British Museum blog

Changing faces: revealing ancient alterations in Saharan rock art

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Jorge De Torres, Cataloguer, African rock art image project

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs, Chad

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.

Figure 2 Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa

Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa, Chad

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.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

Detail of the corrected arm from the painted woman

Detail of the arm from the painted woman, after colour enhancement.

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 Archei Geulta (water pocket), Chad

The Archei Geulta, Chad

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.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. The horse at the top is superimposed on an earlier painting of a man. See a larger version of the original image.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

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.

Detail of walking man superimposed by horse

Detail of the enhanced image showing a galloping horse painted over a standing man.

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.

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

The Haig-Thomas collection: two stories from the Arctic

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

A collection has recently been donated to the British Museum that throws light on two remarkable stories: how the Kalaallit people of Northwestern Greenland responded to Danish influence on their society during the early decades of the 20th century, and how one Englishman took it upon himself to explore their world.

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

The Englishman was David Haig-Thomas, educated at Eton and Cambridge, who while returning by boxcar from a fourth-placed rowing eight at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics stumbled across an old school friend named Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had soon persuaded Haig-Thomas to accompany him in a journey across the Ethiopian desert. A week into the expedition the pair had bitterly separated, Haig-Thomas left with serious injuries, a hefty bill and the sincere desire to travel as far as possible from the heat of Africa.

He swiftly enlisted as resident ornithologist on the Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition of 1934, organised by Edward Shackleton. The expedition ventured far into the Arctic, Haig-Thomas spending extended periods with the Kalaallit people of West Greenland, learning the Kalaallisut language. On his return to Britain he immediately began organising his own return expedition, raising commercial sponsorship for a party of geographers to map the far northern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago. His own role was to search for the skeleton of a large dinosaur rumoured to be somewhere in the region.

Haig-Thomas never found his skeleton, but he did spend many months exploring the frozen channels and islands of the far north, living off seal, walrus and bear meat and discovering a previously uncharted land which he named Haig-Thomas Island. During this time he was accompanied by his Kalaallit friend and guide, Ootah, who shared the long dog-sled journey with cheerful good-humour, even during the long periods when there was no food to be found. Haig-Thomas also became well acquainted with Ootah’s family and made many friends in the region, most especially among the local children.

Haig-Thomas returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. In his account of the expedition he wryly noted on the impending war that ‘whatever happened I had had a wonderful fifteen months in the Arctic, even if, in a few weeks’ time, I was riddled with machine-gun bullets.’ He joined the army, serving with No.14 Commando, a unit made up of polar specialists for service in Northern Norway. He was never deployed in the Arctic, instead accompanying the airborne assault on Normandy on 6 July 1944, armed with an oosik, an Inuit club made from a walrus’ penis bone. He was killed in action on the morning of D-Day in combat with German forces near the village of Bavent.

Shortly after his return to Britain in 1939, Haig-Thomas donated to the British Museum a small collection of archaeological finds discovered by workmen under an ancient house near Thule, North Greenland. It consists of fragments of bone and ivory tools, including the remains of a pair of bone snow-spectacles, dating to approximately 1200 CE. He left the remainder of the souvenirs from his trip at his family home in Essex, where it remained until this year, when his son Anthony generously donated it to the Museum.

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

This collection not only enables us to tell his father’s remarkable story, it also allows for an examination of the Kalaallit people during a time of great turmoil. There are 70 items in the collection, which can be broadly divided into three groups. The first consists of souvenirs: Danish travellers, missionaries and traders were not uncommon among the Inuit communities of West Greenland, and a thriving trade in souvenirs had sprung up. The collection includes an ivory letter-opener, several ivory snow-knives and a cribbage board carved from a walrus tusk. At the time, items of this kind were decried because, in the words of Danish archaeologist Morton Porsild, they would ‘find their way to museums, just where they ought not to be, as generally, with a few exceptions, they are devoid of all scientific value’, but in truth these souvenirs provide remarkably clear insight into the economic, stylistic and commercial preoccupations of the Kalaallit during this period.

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Sometimes they demonstrate this directly. Among the collection is an incised walrus tusk featuring scenes of Inuit hunters and fishermen using combinations of traditional and modern equipment. This is the second grouping, consisting of traditional tools often utilising European technology in their manufacture: a wooden awl with an iron nail for a point, brown thread used to stitch bone tools together and ulu knives cut from steel saws. The Kalaallit were and remain an ingenious and adaptable people capable of utilising all available resources in their daily lives and this collection amply demonstrates this important facet of their society.

