TARA is sad to announce that on Monday June 1st 2020, an long-term friend and TARA supporter, Joan Travis, died in Los Angeles, California. She was 96 years old.
I am not sure when I first met Joan but it is likely that I met her through Dr Mary Leakey, probably soon after Mary discovered the 3.7 million year old Laetoli footprints near Olduvai, Tanzania in the late 1980s. Joan was a close friend of Louis and Mary’s and a founding trustee of the Leakey Foundation. In the early years when Louis Leakey was trying to raise money for their projects at the Olduvai Gorge etc. in Tanzania, it was Joan who raised much of the funding through her network while arranging the lectures and promotional events that made it all possible. Joan was also a close friend and supporter of the now famous women whom Louis recruited to work on the ape research projects he felt were so important e.g. Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Diane Fossey (gorillas), and Biruti Galdikas (orangutans).
Angela Fisher, Joan Travis, Carol Beckwith and me, Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California, July 2018, after Carol and Angela’s lecture.
Through Mary‘s introduction, Joan Travis also helped me and TARA in many ways over the years and was home base whenever I went to Los Angeles. My last visit was in July 2018 when Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith (2 of my oldest friends) were also in town to promote their latest book, African Twilight. Together with Joan, I went to Angela and Carol’s exhibition and lecture at the Bowers Museum and enjoyed a memorable evening. Joan always loved being a part of our team(s) and took huge pleasure in our achievements. She was one of the kindest people I have ever known and I shall miss her. She will be particularly missed by her daughter Cindy and her grandchildren.
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TARA is pleased to share its latest publication, “I Love Rock Art, Nigeria”, which was produced to accompany the travelling exhibition, The Ancient Rock Art of Nigeria. The exhibition, part of a project supported by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation in collaboration with the National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Ahmadu […]
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TARA is sad to report that Chief Sylvanus Akong of Alok, near Ikom in Cross River State died on Sunday 17th May. I first met Sylvanus, known to his friends as Orlando when TARA invited him to attend a Conference we hosted in Nairobi in 2004. The conference in which he participated was entitled, The Future of Africa’s Past. I remember Orlando came to my home in Nairobi for dinner one night, something he reminded me of years later when we met again in 2016.
TARA’s involvement with the Bakor Monoliths of Cross River began when we invited Professor Abu Edet from the University of Calabar to speak at a rock art conservation conference we organized in Morocco in 2015. One of our supporters, the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam was present at the conference and we suggested to them that they support a one year project on the Monoliths Starting in 2016. That was when Professor Edet took us to meet Chief Akong at the village of Alok, someone whom Abu Edet had worked with for many years due to his knowledge and deep interest in this unique heritage. This was the beginning of a collaborative project involving the Factum Foundation which greatly benefitted from the knowledge, passion and leadership of Chief Akong, a project that was then taken over by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and broadened to include the rock art of Nigeria. The project partners now include the National Council of Museums for Museums and Monuments, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), the US Embassy in Nigeria, the Factum Foundation, the University of Calabar (UNICAL) and ourselves.
Orlando, who was born in 1953, started out as an educator who had founded and run two schools but he was later appointed by the National Commission for Monuments and Museums to run the Alok Open Air Museum close to his own home/village. During the last two years of our joint project he devoted huge energy and passion, as well as leadership in helping to guide the team in how best to carry out and improve our research methods and approach. He was an invaluable source of knowledge and help to TARA and the whole team, a larger than life personality and leader who was respected and admired throughout the Bakor communities.
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One of the richest rock art areas in Kenya is the semi- desert region in the far north, now part of Marsabit County. Here, only 100 miles South of Ethiopia is a small mountain, Afgaba, sacred to the Gabbra inhabitants where hundreds of rock engravings can be found in a secret valley, believed to be […]
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David Coulson led two safaris to Niger’s Air Mountains in November 2019. The first Safari was a 12 day trip (for 9 pax) including two spectacular tribal ceremonies, visits to several world class rock engraving sites as well as travels through some of the most beautiful desert scenery in the world. Our hosts were the Tuareg, most of them friends of David for many years.
The second Safari focused on specific areas and rock art sites in the Air Massif and featured two wonderful Tuareg ceremonies as well as a Wodaabe Geerewohl ceremony. We were accompanied on the second trip by world famous photographers, Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith who have recently been launching their double volume book, African Twilight.
David Coulson led a third Sahara Safari, this time to Chad’s Ennedi Mountains (10pax). The Ennedi is a 17,000 sq mile desert wilderness in the north east of Chad consisting of eroded sandstone mountains, canyons, weird rock formations , painted caves, giant rock arches and monoliths the size of New York skyscrapers.
The Ennedi rock paintings and engravings open windows onto the regions past showing a time when the area supported large human populations with advanced cultures and wildlife thousands of years ago.
In November the group visited newly discovered rock art sites, explored giant rock outcrops of resembling “forests of stone“ and witnessed thousands of camels drinking at waterholes in silent canyons, their moans of pleasure echoing through the canyons. These camel caravans have used waterholes like these for millennia and their herders are Tubu nomads.
Due to the lack of water and vegetation only hardy nomads (Tubu) are found here. Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith were able to enthral the group with wonderful stories of their travels while David talked sbout the Sahara’s proud past. David’s first visit to the Ennedi was in the mid 1990s. TARA is planning more safaris to the Sahara in 2020. Find out more information and sign up on our Safaris page.
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In early June David Coulson and Terry Little of TARA returned to Nigeria for a second field trip as part of the current US Ambassadors Fund Rock Art project this year. This was the second Nigerian expedition this year which focused on the rock painting sites and little known rock gongs of northern Nigeria in Jagawi and Bauchi States. The expedition focused mainly on the documentation of known rock art sites (some of them documented in Colonial times) in the two states and the team consisted of representatives from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Amadubello University, the University of Calabar and TARA.
An important additional activity was an exhibition workshop which was organized and orchestrated by Lorna Abungu, former President of Africom, and an old friend of TARA. A traveling exhibition is one of the important activities and outputs of this project.
After an initial visit to the Emir of Dutse, who invited us to visit his amazing palace, we drove to Birnin Kudu where several important sites were recorded in the mid 1950s by Dr Bernard Fagg, then Nigeria’s chief archaeologist. In Bernard Fagg’s day these sites were valtabs.com located out in the bush but are now “islands” surrounded by towns. Nevertheless we were happy to see that the paintings appeared not to have been damaged, even though some were so faded due to the passage of time as to be scarcely visible.
What was of particular interest to some of us was the Rock Gongs, rocks which have natural resonance, which were used for musical and communication purposes in the past and clearly have been used right up to present times. The group held discussions with community leaders about the role of these sites in their communities and their responsibility to protect them and encourage local people to respect them.
The group went on to document other sites in Bauchi State in granite country. These sites are still in rural settings although not far from villages. Most of these were in good condition and also featured rock gongs.
We recorded one site at the end of the trip that had been irreparably damaged by vandalism, a wake-up call for the NCMM.
Rock painting damaged by intentional abrasion using stones to try rub off the paint.
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In early May TARA’s David Coulson with Emmanuel Ndiema, Head of Archeology at the National Museums of Kenya, drove south together to visit and record a newly reported site in Maasaland, near the edge of the Rift Valley, south of Nairobi.
As is normal in such sites (in Kenya) most of the white finger paintings were abstract in design but Coulson and Ndiema did record a painting of a red and white Maasai shield as well as other familiar abstract symbols. Shields appear frequently in Maasai paintings in norther Tanzania and in southern Kenya (Maasailand) near the Tanzania border, where they are usually the dominant motif, but they do not occur further north in the rest of Kenya. This particular shield is probably one of the northernmost shield sites yet recorded.
The site is located in a shallow cave with a big view looking south east towards Mt Kilimanjaro, and from above the cave you can look north east to the snow capped peak of Mt Kenya.
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In early April this year, David Coulson, as Director of the Cross River Monolith Research Project, along with Ferdinand Smith and Luke Tchalenko of Factum Arte Foundation and TARA consultant Terry Little flew to Calabar, SE Nigeria, to join the Nigerian team led by Professor Abu Edet of the University of Calabar. This trip was the third expedition to document and research the Cross River Monoliths. The Cross River Monoliths are also known as Akwanshi or as the Bakkor Monoliths of Cross River State, formerly Biafra.
Cross River, near Ikom
The monoliths are carved anthropomorphic stones in forested areas, and are believed to have represented powerful ancestral spirits.
Large numbers of these monoliths have been “stolen” or illegally sold during the last 50 years especially during the Nigerian Civil War. Meanwhile no thorough inventory of these stones has been undertaken until this project. Several of the “stolen” stones have turned up in some of the world’s most famous museums, such as the New York “Met” and the Quai Branly/Louvre in Paris, and in private collections around the world. Some of the Bakkor/Ikom Monoliths are believed to be centuries old but their exact age is not yet known.
TARA’s first and second expeditions in 2016 and 2018 were co-funded by the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam but last month’s expedition was co-funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation out of the US Embassy in Abuja. The April expedition has been the first of 3 trips planned for this year, part of a Nigerian Rock Art awareness project, supported by the US. The next trip will take place in June and the third in September. Meanwhile the 2019 project team has been expanded to include representatives of the National Museums of Nigeria and representatives from Amandabello University in Abuja.
Apart from training the team members on how to document and conserve this art we also plan to help them promote the heritage so as to create more awareness of its existence, importance and significance. Thanks to TARA’s experience in promoting rock art tourism in North and West Africa, including the training of guides, we hope to assist the museums in this area.
The TARA Cross Rive Monoliths project team on their return
The next trip to document Nigerian rock art will take place in June 2019, and focus on northern Nigeria’s rock paintings, some of which may be several thousand years old. Another visit to Ikom focusing on the Bakkor Monoliths is also planned. Later in the year a major exhibition of Nigerian rock art is due to be staged in Abuja showcasing the work of TARA and partners in documenting Nigerian rock art thus far.
Read about our previous survey and documentation trips as well as the Akwanshi conference of 2018 on these links:
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At the end of February TARA’s David Coulson took part in a rock art and cultural survey up the length of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The survey was organized by Royal African Safaris and the Turkana Basin Institute and was intended to explore the potential of high-end cultural tourism in some of the country’s wildest areas. Starting in Maasailand on the west side of the Rift the team flew north by helicopter stopping to record archeological and rock art sites on the way.
At the end of their second day they reached Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, an area known the world over for the richness of its human fossil sites.
Nabuyatom, island crater at south end of Lake Turkana
Here they met up with world famous palaeontologist, Richard Leakey, who flew them to his northern campus near the Ethiopian border.
Later they flew across the lake to visit Nariokotome where in 1984, Richard’s team discovered Turkana Boy, the name given to the remains of a 1.6 million-year-old pre-modern human they found here.
They also stopped at rock art sites that David knew.
The wild scenery of the Suguta Valley and Lake Turkana in Kenya’s Great RIft Valley
On the return trip back south the team flew down the wild Suguta Valley over huge dune fields reminiscent of the Sahara Desert.
See more images from this trip on our Facebook page: https://web.facebook.com/AfricanRockArt/
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Anthony Odera, the manager of Kakapel Cultural Centre shared with us an update on the annual Iteso Cultural Festival.
In 2018, there were an estimated 20,000 people in attendance at the festival from different parts of Kenya, including from beyond Kenya’s borders. Guests included His Highness Papa Emormor the Iteso King.
TARA was instrumental in the establishment of the Kakapel Cultural Centre through our rock art conservation community projects and we are therefore very pleased that over the years, the Iteso Cultural Festival that began with the inauguration of the centre has continued to happen and draw many crowds. Kakapel is one of Kenya’s most important rock art sites, and visitors to the festival are also introduced to the site.
Images from the festival in 2018 courtesy of Anthony below:
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Late last year, archaeologists working in the Blombos Cave in South Africa published findings regarding what is now the world’s oldest rock painting discovered, in the journal Nature. The painting comprises several hashed lines drawn by ochre pencil on a piece of rock dated to 73,000 years ago. The lines were possibly part of a larger work of art. Previous excavations in Blombos Cave have revealed an ochre paint processing laboratory, and other evidence of symbolic thinking and practice in the form of an etched piece of ochre, and ochre painted shell beads. This discovery sets the earliest date of rock art by Homo sapiens back several decades, and reconfirms the birthplace of Homo sapiens‘ symbolic faculties, as of Homo sapiens herself, to be in Africa.
Ochre drawing on rock found in Blombos Cave. Photo: Craig Foster
Read more about the finding in the Business Insider here and an interview with archaeologist Chris Henshilwood on the Conversation here.
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During the last few years TARA has recorded three important rock art sites in Kitui County, including one site which is located just inside Tsavo East National Park at a place called Ithumba, the regional Park Headquarters. At two out of three of these sites the art takes the form of geometric shapes and designs which represented powerful spiritual symbols for the people that made them. We call this Batwa art, a geometric form of rock art featuring concentric circles, spirals and other quasi geometric shapes. This art was made by forest/hunter-gatherer peoples (Batwa) similar to the forest foragers of eastern Congo, Gabon and other parts of central Africa.
Geometric art in Ithumba, Kenya
Batwa art dates from a time, several thousand years ago, when these particular areas were still forested and part of the original Central African Rainforest. With the exception of the Maasai and Samburu paintings, most of the rock art found in Kenya is in fact Batwa art, an indication of how much of the country used to be part of the Central African Rain Forest. This includes paintings and engravings found in the deserts of northern Kenya where instead of trees we now see only rocks and sand.
The third site, located about an hour south of Kitui town, features a different type of art which is more abstract than geometric. Here we see star-shaped images, almost resembling a modern firework display, and zigzags as well as animal and human footprints. We believe that these images were also the work of hunter gatherers.
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TARA was recently commissioned to design and produce an African Rock Art exhibition to mark the opening of the new China-funded Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, Senegal. The Museum was officially inaugurated on Thursday 6th by President Macky Sall.
The concept of this Museum, says its Director, is not to be a commemorative monument but rather a creative lobby to help shape a continent’s sense of identity.
Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilisations whose round shape was inspired by traditional houses
The rock art exhibit makes a powerful statement about the rich cultural diversity and artistic eminence of Africa’s past civilisations.
Africa’s rock art: religion, spirituality and ritual
The opening of the Museum marked as the world’s largest museum dedicated to black civilisations has been linked to calls from Senegal and other African nations for France to return art looted during the colonial era. Meanwhile President Macron of France has already made a major public statement agreeing to return some of these cultural treasures to their original homes.
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In early November 2018, TARA’s David Coulson took a group of 8 people on a Rock Art Safari in Niger’s Air Mountains in the Southern Sahara, an area where the Trust has been documenting art since the mid 1990s. The group arrived by air from Niger’s capital, at the picturesque town of Agadez, once known as the Gateway to the Sahara.
The land expedition with 5 Landcruisers left the following morning and arrived that afternoon at Dabous, the Big Giraffe site which TARA put on the world map in 1997. When David first recorded these giant 7000 year old carvings, the news went viral. At a press conference held at National Geographic in 1998 the giraffes were described as one of the greatest pieces of prehistoric art ever found.
When the group arrived at the Dabous site on Nov 1st about 100 Tuareg, many mounted on camels, came thundering across the ancient lake-bed in their finery hooting a “Royal” welcome to a our group. Meanwhile the women gathered in circles clapping and chanting .
During the week that followed, David and his old friend Rhissa Agboulah (now Minister for Security) took the group on a grand tour of about 800 kilometres through spectacular mountains and dunes north east of Dabous, visiting many wonderful engraving sites. During this trip they saw only one human being, a 12 year old Tuareg boy who had been sent on a 59 km hike to check on some camels. Many of the Air engravings feature alien-looking warriors probably made between 2000 and 3000 years ago.
During the trip, David was able to document a number of new rock engraving sites (see images below) which they found to add to TARA’s archive, much of which is accessible as part of the British Museums global online collections. These safaris offer an opportunity to record new art.
TARA will be taking another group to the same region in 2019. Anyone interested in joining this trip should contact David Coulson directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) or his assistant, email@example.com.
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In late June/early July 2018 TARA’s David Coulson and Terry Little were invited by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles to participate in an International Colloquium in the USA. This was the third such Colloquium on rock art awareness and conservation, and the largest. (The original meeting was held in Australia in 2016 and the second in Namibia last year.)
The main aim of this recent meeting was to generate new strategies and solutions for the recognition, sustainable use and conservation of rock art as a global resource of universal value. During the sessions at the Getty offices, and the presentations, David talked about TARA’s documentation work and about the rock art safaris which TARA has promoted and organised. Meanwhile Terry talked about Fundraising for rock art projects with special emphasis on Crowdfunding based on TARA’s experiences in 2014.
Getty Centre Complex, Los Angeles, California
Getty Centre Complex, Los Angeles, California
Most of the more formal presentations and discussions were held in the Getty Centre, an impressive complex of buildings on a hill overlooking the city, constructed with white marble. However the Colloquium also included a number of interesting site visits. Soon after arriving, for instance, the group, consisting of over 20 international specialists, were transported by coach to a place/site called Little Lake, in the Mohave Desert east of the Sierra Nevada, where we were guided by locally-based expert, Dr Jo Ann Van Tilburg from UCLA. This is mainly a petroglyph site although there also paintings here, and is situated close to Little Petroglyph Canyon, another well known site. Jo Ann has worked at this site for a number of years. She is also an old friend of TARA and helped us set up our original digital archive in 2004 with support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.
