British Museum blog

Sharp of teeth: crocodiles in the ancient Sahara

Jorge de Torres, Project Cataloguer, African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

For many people crocodiles represent the ultimate predator, a merciless killer which hides in the water to prey on whatever comes to drink water or to cross rivers. Probably the most well-known crocodile habitat is the Nile, where these animals dwell in great numbers and sometimes attack people. In ancient times, however, crocodiles were regarded as more complex than simply vicious carnivores, as the current Asahi Shimbun Display, Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god, in Room 3 demonstrates. Through the combination of CT scans and archaeological research, the display of this four-metre long crocodile introduces visitors to the beliefs of ancient Egyptians, to whom this mummy was an incarnation of the crocodile god Sobek. Although crocodiles were considered terrifying beings to be placated through offerings and gifts, they were also associated with the fertility of the river Nile and its annual flood, which was fundamental to the wellbeing of the country.

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Mummified crocodile with hatchlings on display, alongside a 3D visualisation of the mummy created from the CT-scan data. © Trustees of the British Museum

It is difficult to imagine crocodiles without an abundance of water, and therefore the Sahara Desert is one of the last places one would think of as a crocodile habitat. Astonishingly, even today there are several areas in the southern Sahara where small groups of crocodiles still endure the harsh conditions of semi-desert zones, and survive in caves, pockets of water and other permanent water sources. Although until the 20th century crocodiles were still found in some areas of Morocco and the Tassili n’Ajjer massif in Algeria, nowadays northern African crocodiles are mostly found in Mauritania and Chad.

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View of the Archei Guelta, one of the places in Chad where crocodiles can still be found. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.6424

The situation was very different ten thousand years ago. At that moment the Sahara, now the largest non-polar desert on earth, was a savannah crossed by networks of rivers. Species such as hippopotamus, elephant and giraffe lived near the shores of mega lakes. Throughout the desert, archaeologists and palaeontologists have documented skeletons of crocodiles in areas as unlikely as Algeria, Libya and northern Mali, proving that crocodiles roamed in a greener Sahara thousands of years ago.

Although most of the information about the presence of crocodiles in the Sahara derives from bones, there is another source of information to record the presence of these animals in the desert: the depictions of crocodiles in the Saharan rock art. The best known example is this striking engraving located in the Messak Setaffet, a stony plateau located in the south of Libya with numerous dry riverbeds running to the east into Murzuq erg. These riverbeds are home to some of the oldest rock art depictions in the Sahara, many of them representing animals long since disappeared from the region. Measuring more than two meters in length the crocodile depicted is accompanied by a hatchling and a cow engraved under one of its forelegs. The meticulous engraving technique, the size of the images and the carefully chosen boulder make this figure one of the most iconic rock art depictions in the Sahara.

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The great crocodile of Tin-Habeter. Wadi Mathendous, Libya. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.3106

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Detail of the hatchling that accompanies the crocodile. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.3111

This is one of my favourite images of the African Rock Art Image Project, so when the project team investigated which rock art sites could be digitally recreated; the Messak crocodiles were the first to come to my mind. The results of this work provide an alternative view of some of the most remarkable features of these figures, and reflect the skill and dedication of the artist who used the boulder to enhance the shape of the animal. A month ago, this 3D model was printed (at a smaller scale) and now we have a small version of a 10,000-year-old engraving, a beautiful example of a world long vanished, but an important didactic tool, too. As a digital-only project, one of the challenges we face is to make people see our images as material expressions of the past, and 3D printing provides a link between the original piece and the contemporary public. Though impressive, the crocodile image isn’t just a piece of art, it’s also a cultural expression of Saharan communities thousands of years ago, and a testimony of the environmental conditions in which they lived.

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Digitally recreated image of the great crocodile of Tin-Habeter on the Sketchfab website

The Asahi Shimbun Display in Room 3 and the 3D reconstructions carried out by the African Rock Art Image Project are good examples of how new technologies and archaeological research can be combined to improve our understanding of past societies, and present this knowledge to the public. They also bring to light the delicate balance between environment and culture in ancient societies, and the multiples strategies humans used to incorporate the world that surrounded them in their identities and beliefs systems.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Scanning Sobek: mummy of the crocodile god is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 21 February 2016.

Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

The African Rock Art Image Project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

 

Further reading:

Brito JC, Martínez-Freiría F, Sierra P, Sillero N, Tarroso P (2011) Crocodiles in the Sahara Desert: An Update of Distribution, Habitats and Population Status for Conservation Planning in Mauritania. PLoS ONE 6(2): e14734. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0014734

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This photograph shows a mountainside in #Angola featuring large engravings which may be thousands of years old. This rock art is found at Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume, one of a group of four rock art sites located in the south-west corner of Angola, by the edge of the Namib desert. The area is a semi-arid plain characterised by the presence of several inselbergs (isolated hills rising from the plain). Of the four sites, Tchitundu-Hulu Mulume is the largest, located at the top of an inselberg, 726 metres in height. There are large engravings on the slopes of the outcrop, most of them consisting of simple or concentric circles and solar-like images.

Our #AfricanRockArt image project team have now completed cataloguing 19,000 rock art images from Northern, Eastern and Southern Africa, and will be completing work on sites from Southern African countries in the final phase of the project. Follow the link in our bio to find out more about our African #rockart image project and the incredible images being catalogued.
Photograph © TARA/David Coulson. Our #AfricanRockArt project team is cataloguing and uploading around 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. Working with digital photographs has allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ.

As part of the cataloguing process, the project team document each photograph, identifying what is depicted. Sometimes images are faded or unclear. Using photo manipulation software, images can be run through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can now see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye.

This painted panel, from Kondoa District in #Tanzania, shows the white outline of an elephant’s head at the right, along with some figures in red that it is possible to highlight with digital enhancement.

Tanzania contains some of the densest concentrations of rock art in East Africa, mainly paintings found in the Kondoa area and adjoining Lake Eyasi basin. The oldest of these paintings are attributed to hunter-gatherers and may be 10,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio to learn more about the project and see stunning #rockart from Africa. This week we’re highlighting the work of our #AfricanRockArt image project. The project team are now in the third year of cataloguing, and have uploaded around 19,000 digital photographs of rock art from all over #Africa to the Museum’s collection online database.

This photograph shows an engraving of a large, almost life-sized elephant, found on the Messak Plateau in #Libya. This region is home to tens of thousands of depictions, and is best known for larger-than-life-size engravings of animals such as elephants, rhino and a now extinct species of buffalo. This work of rock art most likely comes from the Early Hunter Period and could be up to 12,000 years old.

Follow the link in our bio and explore 30,000 years of stunning rock art from Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Watch the incredible discovery of this colossal statue, submerged under the sea of thousands of years. This colossal 5.4-metre statue of Hapy was discovered underwater in what was the thriving and cosmopolitan seaport of Thonis-Heracleion. It once stood in front of a temple and would have been an impressive sight for traders and visitors arriving from the Mediterranean.

Come face to face with the ancient Egyptian god Hapy for yourself in our‪ #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016.

Colossal statue of Hapy. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt. About 380-250 BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. The discovery of this stela, which once stood at the entrance of the main entry port into ancient Egypt, was an extraordinary moment. Its inscription detailing taxes helped solve a 2,000-year-old mystery!

This magnificent monument was crucial to revealing that Thonis (in Egyptian) and Heracleion (in Greek) were in fact the same city. The decree was issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of goods passing through the cities of Thonis and Naukratis, and it originally stood in the Temple of Amun-Gereb. The inscription states that this slab stood at the mouth of the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ (the Mediterranean) in Thonis.

A bilingual decree found in 1881 refers in its Greek inscription to ‘the Temple of Heracleion’ and in hieroglyphs to ‘the Temple of Amun-Gereb’. Together these objects revealed that Thonis and Heracleion were the same place.

Learn more about the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece in our #SunkenCities exhibition.
Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 380–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that the #SunkenCities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the ancient Egyptian cities were believed to be lost.

Over the last 20 years, world-renowned archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team have excavated spectacular underwater discoveries using the latest technologies. The amazing rediscovery of these lost cities is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

See more magical moments of discovery in our #SunkenCities exhibition, until 27 November 2016. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

#archaeology #diving #ancientEgypt
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