Goulet and other ancient monuments in Northern Africa

Goulets and other structures containing flat paved stone surfaces found between Fezzan, the Niger Republic and the Atlantic Coast.

                                         Mark Milburn

During 1972 I was lucky enough to be allowed to look around in the somewhat remote area known as Spanish Sahara, then occupied by the largely nomadic population and a  sparse assortment of Spanish armed forces. This came about solely due to the kindness of a French consular agent and a former Spanish army officer, since tourists were tolerated solely on a north-south-north through route near the coast.

A year or two later an air force officer who became a friend showed me a number of photos of large low stone monuments, thought to contain burials, which he had photographed from his small fighter aircraft while patrolling the territory. The name given them was “moscas” (flies), since they looked from the air like large flies with closed wings. At that time relations with the country to north were somewhat strained and it was no possible for me to look further. At the end of 1975 Spain abandoned the territory and armed conflict then followed for some years between the Moroccans claiming their ownership and the local West Saharan Polisario Front.

Thanks to Th. Monod, that jovial and most generous French expert with vast experience of the westerly deserts, I learned that these structures were known as “goulets” (gullies) in French. However no French excavation reports appeared to exist at the time. Since then seen by myself in 2005  was opened in the Tiris district in the far south of the West Sahara, but the excavated bone material could not be dated ( Sáenz de Buruaga et al, 2014). As can be seen from Fig. 1, the goulets have a corridor orientated to about east or south-east and a tumulus at the western end. West Saharan goulets often have an area of dark paving running eastwards bordering the first few metres of the corridor. Fig.1.

In 1994 some European friends living in Morocco happened to find several goulets in the area near Tata (29 45 N 07 59 W) and invited me to accompany them on a visit to look for rock pictures.

The same family later asked me to join a small project in the extreme south-west of Morocco in 2004 and a number of rather untidy small goulets were visited. These appeared in quantity and clearly did not conform to the same rules of construction and corridor-orientation as those further east. Compare many complex structures later seen by Delor and Germond  (2009) in the Oued Tata district, illustrated in their fine publication, on which a great deal more work could usefully be undertaken. Fig. 2,

By 2005 the Polisario Front, living sandwiched between the western part of their former territory and the western frontier of Algeria were keen to obtain foreign publicity. A number of Europeans advisers visited them and so did those keen on exploration, such as prehistorians. In early 2005 I was lucky enough to take part in such a venture and went to look for goulets at an approximate point near Tifariti which my Spanish friend had long ago marked on a map. We were lucky first time round, affording  the chance for our exuberant Saharaoui accomplices to find the largest goulet yet known, some 360 m in length. It had two low stone circles in line just to east of the open corridor. This goulet was apparently still under construction. Two more visits followed during 2006 and 2009. Fig. 3.

There seemed in addition to exist a few of the seemingly rarer structures termed by Th. Monod  (1948) “enceintes” (enclosures).These had the open end of their corridors basically facing towards the west or south-west ( contrary to the easterly orientation of goulet corridors ) and there could be a low stone circle at one of both ends of the structure.  As my Algerian colleague Heddocuche Abdelkader has remarked ( in litt., 24.02.2015 ) these circles may not be the same age as the goulets or enceintes to which they lie adjacent. Fig. 4.

Following some recent investigations deep in the in the Algerian Sahara by A. Heddouche, one has learned of the existence of  well-built and tidy  goulets, each with a high tumulus at the western end, which could be older than the other models further west. The only  justification for this statement on age is a relative-similarity in overall plan and presentation with the so-called keyhole monuments found in similar areas in Algeria. A few in Niger have given dates of a) 5610 + or – 220 BP b) 4800 + or – 330 BP ( Paris,1996: 470 & 480) while three recent excavations of keyholes in S E Algeria have produced fairly similar dates.  It is conceivable, though unproven, that the Algerian goulets and the more complex keyhole monuments may have been related.

Most unfortunately these Algerian goulets, of which a few have been excavated by A. Heddouche and his group, have so far failed to give any dates. But there is still hope that this situation may change when fresh excavations are undertaken. Fig 5.

This text makes no attempt to describe in detail a number of goulet models so far known to exist. There may be more to come and it is still difficult to give names, far less descriptions, to them all. The overall picture which seems to emerge at this point in time is that the most ancient goulets are likely to be those deep in the south-eastern Algerian Sahara.  Those of the West Sahara, southern Morocco and Mauritania ( many with similar architecture and sometimes a low stone circle at one or both ends of the corridor ) could be a bit later, while the prolific and multifarious forms and styles of the extreme south-west of Morocco ( Searight, 2008: Gandini, 2002 ) could be relatively recent. Perhaps we may speak in very general terms of a noble Mercedes type existing in Algeria and baser and far more numerous Volkswagen types in Atlantic Morocco. Much more work may produce interesting results.

