British Museum blog

Traces of the past: rock art and life in ancient North Africa

Painted and engraved rock art and graffiti from Aharar Mellen, Acacus Mountains, Fezzan District, Libya

Victoria Suzman, project cataloguer, African rock art image project, British Museum

Engraved elephant, Acacus Mountains, Libya

Engraved elephant, from Wadi Raharmellen, Acacus Mountains, Fezzan District, Libya (all images below are from this same site). © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1630

Engraved elephant, from Wadi Raharmellen, Acacus Mountains, Fezzan District, Libya. Image digitally modified. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1630

Engraved elephant (image digitally modified). © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1630

In a valley of Libya’s Acacus Mountains, in the middle of the Sahara Desert, an elephant steps out from under an overhang of red rock. Giraffes, cows, camels, people, a horse and a hare are there too. They may seem out of place in such a harsh environment, but they are not lost: they have been there for thousands of years, painted and engraved on the rock shelter wall.

Rock shelter wall with multiple paintings and engravings of humans, cows, camels,  ostriches, giraffes, an elephant, Libyan-Berber script and unidentified quadrupeds. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1563

Rock shelter wall with multiple paintings and engravings of humans, cows, camels, ostriches, giraffes, an elephant, Libyan-Berber script and unidentified quadrupeds. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1563

The African rock art image project team here at the British Museum is currently cataloguing photographs of rock paintings and engravings from Libya, Morocco and Algeria to add to the British Museum’s Collection database. Already, over 4,000 records from these countries, as well as from Egypt and Sudan, can be seen online. You can find out why we’re cataloguing almost 25,000 images from the archives of the Trust for African Rock Art by reading our previous blog post.

The photographs depict rock art from throughout the continent, created over millennia and encompassing diverse subjects and styles, sometimes represented side by side on the same rock surface. This Libyan site, in Wadi Raharmellen, is just such an example, with its variety of depictions and inscriptions made by different hands. So who created these particular images, and how old are they?

The earliest rock art in the Acacus is thought to consist of engravings of wild animals, such as the elephant and the giraffes. Archaeological evidence dates early hunter-gatherers here from around 9000 BC, during the Sahara’s last wet period, when the area was less arid and supported such large animals, which now only live much further south.

Detail from on wall of rock shelter, showing naturalistic figure of cow in red, upright and facing left. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1626

Detail from on wall of rock shelter, showing naturalistic figure of cow in red, upright and facing left. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1626

It is sometimes possible to estimate the earliest date at which rock art could have been made based on the first known introductions of the domestic animals they depict to this part of the world: cattle (from about 7,000 years ago), horses (from about 3,000 years ago) and camels (from about 2,000 years ago).

Engraved Libyan-Berber script, with horse and two giraffes (facing right). © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1578

Engraved Libyan-Berber script, with horse and two giraffes (facing right). © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1578

Engraved Arabic script. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1575

Engraved Arabic script. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1575

In this rock shelter, the bright white figure of a camel is painted over an engraved elephant. To the right of this, the necks of two engraved giraffes have inscriptions all over them: the writing is Libyan-Berber (an ancestor of modern Tifinagh script), which is not fully understood. The presence of Arabic, carved further along the rock face, seems to bring the story of the use of this great communal canvas into recent times.

The dating of rock art is notoriously difficult. Although paintings here appear to be younger than the oldest engravings, the tradition of engraving endured. Step back a few paces from the small elephant, and it is dwarfed by another image to the right: the outline of a cow, not painted like the red one above, but incised deeply into the rock.

Engraved cow and antelope hoofprints. © TARA / David Coulson 2013,2034.1572

Engraved cow and antelope hoofprints. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1572

Further along is an ostrich carved with equal conviction. This might be contemporaneous with the cow, as there was a period of overlap when cattle herders and animals such as ostriches and gazelle coexisted. Recent archaeological evidence from this area also seems to indicate that people were corralling, if not domesticating, wild sheep here before cattle arrived. Perhaps nowhere is the intermingling of wild and domestic animals better illustrated than in the centre of the panel, where the engraved hoof-prints of an antelope and a cow are printed into the rock face, side by side.

Engraved human figure with two painted ostriches, Libyan-Berber script and (cut-off at right), painted human and camel figures and engraved rump of elephant

Engraved human figure with two painted ostriches, Libyan-Berber script and (cut off at right, painted human and camel figures and engraved rump of elephant. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1603

Ostriches are the only wild animals painted on this panel: three small, white ostrich figures are shown one behind the other, facing left, below the more recently painted series of camels, with their stylised drivers and raised arms. Both of these processions are dwarfed by the engraved human figure to their right, striding purposefully towards them, whose delicately lifelike engraved outline implies a different time and artistic tradition from the creator of the daubed, faceless camel-drivers.

These human figures, depicted among the animals, serve as a reminder of the different creators of this art, who came from different time periods and cultures, and for whom the images must have had different personal meanings and significances. This, in turn, cautions researchers of the difficulty in ascribing overarching interpretations and motivations to rock art, since it is not a genre with specific traditions, but rather the use of a variety of possible techniques to mark a durable and abundant natural canvas: rock. Some images may have been made for religious purposes, some with the aim of specific communication; still others may be products of experimentation, or even of boredom.

