Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Poisson d'Avril!

One of my proudest possessions is a book I read when very young indeed - Henri Lhote's book on the rock paintings of the Tassili N Ajjer, called The Search for the Tassili Frescoes, The Rock Paintings of the Sahara. Published in 1959, it describes a journey to the burning heart of the Sahara to study the wonderful brightly colored rock paintings left there by the locals when the Sahara was green and home to antelopes and giraffes, only a few thousand years ago. The paintings are all wonderful, scenes of hunts and dances and ceremonies rendered in a delicate style using earth pigments.

When I read it with my dad, there were a couple of paintings in there that he would gasp at - "They're so modern," he said. And they were, with a delicate hipster touch I recognize from some of the 50's jazz pictures I've seen. They are most unlike the others, although the others, it must be said, are breathtaking too.

I was browsing around looking for more material on lost cities and remembered this book. I found this wonderful detailed website, Tassili n'Ajjer, The Most Beautiful Desert of All and was enjoying it until I came upon this:
Lhote published in his book two paintings which had an unmistakable ancient egyptian influence, yet were strangely different. This caused quite a stir in scholarly circles, as it seemed like unrefutable proof of contact between the Tassili and Ancient Egypt. Eventually it emerged, that the paintings were done by one of the playful artists of the Lhote team, who was familiar with the ancient egyptian style. The hoax misled Lhote himself, who argued very authentically about this cultural link in his book, and probably only became aware that he was set up much later.
Rats. It's always sad to learn your idols have feet of clay. Not that this diminishes the other paintings, of course, but to have this lemon described to me on April Fool's Day was a bit too ironic. A little like learning Jacques Cousteau once tried to net Nessie. (Someone will no doubt write in and tell me he did.)

Here is one of the small number of apparently hoax pictures, scanned from a color plate in my copy of the book.

Lovely, isn't it? But once you know what it is, you can see that slight French Left Bank hepcat look. Or maybe I'm imagining it. Not that I can find any other websites saying it is a hoax, mind, but that's mostly because if you plug 'tassili hoax' into Google you get a gazillion pages claiming modern global warming is a hoax (because the Sahara sure warmed up a long time ago), and I couldn't be bothered to wade through it all.

There are many photographs of the paintings at the website linked above. Lhote's book does not contain photographs, but traced or copied drawings in the standard archaeological tradition that always makes me wonder how much interpretation the artist put in before deciding where to draw each line.

You've probably seen at least one famous picture from Tassili - the "Great Martian God" as Lhote unfortunately termed it, a round headed giant apparently wearing a thick neck-cloth and a puffy suit. Von Daniken said it was a picture of an ancient astronaut, and indeed it does look like a man in an Apollo-era space suit. You can see one here.

The Sahara is not exactly an abandoned city, but it certainly fits the theme. This one I would only visit, however, if someone ran an air-conditioned train to within about five miles of each site. Call me lazy.

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