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

The third group directly reflects Haig-Thomas’ close friendship with the Kalaallit boys he lived alongside. Among the Inuit peoples, once a child could walk and talk they were considered a full member of the community, and children would be expected to participate in family activities. Boys would be given small bows and harpoons, items we might consider toys but which to them were of vital educational value. Mock hunts would teach boys the skills required to procure the food necessary to keep the family alive during the long cold winters, while their sisters would be given utensils for cooking and making clothing, learning alongside their mothers in the home. The Haig-Thomas collection includes numerous such small weapons and equipment, obtained from his friends during his long months of residency with the Kalaallit.

With his generous donation, Anthony Haig-Thomas has enabled the British Museum to tell two intertwined stories of Arctic exploration: that of his father and that of the resourceful, hardy and intelligent friends that he made.

For further reading, see Haig-Thomas’ books, I Leap Before I Look and Tracks in the Snow, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre.
 
The objects that form the Haig-Thomas collection can be studied through the Collection online
.

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How to collect a cave: digital photography and African rock art

digitally manipulated photograph of African rock art from Tadrat Acacus, Libya
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

I am currently looking at 25,000 objects from the Museum’s collection on my desk. These fantastic works detail an important part of human history in Africa and range from beautiful bas-relief cattle to stunning painted representations of women dancing. Yet these items are not from the Museum’s storage facilities: they are saved on a hard drive, as part of the African rock art image project. The project team is cataloguing and uploading these 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent, so each one of them is being registered into the Museum’s collection as an object in its own right and made available through the Collection Online.

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad. © TARA/David Coulson

While digital collections are a relatively new area for the museum industry, they are showing new and exciting ways museum visitors can engage with the collections, as well as adding to our scholarship. As part of this project, the digital photographs have allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ in Africa.

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685 © TARA/David Coulson

For example, this digital photograph shows a piece of rock art that has been chipped and faded through natural erosion. With the naked eye, we can see some remnants of a red-brown pigment. Maybe this was the legs of a quadruped or perhaps two abstract human figures. Most of the rock art in this area is thousands of years old, so knowing exactly what it looked like before it was eroded used to be impossible without extensive tests that could have easily destroyed the original work.

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685, showing enhanced elephant image

Digitally manipulated copy of the above photo (2013,2034.685) showing enhanced elephant image

Now, however, using photo manipulation software, we can run the photograph through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye. In this one, we can see that the legs belong to an elephant, complete with large ears, a tail and trunk.

Digitally manipulated copy of 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Run the same image through another enhancement, and we can see many more human figures that were previously invisible. The elephant is still somewhat visible in the background, highlighted in pink. But the fantastic hunters to the top right of the photo would never have been identifiable in the original rock art. Now we can see them with their bows and arrows in an active hunting scene. ‘Swimming’ figures are now highlighted in the centre of the photograph. At the right of the image, we are also able to see a section of a giraffe, depicted with a spotted coat.

By using new technologies with the digital collections, we are not only able to enhance our study of the rock art, but also to build a database to ensure open access to our work. We are regularly using social media, blogs (like this one), and thematic articles on the main Museum website, both to increase access to these amazing works of rock art, and to facilitate discussion with our online visitors across the world. While the Museum’s physical collections will always be at the core of its work, digital collections are letting us see objects in a new light. After all, a 21st-century museum requires 21st-century collecting.

On Monday 6 October 2014 at 1.30pm, Elizabeth Galvin will be giving a free public lecture on African Rock Art and Photography with renowned photographer David Coulson (from the Trust for African Rock Art),  in the BP lecture Theatre at the British Museum in London. Tickets are free, but booking is recommended via the British Museum website to ensure a place.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

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

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

Potlatch coppers: wealth and power on the Northwest Coast

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

Last year I began a Collaborative Doctoral Award at the British Museum and UCL studying Native American material culture, having worked for the Americas section of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Museum since 2008. In this post I want to introduce two new acquisitions that help the Museum illustrate the complex wealth-exchange systems of the North Pacific coast of North America.

At times of celebration, the wealthiest and most powerful chieftains among the tribes of the Northwest Coast would hold great ceremonial events, known as potlatches. These occasions could last several days, featuring a series of expansive feasts accompanied by dancing, singing and the telling of ancestral stories in the chieftain’s plank-built longhouse. During the potlatch, open negotiations over hunting territories and trading rights would be conducted, the host demonstrating his power and wealth by ostentatious demonstrations of disregard for danger.