Carrizo Plains Site
Carrizo Plains Site
Carrizo Plains Site
Carrizo Plains Site
Carrizo Plains Site
The second site visit on the following day was further south where we visited the Carrizo Plains National monument, a remarkable site where two of our group had worked in the 1990s. This is very large painting site, but one that was seriously vandalised in the early 1900s. Dave Whitely and Nic Hall who had worked here in the past were able to show us old photographs which clearly showed what the site was like prior to being vandalised. These paintings were made by Shumasch Indians.
Presentations at the Getty Conservation Institute
Presentations at the Getty Conservation Institute
After further talks at the Getty offices we were again whisked away, this time by air to San Antonio in West Texas (approx 2,000 miles from LA). From San Antonio we were then driven to south west Texas very close to the Rio Grande (the US/Mexican border) between the Devils and the Pecos Rivers. This is hot, dry canyon country and one of the richest rock art regions in the United States. Our host here was Dr Carolyn Boyd, head of the Shumla project. Shumla was founded by Carolyn in 1998 in order to preserve, study and share this priceless cultural record. David Coulson first came here in the early 2000s at the invitation of Shumla co-founder, Prof Megan Biesele, who is also a member of TARA’s Advisory Board.
West Texan Sites near Rio Grande
West Texan Sites near Rio Grande
West Texan Sites near Rio Grande
West Texan Sites near Rio Grande
West Texan Sites near Rio Grande
West Texan Sites near Rio Grande
We visited a number of different sites guided by Carolyn, some of which had paintings which they’ve dated to as far back as 2,000 years before Christ. The most remarkable of these was the so-called “White Shaman Shelter” which is thought to be at least 3,000 years old and is exceptionally well preserved. These paintings appear to illustrate long lost myths and beliefs adding to American pre-history.
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
White Shaman Shelter near Rio Grande
This colloquium is expected to give rise to a number of important international projects and collaborations.
Little Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, California
Little Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, California
Little Lake Rock Art Site, Mojave Desert, California
Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas
Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas
Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas
Discussion sessions at the Getty Conservation Institute and Texas
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Paris-born, Nairobi-resident David Coulson is the personification of a true British adventurer. Having originally made his name in photography and published many books, he is chair of the Nairobi-based Trust for African Rock Art (TARA). Over more than 25 years, he has dedicated his life to discovering, researching, photographing, analysing and preserving rock paintings and engravings – examples of ancient rock art – from around the world, but with special emphasis on the rock art of Africa.
David Coulson was astounded by Qobustan’s range of petroglyphs which stretch across 35 millenia.
Qobustan National Park – officially known as the Qobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape – is a mountainous territory located on the southeast end of the Greater Caucasus mountain ridge, mainly in the basin of the Jeyrankechmaz River. It is riven with deep ravines, known as gobu in Azerbaijani, from which its name was derived. In 2007, it became listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the estimated 6,000 petroglyphs (rock engravings) on its rocks and caves, which cover 537 hectares. These were incised and painted on the rocks between 5,000 and 40,000 years ago. David was excited to visit the site, and Neil Watson met him following a public presentation he gave in Central London:
VoA – How did you come to visit the petroglyphs in Qobustan?
At the time, I was representing Africa and working with the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. This led me to become exposed to rock art from around the world. The first images I saw of the Qobustan petroglyphs intrigued me a great deal. They resonated for me, as they reminded me of the petroglyphs I had seen in North Africa. I then came into contact with Linda Lawrence, who was an English teacher in Azerbaijan at that time, and she suggested that I should visit the Qobustan National Park in 2008 with the support of the Anglo-Azerbaijani Society. Later in London I was introduced to the Azerbaijan ambassador to the UK, who enthusiastically invited me to visit Qobustan.
The oldest petroglyphs are deeply incised on the rocks.
It was only a two-day visit, hosted by Dr Malahat Farajova, director of the Qobustan World Heritage Site, but it was an amazing experience. The park contains some extraordinary petroglyphs, some of which are reminiscent of the Saharan art that we have documented. It is undeniably true that petroglyphs are often found near the junction of trade and migration routes. As we all know, Azerbaijan was on the Silk Road, assisted by the fact that, around 30,000 years ago, both the Caspian and Black Seas may have been both connected and therefore navigable. I estimate that some of the art could be of that age, which would place it amongst the world’s oldest rock art. However, currently there is some scepticism amongst scholars over this fact, as Soviet archaeologists had a reputation for exaggeration. There is therefore great scope for an authoritative, substantiated study of the Qobustan petroglyphs.
In my view, this could easily be undertaken by a team of experts, led perhaps by an internationally-respected expert with dating expertise, either from France, the US or Australia who have a number of such experts. If this initiative were undertaken, other experts around the world would take the dates suggested by local experts more seriously. It is quite possible that the suggested age is correct, but it needs to be authenticated.
How would you describe the petroglyphs of Qobustan? What technique or style do they exhibit?
An immediate observation is that there are many petroglyphs that are more akin to carvings than engravings. This might be indicative that they are older, particularly as they are in an exposed environment. Rock engravings can endure much more weathering than paintings that are therefore usually found in more protected locations like shelters or shallow caves. Many of the carvings depicting aurochs (extinct species of bison), stags and other animals on the Jingirdagh Mountain are extremely ancient and deeply engraved, but their age remains guesswork until verified. In comparison, many of the engravings found in Africa are stylistically different and many are much more recent.
Qobustan National Park is home to around 6,000 petroglyphs.
It was relatively easy for the artists to carve the rock, which is derived from lava, and thus akin to that found in parts of the Sahara and elsewhere in Africa. The rock is very similar to sandstone, and relatively smooth when finished by the elements. It would be useful to know the age of the volcanoes in the region. I suspect they are far greater than 30,000 years old, but this needs to be established.
There are many hundreds of petroglyphs in Qobustan. For example, you can find up to a hundred on one large boulder, albeit some images are extremely small. During my visit, I only saw two major sites, but there was undoubtedly much that I did not see. Without doubt, the right guides could take us to many sites in Qobustan that are not part of the UNESCO World Heritage site itself. I am hopeful that, in the Soviet period, some scholars charted details and took photographs of every petroglyph. There is definitely scope to produce a modern book, or series of books, that would adequately detail all the major petroglyphs. Ideally, they need to be introduced in the context of petroglyphs found across Europe and Africa, but also in relation to those in countries in the same region, such as Kazakhstan and Iran. I am also certain there is scope for the production of a wonderful documentary film, or series of films, to attract tourism.
The park was recognised as a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
What are your thoughts on the theory by Thor Heyerdahl, allegedly supported by petroglyphs in both Norway and Azerbaijan, suggesting that Scandinavians sailed to Azerbaijan?
I have read about the migration routes, and it is possible that this is correct, but by no means certain. In Heyerdahl’s view, the petroglyphs indicated that the boats used by the Scandinavians and Azerbaijanis were somehow related, but the boats were also similar to those in Egypt. To be honest, we are discussing the events of around 25,000 years ago, so we can only surmise on the basis of the artists’ impressions of the environment and everyday life, as demonstrated in the petroglyphs. Certainly there are some similarities between these and the style of the petroglyphs found in Europe, and many show wildlife and nature that is similar to that found in the Europe of the time as well as North Africa and Asia.
Do the Qobustan petroglyphs feature any mythological beings?
I do not currently have the local expertise to really comment, but it is likely that this is the case. There is undeniable veracity to the viewpoint that petroglyphs have a spiritual basis, in a broad sense. This is often related to Shamanism, so there are frequently depictions of real animals believed by the artists to have special powers. Others may be mythical animals, connected in vanished mythologies with rainfall, and sometimes there are symbols that may have been connected with fertility. I remember seeing some images of human figures in Qobustan incorporating zig-zag lines. Similar designs/symbols are found in different parts of Africa and other ancient cultures, and may be representative of power, as was the eland (antelope) for the Bushmen of Southern Africa.
David in his natural environment – amidst the artwork of ancient mankind.
Aurochs enjoyed a very high status, perhaps because they represented an abundance of food for past peoples, and that is why they are frequently portrayed, and potential interpretations made. However, it is important to be careful when doing so, as petroglyphs often relate to civilisations that disappeared millennia ago and were, of course, not recorded. Just because petroglyphs might signify one meaning in Africa, France or other parts of Asia does not necessarily determine that they mean the same in Azerbaijan.
Petroglyphs are not normally representational art, and were not necessarily created for artistic reasons, as we understand them. Instead, they probably resulted from a need for spiritual expression. Certainly, Southern African Bushmen may have inscribed their art on rocks to ensure their own cultural continuity, perhaps teaching successive generations about their glorious past and the richness of their mythology.
Aurochs are often found in Azerbaijani petroglyphs, and I saw one in Qobustan over which a stag had been superimposed. This is similar to what we see in Africa, where a giraffe might be superimposed over a lion or an elephant, for example, perhaps because the artist wanted to harness the power of the animal underneath. The prehistoric artists may have believed there to be power in pre-existing paintings because of the significance of those animals in their own mythologies.
An inscription by the all-conquering Roman Thunderbolt Twelfth Legion, dating from the 1st century AD.
What is the condition and preservation state of the petroglyphs?
The petroglyphs were generally in good condition, and I only remember seeing one disturbing case of graffiti or damage, probably because Qobustan is located around 40 miles from central Baku and was, until the 20th century, relatively difficult to access. However, one notable exception to this was an inscription on a rock at the foot of the Boyukdash Mountain, left by the Roman Thunderbolt Twelfth Legion in the 1st century AD that is the most eastern evidence of Roman occupation in this region.
The Soviets also played a role in the site being recognised as being of special interest in 1950 and being recognised as a National Historic Landmark of Azerbaijan in 1966. It is important that petroglyphs do not attract too much of the wrong attention and end up being excised from the rocks upon which they were engraved thousands of years ago, as many are located on sites that were sacred to the peoples of the time. Also, the positioning of the petroglyphs reiterates that, even at that time, Azerbaijan was central to trade routes dating back to prehistory. An authoritative, richly-illustrated book could be spectacular and serve to boost awareness of the petroglyphs for experts and tourists alike. Such a project would need a corporate or government sponsor. In 2009, I was involved in producing a book on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lamu Island, which is part of the Lamu Archipelago on the Kenya coast and the oldest continually inhabited town in the country. It was the book that helped transform it into an international tourist destination.
I very much look forward to returning to Azerbaijan and to having the chance to authoritatively study and record these extraordinary petroglyphs at greater length.
To view this feature in Visions of Azerbaijan Magazine, visit www.visions.az
About the author: Neil Watson began working professionally as a journalist in 1995 and became editor of his first magazine in 2000. He worked as Editor and Press Officer for The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) for nine years.
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TARA’s David Coulson recently visited and recorded new rock painting sites in Zimbabwe as well as revisiting sites he had recorded over 20 years ago. The expedition was made possible by a rock art Safari guided by David that was organised by Pierre Jaunet of Catalina Safaris at the beginning of May this year. While some of the sites were sites already documented by TARA in the 1990s, and more recently in 2016, David was also able to document two remarkable shelters that appear to be little known and only rarely visited.
Zimbabwe’s rock paintings (Bushman/San paintings) are some of the most interesting and remarkable on the African continent, and some are thousands of years old dating to well before the Bantu people’s migrated southwards from central Africa. The art is amazingly diverse involving a lot of complex people scenes and a lot of geometric symbols as well as a multitude of animals. On an academic and scientific level TARA collaborates with the National Museums and with the University of Zimbabwe.
New Sites rock art sites recorded in May in eastern Mashonaland MANEMBA This site was reached by walking for a couple of miles from where we left the landrovers through semi arable land with patches of undergrowth and occasional baobabs to the base of a huge granite mound ably 500 feet high and about a mile long. These hills are regular geological features in Zimbabwe and are known locally as “whale-backs” as they resemble the smooth grey backs of those ocean giants emerging from the deep.
Climbing steeply up the granite slope we could see above us two long, low caves, like giant eyes, half way up the mountain, and were aware that one of these was probably the rock shelter we were looking for. As it turned out it was the upper shelter that was the painting site – about 70 metres long but only around 10 metres deep. All along the back of this were hundreds of red, black and orange paintings, none of them particularly big, but some of them beautifully drawn and very detailed.
There was a line of the most beautifully painted Buffaloes I’ve ever seen, each animal about 35 cms long, several magnificent looking warriors with head dresses and quivers full of arrows and several elephants and lions. There were also a number of depictions of shamans in trance. In that the available living area beneath the shelter was not at all deep I suspect that this may gave been a ritual rather than a living site. The paintings were probably at least 2000 years old and maybe older.
CHAREWA The second “new” site we visited (Charewa) which I had never heard of or seen in any rock art publication was an even bigger shelter, perhaps 100 metres long, near the base of another granite whale-back, full of hundreds of beautiful paintings including a number of huge, in some cases life-size, elephants, mostly white.
Meanwhile in the centre of the shelter’s rear wall was a huge long yellow animal facing right, perhaps 3 or 4 metres long. The creature had short legs and most resembled a hippo, generally regarded by the Bushmen (San) as a powerful rain animal, meaning that it was believed to have the power to bring rain.
At the left end of the shelter were two cream coloured elephants, near life-size, with dark outlines, and painted over their bodies were a number of beautiful smaller infilled paintings of antelope, buffalo, giraffe and elephant. In my experience this site is one of the most important bushman sites we have recorded anywhere in Southern Africa.
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Pierre Jaunet and David Coulson of TARA had talked for a number of years about collaborating on a rock art safari in Zimbabwe. Not only is the rock art here exceptional but the bush country with its granite mountains is incredibly beautiful. Visiting the sites involves a lot of hiking through rugged landscapes adding to the enjoyment and adventure. This year we (David Coulson & Pierre Jaunet) organized our first one (an all-French group) and plan to do one or two each year for those interested, going forward. Pierre is bilingual and French is my second language.
Pierre specialises in old style, comfortable safaris but not “luxury” ones in a modern sense. Transport is in 4×4 Landrovers and there is a lot of enjoyable walking and hiking to get to the sites. When driving we pull in under a huge old fig tree at lunchtime and Pierre has a special metal table that folds out from the side of his Landrover (specially adapted) where he prepares and serves delicious French, alfresco lunches at “midi” of tomato salad, avocados, french cheese, prosciutto etc. And a glass of white wine or cold beer for those who want (there are fridges in the landrover). In the evenings we pull in at a little inn or hotel somewhere, nothing fancy but always comfortable and convenient. We can also arrange to camp if need be.
In the evenings I talk to the group about the art and the places we are going to as well as well as my many personal adventures traveling and exploring the African continent over the last 30 years. Meanwhile Pierre also has a wealth of his own stories particularly from the time when he owned a Catalina Flying Boat and took clients, like Bill Gates, on safari in it, landing on Africa’s lakes and rivers.
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Akwanshi Conference in Calabar on the future and plight of the Cross River Monoliths (Akwanshi), and subsequent field trip to record new monolith sites.
Conference poster on wall of Conference Centre.
In early March 2018, David Coulson returned to Nigeria’s Cross River State to take part in a Conference on the Cross River Monoliths. This was a return visit following a highly productive visit in 2016, in collaboration with Factum Foundation (Madrid), to document the remaining monoliths in the Ikom area of Cross River State – a project funded by the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam.
These monoliths, known locally as Akwanshi, are carved anthropomorphic (and usually phallic) stones in previously forested areas, and are believed to have represented powerful ancestral spirits.
The oldest stones are thought to be around 1,500 years old but large numbers of them have been stolen during the last 40/50 years. Before that, there were around 500 stones and now there may be as few as 200. Indeed, some of the stolen stones have been turning up in international museums and private collections around the world, e.g. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Quai Branly in Paris, and we have heard, in the British Museum.
The Conference was intended to raise the profile within Nigeria, as well as well as globally, of the Monoliths of this State/land, in a country known for its spectacular cultural and archaeological riches (ref: the international traveling exhibition ‘Treasures of Ancient Nigeria’ some years ago.) But so far, the Nigerian government has done little if anything to promote these monoliths which are by any standards exceptional artworks. The principal torch bearer for the monoliths has for some years been Dr Abu Edet from the University of Calabar, with whom TARA and Factum have been working. Dr Edet is a passionate and knowledgable promoter of these particular treasures. The opening of the conference was attended by several hundred people and a number of well known people shared the platform to speak of its importance. On the following morning, a range of academic papers were presented.
During the subsequent field trip, we were taken to 3 sites which we had not visited on our last trip. One of these, Iting Nta, had a number of exceptional stones but it was clear to us that many stones had been stolen, probably during the Biafran War but no doubt more recently too.
Conference Hall audience.
Akwanshi Conference, Calabar.
David Coulson, TARA, Akwanshi Conference, Calabar.
David Coulson, TARA, Akwanshi Conference, Calabar.
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In February 2018, TARA’s David Coulson travelled to Gabon in order to record little known rock engraving sites originally documented by local archaeologist, Richard Oslisly. The main sites (rock engravings) are located near the banks of the Ogooué River, a huge river which branches off the Congo River in the DRC about 1,000 miles south west of central Gabon. These sites also fall within the boundaries of the Lopé National Park which is home to lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, forest buffalo, red forest hog, forest elephant and mandrills.
The Ogooué River in the Lope National Park.
The rock engravings are mainly geometric in design with frequent depictions of concentric circles which are probably the earliest engravings, perhaps over 3,000 years old, but there also Iron Age engravings dating from roughly 2,000 to 2,500 years of age. These include non-geometric dotted images of what sometimes look like civet cats or lizards presented as though they were skins hanging on a wall! There are also depictions of what appear to be ‘throwing knives’ (remains of an actual throwing knife can be seen in the Lope museum) and also arrow heads.
