Using new technologies to preserve ancient pasts

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.

technology preserving rock art

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.

technology preserving rock art

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

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.

technology preserving rock art

Scanning the famous ‘Rosetta Stone’ panel. Click the image to explore the 3D model in detail. Image: ACT


Image enhancement

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.

technology preserving rock art

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

Virtual tours

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.

technology preserving rock art

Click the image to take the virtual tour of Eland Cave. Image: ACT

Interactive mapping

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.

technology preserving rock art

Rock art custodian Zama Sithole showing the way! Click to view the interactive map. Image: ACT

How is the data used?

Monitoring change

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.

technology preserving rock art

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.

technology preserving rock art

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.

technology preserving rock art

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).

Pinterest_Favicon technology preserving rock art