The anthropologist Franz Boas describes an event that took place among the Kawkwaka’wakw:

When a person gives a grease feast, a great fire is lighted at the centre of the house. The flames leap up to the roof and the guests are almost scorched by the heat. Still the etiquette demands that they do not stir, else the host’s fire has conquered them. Even when the roof begins to burn and the fire attacks the rafters, they must appear unconcerned. The host alone has the right to send a man up to the roof to put out the fire.

At the climax of the event the host would address his guests in a ceremony centred on the distribution of lavish presents. Most significant of all gifts would be large sheets of shield-shaped copper decorated in a variety of tribal crests. These objects are known by various names: tináa to the Tlingit, t’agu to the Haida and collectively in English as ‘coppers’. Often individually named with complex life-histories, coppers carried a nominal value measured in blankets or slaves, but their importance lay primarily in the obligation they placed on the recipients as part of a network of wealth and power distribution.

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

To the people of the Northwest Coast, copper was an exotic item, originally traded from the north and later with Europeans. It held supernatural properties, and to present a guest with a copper or a piece from a broken copper placed on them a powerful obligation. A host who had received coppers from his guests at their potlatches was compelled to present them with a greater value of coppers than he had previously received and thus obliged his guests to present coppers of even greater value at their next potlatch. The wealthiest chieftains would even smash coppers or throw them into the sea to demonstrate their superiority and strength. A leader who could not afford to make these presents or did not possess coppers could not hold a successful potlatch to celebrate important events and would consequently be considered a man of little importance among his peers.

In the late 19th century, colonial authorities saw the potlatch as a dangerous, wasteful and subversive event and sought to stamp it out. It was outlawed in Canada in 1884 and in 1921 Dan Cranmer’s potlatch at ʼMimkwa̱mlis (Village Island) was raided by the local police who seized and confiscated hundreds of items of regalia. Potlatching did not cease, but it was forced underground, becoming invisible to the authorities as the regalia which supported it was gradually dispersed to museums and private collections around the world. Since the removal of the anti-potlatch laws in 1951 however, potlatching has once again become a prominent part of life for the people of the North Pacific.

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Two new acquisitions help the British Museum tell the story of the coppers. The first is an unadorned copper from the turn of the 20th century recently donated by the London School of Economics. Unlike the coppers already in the collection, which are made from single thick copper sheets, this is a thinner, lighter example made from two sheets riveted together, a method of manufacture which suggests a Kwakwaka’wakw origin. Unusually, this example is not etched with an animal crest, and is thus a so-called ‘spurious copper’, one which was a valuable but routine item of exchange passed from chief to chief from potlatch to potlatch but without the ritual significance of the decorated coppers.

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

The second acquisition is a pendant produced by contemporary Tlingit artist Alison Bremner. Titled ‘Five’ from her series ‘Potlatch Dollars’, this pendant is made from copper in the shape of a traditional copper. Printed onto the surface of the pendant is a detail from a $5 note originally issued in Seattle. Bremner writes:

Potlatch Dollars resulted from my consideration of the concept of money, as any self-employed artist will do. Tináa’s once held a money-like value that today is held by dollar bills. Money is the object that contemporary society chooses to place value on.

As a child of two cultures, I view these works less as an appropriation from one culture to another but as a joining of the two. The Potlatch Dollar is a symbol of the past and present that all Northwest Coast residents now live in.

In juxtaposing 19th-century embodiments of Native and non-Native conceptions of wealth, Bremner is highlighting both the similarities and the misunderstandings that have characterised Native and non-Native relations over the last two centuries and celebrates the re-establishment of traditional Native practices in recent decades.

For further reading, see Carol F Jopling, The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Developments and Possible Antecedents, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre (ALRC). These two new acquisitions will be on display at the ALRC until December 2014.

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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, , , , , , , , ,

More than just gold

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Gold glitters in our exhibition, Beyond El Dorado, power and gold in ancient Colombia. To our modern eye those pieces convey ideas of richness, wealth and a fascinating world that disappeared a long time ago. Exquisitely crafted, they are testimonies of the complexity and sophistication achieved by those pre-Hispanic people. Objects that seem at first glance made of gold are much more complex and are in fact made of metal alloys. In most instances they combine, in different degrees, gold, some natural occurring silver, and copper, a combination known as tumbaga. These metals were symbolically charged in pre-Hispanic times, being associated with the sun and the moon respectively. Their combination produced a microcosm, a balance between opposites in the rendering of each object.

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

The creation of alloys also allowed for differences in colour, ranging from reddish to golden tones. Each object had its own particular colour, shine and finish thanks to the mastery and skills of the artists that produced them. Some even show contrasting colours in the same object, producing beautiful patterns and details.