A strange and very unique feature of some of the art here is the long, snake-like lines of interlinked circles resembling chains. This is also strangely poignant when one thinks of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who must have been transported down the nearby Ogooué River from the Congo during the 18th and 19th centuries. Could it be that the chain engravings are much more recent than we think? They certainly appear more recent than the concentric circles. The latter were typical of numerous other sites recorded throughout East and Central Africa stretching into Congo Brazzaville and Gabon, dating from the late Stone Age, probably made by forest hunter-gatherers.
One of the rock engraving sites with the river in background.
Concentric circles and ‘chains’.
Long, snake-like chain.
Image of a lizard or civet cat, probably created with a pointed iron tool or spear.
Engravings damaged by park officials trying to clean them with wire wool.
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During the course of November 2017, David Coulson of TARA led a 4,000 kilometre expedition to the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad, the highest mountains (3,415m) in the Sahara Desert. The expedition/project was funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) which included two rock art expeditions to northern Chad over 18 months.
The first was to the Ennedi Mountains in November 2016, and the second was to the Tibesti last month. The recent trip was also supported by a small grant from the National Geographic Society in Washington DC. The central Sahara is one of the richest repositories of ancient rock art on earth and dates from a time when the Sahara was green and full of people and animals.
The aims of the expedition were:
To document rock art sites using both high resolution digital photography, D-Stretch Enhancement and Photogrammetry
To sensitise individuals from the University of Ndjamena and from the Ministry of Culture concerning the rock art of this region as well as its importance and vulnerability.
As part of the sensitisation activities, TARA has designed and produced an exhibition which is now in Ndjamena and will soon be opened at the National Museum where TARA will be represented by Terry Little.
Also accompanying the expedition was a distinguished group of TARA supporters, including a well known international travel journalist, Lucia van der Post, who had been commissioned by the London Financial Times to write a story on the trip.
The expedition consisting of six Toyota Landcruisers left Ndjamena on Nov 3rd and routed up the eastern side of the country via the town of Abeche, not far from the border with Darfur (Sudan). After crossing the 16th parallel, the group camped just for one night at the edge of the Ennedi mountains (see map below) in an area rich with rock painting sites, mostly dating from the Pastoral period of Saharan rock art (2,000-5,000BC). From here the expedition travelled north west via Faya Largeau in the direction of the Tibesti, crossing huge tracts of desert and eventually reaching a massive crater known as the Trou au Natron, whose rim is at 9,000 feet above sea level. The crater is 700m deep and maybe 8 kilometres wide.
The return journey took the expedition through the southern foothills and canyons of the volcano, Emi Koussi (3,415m), the highest mountain. Amongst this wilderness of cathedral-like peaks and rock towers are some wonderful and important rock art sites. Some of these, David Coulson, TARA Chair, had seen on his first Chad visit in 1996.
Expedition Cars crossing sand desert.
Red cliffs, Ennedi Mountains.
Mt Emi Koussi (3,415m) on horizon.
Pastoral period paintings with more recent white camels.
High in the Tibesti Mountains.
Looking out of a painted cave.
Pastoral period paintings c.5,000BC.
Chadien archeologist, Dr Nangkara Clison with Dr Ahmed Oumouss.
Decorated figures, probably painted around 7,000 years ago.
Photographing rock paintings at an important cave site.
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The Royal Geographical Society – Hong Kong invited David Coulson to speak on “The Rock Art of Africa: 25,000 Years of World History and Climate Change on the World’s Biggest Canvas”.
The prestigious event was introduced to RGS members and guests as follows:
“Residing in Africa for more than 40 years, British adventurer and photographer David Coulson has discovered and documented more rock art sites across the continent than anyone else. On the way, he has accumulated many amusing stories, including being charged by elephants and frequently lost in desert sandstorms.
In the Kalahari, Mr Coulson spent long periods with the Bushmen when he photographed some of their ancestral art. In Egypt’s Western Desert, he used modern photographic techniques to map the trove of faint images in a huge underground cavern known as the Cave of Swimmers, because of the front-crawl-like depiction of the figures.
Other African rock art discussed in the talk includes a collection of 8,000-year-old anatomically accurate carvings of nine running giraffes on an ancient riverbed in Algeria, the largest measuring 27 ft from muzzle to hind hoof. In addition, he talks of a series of white circles the size of dinner plates that migrating Stone Age hunter-gatherers painted on a granite hillside in eastern Uganda, roughly 1,500 years ago.
David Coulson is a photographer, writer and African explorer as well as being a specialist in African rock art. In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked out of Kenya as a professional photographer and writer, and his books and articles were published across the world. It was during his many travels for these projects that he became aware of the richness and diversity of Africa’s rock art.
He is the founder and Executive Chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art, founded with the help of Dr Mary Leakey and Sir Laurens van der Post. Since its inception, TARA’s work has been supported by a number of well-known international institutions such as National Geographic, and the Getty, Ford and Andrew Mellon Foundations. During this, he has driven the equivalent of at least three times around the Earth. Mr Coulson also spearheaded the Focus on Your World international photo competition on the Environment in the early 1990s sponsored by Canon. The competition, of which David was also a judge, attracted 32,000 entries from 140 different countries, the biggest photo competition ever held. He is the author of African Rock Art and Namib on Namibia’s coastal desert.”
Location: The Bloomberg Theatre, Hong Kong.
Date: Tuesday, 26 September 2017.
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TARA Chairman, David Coulson was invited to deliver a paper at an African Rock Art Conference at the British Museum in London in November 2016.
The conference was organised by the African Rock Art Image Project of which TARA was the founder in 2014. The conference was timed to coincide with the opening of an important South African Art exhibition, South Africa, the Art of a Nation. The exhibition was curated by Chris Spring of the British Museum and by the famous South African artist, Karel Nel. The two curators who David has known for many years gave him a preview of the exhibition. The exhibits included two large TARA images by David of Bushman rock paintings in the South West Cape, South Africa, taken in the 1990s.
At the conference, whose central theme was Conservation, David talked about the threat posed by lack of awareness at government levels across Africa and the need to address this challenge. In order to illustrate the issue David used three 2016 TARA projects as case studies in his presentation.
A rock art conservation project in Zimbabwe where millennia old bushman paintings are threatened by independent church groups who have “set up shop” inside important caves with rock paintings, some of them classified as National Monuments , where fires burn regularly to keep the worshippers warm destroying the paintings in the process.
A project on a small island on Lake Victoria, in Uganda waters where unknown and little known paintings and engravings have been researched and documented. Here TARA has worked with the Uganda Museum and with the local communities to create awareness of the arts importance, both locally and nationally. An important site here has already been badly vandalized.
A project in south east Nigeria (Cross River Monoliths) where anthropomorphic and phallic monoliths have been documented including 3D photogrammetric recordings. These monoliths were created centuries ago by forest dwelling peoples and represent powerful ancestral spirits. Unfortunately many have been damaged by fire, vandalism and theft.
The British Museum conference sought to act as a forum of debate about the different methods in which digital technologies can be used to record, manage and present rock art information in Africa.
Attendees discussed the best strategies to deal with the challenges of the digital revolution, considering how to bridge the gaps between institutions, professionals and local communities throughout the continent to protect this unique heritage.
The African rock art image project
The African rock art image project was launched in 2013 to catalogue, curate and disseminate c.25,000 rock art photographs across Africa, originally from the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), with the generous funding of Arcadia.
Over a five-year period (2013–2018), the project will catalogue, contextualise and disseminate the core of TARA’s rock art collection, c. 25,000 images from 19 African countries from north, east and southern Africa. They cover the majority of the most important regions of rock art in the continent, as well as an excellent selection of the main styles, chronologies and themes of African rock art.
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TARA’s David Coulson recently led a Royal African Rock Art Safari to northern Niger’s Air Mountains. The group was accompanied by Rhissa Agboulah, Minister of State for Security in Niger, an old friend of David’s. The group flew into the capital, Niamey, on the Niger River, and then on to Agadez by internal flight where the safari began. Agadez was for many years known as the Gateway to the Sahara.
The Air Mountains are composed of ancient volcanic craters and the many thousands of rock engravings testify to more fertile times dating back several millennia. The first destination for the group was Dabous, an ancient lakebed between Agadez and the Algeria border. Situated on an outcrop above this lake is one of the world’s most spectacular pieces of rock art, a 6,500 year old life-size carving of two giraffes. After TARA documented the site in the 1990s, it was hailed internationally as one of the world’s greatest pieces of prehistoric art.
The visitors were traditionally welcomed at Dabous by a large group of Tuareg pastoralists, mounted on camels and accompanied by chanting women. The following day the TARA group continued their journey, stopping near the little town of Iferouane where they camped near a recently discovered rock engraving site known for a remarkably Christ-like image which dominates the site.
The group traveled through a wide variety of desert environments including some of the world’s highest sand dunes and were shown several exceptional rock art sites. The largest of these was Iwellene which boasts several thousand rock engravings and covers an area of at least 10 acres. The oldest of these are two life-size engravings of elephants, each engraved on its own boulder. The engravings may well be more than 10,000 years old. There is also a large rhinoceros from a similar period. Some of the most exceptional art here dates from the so-called Libyan Warrior Period (roughly between 1,500 and 2,500 years old)
The Sahara has one of the richest rock art concentrations on earth, almost all of it dating from a different climatic era when the Sahara still supported large human and animal populations. When the Sahara began to dry up some of these cultures moved to the Nile Valley where they helped found the great civilisation of Ancient Egypt.
Royal African Safaris is an international Safari company with both a North American and an African base. David Coulson is a Fellow of Royal African Safaris. See www.royalafricansafaris.com
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(ARRARA) The American Rock Art Research Association will convene its 2017 rock art symposium June 1 – 5 at the Eagle Crest Resort, near Redmond, Oregon. ARARA is America’s preeminent rock art organisation, whose members explore the many facets of rock art – the study of prehistoric markings found on stone in natural landscape settings. The yearly conference attracts scholars from around the country and internationally, who come together to share research, images and ideas about rock art traditions from the Americas and beyond.
With a rich abundance and diversity of rock art sites nearby, Redmond is the perfect city for hosting this important annual research conference. Presenters will discuss painted pictographs and pecked petroglyphs, many found on public lands, in several identified styles, such as Columbia Plateau, Columbia River Conventionalized, Great Basin, North Oregon Rectilinear and Yakima Polychrome. The lovely Deschutes River runs right through the conference property.
The conference is open to all—professional archaeologists, avocationalists, and the interested public alike. Students in particular are welcome! Student attendees receive free registration, and student presenters receive a stipend to attend.
For those who register for the conference, ARARA offers two days of guided field trips on (June 2 and 5) to a variety of intriguing area rock art sites. Attendees discover the richness of the local rock art heritage while enjoying the spectacular Oregon countryside. Presentations on current rock art research form the centerpiece of the meeting (June 3 and 4). Other special cultural activities are planned throughout the conference, including social events and vendor offerings of rock art related merchandise.
In addition, two public lectures are planned at 2112 NE 4th Street in Bend.
June 1: Robert David, a Klamath Tribal member, will speak on “The Rock Art of Petroglyph Point, Lava Beds National Monument.”
June 2: Archaeologist Angelo Fossati, Director of the Italian archaeological cooperative Le Orme dell’Uomo, will speak on the “The Rock Art of the Ice Man”. These lectures begin at 7:30 pm, and are open to all—admission is $5.00.
The research presentations kick off the morning of June 3 with a session dedicated to the rock art of Oregon and then expand to cover rock art in other parts of the U.S. and the world. Details of the agenda can be accessed at arara.org/conference as we get closer to the conference.
Rock art symbols can be a challenge to understand, but for much of the prehistoric sequence of the past 5,000 years, we can now link broad patterns of prehistoric settlement adaptation and social change to the iconography inscribed and painted on rock faces, ceramics, and other items. Dating rock art has been difficult in the past—but answering the question “How old is it?” could become easier in some cases, thanks to new technologies. The Central Oregon region is rich in rock art from several periods that parallel the archaeological record of habitation of the area.
All are invited to attend the 2017 ARARA conference in Redmond to share the latest information and research into the fascinating ancient messages from the past.
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Towards the end of 2016, TARA moved their Nairobi office from Warai South Rd in Karen to Ndege House plot, 3, Kwarara Rd, Langata (off Ndege Rd).
The move was part of a cost cutting operation through which TARA hopes to benefit. The new offices consist of 3 converted 20 ft container units, two of which were originally created in 2004 to house TARA’s extensive photo archive.
This was where the original scanning of TARA’s analogue collection was carried out with the support of the Andrew Mellon Foundation.
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In November 2016, TARA’s David Coulson led an expedition to Chad’s Ennedi Mountains (Sahara) to document a little and unknown rock art site in this remote 17,000 sq mile wilderness.
The expedition was supported by the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) and was a collaboration between TARA and the Factum Arte Foundation of Madrid who are experts in 3 dimensional gabapentinoral.com recording of art.
This was TARA’s third expedition to the Ennedi. The first visit took place in 1996. During this last trip the team was able to record a number of new and, in some cases, ancient art, some of it at least 7,000 years old.
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In October 2016, with the support of the Prince Claus Fund from Amsterdam and in collaboration with the University of Calabar, TARA organised an expedition to survey and document the Cross River Monoliths, also known as the Ikom Monoliths.
This project is the brain child of Professor Solomon Abu Edet of the University of Calabar. These remarkable anthropomorphic and sometimes phallic monoliths have long been threatened by fire, theft and vandalism as well as neglect.
The project was a collaboration between TARA and the Factum Arte Foundation in Madrid. Factum are experts at 3 dimensional recording of art. The monoliths represent powerful ancestral spirits to whom offerings are still made. The total numbers of monoliths is now thought to be less than about 250. Some monoliths found their way out of the country and can now be found in major museums. Experts believe that some of the stones might be as old as 1,500 years of age. The Cross River is situated on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon.
TARA has been archiving high resolution images of the monoliths with associated data as well as 3D imagery of the stones. This project has shone much needed light on these endangered masterpieces of long ago.
TARA’s Executive Chairman David Coulson led the expedition to document little known anthropomorphic monoliths. The standard of carving of these monoliths is exceptional which probably explains why some of them have found their way illegally into some of the world’s most famous museums. The Nigerian government have historically neglected Cross River State, scene of the Biafra civil war of the 1960s and done little to develop the roads and infrastructure here, let alone developing the area for cultural tourism.
The team held important meetings with the community and David Coulson addressed an annual gathering of Chiefs showing them awareness banners in order to emphasise the importance of this heritage. Meanwhile with the help of a drone and other technology they were able to document the 3 dimensional aspects and context of the stones.
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Dolwe Island is a beautiful, little-known island in the north east (Ugandan) waters of Lake Victoria, about two hours in a motor boat from the mainland. Only about 50 square kilometres in extent, this island has many important archeology features which speak of a rich and as yet unknown past stretching back thousands of years. This project is a collaboration between TARA, the Uganda Museum and the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam.
The main goals of the project are to document as many new and existing sites as possible and to create an awareness locally, as well as nationally, of the importance, diversity and frailty of this art as well as the probable antiquity of the heritage. TARA first visited the island about 20 years ago and began recording its paintings and engravings. The island is covered in remarkable granite outcrops and perhaps the biggest area archeological mystery here is the existence of an estimated 20,000 carved/ground hollows in the granite, each roughly 15 cms deep and 40 cms long which occur in large groups, often closely packed together.
Given the fact that just creating one of these hollows using stone tools might have taken months and months to do over what time period were all these hollows made, and for what purpose, and who made them? The most important painting site was first recorded in the 1960s by archeologist Merrick Posnanski, Curator of the Uganda Museum, and has already been damaged by serious graffiti, emphasising the need for awareness. The following images give an idea of some of the features and sites recorded.
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TARA Chairman, David Coulson, is currently in Zimbabwe working on a joint project with the National Museum and University of Zimbabwe (Dr Ancila Nhamo), supported by the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam. Already he and the team have recorded a remarkable new San painting site in the Makonde region north west of Harare. In his opinion these paintings are among the most beautiful and exceptionally preserved paintings he has recorded and could be as much as 2,000 years old.
The main panel has about 150 paintings and is dominated by paintings of Kudu antelope as well as a multitude of dancers and hunters. At the top is the rear section of a big animal which might be a hippo, the front part having been washed away by a water seep. The setting of the site is beautiful. It is located amongst huge lichen-covered boulders and brachystegia trees.
Kudu are part of the antelope family which includes the eland. Together with the eland, kudu are among San groups in southern Africa considered to be totemic or power animals. These animals are credited with special powers such as the power to bring rain or to heal. In Zimbabwe the special power-animals are kudu and elephant with giraffe also being special. Meanwhile in South Africa the main power animal is the eland.
Zimbabwe’s rock art is diverse and remarkable and some paintings have been dated to over 7,000 years of age. Coulson and the late Alec Campbell have recorded rock art extensively in Zimbabwe in the past (see Zimbabwe gallery), but there is a huge amount of art still to be documented. Certain areas are known for the quality and abundance of their paintings including the area with the photographed site.
This site had been illustrated in a book published in the 1980s, but few people knew about the exceptional beauty of its main panel. We have not in recent years been able to fund the documentation of these important sites due to lack of support. This time, however, TARA is collaborating on this conservation and awareness project with the National Museum of Zimbabwe and with the University of Zimbabwe.
An important theme of this project is that a number of important rock art sites in Mashonaland, in particular, have been occupied in recent years by Independent Church groups who sometimes build fires to keep warm and the fires create soot which covers and often destroys millennia old paintings. So one of the project initiatives, led by Dr Ancila Nhamo is to do everything possible to create an awareness in these church groups and communities of the antiquity, importance and frailty of this art. This project is one of a number of important TARA projects supported by the Prince Claus Fund of Amsterdam. See more images below of sites documented as part of this project.
