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The tomb of Tin Hinan, desert Queen of the Tuaregs

Posted in Africa, Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 6 August 2013

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This edited article about archaeology originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 361 published on 14 December 1968.

Abalessa excavations, picture, image, illustration

Byron Khun de Prorok, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, excavated the buriel site of the Tomb of Tin Hinan, the Queen of the Tuareg race

The brilliant Sahara stars were hidden behind a mantle of black storm-clouds. Thunder rumbled incessantly and lightning flashed around the mountains. In the driving rain a group of archaeologists stood wondering one moment if the flood waters would sweep away their precious supplies, and the next whether their native workers would turn on them.

A panic stricken Tuareg peasant rushed from rock to rock, and each time the thunder rolled he screamed that the fire-spirits were avenging the sacrilege done to the Tomb of Tin Hinan, the Queen of the Tuareg race.

Fortunately for the Europeans struggling to keep their equipment dry, the fire-spirits did no such thing. The storm passed as quickly as it had come, and once it had done so, tempers cooled rapidly.

By 1926, the Sahara was beginning to be tamed. French soldiers and administrators had penetrated every part, caravan-raiding had almost died out, and aircraft flew across the cloudless skies.

Nevertheless, it was an immense task to organise this archaeological expedition to the wilds of the Hoggar mountains, known to the Arabs as “The Land of Fear” and at the very heart of the mighty desert.

Byron Khun de Prorok, F.R.G.S., was not a man to be put off by such hazards. He was one of those leaders who have complete confidence in their own ability, and who could inspire others with the same feeling.

Byron reached Abalessa, in the Hoggar mountains, ahead of the rest of his team. Supplies had failed and he was in danger of being stranded, but just as things were getting desperate, the convoy with provisions and petrol struggled into camp.

Once everybody had gathered at the site, the archaeologists could study the task before them.

The tomb they had come to excavate was a huge pile of jumbled stones twelve feet high and seventy-five in diameter, standing beside a dried river bed, or wadi. All around rose the fantastic, tortured shapes of the Hoggar mountains. Down in the valley were the poor reed huts and withered fields of the local tribesmen, surrounded by rocks and sand.

This strange mound of stones at Abalessa which Byron de Prorok hoped to excavate was traditionally the Tomb of Tin Hinan, ancient ancestress of the Tuaregs. Tin Hinan was a fine lady who was said to have come to the Hoggar riding a milk-white camel, accompanied by her faithful slave Takamet.

The warrior caste of Tuareg aristocrats believed that they were descended from this noble lady, while the villagers who tilled the soil saw her servant Takamet as their predecessor.

Once that terrifying storm had passed, work could begin again, but now dust was a curse. It was as fine as flour and penetrated everywhere. After half an hour’s digging, everyone looked alike, and it was impossible to see who was an archaeologist and who a Tuareg labourer.

But even this dust had its advantages. A yellow cloud hung over the place where the men were working, and led the supply trucks straight to them.

As soon as the loose rubble had been cleared away Byron could see that the whole structure had once been an enormous building with many rooms – but only one entrance. It was a very strange ruin and seemed quite out of place in this remote and forgotten corner of the world.

But the strangest find was yet to come. The very first room they uncovered was in the south-western corner of the building. It had a sort of pavement beneath all the rocks and rubble that had filled it. Nine irregular slabs covered the floor, and underneath these lay the grave itself.

As the stones were removed, a slight breeze blew some of the dust away and the archaeologist could see Tin Hinan herself, her legs crossed and her head slightly to one side. Two scorpions, the last guardians of the tomb, scuttled into a hole in the wall.

The body lay on the remains of a wooden platform and had once been covered by a red leather cloak, but this had now decayed into dust. By her side were bowls of grapes and dates for that last great journey. On her left arm were seven heavy bracelets of gold and on her right seven of silver. Around her neck were necklaces of gold, with garnet, amazonite and cornelian beads which had come from Carthage many miles to the north.

The tomb was not difficult to date. In the grave was a cheap Roman lamp of a kind which was common all around the Mediterranean, and impressions of Roman coins were found on the bowls. Probably the tribe of this great queen had grown powerful and rich by controlling the desert trade routes, which would have brought them into contact with the Roman Empire.

Everything about the Tomb of Tin Hinan is mysterious. The building was certainly not intended as a tomb. With its thick walls and single narrow entrance, it is far more like a fortress, but there are no others quite like it in the desert around.

One explanation is almost as romantic as the story of Tin Hinan herself.

Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote of a Roman raid deep into the Sahara in 19 B.C. led by Cornelius Balbus. One of the places he captured was called Balsa – could this be the ancient name for Abalessa? As soon as the Roman invader-builders had left, their fort would be useless to the native rulers: they had no immediate enemies here in the heart of the desert. But such an impressive building would make a fitting tomb for their great Queen Tin Hinan.

Even today, the hazards of the desert are great, and archaeologists venture there but rarely. There are still many pages of the story to be completed.

Meanwhile, the Lady of Abalessa and her jewels are shown in the Bardo Museum in Algiers for people to come, to stare at, and to wonder.

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