Small ingots of tumbaga, in the shape of round buttons, were crafted in unique objects either by hammering or casting them (or by a combination of both techniques). Ancient Colombian artists mastered both techniques to an unprecedented degree, creating exceptional works of art.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC – AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Hammering metal was a delicate process. Metal becomes easily brittle when hammered and they have to be repeatedly cooled and dipped in water before the final form is achieved. The thin sheets of gold were then cut, decorated (for example by repoussé) or joined by clipping or folding several sheets together. Exceptional three dimensional pieces were created, as for example the wonderful jaguar seen in the exhibition (above). Claws, tail and jaws are articulated and even the nose ring is made of a rare alloy of platinum and gold.

However, it was the casting of metals that was developed most in ancient Colombia. Using the lost wax technique, artist modelled the final piece they wanted to achieve in beeswax (from stingless bees). Once the wax figure was finished it was covered in fine clay and charcoal, leaving pouring channels. The whole mould was fired and the melted wax poured out. Its place would be taken by molten metal, which cooled slowly as it solidified inside the mould. The mould was then broken and the final metal piece polished and finished.

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC - AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC – AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Ancient Colombian artist even created hollow objects following this technique, for example flasks and containers. Great skill was needed to produce them. The figure was modelled in clay and charcoal, and a thin layer of wax was applied to cover the final result. Over this another layer of clay would be added, and wooden pegs were inserted to fix the inner mould to the outer one to keep them in place when the wax melted. Controlling the flow of the metal to every single detail of the piece, its slow solidification, and then freeing the figure without damaging it was challenge that could only be achieved by the most experienced hands. Exquisite works of art, seen in this exhibition, were the result of incredible knowledge, care and time invested in their making.

Videos showing goldmaking techniques created for the exhibition

  1. Depletion gilding (dorado por oxidación)
  2. From wax to metal (de la cera al metal)
  3. By hammer and fire (a martillo y fuego)

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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El Dorado: a title and a myth

View of Lake Guatavita
Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Curators usually think very carefully about the title of an exhibition. In a few words we have to convey a key message to catch people’s attention and to draw in the crowds. Our current exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, was no exception. At the British Museum we felt we had to include the words ‘El Dorado’ in the title. This Spanish term, which means the ‘golden one’ or ‘the gilded one’, is familiar to many, but very few know what or who El Dorado was. Perhaps this is part of its mystical aura; the inevitable attraction of the unknown?

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

Throughout the centuries, El Dorado was described by some as a man fully dressed in gold regalia. Other people believed he was a ruler or even a city covered in this precious metal. Some believed it was a golden kingdom. In fact, El Dorado was none of these. It was a myth that grew over the centuries that seems to have originated from the gold-thirsty Europeans in their exploration of the New Continent, soon to be called America. From 1499 the Spanish explorers and conquistadores reached the Caribbean coasts known today as Colombia and were especially dazzled by the quantity of gold being used by indigenous people. The King of Spain even named these lands ‘Castilla del Oro’ (Castile of Gold). But this Dorado was always elusive, always further south, or further north, or more towards the east; never being reached by the many expeditions and men that invested their live in this futile search.

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Some chroniclers placed El Dorado in the Colombian landscape, and few even ventured to link it to Lake Guatavita. This wonderful lagoon, nested in the green Andean highlands about 35 miles north of modern day Bogota, became the focus of attention for explorers and treasure hunters for many centuries. Accounts by Juan Rodriguez Freyle (1636) picture a vivid image of one of the rituals that took place in this lake. When a Muisca ruler came to power, and after much ceremony and fasting, he was taken to the lagoon where he was stripped of all his clothing. His body was covered in gold powder and placed at the center of a raft with attendants adorned with colorful feathers and gold ornaments. As the raft sailed towards the center of the lake, the crowds sang and danced and aromatic resins were burned. When the boat reached the center, a banner was raised, everyone fell silent and offerings of gold and emeralds were thrown to the waters of the lake. But there was much more than just gold offered; the truth behind the myth was far more fascinating. Excavations in the early 20th century have shown that wonderful ceramics, stone necklaces and other materials were also deposited in the lake.

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

This lavish ceremony was probably only one of many that took place in Guatavita. And this lagoon was only one of the sacred locations throughout the Andean landscape where Muisca rituals took place (including rivers, caves, rocks). There is much more than just a myth to be explored; there are rich cultures, unique objects and exceptional belief systems, which all go beyond the power granted to gold in modern times.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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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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Easter Island (Rapa Nui): a new narrative

Moai staues on Rapa Nui
Jago Cooper, curator, British Museum

Small island communities represent some of the most vulnerable people on the planet to the impacts of climate variability and environmental change. This is why their voices are so powerful when heard above the clamour at international meetings designed to tackle these issues at the global scale.

