Jo Clarke, Nick Brooks, eds. The Archaeology of the Western Sahara: A Synthesis of Fieldwork, 2002 to 2009. Havertown: Oxbow Books, Limited, 2018. 256 pp. GBP 55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78297-172-6.
Reviewed by Abidemi B. Babalola (University of Cambridge)
Published on H-Africa (August, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)
Western Sahara is archaeologically and historically significant for several reasons. It has yielded evidence of a paleolithic population dated to about the sixth millennium BP. Its location next to the North Atlantic contributes to environmental variability, which had shaped the interaction between the inhabitants and the environment in diverse and dynamic ways over several millennia. Bordering Morocco to the north and Mauritania to the west and south, Western Sahara is rightly positioned to engage with other communities in the Saharan region. A large part of the history of Western Sahara is connected to the Berber and Maghrib incursions and complex interaction with the rest of Central and Eastern Sahara and the Mediterranean. At the scramble for Africa, Western Sahara became a Spanish colony—an identity it held for almost a century. At independence, conflict over the political sovereignty of Western Sahara continued between Morocco and Mauritania. Today, the northern part remains the territory of Morocco. All of these elements have impacted what we know about the deep history of Western Sahara. The Archaeology of Western Sahara pulls together archaeological and paleoenvironmental evidence to tell a narrative that (re)situates the region in regional and global history.
The book comprehensively reports archaeological and environmental investigations carried out in the Free Zone of Western Sahara between 2002 and 2009. The research is comprised of a series of in-depth surveys and limited excavations over several field seasons. The Sahrawi people, who are considered indigenous, occupy the research area. Before the project, they had distanced themselves from the funerary monuments that dotted the entire landscape of Western Sahara. The Archaeology of Western Sahara is divided into eight chapters. By Joanne Clarke and Nick Brooks, chapter 1 foregrounds the project, its history, focus, and motivation, and the prior archaeological and environmental research. It outlines the significance of the publication for a region that has received little attention in the literature due to a history of conflict that has limited researchers' access. Rather than a pure descriptive site-specific narration, the authors emphasize the regional focus of the book, drawing from landscape phenomenology approach to understand prehistoric cultural adaptation and the dynamic human-environment interaction in the region over a longue durée.
In chapter 2, Sue McLaren and colleagues give an account of the environmental survey conducted at the Free Zone focusing on landscape features, which allows for paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental reconstruction. The survey area is divided into two sections: the northern and southern. Each of these sections has distinctive landscape features. For example, the northern segment is bifurcated with large wadis and characterized by open sand, gravel plains, granite ridges and granite and sandstone hills, and plateau. In contrast, the southern section is characterized by extensive sand and gravel plains with basalt ridges, dykes, granite hills, and outcrops, with fewer shallow wadis. These diverse geographical features combined with the position of Western Sahara near the Atlantic Ocean have had significant influence in the climate of the region, which is today can be described as an arid condition but was humid in the early Holocene. The authors describe sites of paleoenvironmental indicators, which include evidence of paleolake such as carbonate deposit, rock art paintings and engravings depicting animal species that are “not adaptive to aridity” (p. 19), and other geomorphic features.
Stone features are an essential piece of evidence of the prehistoric population in Western Sahara, but they have received inadequate attention compared to rock arts. The stone structure could have been constructed for funerary or prosaic purposes. Their construction is firmly rooted in cultural practices, such as rituals surrounding astronomic belief and interactions with the local environments. Brooks, Salvatore Garfi, and Yves Gauthier in chapter 3 provide a detailed discussion of the systematic study of stone features in the Free Zone with the aim to develop a typology to create morphological groups. They identify three main morphological groups, namely carins, falcate, and patroforms. They grouped all others that do not fit into the major groups under a separate category called “others.” Each of these groups has varieties of subgroups distinguished by their shape, construction pattern, associated stone emplacements, and arrangement. The rest of the chapter describes each of the subgroups in depth.
