Follow Us on Twitter

Rock art: power and symbolism in southern Africa - British Museum

The British Museum

Exhibition preview

THIS Asahi Shimbun Display Rock art: power and symbolism in southern Africa, on display at the British Museum until November 20, 2016, focuses on a piece of San|Bushmen rock art from Zimbabwe.

San|Bushmen describes groups of hunter-gatherer-fishers living in southern Africa. The object depicts two human figures and three antelope on a quartz base. Particular animals such as eland and kudu had symbolic importance for San|Bushmen, relating to their cosmology and rituals.

Rock-art images often depict shaman (or spiritual leaders) together with eland or kudu. Shamans entered trance-like states while dancing, believing that the spirit of an animal was inhabiting their bodies. This gave them the power to heal the sick, overpower evil spirits and summon rain.

Although rock art is not practiced today, the display will show how the images they left behind can provide a glimpse into the lives and belief systems of the people that made them.

The display draws on The African Rock Art Image Project which has catalogued and uploaded more than 20,000 images into the Museum’s collections, and presents our understanding of San|Bushmen material culture and belief systems.

In 2013, The British Museum launched The African Rock Art Image Project, a landmark undertaking to document and disseminate c.25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent, through generous support from the Arcadia Fund. The images, donated by The Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), are being catalogued, integrated and made accessible through the British Museum’s online collection catalogue.

New analysis by British Museum scientists have revealed a build-up of mineral deposits on the back of the rock art. This shows that water erosion caused it to naturally fall off the rock face, and that it had been on the ground for a significant period of time before it was collected. Digital technologies have also helped to determine the relationship between the two human figures and the antelope.

D-Stretch is photo manipulation software developed specifically for rock art research, which enhances different sets of pigments highlighting some and suppressing others. D-stretch analysis revealed that the antelope may have been superimposed on the figure, and possibly repainted at a later date. It also made it possible to detect more figures at the bottom of the fragment, the feet of another animal at the top and pigment on the lower left side. All of this is impossible to see with the naked eye.

Rock art was made using two techniques: petroglyphs (carving or engraving) and pictographs (paintings). Rock art sites can be found high up in mountain ranges or on boulders in the open landscape, sometimes close to crucial water supplies. These sites were not picked at random but carefully chosen.

Unfortunately, rock art is also at risk from destruction by both the natural world and people. Construction work, weather conditions, graffiti and touching continue to cause damage.

The display coincides with the British Museum’s major exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation, sponsored by Jack and Betsy Ryan with logistics partner IAG Cargo.

Rock art: power and symbolism in southern Africa addresses the role of San|Bushmen rock art as a symbol of a distinct heritage and a common humanity. It also takes up the issue of San|Bushmen experiences of colonial encounter and invasion in the region and helps visitors to understand what rock art means in southern Africa, both to indigenous communities and more recent settlers.

Opening hours: 10am to 5.30pm Saturday to Thursday and 10am to 8.30pm Fridays.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Tel: +44 (0)20 7323 8181