Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/February 1901/Prehistoric Tombs of Eastern Algeria

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FROM the wonderful hot baths at Hamman-Meskoutine, which are situated near the Tunisian border of Algeria, on the railroad leading from Constantine to Tunis, one can visit the little-known necropolis of Roknia.

On a delightful morning near the last of January, with a Moorish guide, we set out for this locality. We had arrived at the baths only the evening previous, having left Constantine a couple of days before. In passing along the 'Tell' or Algerian highland, the nights had been cool and we saw the hoar frost along the railroad at Setif; the pools of standing water were frozen over and the distant low mountains were capped with snow. But at this early hour flocks of thick-wooled sheep, and long-haired goats and herds of undersized whitish-gray cattle, with long, downy, thick hair, such as one sees on the highlands and elevated plains of Asia Minor, were grazing in the fields, while among them were scattered a few camels bending their tortuous necks over the herbage. Although in some winters an inch of snow may fall in the streets of Constantine, yet the winter climate of Algeria is most delightful. On sunny days the morning soon grows warmer, and by noon the heat is almost summer-like.

We had not heard of Roknia and its dolmens until the evening we arrived at Hamman-Meskoutine, when we at once made arrangements for a horse and guide to the tombs, and for an early start the next morning.

Meanwhile, we found the springs wonderfully interesting. They lie about half a mile from the railroad station, on the edge of a plateau. The water carries lime in solution, is of a temperature of about 220° Fahr., and has deposited on the hillside an elevated platform of calcareous sinter and travertine, with several imposing crater or tower-like cones, six and ten feet high, from which formerly poured streams of hot water and steam. The water of the stream overflows the tanks and natural basins, and passes in cataracts down the declivity to enter the little river, the Oued Chedakra, draining the valley, while clouds of steam hover over the scene. These baths were used by the Romans, and the grounds of the hotel are adorned with the remains of bathtubs, statues and broken columns of marble.

Our way to Roknia lay for six miles through a hilly country, with Kabyle farms and houses near the point of departure; but beyond it stretched along narrow paths, winding around the brow of hills, up towards the mountains, which form an extended amphitheater. The horse furnished me by the proprietor of the hotel was a phenomenally wretched steed, by no means boasting of Arab blood.

After a couple of hours' march, we passed a 'douar' or Berber village on our left, a little off the path, partially hidden among the scrubby mastic trees. The little houses were built of stone and mud, with thatched roofs. Three villagers came out to meet us, one of them armed with a gun, and the question arose in my mind whether these good people were honest or had no reputation to lose; but soon the gunner left us, perhaps on the quest for partridges, while our beturbaned Moors in their ragged burnooses spent the rest of the day with us and seemed mild and inoffensive, receiving our parting salutations and backsheesh with kindly glances.

In another half-hour we reached the site of the necropolis. The vast cemetery is finely situated on the brow of a hill, or range of hills, facing west and overlooking the village of Roknia at its foot. This hillside or plateau itself is a spur of the Diebel-Debar range, somewhat elevated, being about 2,000 feet above the Mediterranean, and surrounded to the west, northwest and north by an amphitheater of distant mountains. The tombs themselves mostly occur in openings among the low trees or shrubs, which are scattered over the plains, or form dense thickets concealing the ruins of the dolmens. Scattered about the vicinity of this once sacred ground are the farms of the little hill villages, or 'douars' of the natives.

The material for the rock structures crops out here and there, the soil being thin—a pale gray, moderately hard limestone of cretaceous age, not containing any fossils and evidently weathering somewhat rapidly, as it is naturally somewhat porous and cavernous. The rock was not jointed, and evidently was not easily quarried; hence the blocks are very irregular and were never hammered.

The guide led us to the best preserved and most typical dolmen, which was smaller than we expected, being much less than half as large as those we had some years previously visited in Brittany. It is built of three rude slabs of limestone, one on each side, and a shorter stone at the end, the opposite end of the enclosure being open and facing the east. The enclosure thus walled in was covered by a single large slab, about six feet long, irregularly triangular in shape, the ends of which projected beyond the enclosure. Another less perfect tomb was built of two side-stones and an oblong slab on top, about five feet long and two feet wide. The space thus enclosed averaged about four by two feet. A still larger dolmen consisted of two side-slabs and one at the end, covered by an irregular slab, about six feet long and four feet wide. The largest dolmen observed was covered by a quite regularly oblong slab about nine and a half feet long and four or five feet wide. There were but two side stones, but several at the end. It was only about a foot above the level of the ground, and the interior was about four feet deep and three and a half feet wide. In another the lateral stones were nine feet long and over five feet high, with eight or nine stones at each end. Others had a slab at each end. These may have been modified at a later period, for the Romans had occupied this valley, this region being a portion of the Numidia of Latin authors.

The average measurements of the dolmens given by Bourguignat are from one meter to 1.25 in length, 0.50 to 0.75 in breadth, and 0.60 to 0.80 meter in height.

