British Museum blog

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, , , , ,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/).”

Filed under: Archaeology, Research, , , ,

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