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Camels: often called “ships of the desert”, you see them on the horizon, you see them at waterholes, you see them winding their way through palm groves and through sand dunes, throughout the Sahara.
Camel riders in Niger
You also see them on the rocks where they were carved or painted long ago. Yet the camel is a relative newcomer to this ancient land. The first camels to have reached Africa are believed to have arrived somewhere around 500 BC and to have gradually moved west across Northern Africa.
Engravings in Egypt
One of the reasons for our extensive knowledge about the camel’s movement and distribution in Africa is the ubiquitous images, both painted and carved/engraved, which adorn boulders, cliffs, and canyons in the Sahara desert. Not surprisingly, this period of rock art is known as the Camel Period, distinct from the earlier but overlapping Horse Period (and the even earlier Pastoral Period).
Painted camel superimopsed over engravings, Akakus, Libya
We have recorded hundreds of camel images now in the TARA archive and also accessible online through the British Museum’s global digital collections. These images are rich in camel period iconography such as saddles, trappings and weapons.
Camel and rider with saddle trappings, Chad
The history of the camel in North Africa is inextricably linked with trade and caravan routes. But today camels are found as far south as Kenya and Somalia. Most of the southernmost camel art TARA has recorded is in northern Kenya.
Engraved camels, Kenya
Interestingly however, we have recorded camel rock art even in South Africa. The engraving from the Northern Cape is visibly young looking since it is not highly patinated.
Engraved camel in South Africa’s Northern Cape
The Camel Period is the last identifiable period of North African rock art and since it started in the 1st millennium BCE, the practice has continued right up until recent times. Yet despite this and despite the exceptional quality of some of the images, it is the least studied period, perhaps because it is the youngest.
Procession of camel and riders, Algeria
One general indicator for dating rock art which applies to camel art and to earlier periods of art, is that the earlier periods tend to be more naturalistic in style, and the later periods increasingly stylised and schematic. The camel art of the Sahara is a remarkable testimony to the crucial role that this animal has played in the exploration and development of some of the world’s most remote areas and carries with it a wealth of other historical and cultural information about the Sahara and neighbouring regions.
Bas relief camel, Sudan
Time is however not on our side. On our trips we are finding more and more damaged art, not just by vandals but by oil and mineral exploitation activities as well. Despite the quantity of camel art which we and others have recorded over the years a huge amount still awaits documentation and may soon be lost for ever.
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Trust for African Rock Art is looking for new staff members to add to our team!
To help us co-ordinate our growing portfolio of rock art conservation projects in Francophone countries we’re searching for recent graduates or current university students who are French speaking to intern at TARA.
And if you’ve been enjoying our articles on the website and our social media posts and would like to take those to the next level, please apply to be TARA’s next communications officer.
Download the complete job descriptions below for full details, and kindly share with your friends and networks!
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While we may never know the complete meanings and intentions behind prehistoric art, it still forms a bridge to the past for us today. It is inspiring to contemplate the worlds that existed at the time the art was made, and the worlds that these first artists created through their art. Kenyan born artist, Mwini Mutuku, explores this connection through his art today.
Inspired by the endangered state of African rock art, conversations with TARA founder, David Coulson, and by the work of TARA, Mwini created artwork that blends ancient and contemporary art and makes commentary on the state of rock art today. His piece is named ‘Ashes to Ashes, Art to Art’. He explains,
“The piece is a floor installation depicting a “mass grave” of human figures taken from African rock art imagery accessed from TARA’s vast database of endangered rock art sites around Africa. The piece attempts to set up a simultaneous relationship between Art and Mortality.”
Photo credit, Mwini Mutuku
Mwini hopes to tap into the human capacity for empathy in this work that aims to resuscitate genuine concern for the preservation of fast disappearing Rock Art Sites. He considers their neglect an alarming indication of a disregard for early human artistic expression. In ‘Ashes to Ashes, Art to Art’, the viewer is invited to imagine the role of a researcher analysing well preserved relics of a past civilisation.
The work has been selected for one of Africa’s most prestigious art competitions – the Barclays L’Atelier Competition, which rewards young visual artists with the opportunity to develop their talents abroad. For the 2016 competition, artists within the visual arts, including sculpture, painting, digital, installation, printmaking from 10 African countries were invited to enter. The best 100 works of art will be exhibited in Johannesburg South Africa.
We at the Trust for African Rock Art are excited to see this meeting of two worlds as it were, and wish Mwini all the best in the competition!
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In May a team from CNN flew to Kenya to make a film for their Inside Africa Program. Their plan was to make a film about rock art sites threatened by destruction in western Kenya.
Visit to site in Nairobi National Park
Soon after their arrival they were taken by TARA Chairman, David Coulson, to a rock painting site in the Nairobi National Park accompanied by armed Rangers. (On their way to the site they crossed the fresh tracks on the path of a black rhinoceros, Africa’s most dangerous and endangered animal!) The paintings at this site are thought to have been made by hunter gatherers between 200 and 100 years ago.
Josiah Kabiru listens to an elder in Kisii
The team, led by TARA’s David Coulson and Josiah Kabiru, Community Projects Manager, traveled first by small aircraft to Kisii in western Kenya. Here they met celebrated sculptor and long term friend of Coulson’s, who took them to a site which Coulson had documented 10 years ago but which has been almost entirely destroyed since then. Kisii is an area known for its soapstone carvings and sculptors. Here we heard from the elders who have been unable to stand up to the local businessman and contemporary sculptors who we understood don’t care about this ancient art which is of course the origins of their present tradition. Kenya’s National Museum have tried to save this site but without success.
Kisii to Lake Victoria
The following day the team flew on from Kisii to Lake Victoria to visit other sites documented by TARA during the last 15 years in order to investigate reports of possible damage to the art. Although tourism to the sites has waned in recent years the local people are proud of this unique heritage and one particular success story Is small school near one of the sites which has been built almost entirely with funds received by the village from visitors to their rock art sites.
Master sculptor Elkanah Ong’esa sculpts outside his workshop
Rock art site on Mfangano Island
The CNN feature is scheduled to air on the 26th of June, so mark your calendars!
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Are stamps still important in a digital word where letters can be sent at the click of a mouse or tap of a finger? Judging by the fact that people from all over the world are gathered in the hundreds of thousands in New York this week for the World Stamp Show 2016, yes would be a correct answer. While “snail-mail” is not as common a thing as it once was (sadly), stamps are still considered important by collectors, exhibitors, postal administrators, and of course those of us who still write and send letters. And this is as true for African rock art stamps, as for any other.
“Despite their small size, stamps have a more concentrated ideological density per square centimetre than any other cultural form” David Scott states in his book on European stamp design. And stamps have been a cultural form of choice for African countries from Algeria to Namibia, who have chosen this way to showcase and popularise their rock art heritage. In some cases where a country’s idea of itself has had rock art at its root, such as in South Africa, rock art images have not only appeared on postal stamps but also on currency and state insignia, all of which are public imagery.
Elwyn Jenkins avows, “the beauty of rock art images makes them ideal for the miniature format of the postage stamp”. But there is no doubt that the choice to use rock art imagery was intended to also further the aims of heritage preservation, and even promote tourism. Stamps have been designed to commemorate heritage milestones such as the opening of the National Museum and Art Gallery in Botswana, or the inscription of Twyfelfontein, Namibia’s richest rock art area on the World Heritage List. Indeed rock art stamps “reflect a pride in, and concern for, the most ancient art treasures that a country may be fortunate enough to possess.”
When letter sending was more common, stamps bearing rock art were ambassadors for rock art, reaching far off places to spread awareness of this heritage. In more recent times, such stamps have become collector’s items. It is possible to acquire rock art stamps from various dealers online for private hobby collectors. Rock art stamps are also an educational resource on heritage where images or other access to rock art are impossible. That said, however, governments and postal institutions continue to issue postage stamps. Perhaps a renaissance of rock art on stamps is due (as is a renaissance of letter posting, the slow way).
Check out our video featuring rock art images that have ended up on stamps! Remember to subscribe to our channel for more
Stamp images courtesy of colnect.com
 Scott, D. 1995. European stamp design: a semiotic approach to designing messages. Link
 Jenkins, Elwyn. 2012. Showcasing South African rock art on postage stamps. Link
 Jenkins, E. R. 1977. Checklist of postage stamps depicting prehistoric rock art. Link
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One of the things I love about rock art is the many windows into forgotten pasts it opens, and the opportunity to imagine what those pasts might have been like from these small glimpses. We recently found ourselves going through our 25,000 image strong archive in search of representations of clothing and dress choices from past cultures. In a word, fashion. There are a variety of fascinating representations of dressing and head gear choices in African rock art, some whose purpose we might never know and some which we can posit possibilities for. From warrior accoutrements, spiritual embodiments, cultural significances we don’t know about, and even beauty.
Fashion in African rock art
Take for instance the so called “tulip-head” figures in Niger’s rock art. These figures are quite likely warriors since they are often represented holding weapons like spears. And what of their tulip shaped heads? These are likely to be some sort of helmet or other head covering.
Speaking of headgear, my favourite is from this Algerian painting. Two figures, possibly women, sit facing each other, both of them wearing outsized hats on their heads. I like to imagine what might be happening in this scene: a tea party perhaps? Maybe one of the ladies dropped in at her friend’s homestead for a chat. And what is one of the ladies pointing out to the other?
Fashion in African rock art also includes the interesting things people carry or hold on their arms. In an Algerian painting, a chariot and horse rider gallop through the streets past a pair of women. One of the figures carries a small round purse on her wrist. In an engraving from Niger depicting multiple figures facing forward, the figures on either end carry rounded bags as well.
Other decorations are present in African rock art too. These may represent forms of body paint, scarification or other adornment such as beads. In this image from Chad for example, a richly decorated female figure wears a series of bands around her neck as well as around the waist and hips. The series of dots around her hips may be beads sewn into her skirt, or worn buy prednisone online over it, as is done in many African cultures today. In another image from Libya three human figures hold what appear to be shakers or maracas in their hands and have white extensions on their backs and waists resembling capes.
Right, image of woman wearing a beaded hip belt, Chad. Left, Figures wearing white ‘capes’, Libya.
On the opposite end of the continent, we have an example of dress that holds deeper spiritual significance. Karosses are animal hides worn long or short, to protect oneself from cold. Karosses appear in South African rock art, often enveloping a human figure or substituting their torso for an animal’s. These figures, known as therianthropes, are posited to represent one’s embodiment of the qualities of the animal whose hide is ‘worn’. Most common and identifiable in paintings is the eland kaross, whose potency participants in various trance dances aim to acquire.
Right, painting of human figure in eland kaross. Left, Painting of women in large full skirts. South Africa
So what can fashion in rock art tell us?
Besides how fashionable ancient people were, a couple of things.
First, decorations such as beads and paints in the archaeological record have long been used to suss out economic and social relations among groups by archaeologists and anthropologists. These include, possible trade relationships, power and gender markers, and so on. Rock art fits into this archaeological record, and resource.
Second, depictions of elements may be used to set apart or date different when some artworks were made and place them in a broader historical record. For example, the above image of women in large and full skirts might seem more at home in Victorian England than in South Africa’s rock art record. But it tells of the contact between two cultures that happened with the invasion and colonisation of the Western Cape by Dutch settlers in the 1700s.
Check out the images of fashion in African rock art mentioned above, and more in our video below. From pantaloons, wrist purses and fanned skirts, to fly-to-the-sky hats and tunics tell us, will you be taking the next cue for your outfit from African rock art?
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Last month we hosted a group of 20 learners and parents from the Sheba Home Schooling group on a visit to learn more about rock art in Africa.
The morning began with a presentation on rock art in Africa and Kenya by David Coulson followed by questions from the learners. The learners seemed interested and asked questions regarding dating of rock art and how one can know the intentions of the artists; all questions archaeologists ask regularly.
After the presentation we gave the group a chance to get up and walk around for a rock art tour, with printed images and banners. Coulson also brought out some archaeological remains (lithic tools) acquired on various trips in the Sahara to make the link between rock art and archaeology.
The group was mixed age and all were accompanied by parents. The parents were just as keen as the students on discovering rock art. They were so amazed that they had never learnt about it in school that one of them quipped, “I should ask for my school fees back!”
After the visit the parents were able to integrate what they had learnt about rock art into their studies. Mrs Joyce one of the parents says, “The rock art sites in Kenya (eg Kakapel, Mfangano Island, and Turkana) were a good discovery. We discussed it during our Social Studies class and this helped to show my daughters how Art and Social Studies principals integrate.”
If you’re a group or school and would like to learn about rock art or schedule a visit, write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll plan a half-day or full-day visit with you.
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TARA’s rock art exhibition opened in Niger last week at Oumarou Ganda Cultural Centre in Niamey. The exhibition highlights the richness and diversity of Niger’s rock engravings and will run from 10th to 23rd May. After this it will travel to other locations in the country. The exhibition could not have been possible without TARA’s Nigerien partners, ANIGOURANE, and the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation who have supported the project since its inception in 2015.
Before the exhibition opened university students, among them TARA’s former intern Hamidou Moussa, travelled to schools around Niamey to speak to students about Niger’s rock art using the cultural mediation technique Hamidou introduced while he was at TARA. The Ministers of Tourism, Culture were in attendance at the opening ceremony and the exhibition has been well received so far. It is hoped that this exhibition will sensitise many to not only the beauty of Niger’s rock art, but also the potential rock art holds for community development.
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South Africa is home to one of the world’s most spectacular mountain chains, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park (MDP). In these mountains and in the foothills below lies a treasure trove of priceless art left behind as a legacy of the oldest known inhabitants of South Africa, the San people. The African Conservation Trust (ACT) has been using cutting-edge technology to digitally preserve these amazing sites. The end products of their work can be used to assist rock art management, and to promote the sites with interactive virtual realities.
A 3D model of the famous ‘Rosetta Stone’ panel at Game Pass Shelter showing the scan model in blue, and the final textured model. It was in this iconic panel that archaeologists first uncovered a significant key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art. Image: ACT
In South Africa, the rock art of the Drakensberg has been regarded as the only tangible record left of the San, who for the past 100 years have been considered an extinct people and culture in the country. The global significance of their rock art contributed towards the listing of the MDP as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 2000. The park contains over 600 known rock art sites that date back approximately 4,000 years, the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. What makes Drakensberg rock art unique compared to rock art in other parts of the world is that the images are usually very detailed and intricate. Drakensberg rock paintings are well known for their use of the shaded polychromatic technique where human figures and animals are represented using two colours, usually red and white, that delicately grade into each other. Animals are shown not only side on, but lying down, looking back, and even viewed from the front or rear. Humans are also depicted in a range of sophisticated positions.
Rear-view painting of two eland. Image: ACT
Unfortunately much of the rock art has been damaged by vandalism, fire, vegetation, and natural weathering. The fragile rock paintings are continuously exposed to the elements and are gradually deteriorating as time passes. As restoration is not possible, it is of the utmost importance to digitally preserve the rock art so that the legacy of the San people will not be lost forever.
ACT is a non-profit organisation based in South Africa that has been working with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the provincial heritage authority, Amafa, to create a detailed record of these important sites, and to deliver that information to the public using modern technology. Some of the methods we have used include 3D scanning, image enhancement, virtual tours, and interactive mapping to monitor change, inform management plans, and bring rock art to a wider audience. Here are some examples.
Using New Technologies to Preserve Ancient Pasts
3D scanning works by bouncing narrow pulses of light off objects to map them with incredible accuracy, collecting hundreds of millions of measurements to form a ‘point cloud’. This is used to create a realistic 3D model accurate to a few millimetres. Once a panel is 3D scanned and uploaded it is possible for researchers and rock art enthusiasts to virtually visit otherwise hard to reach rock art sites.
We used this technology to document a panel dubbed the ‘Rosetta Stone of San rock art’ in the Game Pass Shelter. This site is special for a number of reasons; it was one of the first South African sites to be known in other parts of the world, appearing in the Scientific American in 1915. In these paintings archaeologists first uncovered a vital key to understanding the symbolism of San rock art. Click on the image to explore the panel in 3D. Notice the exceptional detail in the dying eland, and the partly-transformed shaman who is mimicking the animal in a state of trance.
Scanning the famous ‘Rosetta Stone’ panel. Click the image to explore the 3D model in detail. Image: ACT
Natural weathering processes have resulted in many paintings becoming faded, and sometimes invisible to the naked eye. Using image enhancement techniques such as DStretch, developed by Jon Harman, we are able to go back in time and reveal these lost images.
The extensively painted Eland Cave is a spectacular example of Drakensberg San rock art and one of the best in the country. The whole site was photographed and ultra-high resolution panoramas of it were created and enhanced. The results have been amazing: barely-visible paintings are suddenly clear, and other paintings hidden beneath layers of paint are revealed. Click on the image to uncover the ‘before’ and ‘after’ panoramas.
An enhanced rock art image showing some beautiful and very intriguing therianthrope paintings. Click on the image to see the before and after panels in detail. Images: ACT
A virtual tour is a web-based tool that places the viewer at the centre of any chosen location and enables them to explore the scene in its entirety, and at their own pace. This is especially useful for remote sites that are inaccessible to many. The virtual tour example shown below is for Eland Cave which requires a very strenuous hike to reach! The tour allows anyone take a virtual walk along the cave and explore the site from their computer or mobile device.
Click the image to take the virtual tour of Eland Cave. Image: ACT
Research has shown that 25% of damage to rock paintings is caused either intentionally or unintentionally by visitors.[i] As a result most rock art sites are closed to the public to protect this irreplaceable heritage. A number of sites in the MDP have been opened to the public provided visitors are accompanied by an accredited rock art custodian. These custodians live in the nearby communities and have been trained by Amafa on rock art protection.
