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.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon HoganPolly Bence, British Museum

This painting is one of almost 6,000 objects from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands in the British Museum. This is a growing collection; the Museum continues to acquire contemporary Indigenous Australian objects, including contemporary art works.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka was painted by Simon Hogan, a senior custodian of Linka, the place where he was born and raised in Western Australia, known as Spinifex country. The Spinifex people or Pila Nguru live in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia, adjoining the border with South Australia.

Hogan’s paintings tell stories from his land, depicting specific places within Spinifex country. As is often characteristic of this genre, the painting collapses time: it shows several successive events on top of each other. The large U-shape in the painting is a rockhole with water in it known as Ilkurlka and the trees are mulga trees (wanarii). When describing this painting Hogan explained: ‘those trees belong to that place’.

The painting tells the story of a man who was camping at this rockhole. He woke up and travelled to another place where there was a very powerful watersnake that he was trying to capture.

In describing the painting the artist explained that in it the man is trying to eat the snake and at the same time he has eaten it – he is both a man and a snake. The oval shape depicts the man lying down, feeling sick having eaten the snake – but the man now has a great deal of power.

During the atomic tests at Maralinga in western South Australia during the mid-1950s, the Spinifex people were driven from their homelands. Many found themselves dispersed and others were forcibly relocated to mission stations hundreds of miles away. In the 1980s people returned to their land to find that specific settlement areas had been designated for them and some areas had been selected for mining.

The 1990s saw an arduous and lengthy period of negotiations over land rights and native title claims, and it was during this period that the Spinifex Arts Project was developed to help the group document and illustrate their Native Title claims. This decade of discussion culminated in 2000 with ground-breaking legislation and a new understanding: Spinifex people were finally recognised as the traditional owners of 55,000 square kilometres of land in Western Australia. Spinifex artists produce work to demonstrate and share their complex history and traditions.

The British Museum is working towards a major Indigenous Australian exhibition which will open in 2015, which will include Spinifex paintings.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 7 February 2013.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan is on display in Room 37

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of ChristChristopher Spring, British Museum

The modern state of Ethiopia was created from an ancient kingdom founded over two millennia ago. Originally extending across the Red Sea into what is now Yemen, the Aksumite Empire of Ethiopia became Christian in the fourth century. It is associated with the biblical mythologies of Solomon and of Sheba, and in the medieval west with the Christian Patriarch Prester John. Ethiopia is mentioned several times in the Bible, and its church is one of the oldest in the world. Although Ethiopia, then as now, is a country of many faiths and cultures, including Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Ethiopian Christian churches thrive among diaspora communities, with many congregations based in London. This remarkable painting tells multiple stories, with layered meanings, about Christianity and empire.

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

It was created in the mid-nineteenth century for the Church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa in northern Ethiopia. Its central image of the Crucifixion of Christ was painted to inspire devotion among Ethiopian Christians. There is a convention in Ethiopian religious painting for the unbelievers or evil-doers to be painted in profile and for the righteous to be painted full face – therefore the two thieves with whom Christ was crucified are depicted only in profile. At the foot of the cross Christ’s blood flows into the mouth of the skull of Adam signifying humanity’s redemption through the blood of the redeemer.

The smaller scenes around the edge of the painting celebrate Bishop Selama, the Abune (Patriarch) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841-1867. One scene shows the arrival of the Abune in Gandabta in 1841; Bishop Selama is shown riding on a donkey being greeted by jubilant crowds.

Church paintings at this time were an important means of communication and observers would have been able to identify the recent events depicted. For example, the third scene to the left shows Bishop Selama, wearing a red, hooded cape, anointing Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia at his coronation in 1855. Tewodros had an ambitious plan to unite and modernise the country, and is still regarded as a hero by many Ethiopians.

These illustrations of Bishop Selama’s life provide an insight into the complex relationship between Church and state in Ethiopia at the time, depicting a struggle for power. The coronation of Emperor Tewodros by Abune Selama reflects on their initial alliance and the Emperor’s need for the church’s support in unifying Ethiopia politically. However, it was an alliance which eventually collapsed largely because of Emperor Tewodros’ almost unstoppable desire for modernisation and the control of ecclesiastical power.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard in January 2013.

The Crucifixion of Christ is on display in Room 25: Africa

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