Chapter 4, by Brooks and colleagues, and chapter 5, by Garfi and Clarke, present the methods and findings of the extensive and intensive survey carried out in the northern and southern sections of the Free Zone. The surveys were based on a thorough recording of all features (environmental and cultural) and materials identifiable within the survey area. The extensive survey aimed at “recording of individual features and groups of features in a wide variety of locations in both the Northern and Southern Sectors of the Free Zone … [as] a necessary precursor to intensive survey and excavation” (p. 56). Almost six hundred stone features were recorded, with tumuli, a subgroup of cairns, the most common type of stone structure, representing 54 percent of the total stone monuments. Ceramic scatter and worked stone were identified across the landscape. The intensive survey (chapter 5), on the other hand, focused on the detailed recording of a single site, documenting the topographic features and their relationship to the stone monuments and artifact scatter. This intensive survey centered on the area around Wadi Tifariti referred to in the book as the TF1 study area. Topographically, this area is classified into five zones, and 411 stone features and seven artifact-scatter sites were identified. With the location of different types of stone monuments in different topographical zones and the visibility of monuments on the lower ground from those on the higher ground, the authors argue the “the position and orientation of monuments was … usually pre-planned in order that they were situated in the landscape in a meaningful way” (p. 121).
In chapter 6, Clarke, Vicki Winton, and Alexander Wasse account for the excavations conducted at the sites of stone features at the Tifariti area of the Free Zone in 2005 and 2007. The chapter discusses the rationale for choosing the excavations' locations, the aims of the excavations, and the excavation methods and findings. In 2005, two funerary stone monuments were excavated to understand the construction of the tumuli and assess the biological indexes of the individuals interred in the monuments. Three individuals were identified from the two burial monuments with ostrich shell and stone beads, iron point, copper earring, worked shells, grinding stones, and ceramics associated with the burials. The burials are radiocarbon dated to AD 430 to 820.
On the other hand, the 2007 excavations focused on seven utility sites with artifact scatter on the surface. The excavation and surface collection at the sites of activities yielded dense chipped stones, polished stone axes, stone bracelet fragments, ground stone palettes, hammerstones, pottery, bones, and ostrich eggshells, and charcoal. Features such as hearths, burial monuments, and linear and curvilinear stone features were identified. The occurrence of Ounan points dates the site to early to middle Holocene. This period is consistent with the radiocarbon date of 4540-4340 BC.
Of all the categories of artifacts recovered from the excavations and surface collection at the TF 1 study area of the Free Zone, lithics, or chipped stone, is the most dominant. Thus, chapter 7, by Anne Pirie, presents the results of the analysis carried out on the lithic materials. It provides a thorough discussion of the chipped stones, giving a unit-by-unit description of the assemblage. Of over 4,000 chipped stones recovered, about 3,800 were analyzed, and bladelets appeared to be the most prevalent tool types. These tools were made from raw materials such as quartz, jasper, silicified sandstone, and flint/chert, all of which are available in the vicinity. Pirie identifies the occurrence of Levallois from the lithic assemblage and suggests the possible presence of lower or middle paleolithic populations. However, the author argues that the Neolithic population must have occupied the TF 1 study area during the early and early middle Holocene (7,000–8,000 BP and 4,000–5,000 BP) and used or made lithics similar to those known from the rest of the Sahara.
Clarke and Brooks, in chapter 8, weave all of findings from the Western Sahara archaeological project together to place the area in a local and regional context. The authors reiterate the evidence of the occupation of Western Sahara; discuss the monuments through the application of landscape phenomenology; and reassess the evidence of the connection of Western Sahara in the “Atlantic Interaction Sphere” through a trade engagement with southern Iberia, Morocco, and Atlantic Sahara. They argue that Western Sahara interacted not only with the wider Saharan region by exchanging ideas of the construction of stone monuments and the ideology of funerary practices but also with prehistoric European traditions.