It occurs to me to insert here several thoughts which have been developing for some time. Some of the structures mentioned above are long and very low above ground-level. They are nonetheless extremely visible from the sky. It is therefore possible that it was the intention of some monument-builders to render their creations directly visible from above. Did it possibly occur to someone at some stage that there was no need to build structures in relief (“ à relief ”) if the intention was to make them visible from the air?

We may note a whole bevy of structures whose architecture consists mainly of flat paving, with or without a slightly-raised border in some cases. These, in a variety of forms, stretch from the Libyan Fezzan and northern Niger right across to the Atlantic coast.

Can such monuments be dated and what might such dates turn out to be? Looking at flattish paved monuments in the Fezzan, Libya, two structures, each  with two thin bordered arms enclosing a space facing about east, have been dated to the second millennium BC (di Lernia, et al, 2002: 92 & 95). Some burials below flat circular platforms in northern Niger Republic have been dated to the Neolithic by F. Paris ( 1996: 494 -–521 ). A few sample dates are a) 4690 + or – 110 BP. b). 3500 + or – 400 BP. c) 4660 + or – 220 BP d). 3950 + or – 250 BP. e) 4000 + or – 350 BP.

This we might say (October 2015 ) that these flattish platforms, whether circular or not, appear to date broadly from the late third millennium BC downwards into the second millennium. I am aware that some dates obtained by F. Paris have been subject to slight corrections obtained by more modern laboratory techniques.

Should my theory about low flattish monument being aimed to be seen from the heavens prove correct, this could provide relative dates for a couple of structures seen during the 1980s in the Adrar Ahnet region of Algeria. A crescent in relief with two arms and a low V-shape structure with two arms were seen to be placed side by side. The north arm of the crescent and the south arm of the V-shape tangled one with another. It was not possible to determine which was on top. However it seems possible, in view of what has been said above, that the crescent will be older than the V-shape.

References

Delor, J-P. & Delor, G.    2009. Les monuments lithiques de l´Oued Tata, au Maroc, de Tiggane à l´oued Meskaou. Privately published, 88 pp.

Di Lernia, S. & G. Manzi (ed.)  2002.   Sand,Stones and Bones. The Archaeology of Death in the Wadi Tanezzuft Vallex ( 5000 – 2000 BP). Florence:Edizioni All´Insegna                     del Giglio, xxix, 354 pp.

Gandini, J. 2002.  Pistes du Maroc. Tome III. Calvisson: Extrèm´Sud Eds, 236 pp.

Gobin, Sgt-Chef.    1937. Notes sur des vestiges des tombeaux du Zemmour. B. C. H. Sc- AOF, XX, nos.1 – 2 : 142-146.

Heddouche, A.       2011. Sur l´apport des monuments funéraires à la connaissance du peuplement te de l´environnement holocène de l´Ahaggar. Travaux du CNRPAH, Nouvelle série, No.11: 259-274

Milburn, M.    2005   More enigmatic stone structures of the North-Western  Sahara. Independent Archaeology, 52: 6 – 8.  

Monod, Th.   1948   Sur quelques monuments lithiques du Sahara occidental.Actas y Memorias de la Soc. Esp. de Antrop, Etnog y Prehist., XXIII, Cuadernos 1- 4 : 12 – 35.

Paris, F.    1996.   Les Sépultures du Sahara Nigérien du Néolithque à L´Islamisation.Tome 2. Corpus des sépultures  fouillées. Paris: ORSTOM, 387-621.

Sáenz de Buruaga, A.    &  M. Milburn.    2014.   Sondeo arqueológico en el goulet de Tingefuf ( Duguesh, Sáhara Occidental). IC-Nachrichten 96: 37 – 39.

Searight, S.   2008.    Rapport préliminaire sur des monuments préislamiques de l´Oued Chebika, province de Tan-Tan, Maroc .Cahiers de l´AARS, No. 8: 45 – 53.

 

Captions to Figures below

Fig. 1. West Saharan goulet (After Casteleiro , unpublished)

Fig. 2.  A rough Goulet in SW Morocco (After Searight, 2003 )

Fig.3. Giant West Saharan goulet  (After Milburn, 2005).

Fig.4. Two north Mauritanian goulets  (After Gobin, 1937 ).

Fig. 5. Algerian goulet.

Fig.6. A V-shaped round bordered platform with two arms.

Fig. 7. A circular bordered platform. In Algeria structures as in Fig 6 ( though not always circular ) and (Fig. 7 often appear together and may well be contemporary.)

Fig. 8. Sketch map showing parts of Algeria, West Sahara, Mauritania, Morocco and Niger Republic.