Jorge De Torres, Cataloguer, African rock art image project
Fifteen years ago, I started my training as an archaeologist participating in a rock art survey in Extremadura, Spain. For a month I climbed cliffs and endured summer temperatures of 45ºC, looking for the flat rock faces where the schematic rock art we were looking for might be. One of those exhausting days, I crawled under a shelter during a break to escape the scorching sun. It was so small that you could only lie down and it had no space to turn sideways or sit. I rested for a while enjoying the shade, and then I saw them: four vertical, red lines painted on the inner part of the roof, clearly the imprints of four human fingers, made by someone who was once in my exact position, in a place where nobody but he (or she) – and thousands of years later, me – could contemplate them.
I’ve seen quite a lot of rock art since that summer morning, but I’ve always recalled that painting as one of the most important archaeological remains I’ve ever come across. Not because of its complexity, of course, but because of the exceptional possibility of recording and understanding the concrete action of an individual who existed thousands of years ago. Archaeologists like me are used to focussing on tendencies (chronologies, styles, geographical distributions) rather than individual human actions, which are usually very difficult to detect. However, while cataloguing the incredible collection of the African rock art image project, I found two such cases – both attempts to amend a picture once it was painted.
The depictions are found in the Ennedi Plateau in the north-eastern corner of Chad, a mountainous region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, full of huge outcrops and boulders, many of them covered with engravings and paintings dated from 5000 BC onwards. Although rock art in the Ennedi Plateau has a great variety of styles and depictions, probably the best known images in the area are the Niola Doa engravings: several groups of large figures (probably women), richly decorated, with one arm stretched downwards and the other bent upwards, usually resting sticks on their shoulders.
While describing these images, one caught my attention: an elegant, richly decorated woman, painted in red and white. There are several white lines around the neck, representing necklaces, and several more around the waist and hips, including series of white dots – possibly objects sewn onto a belt or directly to the skirt, reminiscent of the coin and shell belts often worn by dancers in the Middle East.
There was something strange about the figure’s left arm: a red band under the left elbow, undoubtedly something painted, but a bit out of place. Using colour enhancement tools, such as those described by Elizabeth Galvin in a previous post, the result was astonishing. The enhanced photograph shows how the lower stain is in fact an arm that was painted stretching downwards, later corrected and repainted to bend upwards. The earlier arm is faint, but the enhanced colour shows how the tonality of both paintings is the same, implying that the same painter corrected the figure. Why was the image changed? We can only guess, but the final outline of the woman resembles the engraved figures of previous periods, so perhaps the painter was trying to emulate the impressive engravings that still give the place its name today (Niola Doa means ‘the dancing maidens’ in the local language).
The second example comes from a very special place known as the Archei Guelta. A ‘guelta’ is a pocket of water in the desert (sometimes an oasis, but not always) that provides vital water to both people and animals. The Archei Guelta is one of the most important places in the region, with water available all year round, and home to one of the last remaining colonies of crocodiles in the desert. Like many other areas of the Ennedi Plateau, the whole area is full of paintings and engravings of many different periods and styles.
One of these paintings is an extremely faint group of riders on horses, depicted in a very specific style of the Ennedi Plateau known as the ‘flying gallop’. Being so faint, the images were difficult to describe, and therefore I again had to use colour enhancement to identify them. By inverting the colours, I was able to see the riders and some previously undetected cows , but it also led me to an unexpected discovery: one of the riders was in fact a man on foot, with a horse superimposed. The paint of the man was much more degraded than that of the horse, implying that he was painted in an earlier period, perhaps prior to the introduction of horses to the desert. As in the first case, we can only speculate as to why the painters of the horses decided to amend the figure, but perhaps it was a way of incorporating older figures into the new scenes, adding as prestigious an animal as a horse. Perhaps they simply felt sorry for the lonely man walking among fast, powerful riders.
These two examples remind us that behind the broad categories into which we organize rock art were individuals who used these wonderful paintings and engravings as a way of sharing their own perspectives and interpretations of reality. The reinterpretation of older images raises interesting questions about how these populations interacted with their own past, integrating it within their narratives. And although the ultimate meaning of these changes can be difficult to comprehend, they nonetheless help us feel nearer to the people who made these images so many thousands of years ago.
This post is part of the African rock art image project at the British Museum, generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.