There are many breath-taking sites in the Drakensberg (such as Game Pass Shelter shown in the example above), yet visitor numbers are very low. Most people who come to the Park do so for the scenery and other activities, and are not aware of the open sites and rock art custodian programme. Those who are interested have complained that there is no information hub to show which rock art sites are open and how one can arrange a visit. In order to make these sites more accessible, an interactive map was created together with Amafa. On the map you can click on any of the open sites and a box will pop up showing a key image, a short description, the cost of entry and finally the contact information to book a guide. We have had positive feedback so far and hope that this map will encourage people to visit the sites and in turn, support the local rock art custodians who do a fantastic job.
Rock art custodian Zama Sithole showing the way! Click to view the interactive map. Image: ACT
How is the data used?
The highly accurate data collected from the 3D scanner can be used as baseline data to monitor site deterioration over time. The following example is a beautiful petroglyph site in the Rooipoort Nature Reserve near the city of Kimberley in South Africa. The rock is weathering away which threatens the petroglyphs. Using the scan data, 2mm contours were created of the rock to show the eroded edge in detail. If this site is scanned repeatedly, the data can be used to assess the rate of deterioration.
Left, a beautiful sun petroglyph site at the Rooipoort Nature Reserve in South Africa. Right, a 3D model of the site with 2mm contours overlaid. The eroded edge can be clearly seen and measured. Images: ACT
Better management of rock art sites
The laser scan data can also be used to create accurate site maps. The Eland Cave rock art shelter contains over 1,700 paintings including some fascinating mystical figures, a beehive, and even a moth/butterfly. Over time rocks have fallen off the cave wall and now lie on the floor. Many of these loose boulders contain rock art which is not immediately evident. The scan data was used to create a scaled map that shows each individual boulder clearly. This can be used to inform management plans to protect these paintings.
A scaled top-view image of the Eland Cave site showing each individual rock on the cave floor. Image: ACT
Seeing underneath the paint
Superimposition is fairly common in the Drakensberg, with newer painting being painted on top of older ones. Image enhancement reveals the ‘hidden’ paintings, adding to the growing database of San art in the Drakensberg. These images can also be significant in the interpretation of the panels and the site as a whole.
Left, a faded painting of an Eland at the Bushman’s Pools site. Right, the same image enhanced, two human figures are now visible within/behind the eland. Images: ACT
Models, tours, maps and images can be used to assist in the conservation and management of rock art sites, but equally important is delivering that information to the public so that they can appreciate and learn about this heritage. Former President Nelson Mandela said
“Africa’s rock art is the common heritage of all Africans, but it is more than that. It is the common heritage of humanity.”
In the past much of our data has been offline and only available to site authorities. However, we have just launched a new interactive website that we are populating with our entire collection of work. This will be continually updated as we do new projects and we hope that by making the data easier to access, people will be encouraged to learn about cultural heritage. The new immersive virtual realities will allow the public to reach remote locations to freely explore the caves and shelters at the click of a mouse, while still keeping the exact location unknown to restrict damage to the fragile paintings.
We have been working in the Drakensberg for a number of years to create a digital database of known sites including photography and scanning of key sites, writing archaeological reports, and updating GPS coordinates. Yet we have only scratched the surface of rock art documentation in the Drakensberg. There is great need for this type of work and we keep working to preserve these special sites.
Our experience in heritage documentation has also taught us to be open about new methods and to evolve with changing technologies. A large part of this is learning from the work that others are doing in heritage documentation around the world, and sharing our experiences. This knowledge-sharing helps us to reach the common goal of preserving this irreplaceable global heritage. Moving forward, we will keep promoting heritage sites and looking for new projects and funding to continue growing the digital library of heritage sites.
[i] Tommy, Topp. 2009. Value of the San rock art in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site. MSc dissertation. Programme: Management of Protected Areas, Department of Economics, University of Klagenfurt, Austria.
This guest post is courtesy of Michelle Dye, GIS and heritage documentation officer, African Conservation Trust (ACT).
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“Take a look, a long rambling look, at the cave paintings that Paleolithic artists drew as far back as 40,000 years ago. There are hundreds of them, in Spain, in France, all over the world. … But here’s what there’s not … Leafy things don’t appear in Paleolithic art. Nor do bushes. Nor trees.”
The author goes on to posit that perhaps plants only begin to appear in rock art once agriculture emerges; that commercialisation of plant commodities make them important and noticeable to people. But considering that different San groups who painted stunning botanical imagery in southern Africa lived as hunters and gatherers…it’s a bit difficult to accept this claim. Furthermore, Siyakha Mguni in his book ‘Termites of the Gods‘ has posited that the botanical images that San peoples made were strongly related to their spiritual worldviews, which would have existed prior to contact with Bantu farming groups.
What is tricky of course is the timing. While the article asserts that until 5,000 years after the Palaeolithic era (which ended about 10,000 or 8,000 years ago) no trees appear, we know that dating rock art is difficult. Where paintings contain carbon such as charcoal as an ingredient, it is possible to date paintings. However, charcoal was not a common ingredient of African rock art pigments, meaning paintings and engravings, such as those by Saharan cultures or the San, both of which represent long painting traditions, are near-impossible to date.
But trees, even though rare, are most certainly present in prehistoric art. In going through our African rock art archive, I came across leaves, branches, whole trees, palm fronds and even, wait for it, an animal “nuzzling a leafy thing”. So here’s 19 images that show that botanical imagery was not uninteresting or out of mind for ancient artists.
Recently recorded painting in Kitui, Kenya. Possible palm frond.
Possible branch with long leaves at bottom. Algeria
Possible plant with globular features akin to tubers extending from a central point. Zimbabwe
A tree in Algeria
Plant with round nodules on either side of the stem. Zimbabwe
Similar nodular plants alongside what may be broad leafed plants, perhaps grass. Zimbabwe
Tanzania's Kondoa region. Branch detail in white.
A zebra seems to eat from a fine line painted tree. Zimbabwe
More drooping mushroom shape tress. Zimbabwe
Trees, possibly palms, with frond branches. Libya
An engraving of a leaf or tree detail. Kenya
Trees appear at the top of this panel painted in different colour from the bottom row of animals and human figures. Libya
A palm frond in visible at the back of a seated figure in this painting from Libya
The human figure on the left is holding a plant in either hand- notice the leaves, stem and roots. Chad.
A human figure climbs a tree that might be a palm, perhaps tapping it? Libya
A tree with drooping branches in a mushroom shape. A human figure approaches it holding something in his hand. Zimbabwe
A human figure bends at the waist and holds a plant in his hand while doing so. Libya
An animal eats of a tree's branch (of fruit?) Libya
Finely detailed painting of multi-leafed branches. Zimbabwe
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One of the great things about rock art is that it opens windows for us onto vanished worlds. Nowhere is that more true than in North Africa’s Sahara Desert where the rock art gives us a priceless record of the millions of people who lived and flourished there over a period of 5,000 years (roughly 4,000 to 9,000 years ago), as well as all the wild animals that once lived there before the climate changed back to desert.
Aurochs from Libya’s Messak. Small human figure holds a bow below it while the aurochs has an angry and disdainful look
Among the animals depicted from that time are the huge prehistoric buffalo (Bubalus antiquus) and the aurochs a prehistoric ox, both now long extinct. The aurochs was once common across North Africa and indeed across large parts of Asia and Europe and is the ancestor of modern cattle. In Africa it seems to have disappeared around 4,000 years ago when the Sahara dried up, but in Asia it lingered on until the 1st millennium BCE. However, the last European aurochs died in a forest in Poland in 1628! But aurochs genes persist in modern-day cattle, a fact that has enabled a team of scientists and non profits to try and ‘resurrect’ the extinct animal through back breeding!
Aurochs from the Hall of Bulls in Lascaux Cave, France. Image: www.tes.com
Aurochs were powerful animals much larger than ordinary cattle, with bulls standing nearly 2 metres high at the shoulder. Perhaps the most famous imagery depicting them is the frieze of charging bulls in the so-called Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave in France’s Dordogne. These may have been painted around 15,000 years ago. The earliest paintings at Lascaux have been scientifically dated to around 17,000 years before present.
Detail showing one of the 18,000 year old aurochs engravings at Qurta in the Nile Valley between Luxor and Aswan, Egypt.
Rock art depictions of aurochs are fairly common in North Africa especially in Algeria, Libya and Chad. TARA has recorded the earliest known aurochs images in Africa at the eastern edge of the Nile Valley between Idfu and Aswan. These were first recorded by Dr Dirk Huyge of the Royal Museums of Art & History in Brussels and subsequently dated to between 18,000 and 22,000 years of age, making them some of the oldest dated African rock art.
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Last weekend, a long-planned survey trip to Kitui County in South Eastern Kenya yielded two new rock art sites. The survey undertaken by Emmanuel Ndiema, Head of Archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya, and David Coulson, founder and chair of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) was hoping to record two previously unrecorded sites that had been reported in 2015 by Dr. Ronald Mulwa, a Senior Research Scientist at the National Museums.
New sites are often mentioned to TARA (some real, some not) but what sparked Coulson’s interest was that a few years ago he recorded a geometric site in Tsavo East not far from the Kitui County border. The reported new sites appeared to be in the same general area. One of the objectives of this trip therefore, was to see if the art at the new sites might be from the same ancient tradition as the Tsavo East sites.
These paintings done in red and white paint do appear to have links with the earlier recorded Tsavo ones, and with other examples of prehistoric art common to the Eastern and Central African region. They mainly comprise concentric circles and other geometric art, and date to a time when the region was part of the Central African rainforest. According to Coulson, these sites are some of the best he has recorded in Kenya ever.
The area where the paintings are located is full of granite hills and outcrops with lush valleys in between. The trip involved steep climbs up slippery granite slopes to reach the deep shelters and caves in which the paintings are located. All geometric art, the paintings consist of strange and often beautiful symbols created long ago probably by hunter-gatherer artists. Although we will probably never know the exact meaning of these symbols, studies of other African hunter-gatherer groups such as the San in southern Africa, or the Hadzabe and Sandawe of Tanzania give us clues as to their possible meaning.
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Moufa looked up from the edge of the small lake where she sat looking at the tiny shrimp. It was almost midday and a soft breeze rose from the water and fanned her face. She had always enjoyed playing with the shrimp, imagining what their lives at the bottom of the lake were like. Moufa enjoyed the delicious stews Mama made with the shrimp and she would later go to the lake to say thanks for eating a mama shrimp, or a sibling shrimp, or a grandma shrimp.
But Moufa looked up because something moving on the horizon had caught her eye. A black line that was growing thicker and thicker by the moment. She looked at it for a second, then realised what it was and jumped up excitedly to go tell her mama.
“They’re coming back! The hunters are coming back!” she exclaimed breathlessly as she ran into the thatched roof house. In her haste she ran full force into Mama who was just then putting the midday meal out.
“There there, you little volcano,” said Mama in the affectionate way she referred to Moufa’s explosive personality. Moufa had never seen a volcano, but she had heard stories of hills and mountains that would suddenly belch hot liquids and fire out. Sometimes Moufa felt like one of these mountains.
“Sit down and have lunch and you can tell me all about what you saw,” Mama added.
The hunters regularly took long trips to where the grasses and the trees met to hunt. They went in search of large animals and small animals: elephant, antelopes, bush pigs. And they also went in search of sweet things like honey and fruits.
To Moufa the trips seemed excruciatingly long, and the homesteads would be quiet without the sound of the men. During these times she would only have her shrimp, her Mama and the neighbourhood children to play with. But she missed her father who would tell her stories of the hunt and the forest when he came back.
The hunters had been gone for one moon but now they were coming back. And there would be celebration all round – a good big festival to thank the ancestors and spirit guides who had brought them safely back, and with food. Moufa was looking forward to one special part of the feast especially, the carving of the giraffes.
Moufa wanted to go back out and watch the steadily growing dots of hunters approaching but Mama wanted help with the dishes. She had to start getting things ready for the feast to come, and for Papa’s homecoming.
Mama put out her fresh pots, the ones she had decorated in the last potting season. The pots were large and beautifully etched with wavy lines that Moufa liked to trace with her fingers. The lines seemed to her like the paths the hunters took to the forest in the stories her father told her. Mama would use these fresh pots to make the feast meal.
Out beyond where the other homesteads were, a ringing sound came, it was the community gong sending out a message with five successive notes. Moufa knew what it meant. Tomorrow would be the day of the festival, and everyone must prepare. The hunt had been very successful. The hunters had come back with baskets upon baskets of meat, some fresh, some dried and salted to stay for longer. They had also brought fruits that grew in the forest, and honey that would be used to make wine.
Moufa’s father had even brought her the skin of a large snake that he found lying on the forest floor. He told her the story of how snakes changed clothes every so often. He said they did so whenever they got tired of their old clothes, or grew too big to fit in them anymore. Moufa couldn’t wait to show it to her friends and to tell them the story. She would find them tomorrow during the carving, she promised herself.
“Moufa!” Mama called from the hearth. Could you get me some of the spice grass? And hurry, the stew is almost ready. Then I need to do your hair.”
Moufa jumped up and ran to the edge of the lake where the spice grass grew and carefully picked some for Mama. They would be having some of the meat the hunters brought for lunch today, and the rest would be left boiling for tomorrow, because no-one would have the time to cook until evening.
After lunch Mama sat Moufa down to do her hair. She collected a pot of hippo fat and mixed it with some clay she had picked from the lake. While she parted Moufa’s hair into sections and ran her fingers through to prepare it, Mama told Moufa stories of the people of long ago, and of how the world had come to be.
Moufa enjoyed Mama’s stories although they were different from the ones Papa told. Mama applied the clay-fat mixture onto Moufa’s hair and made thick plaits out of it. After she had prepared Moufa’s hair, she did her own so they would both be ready for the feast the following day.
In all the homes by the lake, the women were preparing their hair in the same way, and covering their bodies with fat to be beautiful and to protect their skin from the sun.
Moufa was up before Mama the following morning- an uncommon thing. She was too excited to sleep for long. The air was crisp and cold as she lay on her reed mat softened by skins. Moufa thought back to other carving days.
Carving days happened after every successful hunt on top of the rocky outcrop some distance away from where the homesteads stood. The men, women and children would all gather to thank the ancestors for a successful hunt. Each family would carry their special carving stones – hard sharpened pieces of rock – and the elders and healers would lead them to the outcrop.
From below it looked only like a rock that jutted up and out of the ground. But on top were the spirit guides. The far-seeing giraffes that were called on to guide the hunters on their dangerous missions to search for food. Moufa had often wished she could touch a giraffe or even ride one so she could see up and far as they could. When she helped in the carving she felt as though she was touching one.
The carving had been going on for as long as Moufa could remember, and Mama said she too had helped in the carving when she was young. It was said that a long time ago the elders had begun with just an outline, the outer part of the giraffes. And since then they had celebrated and prayed by doing more and more, etching the lines deeper and deeper.
Soon Mama was up and so was Papa. They carried their food – the stew from the previous day that had been left simmering overnight – in medium-sized leather pouches, and put water in smaller ones. If there were no clouds it would get hot up on the outcrop. They also carried some fat to rub into the giraffes as a special thanks for ensuring that there was food. Moufa thought about carrying her snake skin to show her friends, but decided that the distance was too far. Besides, she didn’t want to spoil the skin. She would have to tell them the story and invite them back to her home later.
After a quick breakfast of cold soup they set off to join the other families also setting out to the outcrop. The healers led the way and they arrived while the air was still cool.
They carved in turns, some people climbing to the top of the outcrop to do some of the work while the others remained under the trees below singing, clapping, dancing and cheering the others on. The women sang praises of the hunters and danced their joy. Others shared bits of news with their neighbours and compared plaits and pots.
“You must teach me how to do this style Mama Moufa,” one of the women said, “It’s prettier than I can make my pots!”
Moufa and the other children played a game of hide and seek amongst all the adults. It was fun to be away from their usual surroundings and they were enjoying themselves. Occasionally Moufa and her friends would climb up the rock, supported by an adult to check on the progress of the carving. She went up to her father while he was working on the neck of the smaller female giraffe.
Papa turned when he saw her and offered her the carving rock saying, “Would you like to try Moufita?”
“Sure!” Moufa replied and excitedly got to work etching in the square her father had been working on.
Scraping against the light brown sandstone was tiring work. Moufa would scrape a little and then blow on the scraping in order to see how deep the grooves she was making were.
“That’s it,” Papa said. “Say a hope while you do it. Ask the giraffe spirit guides for something. And don’t forget to say thank you!”
Moufa paused for a moment and thought about the giraffes. They could see far off because they were so tall. Papa said they sometimes helped to warn them of approaching danger when they were on the hunt. They were also very graceful. Papa described how they moved and ran as water rippling on the lake- it moved but almost without hurry or violence. Moufa wished she could have this combination of qualities herself. She whispered something under her breathe and continued carving, feeling even closer to the giraffes as she did so.
Eventually Moufa got tired and she went back down to help Mama and the other women to get the mid-day meal ready under some trees. The stew Mama made yesterday would taste extra delicious today after the flavours had slept the night. All the gathering would share the food they had brought. It was one of those special occasions when Moufa would be eat a lot.
After lunch it would be the turn of the women to go up and carve as well. The men would continue the chanting, singing and dancing below.
At the end of the day while the sun was just about to say goodbye to the earth, they all gathered at the top where the women were now rubbing fat into the etched grooves to make them gleam. It had been a busy and successful day.
