Last summer, I got the chance to visit the Origins Museum on the University of the Witswatersrand campus in Johannesburg. A major feature of the Museum’s collection is an installation of San rock art. As the Rock Art Research Institute’s website attests, rock art is a key medium through which to understand our collective pasts (pasts which evade the written word).
Rock art is one of the most evocative of all the pieces of heritage left for us by our ancient ancestors. By looking into its symbolism, we can look into the minds of people who lived thousands of years ago. Rock art can take us back to a time when the world was very different, to the time when Egypt was home to the greatest civilization on earth. At that time people were painting rock art in the centre of the Sahara. But, even then, the rocks were not clean. The painters were covering over rock art that was already some 6000 years old. And, while Pygmy dancers entertained the great Pharaohs, their womenfolk painted the shelters of central Africa with a geometric art that remains amongst the most sophisticated of all the world’s arts. These great traditions, and hundreds of others, remain on the rocks to be discovered by anyone willing to take the time. The following pages introduce you to some of our great painted and engraved treasures, but words and pictures are a poor substitute for a visit to a site to witness the real thing.
The Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), based at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, aims to not only research Africa’s rock art, but also to publicize, preserve, and conserve these treasures. And one of the ways that they have worked to achieve these aims is through the South African Rock Art Digital Archive.
Some of the images from RARI are available through the Google Cultural Institute. But while the Google collection only contains five images, this site contains over 270,000 images of rock art from 30 institutions around the world. The digitization of the RARI collections began in 2002, thanks to funding from the Ringing Rocks Foundation. In developing their preservation schema and digitization methods, this organization realized it could use their newfound expertise to preserve other private and institutional collections, including materials owned by the Analysis of Rock Art of Lesotho project, Iziko Museums of Cape Town, Natal Museum, National Museum, University of Cape Town, and the University of South Africa (the specific collections and their digitization dates can be found on this page). This collaborative venture (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) resulted in the website that you can access today.
There are multiple ways to navigate the site, which are laid out in these guidelines on how to search the database. The most straightforward way to explore the archive is through the Browse options. You can search by subject (ranging from animals to equipment to human figures), traditions (focusing on African hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists/herders), researchers and institutions, and locations (specifically Southern African public rock art sites–though this project also features rock art from throughout the continent). For those planning trips to Southern Africa, this site also acts as a hub of information for public rock art sites that you can visit (as well as proper etiquette for interacting with the artifacts).
It is useful to go through each browsing function to explore all of the options available, since the organizational scheme of this site seems to obfuscate as much of its content as it presents. For example, there are brief essays with each browsing category that are only accessible if you click through each section. Take, for example, this introductory essay on KhoeKhoe Rock Art. Or this essay on Chewa Rock Art in Malawi and Zambia. On that same note, this is not just, as the title suggests, a South African Rock Art Digital Archive, but an African Rock Art Digital Archive. There are artifacts included from Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho, Mali, the Sahara, Kenya, and, of course, South Africa. But you do have to dig for them.