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African Rock Art British Museum Unseen

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

In 2023, the British Museum is presenting a digital "African Rock Art" exhibition, featuring 30 key images and stories from across Africa, including a virtual reality experience, after cataloguing around 23,000 digital photographs of rock art from across Africa, originally from the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) through generous support from the Arcadia Fund. The exhibition spans 30,000 years of rock art history, covering regions like Nigeria, Libya, Ethiopia, and South Africa. Uniquely digital, it offers a rare chance to view diverse rock art together. The exhibition explores human origins and the beauty of this ancient art, as part of the British Museum Unseen series.

Historic significance

This digital exhibition contains Introduction, Explore countries, Explore regions and Explore themes. The Introduction discusses the Origins of rock art in Africa, Chronologies, and Techniques of production. Highlighting the discovery of ancient art forms in various regions. The oldest scientifically-dated rock art, around 30,000 years old, was found in Namibia's Apollo 11 cave. It featured painted stone slabs depicting animals. These images, though not clearly identifiable to species, mark the beginning of representational art in Africa. The emergence of personal adornments and engraved designs from 100,000 to 60,000 years ago illustrates the ancient roots of art on the continent. Cross-hatched patterns, seen in engravings on ochre, suggest symbolic thought and language development. The continuity of techniques and subjects in African rock art underscores its historical significance.

Dating African rock art is challenging due to inconsistent and disputed chronologies. Some studies prioritize interpretation over chronology, while others face disputes. Directly dating rock art is difficult, but ongoing research aims to improve techniques. Rock art, practiced for millennia, follows varied techniques conforming to resource availability and technology. Despite emphasis on subject, dating, and meaning, studying production techniques offers insights into image creation methods. Technically, rock art falls into two categories: petroglyphs (engraved) and pictographs (painted) on rock surfaces.

"Explore themes" images

Some images from "Explore themes" are introduced here.

The art of the warrior

Left: Wodaabe participants in the Gerewol beauty contest ©Dan Lundberg via Wikimedia Commons

Right: Four Warrior style figures, Easter Air Mountains, Niger, 2013 ©TARA/David Coulson

Geometric motifs and cattle brands

White symbolic designs possibly representing Maa clans and livestock brands, Laikipia, Kenya, 2013, ©TARA/David Coulson

Written in stone: Libyco-Berber scripts

Libyco-Berber inscription engraved near a cow, Wadi Mathendous, Libya, 2013 ©TARA/David Coulson


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