The community healers led a general prayer that thanked the spirit guides, the ancestors and the gods for their part in keeping the community going. Without food, they could not last. The shrimp and other fishes from the lake were good food, but the food from the forest gave them things the fish didn’t, and kept them going when the fish were few and growing. After the prayer, everyone began the walk home in the twilight.
“So what did you hope for?” Papa asked Moufa as he carried her on his shoulders on their walk home.
“I asked to grow as tall as the giraffes so I can see far.” Moufa answered. “And to be graceful as well,” she added.
“That would be a good thing my daughter.” Papa said laughing.
“How long do you think it will take for the giraffes to be finished?” Moufa asked her father.
“I don’t know,” replied Papa. “While we’re here we will never really finish I suppose. We will keep going, and the ones who come after us will continue where we leave off.”
And they walked on home, Moufa trying to imagine a time when she would not be there, but the giraffes would be.
“I suppose the ones who come after will know we carved, won’t they Papa? And they will remember to say thank you to the giraffes?”
“I hope so young one,” Papa answered. “I hope so.”
by Wangũi Kamonji.
Head of a carved life-size giraffe, ~ 7000 years old, Dabous, Niger. Image credit: TARA/David Coulson
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Prehistoric artists have long used human extremities (sometimes animal too) to make art. Hand-prints and stencils are found in rock art all around the world and have been linked to artists’ ‘leaving their mark’ in a location, or using such contact as a gateway to a spiritual domain. Slightly less common are footprints although they too are present, especially in African rock art.
The image panel shows different footprint engravings, all of them from the Erongo Mountains in Namibia
In going through the African rock art archive at TARA I found that while hand-prints are often painted (although some are engraved), almost all cases of footprints are carved or engraved into or out of rock surfaces. Even more fascinating was the large number of these footprint engravings that are in Namibia. The prints are often of only one foot but also occur in multiples (rarely in pairs). In some cases, the footprints are accompanied by animal engravings or tracks.
One explanation for footprints such as these is that they depict places where healers or other spiritual leaders (shamans) walked in and out of the earth. Such prints are frequently found next to or inside tunnels and fissures as if to indicate a path or entrance into the spirit world. In this way the rock face was not merely a canvas but a kind of veil leading to a spiritual world.
Multiple carvings and engravings on a boulder in Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Animals, animal tracks, cupules, handprints and footprints are all depicted.
Indeed, Siyakha Mguni has described the beliefs of various San communities that associated the underground with the birthplace of the earth. The creation story of the G|wi, a San group from the Kalahari, puts it that when the trickster deity Pishiboro first appeared in the world, he emerged from the depths of the earth by climbing up through a deep waterhole.[i] The G|wi people therefore believe that this world and the underworld are linked through deep waterholes.
A San group from the Orange River in South Africa had a similar creation story recorded in the mid-1800s.[ii] According to them all their ancestors and all the animals came to earth out of a hole in the ground at the roots of a large tree.
Such stories seem to be borne out in the rock art. Many of the footprints in the Damaraland region of Namibia are found near water sources such as rivers. Additionally, they are depicted facing up, as though the bearer were walking out of the underground, spirit domain onto earth.
Human footprint in Algeria’s Oued Djaret
Footprints in other countries are also associated with spiritual traditions and rituals. While recording in Algeria’s Oued Djerat in 2002, a guide shared the story of a ritual to pray for rain associated with an engraved footprint with David Coulson. It was a custom to put goat butter on the footprint in order to bring rain to the area (and thus more butter), he said. The person would then put a small rock on top to protect the butter and this was a sign to others not to disturb the engraving.
Footprints are found less frequently than hand prints and stencils, and this may explain why they are less researched. It is doubtless that the appearance of so many footprints in Namibia especially bears significance.
by Wangũi Kamonji
[i] Mguni, Siyakha. 2015. Termites of the Gods: San Cosmology in Southern African Rock Art. 47-49
[ii] Stow, GW. 1905. The Native Races of South Africa cited in Mguni, S. Termites of the Gods 2015.
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We ran a social media series highlighting ways in which girls, and more broadly, women, show up in or influence rock art as we celebrated the International Day of the Girl late last year. As we mark the International Women’s Day today we share 3 links we found between women and rock art.
Girls are authors of rock art In ancient Cahuilla North American rock art, girls undergoing initiation into womanhood painted spirit helpers they had seen in visions in visible sites in their communities at the end of their initiation rites. This is similar to a tradition in Malawi. In the Dedza-Chongoni area of Malawi, a secret initiation rite known as the chinamwali marks girls’ entry into womanhood. While the girls learn stories, songs, and expected behaviour and roles from older women, they paint on the rocks as a mnemonic device.
Girls and women are depicted in prehistoric art This frieze is from a shelter in Namibia’s Brandberg. It shows a row of young girls possibly walking to their initiation and with a guide at their helm. A San painting, it is finely detailed: the girls wear what might be beads across their heads and some form of headdress. Fascinatingly, a barely there figure is painted behind the girls perhaps indicating a spirit helper or guide. Around the girls, animals known to be revered by the San and considered reservoirs of potency, such as the giraffe and antelopes that might be kudu or springbok, are painted as well.
This is only one of more representations of women in African rock art. In other paintings, women are shown tending to herds of cattle, in various domestic scenes, or participating in healing dances.
Girls and women discover rock art In 1879, Maria Sanz de Sautuola accompanied her father, an amateur archaeologist, to a cave on their property that he had been investigating. While her father worked, Maria wandered off deeper into the cave. Happening to glance upward, she screamed out to her father to come see the amazing oxen-like creatures that were painted on the cave’s ceiling. She had just discovered the cave paintings of Altamira, Spain.
Closer home, the only currently-active woman Somali archaeologist, Dr. Sada Mire, blazes a similar trail. She moved to Sweden as a teenager when civil war started in Somalia. It was in exile that a passion for discovering her own history developed and she decided to study archaeology. In particular, the sentence, “In order to write African history, we need to do archaeological research” found in a book inspired her ambition. She has discovered numerous prehistoric painting sites including the only one known to depict sheep (Dhambalin) in Somaliland.
“This rock art has a teaching. It shows how people lived some time back, in caves, and they painted to let us know they lived here and what was there.” 12 year old Esther about the Kakapel paintings
In our outreach work we seek to reach students and share with them the great heritage that is rock art. Our travelling exhibition ‘Dawn of Imagination’, for example, incorporated student engagement in the form of essay competitions, and rock art knowledge games. Below are some excerpts. Just like Mary Leakey was inspired by cave paintings she visited at a young age to pursue a lifelong career in archaeology, and human history, we’re hoping prehistoric art will inspire generations of young women, and men, to be interested in their rich past.
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Somaliland’s tourism industry is on the rise and may soon be a leading contributor to the seceded nation’s economy a recent article on Ozy.com reports. Cultural tourism to sites such as the ~5,000-10,000 year old prehistoric paintings of Laas Geel, has seen the number of tourists steadily increase with each passing year with visitors coming from as far as the US and some European countries.
Laas Geel is a complex of cave shelters within which some of the best preserved rock paintings in Africa are found. Human figures and animals (primarily cattle) decorate the walls and rooves, painted in bright reds, whites, yellows, and sometimes black. In many cases the human figures are shown arms outstretched in postures that demonstrate reverence and perhaps even worship, and are indicative of the pastoral culture from which the paintings emerge. The painting style is also unique to Somaliland. Some of the features include cattle painted in profile with tapering legs (2 of them) and with necks decorated in various ways. The cattle udders are prominent and heads and horns are shown in twisted profile.
But the fate of this beautiful heritage hangs in the balance. On the one hand no country in the world recognises Somaliland as a soveriegn state despite it having declared independence from larger Somalia in 1991. Additionally, the paintings would be inscribed on the World Heritage List (or at least proposed for it) but for the fact that Somalia has not ratified the UNESCO World Heritage Treaty. As it is, protection from the UN is impossible. While the dryness of the area and the folklore that maintained the caves were inhabited by spirits protected the paintings thus far, increased dust and visitors without hand in hand maintenance of the sites presents a potential threat to the preservation of them.
As the article soberly concludes, “the presence of tourists is both a risk and a boon: Any security blemish on its tourist track record could send Somaliland’s bid for recognition into the dust, while an increase in tourists could help it achieve that recognition.” A well managed increase in tourism, besides helping Somaliland achieve recognition, may also result in better protection of the invaluable – and unmatchable – rock art heritage.
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I read ‘Termites of the Gods’ by Siyakha Mguni on a bumpy trip to Northern Kenya. It helped that we often passed huge termite hills, like the ones Siyakha describes in his book, but which I had never had the fortune to see before. It was possible to see how these tall towers built by such small insects- a mind-boggling feat- could come to mean so much to San communities.
‘Termites of the Gods’ is a careful peeling away at the depiction and significance of the so-named ‘formlings’ in southern African rock art. Wits Press calls it the narration of the author’s ‘personal journey, over many years, to discover the significance of a hitherto enigmatic theme in San rock paintings.’
Here’s 4 reasons why I enjoyed the book:
Mguni employs an interdisciplinary lens to investigate these images. He combines ethnography, botany, zoology (entomology), archaeology, art analysis and personal reflection to arrive at the conclusion that formlings represent termitaria or termites’ nests and flying termites in association with them. These disciplines also serve to demystify the significance of termites in San cosmology.
I particularly enjoyed insights into formative experiences that Mguni had in his childhood and young scholarly life which enabled him arrive at his conclusions. In fact, were it not for these significant happenings in the author’s life, he might not have successfully unlocked the key to what formlings represent. Keeping in mind that previous scholars had given explanations varying from the smoke from Mosi-a-tunya falls to bees’ hives, this was an integral piece of the puzzle to solve. In some areas of scholarship one is supposed to keep the self out, therefore the significance that personal experiences played in this mystery and that those narratives appear in the book is not small.
Mguni goes beyond identification in his book. As mentioned previously, correct identification of formlings is no easy feat. But the book doesn’t stop at identifying formlings. It goes on to explore the cosmological importance of formlings to San painters. Considering how ubiquitous formlings are as a painted form in countries such as Zimbabwe, there must have been good reason to paint them. The book does not disappoint in its effort to explore these reasons.
Finally Mguni employs a cable form of research, as he describes it, threading layer upon layer of evidence to reach his conclusions. As he explains in the book, in this way, even if one piece of evidence fails the rope remains firm. Because the book is so systematic in its threading of evidence it takes a while to get to the good stuff. However, all that is more than rewarded in the end.
After reading Termites of the Gods, I now look at termites’ nests and San powers of observation and meaning-giving with more respect: something so seemingly simple as termites nests can be imbued with much meaning, and be incorporated into the depths of a complex spiritual system. Formlings do not deviate from the other San rock art in this sense. In fact, these at first strange-looking representations are firmly in sync with other San cosmological representations in rock art.
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Late last year, TARA was invited to take part in a fashion event, ‘Where Art Meets Fashion’ where three fashion designers, Deepa Dosaja, Harriet Patrizi and Tim Redo would be showcasing their work. But one might ask what does rock art have to do with a fashion show? There are rock art images in which human figures are dressed or decorated (fashionably) but our participation in the fashion event began as an opportunity to reach out to new audiences and raise awareness of rock art and of our conservation work, but it turned out to be much more: it provided an opportunity to consider rock art in a different light.
Artwork by Mwini
As the event started to take shape, the three designers and a contemporary visual artist, Mwini, came to our offices in Karen to learn about rock art and TARA’s work. A lot of our conservation and archiving efforts have been aimed at enabling archaeologists access research material. But through engaging with these artists, we began to consider the value of rock art as part of art history more. After all rock art is the first form of visual art. This shift in thinking also allows us to make rock art relevant to people today in a different way. Rock art served as an inspiration for the artists who interpreted it in their own pieces at the event: a new form of engagement with rock art. Mwini’s work for example, re-interpreted engravings and paintings in classical motifs found around the continent.
Artwork by Mwini
At the event, TARA’s founder, David Coulson gave a speech, and during the whole event rock art images from around the continent were projected. We also had a stand with leaflets on our upcoming safaris and we held a silent auction. All in all, the event was successful; we were encouraged to see the positive reactions of people towards our work.
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2015 was a great year for archaeology and rock art. Featured on Archaeology magazine’s recently released list of the top 10 archaeology discoveries of 2015 are Homo naledi (of course), earliest stone tools found yet from Turkana, Kenya, and significantly for rock art, the Sulawesi paintings. These hand stencils and paintings of pig-deer in Indonesia were dated up to 40,000 years ago making them among the oldest dated rock art so far. And they are significant because they finally put to rest the ‘lightbulb’ theory of human symbolic thought. The Sulawesi dates rival those of European rock art and indicate that symbolic thought had likely developed in Africa before humans migrated to other parts of the world.
At home, TARA continued with its survey and rock art conservation work especially with trips to Niger, Northern Kenya, and Morocco, where we organised a workshop for conservation practitioners. We also ran our first ever crowdfunding campaign that managed to reach people in about 73% of the world’s countries- how’s that for putting rock art on the map!
So what’s in store for rock art and TARA in 2016?
New discoveries! TARA is always recording new rock art to add to our 25,000 strong image archive; and in 2016 we plan to do so with improved methods and in new locations! We are planning a trip to a new country- Gabon- to record rock art in the Lope-Okanda National Park and World Heritage site (you can come with us!)
We are excited to do more outreach work in 2016 to keep raising awareness of rock art, and keep building on previous years’ work. What’s more is that TARA will be celebrating 20 years since its founding in 1996. Keep in touch to find out how we’ll mark this occasion and how you can participate. A happy and adventurous 2016 to you!
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On Friday the 15th January the Italian Cultural Institute was re-opened after renovations. During the opening, people got a glimpse of the upcoming TARA-curated travelling exhibition by UNESCO: “In Search of Kenya”, which will begin its journey through the country from the Alliance Française in Nairobi later this year. The full exhibition aims to show the immense variety of Kenya’s intangible heritage. What is currently on display at the Italian Cultural Institute, however, focuses on Northern Kenya, a theme chosen because of the institute’s interest in the region.
While the images selected for the exhibition are too few to cover all of Kenya’s intangible cultural heritage, they certainly show some of its breadth. Cultural practices, economic activities, dances (music and songs one needs to imagine still), clothing, jewellery, colours, all set in Northern Kenya landscapes are represented. The selection also includes rock art images, because rock art conveys strong intangible heritage values.
TARA has had an active role in producing the travelling exhibition. The 50 plus images selected for the exhibition come from our extensive archive and thus show the scale and depth of our expertise in the field of cultural conservation, expertise that we have developed over the past 20 years, and that goes beyond rock art.
‘In Search of Kenya: The North’ –exhibition at the Italian Cultural Institute, Westlands, Woodvale Close 1, Grenadier Tower 5th floor. Open 15 Jan to 31 Jan. Entry is free to all.
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Today many people see cows (and the consumption thereof) either as a contributor to environmental destruction, or as a solution to feeding the world’s population. Both views are centred on the (important) role that cows play in providing food primarily in the form of milk and meat. But cattle are more than that. Through millennia and in different places in Africa, cattle have been imbued with significant symbolic and social meanings in addition to their role as food providers.
Prof Savino di Lernia’s lecture last week at the Nairobi Museum based on his research surrounding ritual sacrifice and burial of cattle in the Messak region of Libya demonstrated just that. Drawing on multiple strands of evidence including stone knives, pottery, rock art, and remains of plants known to have medicinal value, he explained the extent of these burial complexes and interpreted them to be part of rituals that venerated cattle.
Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that domestication of cattle occurred 10,000 BP in Western Asia. After this migrations of humans and cattle about 8,000 years BP occurred followed by interbreeding with wild cattle in Northern Africa to produce breeds local to the continent. More than 60% of the rock art of the Sahara depicts cattle or cattle related activities reflecting the importance of these events. All around Africa however, cattle depictions in rock art abound (see slideshow below).
Dr di Lernia’s research illuminated the religio-spiritual values ascribed to cows in societies of African descent. Noting that cattle were rarely slaughtered for everyday food, the presence of cattle burial sites like his team discovered indicates that the sacrifices were for ritual purposes. During these rituals people gathered would eat meat and burn the remains and bones and then bury them. The evidence suggests that the rituals lasted over hundreds of years, beginning around 7000 BP.
In Madagascar, Zebu cattle are similarly revered. In fact they are so important that they appear on arms, stamps, banknotes and on the official seal of the country. They are slaughtered during festivities and in rituals to venerate ancestors; and among the Mahafaly, an ethnic group in the country, Zebu skulls decorate graves of important people.
Equally important is the political and social role that cattle play(ed). In Kenya, Uganda, and indeed a wide cross-section of Eastern and Southern African countries, cattle are important in social transactions that keep societies’ traditions continuing. Dowry is paid in cattle, as are fines for grave crimes. Oral lore in the form of songs, proverbs and narratives abound with cattle imagery showing the role of cattle as teaching aides. The graceful Rwandese dance, inyambo, for example, in which dancers stretch their arms upward imitates the long-horned Ankole-Watusi cattle that the region is known for.
What the Zebu is in Madagascar, Nguni cattle are in South Africa. Associated with the Zulu people, Nguni cattle are known for their beautiful and multi-coloured hides. They have been described as the most beautiful cattle in the world. Nguni cattle, like other indigenous breeds, are known to be tough and adapted to hot dry environments unlike imported breeds of cattle.
Nguni cattle. Left ‘inala’ abundance and right ‘imatshoNgoye’ stones of the Ngoye forest. Images c/o SA Online
Traditionally (and today), they were a symbol of economic and political power. Zulu king, Shaka, would seize cattle belonging to peoples he conquered. Under his rule, cows with particular physical traits were bred for different functions. For example, his army regiments had particular hides associated with them and his personal guard was represented by white hide cattle. Nguni cattle were held in such high regard that there are multiple nuanced names by which to describe cattle depending on the colour and pattern of their hides or other physical features such as horns.