The project covers rock art spanning thousands of years, over an entire continent. Such breadth and variety throws up many challenges and questions, as well as imagery and evidence for various practices and material cultures. As we progress down through Africa, we’ll be updating our project pages with articles and discussions on these themes, as well as updates and features on individual sites and images. We hope you will join us on our digital journey as we explore this rich artistic heritage.

Engraving of a hare facing right. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

Engraving of a hare facing right. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

Engraving of a hare facing right. Image digitally modified. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

Engraving of a hare facing right. Image digitally modified. © TARA / David Coulson. 2013,2034.1630

The African rock art image project is supported by the Arcadia Fund.

Filed under: African rock art, Collection, , , , , , , , ,

Introducing the African rock art image project

Roof of a painted rock shelter
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

This is the first of a series of posts that we – the Rock Art team – will be writing over the coming 4 years. Through generous support from the Arcadia Fund, the British Museum has been able to work with the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) in Nairobi to document and disseminate 25,000 images of African rock art. We will be spending the next four years cataloguing and integrating these images into the Museum’s collection online database so people throughout the world can explore and learn more about African rock art. This week, we launch the project with the first images visible online – specifically rock art images from Egypt.

Roof of a painted rock shelter with various animals and human figures. Karkur Talh, Egypt. 2013,2034.6 © David Coulson/TARA

Roof of a painted rock shelter with various animals and human figures. Karkur Talh, Egypt. 2013,2034.6 © David Coulson/TARA

The TARA team has spent the last three decades photographing and documenting rock art from across the continent. Rock art is found throughout Africa and spans thousands of years. Mainly paintings and engravings, it is found in a wide range of places, including caves, rock faces, stelae and boulders. While mainly concentrated in North and Southern Africa, well-known sites can also be found in East, Central and West Africa. TARA has recorded over 800 sites in 19 countries across the continent.

As you can imagine, documenting and cataloguing 25,000 images from such a large area means that we will have incredibly diverse types of rock art to work with, dating from thousands of years ago to less than 100 years old. Through this project we expect to learn a lot, not just about African rock art, but how it sits in the wider context of the Museum’s collection and study of Africa.

San rock painting, Zimbabwe.  © David Coulson/ TARA

San rock painting, Zimbabwe. © David Coulson/ TARA


Engraved calabash gourd vessel made by the San People (Af1976,05.2)

Engraved calabash gourd vessel made by the San People (Af1976,05.2)

We can learn a lot about the people that made the depictions. Rock art can be seen as an extension of a group’s material culture, not just through the design aesthetic of a particular group, but also demonstrating the imagery of what is valued and important to that culture. In this case, we can see in the images above a piece of painted rock art from Zimbabwe compared to a decorated calabash gourd vessel from Southern Africa. Both of these were made by the San people, and show similar motifs.

Crocodile rock engraving, Messak, Libya. © David Coulson/TARA

Crocodile rock engraving, Messak, Libya. © David Coulson/TARA

Rock art can give insight into how places used to look thousands of years ago. The image above shows an engraving of a crocodile in the middle of the Sahara desert. We know this rock art is thousands of years old, when the Sahara was green grasslands with lakes and rivers. When this engraving was made – in the Messak in Libya – a crocodile could have been a regular resident of the area.

Painted rock art of a human figure with harp. Ennedi Region, Chad . © David Coulson/TARA

Painted rock art of a human figure with harp. Ennedi Region, Chad. © David Coulson/TARA


Arched harp from the New Kingdom, Egypt (EA 38170)

Arched harp from the New Kingdom, Egypt (EA 38170)


Bow harp with animal gut strings, Sudan (EA 38170)

Bow harp with animal gut strings, Sudan (EA 38170)

Rock art is also a way to learn more about the objects we have in the British Museum’s collection here in London. We can gain insight into how they may have been used, traded, changed and shared. This image of painted rock art from the Ennedi Region in Chad shows a human figure playing a harp. From this, we can see how it is similar to other harps we have in our collection, one from Egypt and the other from Sudan. Although they did not come from the same time period, it does give a sense of how objects and ideas have spread both geographically and through various time periods. Vast trade routes were prevalent throughout Africa, and it is quite possible that instruments, like the ones depicted here, were exchanged or shared.

Spray paint graffiti over rock art. © David Coulson/TARA

Spray paint graffiti over rock art. © David Coulson/TARA

Sadly, rock art is susceptible to destruction by both natural and manmade events. This image shows a c.7,000 year old piece of rock art destroyed by spray paint. This database allows the Museum to study the rock art as well as preserve it for future generations.

We are cataloguing the images geographically by country, starting in Northern Africa, and will be continuously adding images to the database, which feeds through to the Collection Online. Check the African rock art project page regularly for updates, featured images, and to see how we are using rock art to learn more about Africa, from ancient times through to present day.

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Filed under: African rock art, Research, , , , ,

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