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

From an archaeological perspective these island communities are particularly interesting as they have commonly been populated relatively late in the great human colonisation of our planet, often only arriving in these archipelagos in the late Holocene (past 5,000 years). Therefore archaeological studies in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere have revealed some fascinating narratives of how human communities have lived with the impacts of climatic variability and environmental change in these archipelagos. In particular these comparative island studies demonstrate how different decisions that people have taken have directly affected their relative vulnerability through time.

Within this context Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has often been heralded as a warning to the world, an example of a remote island community’s inability to live within their means, chopping down all the trees on the island, over-exploiting the island’s resources and self-inflicting their own demise. However, recent evidence offers a very different picture of what actually happened on Rapa Nui.

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

This new perspective to Rapa Nui’s past is the focus of a documentary that I have worked on for BBC4, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. It uses the latest scientific and archaeological evidence to reveal a compelling new narrative, one that sees the famous Moai as only part of a complex culture that thrived in isolation. To this end, I argue that there are indeed important lessons to learn from Rapa Nui but they don’t begin by blaming its inhabitants for their own downfall.

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Easter Island, Mysteries of a Lost World is on BBC4 on Thursday 30 January at 9.00 pm. Watch clips from the programme on the BBC website.
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New discoveries of cave art in the Caribbean

New cave art discoveries in the pre-Columbian CaribbeanJago Cooper, curator, British Museum

At the end of May, I returned to the British Museum from an exploratory research visit to an uninhabited national park on the island of Mona in Puerto Rico. My colleague Dr Alice Samson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and I had found more than we planned or expected when we flew to the Caribbean two weeks earlier.

caption goes here

There are hundreds of caves on Isla de Mona many with entrances like this one on cliff faces overlooking the coastline below.

Alerted to the potential presence of archaeological sites dating to the pre-Columbian period (prior to AD 1492 when Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas) by National park manager Tony Nieves, we went to take a look. We discovered extensive pre-Columbian mining and artistic practices deep inside caves, with an astonishing abundance and diversity of new rock art including pictographs and finger-incised designs representing abstract, human and animal images.

caption goes here

The pre-Columbian iconography found in many of these cave systems extends through galleried chambers covering large portions of the walls and ceilings.

Designs, which cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels across the island were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by previously undocumented techniques such as incising and dragging fingers through the very soft, plaster-like deposit on the cave walls. This particular technique left white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness.

caption goes here

Many of the representations are clearly identifiable. This figure with the swirling arms represents Guabancex, the pre-Columbian deity associated with the destructive force of the hurricane.

Strikingly the technique also appears to have been a way of harvesting the soft deposit on the cave walls as is attested by the vigorous finger scratching across large expanses of cave surfaces in all of the sites we visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving complex designs.

caption goes here

This figure is identical to the famous Puerto Rican Sol de Jayuya rock art image found in central Puerto Rico.

Alongside Dr Samson I’m working in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to develop a project to study the pre-Columbian archaeology of the island and protect this unique Caribbean heritage. Many of the caves we explored have not been visited since guano (essentially bat excrement, a very effective fertilizer) miners working there downed tools 120 years ago, leaving the ruins of railway tracks, wagons and sometimes their initials on the cave walls.

The caves are incredibly well preserved sites, but are at very high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. A glimpse of this archaeology is shown in our project gallery page.

The evidence we found not only dramatically expands our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but has the potential to change understandings of past cave use in this area at this time, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

The fieldwork discussed in this blog was consequently reported in detail at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 17 July 2013 and more information can now be found on the Antiquity Journal website. Samson, A., Cooper, J., Nieves, M. A., Rodriguez Ramos, R., Kambesis, P. N. and Lace, M. J. 2013 (Dec). Antiquity. vol 87. Issue 338 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/samson338/).”

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Today’s #BMAdventCalendar – this struck bronze medal shows a nativity scene Four boys make a snowball in this Japanese woodblock print from today’s #BMAdventCalendar Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, set and filmed here, is now in cinemas across the UK! #NightAtTheMuseum This is Room 91, the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's used for temporary exhibitions, usually from the Department of Asia. At the moment you can see the exhibition Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand (until 11 January 2015). Here’s some #mistletoe from today's #BMAdventCalendar – fancy a kiss? Miss Piggy & Kermit the Frog are celebrating #Christmas on this 1981 badge  #BMAdventCalendar #muppets
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