Rock Art in Southern Africa [Preview]

Paintings and engravings made by ancestors of the San peoples encode the history and culture of a society thousands of years old

Of course, paintings and engravings depicting European colonists, wagons, soldiers and domestic animals may well be records of real events rather than ritual occasions. In addition, some rock art appears to reflect interactions between the San and other groups. John E. Parkington and his collegues at the University of Cape Town have suggested that handprints found along the southwestern coast, usually overlying earlier art, may have been the work of Khoi herders. Depictions of cattle introduced by the migrating herders and farmers, as well as iron artifacts, maize cobs and glass beads found in excavations, all testify to San involvement in other African economies.

New Interpretations
THE FINAL IMAGES themselves may not be alone in creating significance to the prehistoric artists. The act of painting itself may also have been important. Recent research in anthropology and art history has drawn attention to the process of art making and of the materials used, as opposed to creating an end product for viewing (as is usual in Western arts). This may be especially relevant to understanding San arts.

Probably each step of the painting process in San art carried cultural significance. One indigenous account from 1910 mentions ritual preparations that involved pigments being ground by women at full moon. In my research, I have emphasized the symbolic and spiritual significance of technically nonessential substances, such as fat and eland blood, that were said to be added to the paint mixture, presumably as magical aids. The act of making art, it appears, exerted magical effects that could influence the spirits and help control fate.

Powerful analytical techniques are now available for identifying these paint ingredients and culture-specific "recipes" of ancient paintings. This information would not only help us understand the significance of rock art but is also of interest for reasons ranging from resource exploitation to ancient trade to contemporary conservation.

I have researched the use of pigments and paints, with a view to identifying "magical" additives. This work, with the assistance of soil scientists at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has involved a suite of techniques, including x-ray fluorescence (to provide quantitative data on minor and trace element composition), x-ray diffraction (to reveal crystal structure and parent rock types of paint ingredients), and environmental scanning electron microscopy (to yield qualitative data on elements present). Another promising technique that we have used experimentally is synchrotron radiation analysis. This technique, suitable for tiny samples, allows for x-ray fluorescence and x-ray diffraction of the same spot. So far these sophisticated research tools have generated more questions and problems than answers. The variability in both pigments and paints may be too vast to produce results relevant to answering archaeological questions.

The function and many meanings of rock art in history and prehistory still generate debate, although a broadly spiritual role is now well established. As an extraordinary and evocative record of the past, San rock art is becoming part of the culture of postapartheid South Africa. Yet paintings face many threats. Through the combined efforts of a spectrum of specialists, we hope to ensure that the rock art will endure as a testament to an ancient African culture, tragically displaced.

ANNE SOLOMON is a graduate of the University of Cape Town, where she obtained her Ph.D. She is a former postdoctoral research fellow of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Los Angeles and was, until recently, senior curator of archaeology at the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg. Her book on San arts, The Imagination of the San, is to be published in early 2005 by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

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