The tifinagh rock inscriptions in the Tadrart Acacus mountains (SW Libya): an unknown endangered heritage (EAP265)

Aims and objectives

The Tadrart Acacus is a massif averaging 150km long and 50km wide located in the Fazzan region, in the south western corner of Libya. Italian archaeological research carried out over the last fifty years has already illuminated the richness of the archaeological and rock art heritage of the area, which has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Nevertheless, previous research has focused mainly on prehistory and on the Holocene paintings and engravings of the region whilst leaving aside a systematic investigation of the historical rock inscriptions which also occur throughout the massif. Valuable and astonishing remains dating to historical times are undoubtedly represented by these writings incised along the cliffs that cross the massif. Vaguely described as tifinagh inscriptions, a Tuareg word indicating the traditional writing still in use throughout the Sahara desert, they are a remarkable record related to the history, both ancient and modern, of the Acacus mountains. According to research carried out in other North African regions (i.e. Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria), the age of those scripts ranges from the second century BC up to current times. In contrast to what has been done elsewhere, the Libyan rock scripts of the Tadrart Acacus have never been the object of systematic recording, even though they represent a unique and available 'archive' of inscribed material from the Garamantian period up to the present time.

The location of these inscriptions, which have been reported in the course of several archaeological surveys, is known but no real cataloguing or photographic campaign has been carried out so far. The written records are carved in rock walls and range from a simple short incised line to longer, articulated inscriptions which constitute a crucial source of the individual and social memory of the communities that have been living in the area over the last two millennia. The rock of the Acacus has allowed for the preservation of a unique palimpsest of written documentation, from the Old Libyan up to the present times.

In the last decade the area has been severely threatened by the increasing number of tourists visiting an environment which is extremely fragile and not well suited to hosting such numbers. This phenomenon has already led to the damage of some of the most beautiful and easily accessible rock art galleries, having a strong impact on rock walls which include the inscriptions. Each year this situation is getting worse, in spite of the efforts of the local management authority. This is especially true for those areas which are close to the main passageways through the mountain, which means the mountain passes and the rock walls close to the principal routes crossing the Acacus, and those places where water is available. Unfortunately, these areas are also the places where long historical inscriptions most frequently occur. This means that they are constantly at risk. Moreover, in the last fifteen years, the whole region has experienced a strong impact due to oil exploration and exploitation. The Messak Settafet (located to the NW of the Acacus, but culturally related to it), has been seriously affected by seismic lines and oil fields that have badly damaged part of the plateau area and its archaeological heritage. Oil Surveys have also been carried out in the area surrounding the oasis of Ghat, directly adjacent to the Acacus mountains, and certainly represent a further threat.

The aim of the project is to identify, locate, catalogue, photograph and document the state of conservation of all the rock inscriptions along the four main passes through the Acacus mountains crossed from ancient times. This includes rock walls related to the main caravan routes and to the places where water is available, which will be the richest areas in inscriptions and the most endangered. This will provide a digital archive of the written records.

The work will be carried out with the collaboration of the Libyan Department of Antiquities in Tripoli and with the Jarma Archaeological Museum, which is the local institution in charge of the management of the cultural heritage of the area. This will contribute to raising the awareness of local personnel of the importance of safeguarding and archiving this kind of written documentation in their region.

The seeming durability of stone no longer ensures the preservation of these remains, and under the pressure of contemporary exigencies this neglected part of past and present life requires urgent recording.


The archive of the Italian-Libyan Archaeological Mission in the Acacus, working in the area since 1955, has been the base to locate several sites. This EAP project enabled specific field work to be carried out in order to locate, photograph and when possible give a topographic rendering of the panels inscribed with tifinagh characters with the most up-date technologies. The number of relevant sites increased dramatically (from around 15 sites to more than one hundred). The photographic documentation was the core of the programme but the coordinates, physiographic position, location, type and size of the support, technique(s), state of preservation, relevance, potential risks, and the damage to the inscriptions were also recorded.

From a theoretical and methodological viewpoint, the recording of tifinagh inscriptions was a real challenge. The complexity of the type of documentation – pecked or engraved inscriptions on often uneven and irregular sandstone support – has been faced by creating an archive based on a specific (and original) taxonomic hierarchy. The site, considered as the physical location of tifinagh inscriptions in the space, was subdivided, when possible, in a series of subsequent units, named surface and panels. Definition, description and recording have been done for all the three levels, creating a clear documentation for all the sites identified in the field.

The bare nature of the support of the inscription(s) led the project to explore different techniques of recording and visual rendering: some sites have been therefore mapped by means of Electronic Total Station (ETA) and Differential GPS and then processed with specific software. The 3D rendering of Acacus rock inscriptions represent a methodological advance which can hopefully be adopted in other contexts, facilitating the adoption of a shared archive management of inscription realised on “unusual” supports, such as the uneven surfaces of desert environments. On the basis of the amount and complexity of inscriptions 35 very relevant sites were recorded, with multiple panels inscribed; 56 relevant sites; and 32 sites with an average degree of relevance. Moreover a preliminary analysis of the content, in order to provide a first chronology for the study area, has been carried out. The first archive of tifinagh rock inscriptions in the region of the Acacus mountain and of the whole Fezzan has thus been created.

A copy of the digital archive has been given to the Head of the Libyan Department of Archaeology in Tripoli and to the Director of the Jerma Museum; one copy is also in the University of Rome La Sapienza and one copy with the British Library. The digital archive will be placed in the Mission website, with free access to anybody registering the site.

This research was met with enthusiasm by the local people involved, from the Department of Archaeology to the desert guides, who, for the first time, considered the tifinagh inscriptions as an important source of information on their history. The Head of the Libyan Department of Archaeology gave his full approval to the project and allowed the photographic campaign, while the Director of the Jerma Museum, Dr Saad Saleh Abdulaziz, was directly involved in the fieldwork and proved to be invaluable also in the attempt to raise awareness amongst local people of the importance of preserving the integrity of the inscribed sites.

EAP gave the Mission the opportunity to enlarge the research field to the issue of tifinagh, so far understudied. As a result, one of the largest tifinagh collections available so far has been recorded, that can improve knowledge of these writings. Furthermore, preliminary study has already proved the relevance of those scripts to the comprehension of the historical and current landscape, revealing some unexpected traits of human-environment interaction in the Acacus range. Some critical issues are clearly traced: the relevance of water points; some major paths within the landscape; the focus on passes and crossroads.

Read an article on this project published in Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa.

Read online the open access article: The ‘written landscape’ of the central Sahara: recording and digitising the Tifinagh inscriptions in the Tadrart Acacus Mountains, published in the EAP Anniversary publication From Dust to Digital. The article can also be downloaded as a PDF (736KB).

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: