British Museum blog

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, , , , , , , , , ,

Documenting the Museum’s changing landscape

Liam O’Connor, artist

'WCEC Excavation' 2012 © Liam O'Connor

‘WCEC Excavation’ 2012 © Liam O’Connor

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, view from Senate House

The World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre, view from Senate House

Over the past four years I have been making work in response to a building site at the British Museum that has now become the World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.

I see the building site as an island within the city, a territory relinquished in one form waiting to be claimed in/by another.

I have been privileged to explore this transforming landscape and have attempted to describe it, or allow it to describe itself, through the objects and drawings I have made. The work explores the process of imposing order on the landscape and its objects, the end point of which is the completed structure of the building.

Over the course of three and a half years I worked on a single drawing of the site. From a fixed vantage point above the site, I observed the entire transformation of the space from demolition through to excavation and construction. In a weekly ritual I returned to this same view and added to the drawing as new forms emerged on site. Over time this developed into a memoir to the building process. The Museum documented the stages of this drawing through a series of photographs.

For me the most compelling part of the building process was the excavation, which saw the entire site cleared to four stories below street level. I have always been drawn to these huge spaces which temporarily open up in London, into which new buildings are to be placed. They are architectural events in themselves, for a brief moment a huge expanse appears within the densely packed London streets. In response to the epic excavation I made two pieces of work, the first of which was this large, three meter wide drawing, in an attempt to capture the cinematic quality of the spectacle.

Click on any of the thumbnails to view as a full screen slideshow.
All images © Liam O’Connor

The second piece came out of a body of work I had been making on site, for which I collected marks left on surfaces through rubbings, prints and photograms; collecting moments I saw as drawings. The site is continually producing images of itself; dirt, mud, clay and rust are dragged across its surfaces or are themselves surfaces onto which marks can be made. After watching thousands of lorries leave the site filled with clay, I wanted to join the clay on its journey, so I asked if I could sit in one of the lorries to see where it went. I also asked if I could place some boards in the back of the lorry, on which clay could be placed on top to create a drawing which could be reclaimed at the end of the journey, at the rubbish tip. The builders were happy to facilitate my experiments with, as they always were throughout the project. I had been exploring ways of using the materials, processes and tools on site to make drawings, and I saw this piece as a successful outcome of that process as it was made by a telescopic digger, a lorry and a bulldozer.

Click on any of the thumbnails to view as a full screen slideshow.
All images © Liam O’Connor

The final piece of work I made was a modern medal. Philip Attwood, Keeper of the Department of Coins & Medals, introduced me to the Museum’s modern medal collection, and, impressed by these objects, I wanted to make something in response. I was interested in the repetitious activities on the site, such as the picking up and putting down of clay or the construction of steel cages to reinforce the concrete, as the same process seemed to result in a slightly different outcome each time, a unique result. I had also been working a lot with objects taken from the site rather than making my own. With these two ideas in mind, Willie Shaw of Mace, the main contractor, donated a crane lifting chain, and PAD contractors separated the chain into its 800 individual links and stamped each one with a commemorative mark I had designed.

Once the building is complete all these medals will be displayed temporarily and each of the people who have worked on the project will choose a medal from this display, so the piece of work will disperse among everyone who has contributed to the building project.

Every Saturday in June a display of the work I have made will be open to the public. The works have all been tailor-made for the museum cabinets in this secret gallery usually closed off from public view. This room has always been important to me; on one side is the building site and on the other the Museum, for me it became a studio space where the influence of both cultures began to emerge within the work that I made.


See a selection of Liam’s work on display in the WCEC Model room, located off Room 66 on Level 3 of the Museum.
To find out more about Liam O’Connor’s work, visit liamoconnor.co.uk

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Filed under: At the Museum, , , , , , , , , , ,

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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