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Rock art: Best Kept Secret of the Warren M. Robbins Library

A while ago, before the internet, I became interested in studying Saharan rock art, one of the most beautiful and extensive bodies of prehistoric art, but documentary references were hard to find. This is partly because most of the published literature on Saharan rock art is in French, Italian and German.


Dabous Giraffes, Ténéré Desert, Niger

One day at the Library of Congress, someone told me to check the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, which I did not know existed. I headed to the National Museum of African Art, and to my delight, found much of what I needed there. Indeed, the Warren M. Robbins Library has an important collection of literature on Saharan rock art and archaeology, including the works of leading researchers such as Leo Frobenius, Henri Lhote, Gabriel Camps, Fabrizio Mori, Alfred Muzzolini, Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, and Malika Hachid.


Giraffes Messak, Libya, in D.Cambel and A. Coulson (Fig. 216)

One of the best books on Saharan rock art is Muzzolini’s Les images rupestres du Sahara (Toulouse, France: Alfred Muzzolini, 1995). Incorporating years of extensive field research and studies, and abundantly illustrated, Muzzolini’s book integrates rigorous scientific methods and lays the ground for a sound understanding of Saharan rock art. Similarly thorough in its investigative approach but providing a different interpretation of rock art is Mori’s The great civilizations of the ancient Sahara: neolithization and the earliest evidence of anthropomorphic religions (Roma: L’Erma di Bretschnider, 1998). Also comprehensive in their anthropological treatment of Saharan rock art are Hachid’s Le tassili des Ajjer (Paris: Éditions Paris-Méditerranée; Alger: Edif, 2000); and Le Quellec’s books, Symbolism et art rupestre au Sahara (Paris: Harmattan, 1993); and Art rupestre et préhistoire du Sahara (Paris: Editions Payot & Rivages, 1998).


Le tassili
In addition to these seminal works, the Library has numerous new publications on various site-specific areas of Saharan rock art. Copiously illustrated with colorful pictures that accompany thematic discussions and comments, they bring Saharan rock art alive. Such, for example, are Axel and Anne-Michelle Van Albada, La montagne des homme-chiens: art rupestre du Messak Libyan (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2000); Rüdiger and Gabriele Lutz, The secret of the desert: the rock art of Messak Settafet and Messak Mellet, Libya (Innsbruck: Univeritstbuchhanlung Golf Verlag, 1995); Angelo e Alfredo Castiglioni, e Giancarlo Negro, Fiumi di pietra: Archivio della preistoria sahariana (Tonali, Italy: Edition Lativa, 1986); and Yves and Christine Gauthier, L’art du Sahara: archives des sables (Paris: Seuil, 1996).

The Library also receives excellent reviews, journals and newsletters on rock art and archaeology, including, for example, Sahara: prehistory and history of the Sahara; Journal of African archaeology, African archaeological review; and Trust for African Rock Art newsletter. Of these, the multilingual Sahara is the best in terms of current research, content, and scientific rigor.

African rock art

David Coulson and Alec Campbell

Rock art across the continent is equally represented, especially the well documented Southern Africa region, but also less well-known regions, such as Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Library holdings count valuable continent-wide surveys and studies of African rock art, including David Coulson and Alec Campbell, African rock art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001); and Le Quellec, Rock art in Africa: mythology and legend (Paris: Flammarion, 2004).



Bubalus, Sfaisifa, Algeria. ©Ahmed Achrati

To check library resources on African rock art, go to  Search terms: Rock art; Rock engravings; Rock paintings; or Petroglyphs.

Ahmed Achrati, Volunteer Researcher, Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art


One Comment

  1. Melinda Harrison

    I visited the Smithsonian Library recently as a guest of Dr. Ahmed Achrati who teaches Rock Art at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University. It was an amazing opportunity to see this magificent collection of books on Prehistoric Art, especially those of Africa. It was also interesting to see the security which surrounds so many priceless volumes. I would encourage anyone interested to request this opportunity.
    Melinda Harrison

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