern, high copy number, simple structure and relatively fast rate of mutational change. Analysis was undertaken upon the two hypervariable regions and region V. The authors report that the mtDNA from the individuals from site 96/129 was reasonably distinct from that obtained from the other sampled material. Only one individual was fully characterised, and was found to be a member of an African haplotype (L3).

The final chapter, written by the editors and Francesca Merighi, acts as a synthetic assessment of the preceding studies. The authors believe that “in a certain sense, Late Pastoral people became Garamantes,” (p. 281) through population continuity, as little evidence was found in the current study of population replacement. This research project has clearly demonstrated heterogeneity of mortuary practice. In the initial phase of the Late Pastoral stone tumuli are rare, are set in restricted areas and can best be described as isolated tombs, potentially being reserved for special individuals within the group. By contrast, the second phase, at the start of the 4th millennium bp, is characterised by generalised use of cemeteries with an increase in the heterogeneity of tumuli type. Most of the excavated structures described in chapter 5 date from the third phase, at the end of the Late Pastoral. This last phase has even greater heterogeneity in terms of megalithic architecture and deposition, with the development of large burial grounds.

The chapter also includes an outward view towards the rest of the Sahara. This section highlights the importance of megalithic architecture and the development of African cattle cults, in view of no cattle burials being found during the 1999-2001 fieldwork. These reviewing sections are excellent in placing this region into a greater geographic context and link in to previous studies of population diversity and movement. The authors conclude that there is a degree of local population continuity from the Middle Pastoral up to the Garamantes. A hypothesis is also developed of major population shifts through oasis contraction, on the basis of funerary site and settlement distribution, which is then linked to the emergence of social hierarchy. This final chapter can therefore be recommended to all working in North Africa as a valuable resource for the development of future research design.

The book forms a good preliminary report upon the study of this Libyan material. Throughout the volume, specific attention has been drawn to ritual behaviours and practices. The inclusion of the detailed abstracts at the start of each chapter is very useful. The volume would have been improved by giving clearer captions for the keys to shading in the various figures. The volume has occasional strange choices of phraseology, which is linked to the publication not being in the authors’ native tongue. For example, in Chapter 5, all the skeletons are described as “lied” rather than lay, such as at the base of a tumulus. The volume is recommended for all those working within North African contexts and provides a good grounding in the theoretical debate surrounding mortuary analysis. The authors are commended for their fine work on the project and one hopes that the future volumes in the series will be as thorough.

Sonia Zakrzewski
Dept of Archaeology
University of Southampton

Review Submitted: March 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page