The dolmen-field, so far as time allowed us to observe it, was from about eight hundred to a thousand yards long, and in width about five hundred feet. The dolmens themselves were arranged irregularly in lines about fifty feet apart, and the lines extended in an easterly and westerly direction. Bourguignat states that the general orientation is southwest and northwest, the four angles of the dolmens corresponding to the four cardinal points.

The rows of dolmens extend down to near the bottom of the valley, to a point near the little hamlet of Roknia, which is built of stones, with the pitched roofs thatched, and the rough walls not whitewashed, though they often are in the well-to-do 'douars.'

The interior or floor of the dolmen consisted of a soft black loam, and I set one of the Moors, whom we will call Mahmoud, digging up the soil with his stick. He soon unearthed a human radius, some vertebræ and a portion of a human skull, besides several specimens of the common European snail (Helix aspersa), of which more anon.

It will be readily seen that the bodies of the dead in dolmens of the dimensions of those of Algeria must have been bent or doubled up in order to be buried. The dolmens of the land of Moab, east of the Dead Sea, are also said to be small. On the other hand, those of France and Holland are often twelve feet in length and in some of them a person could stand upright.

There were no traces of tunnels (allées couvertes) to be seen by us, nor any indications that earth had been heaped over the dolmens, as is frequently the case in Brittany. Bourguignat, however, states that the dolmenic chamber was covered with a tumulus. On the other hand, no tumuli are known to exist in Tunisia.

In the time at our command it was not possible to examine the whole cemetery, as the greater part of it was in ruins or overgrown with the mastic or lentisk shrubs (Pistacia lentiscus) which yield the gum-mastic.

Moreover, many of the dolmens had evidently been destroyed, as we found but few perfect ones, and it is slated that some French officers had wantonly destroyed them.

In 1867 Dr. Bourguignat, the well-known conchologist and archeologist of Paris, visited this necropolis, camped on it, and his account is the only complete one. He put the number of dolmens remaining in his time at fifteen hundred, and estimated the total number formerly existing at several thousand. He regarded this vast assemblage of megalithic sepulchers as a colossal cemetery.

In the following year General Faidherbe, in a paper published in the 'Annales de l'Académie de Bone,' attributed these sepulchers to the troglodyte Libyans, whose actual descendants were, he states, the Kabyles and Berbers.

The people living in this vicinity, and, presumably, the builders of these sepulchers, were of a later date than the neolithic or later stone epoch, for the art-objects excavated by Bourguignat from the interior were bronze rings or bracelets, amulets and rings of silver gilded with gold; and earthern vases. According to the well-known anthropologist, Pruner-Bey, the human skeletons contained in the tombs were those of Aryans, of negroes, Egyptians and Kabyles, with hybrids between the negro and Kabyle women. The Aryans occupied the large sepulchers; their cranial type resembled that of ancient Italy.

The dominant race, according to French statements, had imposed on the other peoples its mode of burial and its religious beliefs, since the eastward orientation of the sepulchers of Roknia is identical with the traditional position made sacred by Aryan customs.

The remains of the men were distinguished by an earthen vase placed near the head, but the women were not considered worthy of the honor of a funeral vase.

The question arises as to the exact age of these dolmens and their builders. Were they contemporaneous with the early Egyptians, and was the bronze age of northern Africa of the same or of an earlier date than the bronze epoch in Egypt?

Dr. Collignon has, more recently, thrown much light on the affinities of the builders of these dolmens, who, he suggests, were Berbers, and perhaps of the same race as the dolmen-builders of France and the Cromagnon family whose remains were found at Les Eyzies, in Dordogne, France. Of the races of the sedentary population now living in Tunisia, where also occur numerous dolmens, especially at Ellez (which is situated about 100 miles east of Roknia), there are five types of Berbers. "One of these types reaches its greatest purity in the neighborhood of Ellez and its area of distribution almost exactly covers the area of distribution of dolmens. Moreover, this race presents plainly the special anatomical characters of the bones found in the dolmens of France, notably at Sordes and at Homme-Mort, i. e., a feeble
PSM V58 D409 Dolmens at rocknia algeria.png
Fig. 1. The Dolmens at Rocknia, Algeria.

size (1m, 63), dolichocephaly of 74 and especially a short face, broad and disharmonic, of a character absolutely analogous to the conformation of the crania of Cromagnon. They are not blonds.

"Another race of large size (1m, 69, about), very dolichocephalic, mesorhine to 75, etc., were probably the descendants of the men who worked the silver in this region, and they represent the most ancient ethnic layer existing in the country." He adds that in Tunisia, as in Europe, there was a gradual transition from the Chelléan to the Mousterian epoch, and also down through the Magdalenian epoch to the Neolithic. Flint implements were still used during the Roman occupation, though the nomadic Getulæ or Numidians used metal purchased of the Phœnicians and Romans.

It is now tolerably well settled that at the time of the paleolithic or old stone epoch in Egypt and Nubia, the Nile was much larger and wider than now, as the paleolithic axes and scrapers, precisely like those of France, have been found on the river gravels out on the desert as high as 400 feet above the present level of the Nile. On the other hand, the polished axes or celts, the arrow-heads and flint knives and scrapers of the neolithic epoch found under the temples and in the sand about the towns built within historic times, though extending back 2,500 to 4,000 years, preceded the bronze period, which may have begun about 1,500 years b. c. Since the opening of the neolithic epoch in Egypt, the Nile has assumed its present size, the country having become dry and rainless. There are everywhere, as we ascend the Nile to the first cataract, evident traces in the eroded hills on either bank of the Nile of a rainy and cooler climate during paleolithic times.

And everywhere in Morocco, Algeria and Tunis, and on the edge of the Sahara Desert, we saw evidences of an originally moist, rainy, cooler climate. Old lake-bottoms, on the Tell, where the rivers, now dry, had widened into lakes; conical hills, outstanding pinnacles and ancient water-worn courses extending down the sides of the now dry and barren cliffs or slopes, told the story of a climate more favorable than now for the sustenance of a comparatively large population; one fond of uplands, forest clad, cool and shady in the summer, and whose farms suffered less from the parching heats of summer. During the tertiary period, at least until the pliocene, the Sahara was a Mediterranean sea; northern Africa belonged then more to Europe than to central and southern Africa.

Rabourdin asserts that the desert of the central Sahara was formerly a fertile and inhabited country, and afforded pasturage for cattle. Herodotus states that the cattle had larger and thicker hides. There are rock pictures representing cattle with large horns.

Weisgerber states that according to local traditions the Sahara was formerly not a desert; that there were springs, streams and a luxuriant vegetation, and that it supported a race, not numerous, however, which cultivated the soil. (Monuments archéologiques du Sahara, 1881, Bull. Soc. d'Anthropologie, Paris.)

Strong confirmation of the view that decided climatic changes have taken place in eastern Algeria since the time when the Roknia necropolis was built, is afforded by the excavations of Dr. Borguignat in these dolmens. He found in the dolmens numerous shells of Helix aspersa, a large snail common in the gardens and fields of Europe. These shells were similar to those living in the damp and cool climate of Europe, while those actually living at Roknia offer features produced by the dry and hot climate of the present day. This sufficiently indicates a decided change of climate, which must have occurred certainly more than a thousand years before the time of Homer, or of the founding of Rome. We dug up some of these semi-fossil shells, and also found plenty of the recent ones on top of the soil within the dolmens.

Many authors attribute the dryness and sterile nature of the eastern lands to the removal of forests by man within historic periods, but this is a decided mistake. There has been a slow secular process of elevation, desiccation and consequent deforestation of the regions around the Mediterranean, which began to take place thousands of years before the founding of the ancient civilization of Egypt, Babylon and Assyria, at, if not before a time when neolithic culture gradually supplanted that of the race which used only rough, unpolished, unmounted flint implements, scrapers and spear-heads. But for several thousand years, at least from 5,000 to 10,000 years b. c, if not throughout the neolithic epoch, the scenic features and climate of Egypt, Libya and Algeria have remained unchanged.

Bourguignat claims that the climate indicated by the snails of the Roknia dolmens nearly corresponds to that of Paris, whose mean temperature at our time is 10°.1 C. (about 52° F.), while that of Roknia is 17°.5, being a difference of 7°.4.

Reasoning from these data and certain astronomical calculations, this author decides that the mean annual temperature of Roknia, at a period 2,200 years b. c., was 10 °C. Moreover, as the snail shells showing the influence of this cool, rainy climate were found in the lower beds of the sepulchral chambers, in the strata in contact with the human bones, he concludes that the megalithic monuments of Roknia extend back to that date. They are thus not less than about 4,000 years old, and thus it would appear that the bronze age of ancient Libya goes back that length of time.

This once decided, Dr. Bourguignat explained the presence of ornaments of bronze and gilded silver, which he supposed the inhabitants were unable to make themselves, to commercial exchange with the Egyptians and what he calls the people of Nigritia. The Kabyle industry, he thought, was confined to the manufacture of large coarse pottery, evincing an incipient stage in the ceramic art, and indicating a pastoral people, with abundant flocks and herds, the hillsides and plains there being covered with magnificent forests and affording abundant pasturage, there being perhaps 150 rainy days instead of 50 in the year, as at present.

But the noonday hour had passed, and we ate our frugal lunch, provided by the landlady at the hotel, with a bottle of native Algerian wine. We were forced to eat it alone, for in vain did we press on our guide and the two Moors a bit of bread and butter and a drink of the mild beverage. They steadfastly refused, for it was the month of the Ramadan. They were strict, consistent Mohammedans, and could not be tempted.

On our return, not far from the necropolis we passed by Moorish farmers stirring the light soil with their primitive wooden ploughs, shares and all, the yoke being bound around the neck of a cow or steer by cords behind the horns. The cattle were all gray and dirty white, no red or parti-colored ones being observed. Half way back we paused to examine the Roman ruins, portions of basement stones strewn about the ground. The warmth of the afternoon sun was like that of a June day. We left the native 'douars' behind, and after two or three hours 7 descent from the hills behind us, forded the little river and entered the village of Hamman-Meskoutine.