So there are many reasons why cattle were, and still are, prized and cared for in many African societies: beauty, hardiness, religio-spiritual use, social and political value – and food. Explore the slideshow below showing some of these values as represented in prehistoric art around Africa.
The crying cows of Algeria - so named because tears appear to roll from the eyes along grooves on the faces of the engraved animals
Tassili du Kozen, Chad. On the roof of a shallow cave paintings of at least 8 cows are visible, some executed in bichrome and others in single colour. Visible cattle superimpose older paintings
Two Cattle with horns in twisted perspective facing each other executed in red and white pigment. Kakapel, Kenya
Engraved cattle on a boulder in Niger appear alongside long-necked animals
2 cows engraved walking right on a boulder in Libya’s Messak plateau
Bichrome painting of cow and herder milking from Egypt. A calf seems to look on while the herder holds it off
Section of a gorge wall featuring 18 stylised cows and possibly calves in Sidamo, Ethiopia engraved in bas relief. Notice the very prominent udders
Tagant, Mauritania. On the bulge between the back wall and roof of shelter, thickset red figure is flanked by red cows including one with elongated legs, and a possible predator
Bas-relief etching of cattle lined up in Niger in a style reminiscent of the Chauvet Cave horses
Bichrome painting of stylised cow in Laas Geel, Somaliland. Horns are painted in twisted perspective and the head of the cow is additionally decorated
Cow with prominent horns etched on a multi-coloured rock in Libya’s Messak Plateau
Pecked engraving of a cow on the foot of the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Stylised red paintings of cattle in a shelter in Uganda
Red figure in a seemingly outstretched or lying position in front of a cow. Djaba, Niger
Fish eye view of cattle paintings in Laas Geel. Human figures stand below the cattle with arms outstretched as though in worship
Herding and protecting cattle in bas relief. Sudan
Painted panel from the Tassili, Algeria showing a mix of human activities- hunting/guarding (bow and arrow and dog) and herding. Possible migration
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When people hear of rock art, the first thing that comes to mind might be painting designs on rocks, pictures of rocks, or rocks balanced in beautiful arrangements. Very few people know what prehistoric rock art is about, let alone the fact that it is part of our heritage. Before I joined TARA, I was also among the people who thought rock art was only paintings or drawings on rocks.
I joined TARA as an intern last year, and only then did I realize that prehistoric art is so much more than just drawings and paintings on rocks. Rock art is part of our heritage and culture. It is part of our history. Rock art tells us of past events, stories and lives that were lived by our ancestors and forefathers: who they were, how they dressed in comparison to present day, what they ate, what was important to them… It is beautiful and unique.
Kakapel, Chelelemuk Hills
Rock art also tells us of how our forefathers got sustenance out of their environments- hunting and gathering for food, and later domesticating animals. The paintings found at Chelelemuk Hills in Western Kenya for example, are a good example. They were done by the Abatwa people, and are around 4000 years old. They show cattle among other geometric symbols.
Rock art can also contribute to myths and stories as well. For example what looks like a giant footprint in South Africa is part of a story of giants who might have trodden on the face of the earth; and paintings of what look like fish with human features are part of a myth about mermaids. There are more stories that the rock art tells all around Africa and in particular in Kenya. All of which I would not have known if I had not joined TARA.
Being a part of TARA opened me up to understand and see how rock art is an important part of our heritage. I did research on various themes in rock art like handprints and footprints, ways of preserving rock art, attractions and cultures around rock art sites, depictions of women in rock art and fashion and style in rock art (yes, they were fashionable then too!). All these themes gave me new perspective on rock art and some even led me to raise some questions of my own about rock art.
Through attending the Kalacha Festival and co-guiding a visit to a local rock art site, I learnt that prehistoric paintings and engravings are not only beautiful and misunderstood but also endangered. The stories rock art tells can and should be preserved through conservation.
Neglected rock engraving near Lake Turkana, perhaps centuries, if not millennia old. See bird poop on right.
However, our rock art faces a big threat in the name of vandalism. Some is lost through people scrapping pigment off using sharp objects or when people scribble graffiti over paintings and engravings. Other art is lost through quarrying and theft. Besides human forces, natural ones take a toll as well. Since most African rock art is found in the open, natural processes like stone weathering or even bird poop as in the image above may destroy it. These threats lead to loss of a big part of our history and heritage, yet some communities are not even aware of these priceless works of art.
This led me to question how best TARA can create awareness within local communities around rock art sites and in the rest of the country; and also what can be done to preserve rock art from the various threats it faces. TARA has been saving Africa’s rock art through documenting and archiving images of rock art and raising awareness among custodian communities. However, efforts are not always fully effective as a result of multiple challenges including a lack of funds, the remoteness of some rock art sites, and competing economic interests. A concerted awareness effort that would include the creation of more rock art materials for people of all ages and walks of life like bookmarks, handbags for ladies, T-shirts, pens for school children, utensils, drawing books for children, flyers, posters and banners to be used in exhibitions and festivals might help all people be aware of how important rock art is. Hopefully this would lead them to participate in conservation efforts.
Being part of TARA, I got to work with a great team of supportive, kind and engaging individuals who do their work with excellence. TARA enabled me to grow individually and do my work well with great pride in it. TARA also made me aware of how important rock art is as a part of our heritage. Now I hold rock art with a higher regard and appreciate it more since it’s no longer just paintings and carvings to me, but has a more important meaning as part of our history and culture.
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Most people in any given society tend to buy anything the media propagates as the gospel truth; and this has not been any different for the Northern Kenya region. Violence between pastoralist communities over grazing lands and water resources has been at the centre of media coverage, both locally and internationally. Thus the image most Kenyans and the rest of the world have about this region is a tainted one. This makes it hard to retell the story of this region. Though there is much good in this region it remains unreachable, unbelievable and/or doubted- like Nathaniel many would question the existence of a bright side: can anything good come out of Nazareth?
However, if one stared at the back of the moon they would realise that it too shines. The people of Northern Kenya are beautiful in their diversities, as is the landscape despite it being arid. Organisations such as the Kivulini Trust have taken it upon themselves to showcase this often hidden bright side of the region.
The Kalacha Cultural Food and Music Festival, an initiative of the Kivulini Trust, is one of these ‘shines’. For the past four years this event, which has become part of the Northern Kenya calendar, has brought together pastoralists, fisher-folk, hunter-gatherers, metal artisans and agricultural communities of the region (and Ethiopia) to share and celebrate their cultural and natural heritage, with an aim to promote cultural diversity, social harmony and sustainable development.
This festival showcases the diversity of the region’s rich cultural and natural heritage through artistic expressions, exhibitions of traditional foods, medicinal plants and demonstration of technology, including rock art at the Afgaba site. The number of the communities represented was over forty and these include the Gabbra, Rendille, Borana, Somali, Konso, Garri, Burji, Saakuye, Samburu, Waata, and Turkana among others.
It was amazing to see the proud display of both tangible (e.g. ornaments and traditional attire) and intangible (e.g. songs and dances), culture by the diverse communities. Also unforgettable was the relentless call by various speakers from the communities to live in harmony and peaceably with one another, especially during crises such as drought when crucial resources, water and pasture, are more scarce.
The festival not only showcased present communities’ cultures but past ones as well. On the final day of the festival, participants had the opportunity to go on a guided visit to Afgaba rock art site. Mr Abdikadir Kurewa of the National Museums of Kenya and TARA’s Hanna Söderström led the team that visited the site. The rock art which is all engravings comprises representations of animals such as the camel and the giraffe. There are also circular engravings similar to those that are associated with rainmaking rituals in some communities. This artwork reveals the ingenuity and the imagination which the now disappeared artists had. Situated at the rock art site is a natural water tank into which surface run-off drains. One can imagine what view the artists who made the rock art saw. From this water tank the pastoralists water their animals.
Despite this rock art site being located in the region, very few people know about it and the few that are aware of its existence don’t know its significance. TARA (Trust for African Rock Art) therefore, took part in the festival to raise awareness of this kind of rock art and to help people understand the importance thereof. Just like the cultural traditions which the present generations have received from their forefathers are heritage, so too is the rock art. The rock art site visit was aimed at raising awareness but unfortunately very few from the local communities took part in the fully sponsored trip to the site.
The closing ceremony was another spectacular highlight of the festival. At some point during the closing ceremony, one of the members of the armed forces present, infull attire including rifle hanging on his shoulder, ledone of the traditional songs while others danced in a circle. Again whenever a certain community (e.g. the Turkana) was called to perform on stage, members of other communities joined in to sing and dance together while they held hands. It is as though they were shouting aloud for the whole world to hear their resolve to embrace each other and live harmoniously and peaceably with each other despite their differences, even the cultural ones, by their actions.
Yes, it is true that there has been violence between communities of this region, but that’s not all that there is, there are bright moments too. Taking opportunities such as the annual Kalacha Festival, and others, would help adjust one’s perspective a little in order to see the back of the moon shine.
https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.africanrockart.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/26144234/Manyatta-Kalacha-e1453116502719.png225300TARA Trust for African Rock Arthttps://s3.amazonaws.com/media.africanrockart.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/07150354/TARA-Trust-for-African-Rock-Art.pngTARA Trust for African Rock Art2016-01-08 11:57:032017-09-06 12:51:37The 2015 Kalacha Festival: Can Anything Good Come Out of Nazareth?
The organisation Culture Por Tous (Culture for all) describes cultural mediation as the deployment of intervention strategies – activities and projects – that aim to introduce publics to a variety of experiences in the context of art and heritage institutions, municipal services, or community groups. Hamidou Moussa, TARA intern and culture student and practitioner from Niger, explained it to me as creating an opportunity for the meeting of art(works) with the public.
On an afternoon in August, Moussa led one such cultural mediation with a French class at the Alliance Française in downtown Nairobi. He introduced African rock art, showing various examples, and spoke about TARA’s work documenting and conserving it. He then launched into a consideration of the values that one might derive from a consideration of rock art.
I sat down with him afterward to find out more about the médiation culturelle and his thoughts on rock art.
Wangũi: Tell me about your background and how it relates to rock art.
Moussa: I used to be a teacher in primary school in Niger, then I stopped teaching to go study literature at the university. As I finished with literature the university started an arts and culture programme, and I decided to study that as well. In my literature studies we studied history and heritage.
When you talk about heritage, when you talk about art, rock art is an important part of all of that. My physical meeting with rock art however, happened because I needed to do an internship for my arts and culture degree.
W: You led a cultural mediation at Alliance using different examples of rock art. Tell me what cultural mediation is.
M: It’s a concept and practice born in France and used in France and Canada. It means to create a meeting between the public and a work of art. You have a determined public – students, workers, members of parliament, soldiers, etc. – you choose your public. Then you choose your type of art – music, dance, painting, and so on. Then you create a meeting between the public and the work of art.
In the meeting you provoke a reflection on universal values like freedom, tolerance, duties, rights, respect, the relationship between humans and nature and so on. The public will then react to the work of art and/or to the values you bring up. There may be a discussion, and you may give them a task to perform, or even ask them to create works of art of their own in response. A cultural mediation can have various objectives, all linked with an engagement with art.
W: The mediation was in French, could you give me a brief summary of what you covered?
M: We started off by discovering TARA with the public. And then we discovered rock art: what is it, where is it, why rock art, etc.
After that we focused on the Dabous giraffes as the case study to look deeper into the importance and meanings of rock art for prehistoric peoples and for us now: spirituality, knowledge, economic meanings and so on.
Then we worked in groups to reflect on the relationship between humans and nature. We rounded it off by looking at where rock art fits into all of this.
“When I discovered rock art, I learnt that we have to learn again.”
W: What values do you think rock art evokes? What values does rock art evoke for you?
M: Rock art can mean liberty, freedom.
Take for an example the Dabous giraffes- you can think about the size and type of the art, it’s being an engraving, the quality of the engraving.
Everybody should ask themselves, how much time did the artists take to make it? So they must have had free time in order to make it.
Then it is in the desert. Somewhere outside, not in a house- therefore nothing to hide the artists. Therefore it is an indication of freedom.
We in Niger, to whom the rock art belongs now, we should also be free to protect it from vandalism, from mining companies and such like.
Rock art can mean beauty, it can also mean development. When you have rock art you have something to give to the world since it attracts tourists.
It can mean meeting points between different people in society, people from different cultures hence tolerance. I came to TARA in Kenya because of rock art. People who visit rock art come from different places.
W: You will be going back to finish your Masters in Niger now. What wisdoms do you take with you, and how will rock art be evident in your future work?
M: In my course at the university we studied the history of culture from Ancient Greece to now. We studied architecture, painting… and it was a lot of knowledge.
When I discovered rock art, I learnt that we have to learn again. Of everything we learnt in art history, there was nothing more beautiful or more interesting than rock art. I think I will focus my research on rock art now when I go back.
From TARA I learnt new methods of work. I had a chance to practise English for work. I also learnt a new way of working because at TARA people really work, and I take this work culture with me.
From Kenya I learnt to be nice to people. Kenyans are nice and always ready to help foreigners.
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Rock art makes up one of the most important records of human thought. It also throws important light onto past histories and cultures. Africa has a great diversity of rock art and one of TARA’s main missions, in partnership with UNESCO, is to safeguard this unique rock art heritage. One of the countries that has taken the lead in conservation and valorisation of rock art in Africa is Morocco.
As a follow up to a Theft and Vandalism workshop in 2010, TARA recently organised a 3 day conservation workshop in Agadir titled ‘African Rock Art at Risk: Facing the Challenges of Conservation and the Issue of Development’. The workshop was organised with the support of Morocco’s Ministry of Culture and the Prince Claus Fund. The aims of it included examining the current status of rock art; identifying the most threatened sites; and devising a plan of action to document rock art and undertake necessary measures to protect it. In attendance were representatives from at least 10 African countries where rock art is present: Morocco, Mali, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
At the conference we heard from different speakers from around the continent how the biggest threat is a lack of awareness at all levels about the existence, importance and antiquity of rock art, which automatically leads to neglect and damage. Different strategies were proposed to deal with this including awareness and educational strategies, as well as community oriented projects. In particular, community engagement and empowerment in countries where the State is not pro-active in rock art conservation emerged as key requirements for conservation. We heard about vandalism and management failures and of mining companies being allowed to destroy rock art sites by their governments.
Two notable and innovative solutions from the wealth and diversity of experience at the conference were:
(a) In response to a problem in Zimbabwe where local independent churches have taken to holding services and lighting wood fires in rock art shelters and caves, and the smoke from the fires blackens the walls and ceilings and the rock paintings. The proposed strategy is to sensitise the priests and prophets to the spiritual and national importance, and antiquity of the art. This would be in addition to communicating the possibility of paying visitors coming to see the paintings if they preserve them by making their fires elsewhere.
(b) In response to a need to document large numbers of as-yet unknown engravings in Niger’s Aïr Mountains, the rock art Association, ANIGOURANE, have been training, equipping and thus empowering local Tuareg people to document their own sites and create their own rock art archive.
Following the workshop participants were taken by the Morocco Director of Culture, Dr Abdelah Alaoui to visit a newly recorded rock art site and conservation project south of Agadir. The rock art in this area dates from the Pastoral period and consists of rock engravings on loose rocks and boulders depicting wild animals such as elephants, as well as cows and bulls. The Ministry of Culture has erected a Conservation Centre here which also serves as a house for the site custodian and as a museum for archaeology and rock art in the region, in what is a good example of active State involvement in rock art conservation.
The workshop endorsed the words of Kofi Annan, “It is time for Africa’s leaders to take a new and more active role. We must save [rock art] before it’s too late.”
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Digital tracing of a figure carrying honeycombs. Ebusingatha Shelter, South Africa. Tracing by Jeremy Hollman
TARA is happy to work together with organisations that share similar or related values and goals. Porini Welfare Association aims to strengthen local community ecological governance through the understanding that effective ecosystems are a function of cultural wisdom and commitment by the local communities. Recently Porini has launched a programme called An African Honey Trail that encourages local communities to revitalise and maintain their traditional beekeeping practices, as well as to foster and share knowledge on maintaining a balanced relationship with nature. The projects current focus is in Northern Kenya with potential to extend into Ethiopia.
Traditional bee keeping is one of the oldest practices carried out in Northern Kenya with the knowledge having been passed on from one generation to the other. The importance of bees for past societies can be seen in rock art depicting bees, honey and honey collection. These kinds of images have been found in a number of countries in Africa, although not yet from northern Kenya. In places where bee rock art is found, it is often in the form of catenary curves which are interpreted as the artist’s/artists’ observation of bees’ nests from a possibility of vantage points (read more). In rare cases, the practice of honey gathering is depicted in rock art as in the painting of an anthropomorph/therianthrope above from eBusingatha, South Africa.
In San rock art, known for its symbolism, depictions of honey and bees have been tied to deeply spiritual themes such as the harnessing of potency from bees. In the same image, more than simply carrying honey that has been harvested the figure represented may be delivering potency to community members after a spiritual journey.[i] Ethnographic research has shown that in the Kalahari the trance dance is preferably done when bees swarm in order to harness their potency.
Engraving depicting catenary curves (U-shaped curves). Possible honey comb, Morocco
Currently this thousand-year old relationship between humans and bees is threatened by changes taking place in the society: in spiritual beliefs, economy, food production and consumption – culture at large, as are other forms of harmonious co-existence with nature that indigenous communities must be recognised for.