Beyond the impressive documentation and extremely detailed description of the stone features and findings from the excavations, The Archaeology of Western Sahara offers insights on the human-environment relationship and human responses to climatic changes in this region of the Sahara. Thus, the book is an essential addition to the scanty archaeological literature on the region. The merits of the book can be viewed in two ways. First of all, on a disciplinary level, the work could be read as a sourcebook on field methods. The level of detail and explanation of the processes and procedures employed during the research is unmatched. It is an excellent blueprint for surveying an archaeological site not only in the Sahara or Sahel region but also elsewhere. The impeccable use of satellite images from Google Earth for optimal result sets a precedent for how this dataset could be used for rigorous archaeological research. Most discussions on and descriptions of geographical and geological features, archaeological sites, and artifacts are followed up with pictorial presentation in a very appealing manner that provides readers with a better sense of what the region looks like and how the artifacts were collected. The combination of site distribution maps and wide-angle views of the site complements the narrative in a comprehensible way. Few archaeology books get this right, so the authors deserve commendation for such painstaking work. The work also provides an unprecedented roadmap for recording archaeological sites with a high level of meticulousness, especially for investigations gear toward landscape studies. Aggregating data from a single site is a daunting task. But the authors demystify this process by bringing together a massive dataset that crisscrosses an expansive landscape in the most coherent way.
Second, the merits of the book are also in its regional approach to the interpretation and discussion of the findings. This regional perspective resonates throughout the chapters. Every chapter provides a narrative that situates Western Sahara within the wider world. This approach places the region on the canvas of global historiography over a longue durée. It brings into the limelight not only the cultural and ideological connection of Western Sahara to the broader Saharan region but also its active engagement with the Atlantic world as well as, perhaps, Neolithic and prehistoric Europe. The authors' argument that the shape, form, and alignment of the stone features; ceramics decoration; rock art style; and the forms of the worked stones are evidence that Western Sahara “connected to the wider Holocene Saharan culture” is valid and strongly justified by the data presented (p. 100). In this regard, the book contributes tremendously to our understanding of the regional and global history of cultural adaptation and integration, long-distance trade and exchange, and complex human-environment interaction in novel ways.
While the book is an incredible contribution, it is not without shortfalls. One thing I find grossly missing in the interpretation is “local agency.” The authors identify some peculiarities in the monument style at Western Sahara, which they suggest is an indication of Western Sahara’s autonomy in innovation of monument that is atypical compared to the rest of the Sahara. However, they argue that this innovation would have been inspired by “earlier ‘pan-Saharan’ forms” through what Clarke and Brooks call “a process of divergent cultural evolution” (pp. 101, 204). How indigenous stimulus rooted in the cultural ideologies, values systems, and worldview of the people played out in the material expression and the innovation process at the Free Zone is not alluded to in the book. It is understandable that a regional approach was the priority of the authors, as they argue that the archaeology of the region “has been considered predominantly in a local context” (p. 203), yet the local imprint and ingenuity should not be downplayed for a broader regional narrative that enshrouds indigenous perception in the construction of their “world.” In fact, the author’s statement at the outset that the project was an attempt to “present the prehistory of Western Sahara as the heritage of the Sahrawi People” through an invocation of Ian Hodder’s idea of “giving a voice to local people” is a contradiction to the absence of local voices in the interpretations offered throughout the book (p. 5). They do not return to the issue of cultural heritage and the “relationship between the past and present” (p. 4). An additional section, perhaps in the concluding chapter, falling back on the cultural heritage issue would have added real value.
Notwithstanding these shortfalls, I find the book very stimulating, resulting from long-term, problem-orientated research. It broadens our knowledge of the prehistory of Western Sahara beyond rock arts. It brings the region into the larger scheme of global understanding of the prehistoric occupation by filling in the “blank [for the] wider international archaeological research community” (p. 1). It is an excellent contribution that will be useful for students and scholars in diverse disciplines such as landscape and regional studies, archaeology, anthropology, environmental studies, and deep history.
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Abidemi B. Babalola. Review of Clarke, Jo; Brooks, Nick, eds., The Archaeology of the Western Sahara: A Synthesis of Fieldwork, 2002 to 2009.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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