The Tuareg: Nomads of the Sahara

Camel saddle (tarik or tamzak), Algerian Sahara. The camel saddle is an iconic symbol of the nomadic Tuareg life. This is a particularly decorated example, and its metal and cheetah skin signify the high status of the owner. PM 975-32-50/11927
Tent post (1 of 3), Niger. For the nomadic Tuareg, the tent was an essential part of material life. A new tent was also an integral part of wedding ceremonies. PM 53-51-50/9773.1
Tent post (2 of 3), Niger. PM 53-51-50/9773.2
Tent post (3 of 3), Niger. PM 53-51-50/9773.3
Tent pole for wall support, Niger. This different regional style is a shorter tent pole used to support the mat wall of the tent. PM 997-29-50/12576
Shield (agher), Algerian Sahara. A leather shield along with a long sword were the most important parts of the Tuareg warrior's weaponry. It was large enough to cover a man's entire body. PM 975-32-50/11886
Sword (takuba) with 16th C. European-made steel blade, Algerian Sahara. The sword was an item of great prestige in Tuareg culture. PM 975-32-50/11868
Arm dagger (telek) and sheath, Algerian Sahara. This arm dagger would have been worn on the inside of the left arm with the handle facing downward, allowing it to be unsheathed easily in battle. PM 975-32-50/11872
Wooden bowl, Niger. Wood is a scarce commodity in the desert wooden objects such as this, simple but carefully embellished, were highly valued. PM 999-34-50/12862
Wooden ladle (tamulat), Algerian Sahara. This ladle would have been used as a drinking spoon and to serve milk or soup. PM 975-32-50/11889B
Lock (tanast) and key (asrou), Algerian Sahara. Locks and keys, used by the Tuareg to keep lock their possessions in large leather bags, could reach the status of ornament when finely wrought. PM 975-32-50/11896
Key used as a veil weight (asrou n'swoul) by a Tuareg woman, Algerian Sahara. PM 975-32-50/11901A
Woman's leather traveling bag (tehaihait), Algerian Sahara. Leather was a crucial part of Tuareg material life, and women artisans (tineden) specialized in bags such as this one, which would have stored personal items. PM 975-32-50/11911
Cross pendant (tenaghalt) of nickel silver, Algerian Sahara. These pendants were everyday jewelry items for Tuareg men and women. PM 53-14-50/9647.2
Cross pendant (tenaghalt), Algerian Sahara. PM 53-14-50/9647.1
Silver alloy bracelets, Algerian Sahara. Lloyd Cabot Briggs reported that this type of bracelet was worn primarily by women in the oasis of In Salah. PM 53-14-50/9637
Inscribed bracelets (ahbeg), Serpentine stone, Algerian Sahara. Clockwise from left PM 57-36-50/10108.1, 57-36-50/10108.3, 57-36-50/10110
Rattle ring (tisek), Algerian Sahara. These large hollow rings are filled with small seeds that make a soft rattling noise when a woman moves her hands. PM 57-36-50/10118
Pectoral ornament (tereout tan idmarden), Algerian Sahara. ThIs large ornament was considered both decorative and protective when worn by women. PM 57-36-50/10130
Leather and silver alloy pendants (khomessa), Algerian Sahara. This pendant is an abstract version of a hand, a common protective symbol. PM 53-14-50/9642

Pastoralists and brigands with a penchant for poetry is one of the more romantic descriptions of the Tuareg, a nomadic people who speak a dialect of Berber and who inabit a huge swath of the Sahara touching parts of Algeria, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Known as the “blue men,” because of the vibrant hue of their flowing robes, and as the “people of the veil” because of their covered faces, warriors of the Tuareg nobility have captured the imagination of Europeans since explorers first encountered them in the nineteenth century. 

Riding astride magnificent camels trained to engage in close combat, the Tuareg once controlled caravan routes stretching across the Sahara. As early as the fifteenth century, they traded with the Portuguese in what is now Mauritania. Their economy was based on herding, supplemented by trading salt, protecting caravans, and raiding weaker rivals. The Tuareg nobility depended on a worker class to tend its flocks, a slave class to meet its domestic needs, and an artisan class to produce exquisite leather, wood, and metal goods. The Sahelian drought of the 1970s and 80s brought about dramatic changes in Tuareg society. Many became sedentary, and the class structure based on herding dissolved—to the detriment of Tuareg arts. 

Harvard research anthropologist Lloyd Cabot Briggs (1909-1975, Harvard Ph.D. 1952) was a leading authority on the Sahara and its people. Briggs served in Algeria with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and remained there after the war to continue his work on the people of the Sahara, writing several books on the topic. Enthralled by the austere beauty of the desert, he recognized the fragility of its economy and society, and he began to systematically collect Tuareg materials representing every type of artisanship. The exceptional quality of the collection on display here is largely due to his effort and foresight.