Through the project ‘An African Honey Trail’, Porini aims to draw attention to the bee not only for their tremendously important and now threatened role as pollinators, but also to a variety of closely tied issues. The bee is both an example of harmonious living and working, and of matriarchal societies. Moreover the bee allows us to get familiar with biodiversity and examine our actions with this view in mind: in order to produce honey, bees need flowers and a regular water source. The diversity of flowers and their origins and seasons are the source of the flavours of honey! Thus a greater connection to the bee can enhance individuals’ connection to nature.
Blessing and installing of hives at Porini Sanctuary. Images by Wanjiku Mwangi
In a similar way, ties with the past can be enhanced. Current societies are disconnected from rock art- because they do not know (about) it or because they do not have a cultural attachment to it. Even though current custodians of rock art may not be the artists of it, rock art represents a history of humanity and has been part of the custodians’ landscape for a length of time. Hence both organisations face a similar challenge: how does one make the past relevant and desirable today? How can we create a future in which modernity and tradition support each other?
Both Porini and TARA believe that local communities are the key actors in recreating effective ecosystems and in conservation of rock art. In order to validate and make the past useful, communities need to see the relevance and the benefit of actions taken surrounding it. The benefits can be both tangible, such as economic development through tourism, and intangible, such as a better-rooted and balanced sense of identity. The tangible and intangible benefits often support and reinforce each other in the sense that admiration of an “outsider” creates a sense of pride within the community and will to carry on – hence continuity. To achieve these benefits both organisations hope to build the capacities of community members through reaching out to communities to share knowledge.
Sketch map by Hanna Söderström
Bridging the gap between the past and the present can also be achieved through documentation. Documentation and conservation guarantees that the crucial information embedded in traditions will not disappear for good. Working together with Porini in northern Kenya allows TARA to contextualise rock art both in history and today, and thereby create more coherent and complete knowledge. Ultimately, having a voice together strengthens our message.
[i] Jeremy C. Hollmann, ‘Bees, Honey and Brood: Southern African Hunter-Gatherer Rock Paintings of Bees and Bees’ Nests, uKhahlamba-Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 50, no. 3 (3 July 2015): 343–71. Link to full article
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From 2012-2014, the Getty Institute ran an African-Australian rock art project that involved workshops and knowledge sharing between rock art specialists, managers, and custodian communities. In August 2014, participants in the project, including Terry Little, TARA COO, travelled to Kakadu National Park for the the Southern Africa-Australia Rock Art Conservation Exchange.
This recently produced book is the culmination of these deliberations and reflections by rock art experts on their experiences working with rock art heritage in both Africa and Australia. The report includes sections on what rock art is, its importance and threatened status, and creative ways and tools communities have used to engage with and conserve rock art. The authors, Neville Agnew, Janette Deacon, Terry Little, Nicholas Hall, Sharon Sullivan and Paul Tacon also set out foundation principles and a vision for rock art conservation. It is a book that would be useful to organisations and people interested in rock art conservation anywhere in the world.
You can download the whole report on the Getty Institute website.
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Homo naledi, by palaeoartist John Gurche. Image credit: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic
By now this facial recreation of recently discovered new species Homo naledi is familiar to a lot of the world. There’s a lot about the discovery that is phenomenal: more than 1,500 fossils found by an all-woman team in a hard to reach place and with behaviour that possibly challenges our paradigms of Homo sapiens exclusivity.
But the discovery of H. naledi has shaken up the world in more than one way- lead researcher, Lee Berger’s methods are changing the paradigms of research as science knows them. How? It’s all open access. From the excavating, to the analysis, to the announcement, to the published research, one could even say from the sourcing of the ‘underground astronauts’ which happened through a Facebook announcement. Images and video of the find are available on the Wits website, anyone can download and print 3D casts of the bones, and by the first weekend after the announcement there were 124,000 page views and 14,000 downloads of the H. nalediresearch papers on eLife.
In today’s world more and more research materials should be openly available to whoever needs them. Open access journals such as eLIFE and PLOS and user contributed platforms such as Twitter and Wikipedia are making this possible. As are recent Google Cultural Institute partnerships with the Kenya National Archives and the British Museum to digitise collections and make them available to anyone anywhere for example. They break the closed door nature of knowledge acquisition (the Ivory Tower) that has long meant that only some people are allowed in or are assumed to want in. Besides availing material to researchers, open access publication means educators can access current research for teaching as it happens, as can the general public.
Head of a carved life-size giraffe, ~ 7000 years old, Dabous, Niger
TARA surveys, documents and works with communities to conserve rock art on the African continent. Over the past 2 decades we have amassed more than 25,000 images of rock art and other contextual data from 19 countries, all of which are now being catalogued and made available to the public through a partnership with the British Museum. Researchers, archaeology enthusiasts, appreciators of ancient art, and the simply curious, will all be able to search for, see, and use this extensive archive. Open access. We do this because not only do we think this heritage is great and should be wider known, but also because we recognise that it is the common heritage of all humanity. We not only encourage use of the images in research, but also welcome thoughts, and questions, on the material.
It’s not just research material that’s going open access, broader based data too. Governments are making data available to the public in an effort to promote transparency. And institutions on social media are fielding questions from people from all walks of life- a kind of access that would have been unimaginable just 10 years ago.
It’s not all uniform however and many of us have probably had the experience of asking a question of an institution only to hear…silence. And only a few days ago, the entire editorial team of one of Elsevier’s journals quit in protest when their calls for the journal to transition to Open Access were ignored. Not only do we want to be able to interact with information and knowledge and ask questions of it, but with open access we claim it as our right as citizens of the world. After all, we are the constituents that these institutions theoretically serve.
It is understandable however, that some organisations would be afraid to completely open themselves to the world; to potential criticism and questions from anyone. Questioning or oppositional voices in this case are seen as diminishing credibility. But they perhaps should be seen as opening up to the beautiful unknowns that interacting with all kinds of people brings with it. It seems paradoxical to want to do that, but the humility and openness is brave. And it inspires trust.
Image credit: Wellesley Centers for Women
“It is brave to be involved, to be not fearful to be unresolved” wrote Gwendolyn Brooks. To be unafraid to be unresolved is to be comfortable with not having all the answers. It is to be unafraid to show mistakes, to be unafraid to be questioned, and to be unafraid to sometimes say ‘I don’t know (yet)’ to those questions. It is the acknowledgement that knowledge is co-produced and is not within the purview of only a few. It is brave. It is also necessary.
The non-profit organisation GiveDirectly is a good example of how open data about everything that goes on within an organisation inspires trust. When something good happens you will know about it through the real time data on their site. When something bad happens you will also know. And this transparency and openness with the organisation’s ongoings (along with their successful evidence-based direct giving model) has donors pouring in. Other institutions would do well to follow this model.
Grave circle, Lokori, Northern Kenya
I’ll end with a story from a remote part of Northern Kenya- Turkana. There are rocky hills in Lokori all known as Namoratunga, the place of stones. One of these hills in particular is an archaeological site with graves ringed by stone-circles and with petroglyphs on the stones. On a recent visit community members eagerly shared their stories of how the stones came to be in those arrangements, stories passed down from generation to generation. But they had one big contention. In the 1960s, and again more recently, researchers had taken material away from the graves to study it, but never came back to share the results of their research. Community members were in effect saying, there’s something wrong with this equation: we gave you our knowledge, but we’re not getting anything back. Contrary perhaps to common Ivory Tower thought, they care(d) about the findings of those analyses- it is part of their heritage, and they want to be told.
Research is done in order to accomplish something. In my rose-tinted view I would say in order to make the world a better place. Everyone should be able to say of any piece of research, ‘It is part of my heritage (as an inhabitant of this world), I want to know’. Open access allows us to do that.
The fact that the #HomoNaledi discovery was announced in an OA journal (instead of Nature or Science) is a huge damn deal.
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In addition to leading the recent safari to Niger in October, TARA also checked on the progress of the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation funded community project we have been implementing alongside Nigerien rock art preservation organisation, ANIGOURANE. The project which began in 2014 has its focus in the Aïr Mountains of Niger, a region with numerous rock art sites including the famous Dabous giraffes site.
Unique about this project is the focus on conservation through the involvement of the largely nomadic local communities in documenting the many rock art sites present in the Aïr Mountains, in addition to raising awareness about the importance of rock art as heritage. To this end community members received training and equipment to enable them document rock art wherever they found it.
Other components of the project have so far included an internship for Nigerien culture student, Hamidou Moussa, and the filming and production of a documentary film on Niger’s spectacular rock art. The project will culminate in an exhibition that will take place in January 2016, at which time the film will also premier.
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In October 2015, TARA Chairman David Coulson led a special private 10 day Safari to Niger’s Aïr Mountains. The expedition was accompanied by Minister Rhissa Agboulah, special Advisor to the President on Security. During the safari, which began in Agadez, the group were greeted and entertained by traditional Wodaabe and Tuareg dancers including 70 Tuareg on camels in all their finery and near Iferouane they attended a traditional camel race through the desert.
Meanwhile David took the group to visit important rock engraving sites in the northern Aïr that he first recorded 20 years ago. The area is now one of the safest parts of the Sahara to visit but tourism continues to suffer as a result of bad publicity concerning Niger’s neighbours. The visitors were all given a great welcome by nomads and villagers they met.
TARA offers a number of rock art safaris every year as a way to raise money to support efforts to document and preserve African rock art. Find out about upcoming safaris here.
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In the far north of Kenya, bordering on Ethiopia is Lake Turkana, a 300 km long lake set in often wild desert scenery. Today the home of Turkana pastoralists the area is also known as the Cradle of Mankind due to the number of fossil remains of early man found here- including some of the oldest ever discovered.
A TARA team recently participated in the three-day Turkana Cultural Festival held in Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County. The festival’s theme was Tobong’u Lore: welcome back home, and it not only paid homage to the rich archaeological finds from the area with lectures from palaeoanthropologist Dr. Richard Leakey, and a presentation by TARA; but also to the culturally rich and beautiful, yet little known and appreciated, landscapes in the county.
At our stand we interacted with the public sharing information about the rock art found in Turkana County and hearing from people who had seen rock art in places TARA is yet to survey. Many questions pertained to the ‘usefulness’ of rock art to people. Having Anthony Odera, Kakapel Monument site manager, and Hoseah, Lokori Community Rock Art Project co-ordinator, with us helped to show the possible economic and cultural benefits that rock art could have for communities living near it.
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TARA welcomes one more Kenyan intern, Deborah, who will be with us till the end of the year.
Deborah will be graduating from the University of Nairobi in December 2015, with a Bachelor of Arts degree, having majored in Tourism and Psychology.
She says: “Having an interest in Kenya’s tourism sector in terms of the involvement of host communities and the benefits they can get from tourism activities, combined with a love for art, I believe TARA’s various activities like community projects, research, communication, documentation and heritage preservation will help me gain first hand experience in, contribute to, and enjoy rock art!”
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TARA welcomes a new group of Kenyan interns who will be with us until the end of the year. Mark joins us after having completed his Bachelors degree with a major in Archaeology and a minor in Geography from the University of Nairobi, Kenya.
While with us Mark intends to learn about various TARA activities including rock art community projects and research, and he is also keen to participate in other archaeological activities such as rock art surveys and fieldwork. He is currently working on updating and fact-checking various TARA publications such as ‘The rock art and other attractions of Suba District‘, following feedback from the Abasuba Peace Museum Curator, Mr. Jack Obonyo.
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Over the past weeks we did an informal staff survey to answer two important questions: What is your favourite African rock art image? and Why?
The choices were from all corners of the continent and the reasons behind them as diverse as TARA staff members. They spanned the gamut from the beauty of the paintings to the cultural connections associated with the images. Staff picks also included well known (and well loved) images as well as a few less so. And what was probably no surprise is that the Dabous giraffes featured twice!
Here’s a sampling of the responses:
Our administrative assistant, Cyprian, said that the fact that the Mfangano Island, Kenya concentric circle paintings were used in rainmaking ceremonies made that image his favourite. Our community projects manager, Josiah, is a lover of wildlife and his favourite image was the well executed eland painting from the Drakensberg, South Africa. For our COO, Terry, the connections to present day traditions of body painting as well as the wealth of questions that the Niola Doa ladies of Chad inspire made his pick. And our intern, Lindsay, chose an image some of us were not too familiar with- bas relief camels from Sudan- saying she loved the mix of abstraction and clarity in the art.
What became clear after this survey is that there are many reasons to love rock art, just as there are many reasons why rock art paintings and engravings were done. Another important take-away is the same one that guides us in other parts of our mission, that is, that for one to conserve cultural heritage they must have some form of attachment to it, whether economic, cultural, or religious.
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Last week TARA hosted two scholars attached to the Nairobi National Museum- Njeri Gachihi and Ssemulende Robert. They dropped by to familiarise themselves with African rock art in a general context, and spend some time exploring our rich rock art database before travelling to spend a month at the Kakapel rock art site and monument in Western Kenya. The Kakapel rock art site is rich in paintings and features a mix of red and white animal and geometric motifs.
Njeri is a curator at the Nairobi National Museum, and Ssemulende is studying for his Masters in Archaeology at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania by way of Uganda and interning at the Museum. During their visit, TARA staff gave presentations on various rock art traditions in Africa, and on challenges and opportunities in community rock art conservation. We also discussed varying perceptions of rock art, and challenges faced in other archaeological sites and shared ideas on how to approach the management of archaeological and rock art sites.
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Along with Hanna, we are also delighted to have Tomos, an intern from Wales, with us for 2 weeks. Here’s what he says:
“Hamjambo! My name is Tomos and I’ll be working with TARA as an intern for the next two weeks. I received a BA in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge with an emphasis on the archaeology of Africa (from the Early and Middle Stone Ages right up to the Iron Age and colonial period). I have since endeavoured to gain more practical experience in African archaeology by working on several archaeological projects in southern Africa as well as working as an intern with the University of Pretoria, RSA.
These experiences have led me to delve into learning about the ins and outs of cultural heritage management in Africa, and combined with the fact that I love African rock art (having admired much of it in South Africa, Malawi and Namibia), working for TARA will be an ideal experience for me!”
During his time with TARA, he hopes to develop his knowledge in the field of rock art heritage, particularly in the strategies used to preserve and promote these cultural treasures. He is also keen to contribute to the sustainability of community projects that TARA is working on in Kenya in order to learn about some of the issues and challenges
facing communities that work to sustain and promote rock art as well as how best to overcome challenges through collaborative efforts. All this in the hope that it inspires his MA in African Studies with Heritage Master’s dissertation which he’ll be working on at University College London from September.
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TARA is pleased to welcome a new intern who will be with us until December this year. Hanna is from Finland and at the moment she is finalising her studies for the cultural policy master’s degree with a major in social and public policy in the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. She did a bachelor’s degree in tourism science in Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, from where she spent an exchange semester in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, to complete a minor in political theory and development sociology.
About her hopes for her internship she says, “The various activities of TARA closely correspond with my interests, according to which I have also pursued my studies and hope to work with in the future, at an international level, and in both non- and governmental institutions. I am looking forward to learning about the practices of, and to get hands on experience on heritage conservation and community projects and, of course, of rock art itself!”
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At the end of August, TARA revisited the Lokori rock art sites in Northern Kenya to check on the state of the rock art, and to meet with the community members for discussions on the future management of the site.
Lokori is host to rock art sites located on rocky hills known as Namoratunga, the place of stones. Namoratunga is also an archaeological site where a number of ancient graves whose grave stones have geometric engravings on them have been found.
Lokori is one of the most important and interesting sites that TARA has documented in Kenya over the last 15 years. The sites have large numbers of millennia-old rock engravings with the more heavily patinated images indicating greater age. The Namoratunga sites also have multiple “rock gongs”, rocks with natural resonance probably used in ancient times for divining and ritual communication. The sound was/is made by hitting the rocks with smaller hammer stones. Often a rock bearing engravings is also a gong as in the example in the short clip below.
TARA once again noted that on one of the two hills here there were many goat bones and a broken gourd among the rocks suggesting continued ritual use of the sites. We also noted increased wear on the gongs, exfoliation caused by the beating of hammer stones. Oral legend has it that spirits lived in these hills and sounds of herding and dancing used to be heard.
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Cross River State in Nigeria is home to around 450 ancient carved monoliths, a distinctive feature of the region. Known as Akwanshi, the monoliths are dated to between 500 and 1,500 years old and are believed to mark ancient burial sites. Along with depictions of faces, each monolith has unique decoration patterns and inscriptions.
But these monoliths are currently on the verge of total disappearance, prompting their inclusion in the World Monument Fund’s 100 Most Endangered Sites list in 2008.
In recent years the number of monoliths has decreased dramatically because of theft, vandalism and destruction by cultivation fires, as Dr. Ivor Miller and Dr. Abu Edet of University of Calabar, Nigeria discovered in a survey conducted early this year. Unfortunately, many local communities do not recognise the value of this heritage, or associate it with “witchcraft” in light of current monotheistic religions.
Most of the monoliths have been removed to be preserved and some community members are responding to the dramatic loss of Akwanshi and trying to fight it. For instance, elder teacher, Mr. Paulinus Ayambe from Njemetop village has found around 100 monoliths in the area, which in a very short time decreased to just six. Mr. Ayambe launched an initiative to relocate the remaining six monoliths to Njemetop village, and to fence them in, in order to preserve them.
Such single efforts, while admirable, cannot the stem the tide of this huge loss, however. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria has also not been able to prevent the destruction of the monoliths. The only way to save this unique heritage is to appeal to the international community and garner broad-based local support to document and preserve the monoliths before they all disappear.
TARA has always been interested in closer collaboration in heritage preservation projects in Nigeria, and the current situation might be the start of a new heritage emergency pr