From cave to screen

In a trailblazing collaborative project between UCT and Iziko Museums of South Africa, around 1 000 Rock Art records, relating to sites in the Western Cape, have been digitised. View the Iziko Rock Art Archive on the Digital Collections website.

Nick Shepherd
Nick Shepherd is Associate Professor of African Studies and Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, and Head of the African Studies Unit. He is joint Editor-in-Chief of Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. He has published widely on questions of archaeology and society in Africa, and on questions of public history and heritage. He recently completed the book, The Mirror in the Ground: Archaeology, photography and the making of a disciplinary archive, in collaboration with the Centre for Curating the Archive.

Rock art is one of southern Africa’s richest archaeological resources. Studies of the remarkable collection of paintings and engravings by later Stone Age and Iron Age communities on walls of rock shelters and open-air surfaces across the subcontinent are a major contributor to archaeological research, and southern African rock art research, in particular, is world-renowned.

Due to the sheer amount of rock art sites throughout the area and the need to record as much information about rock art paintings and engravings, the Archaeological Data Recording Centre (ADRC) was established under the direction of the museum archaeologist, Jeff Leeuwenburg, in 1968. Leeuwenburg and later a small team of archaeologists – including Roger Summers, Graham Avery, among others, and about 70 volunteers – toured southern Africa collecting and recording Rock Art site data.

‘These primary research records… are literally irreplaceable, and give information on the location, content and condition of thousands of rock art sites. In many cases, they are the only record that we have of these sites, which would otherwise be lost to science.’

These data include site locations, both hand drawn and printed maps with notes, rock art summaries and descriptions, field notes, slides and photographs. Within two years, over 2 000 sites had been located, and by the 1980s, the locations of 3 931 sites had been noted in South Africa alone (Lewis-Williams 1983). This impressive total excludes numerous sites in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique.

The ADRC collection consists of about 5 000 pages of notes, reports and summaries, 2 568 associated maps and 5 500 slides recording rock art images. These primary research records represent the results of tens of thousands of hours of fieldwork. They are literally irreplaceable, and give information on the location, content and condition of thousands of rock art sites. In many cases, they are the only record that we have of these sites, which would otherwise be lost to science.

In a collaborative project involving the African Studies Unit of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics, and the Social History Collections Department of Iziko Museums of South Africa, around 1 000 records from the ADRC Rock Art archive have now been digitised. The focus of this pilot digitization effort, under the auspices of the Humanitec project, has been on records from about 400 sites in the Western Cape.

‘While the Cederberg is already quite well covered, there are a lot of documented Rock Art sites in areas, like Worcester and the Langeberg, which are much less known and visited. So these areas became very important for us.’

Initially, it was our plan to look at records relating to sites in Cederberg, but when we scoped the holdings, we discovered that the Cederberg records have gone missing, so we decided instead to focus on non-Cederberg Rock Art records. This has turned out to be even more interesting in some ways because, while the Cederberg is already quite well covered, there are a lot of documented Rock Art sites in areas, like Worcester and the Langeberg, which are much less known and visited. So these areas became very important for us.

‘Questions concerning intellectual property in relation to indigenous knowledge systems were key in this project… We needed to think our way very carefully around the question of “open access”, and what that actually means.’

Questions concerning intellectual property in relation to indigenous knowledge systems were key in this project, which required some astute navigation of the terms under which institutions co-operate to share digital holdings.

In some cases, rock art sites are vulnerable to too much public access or visitation, which can result in degradation and damage to the sites. For this reason, not all site-location information can be released into the public domain. In some cases, information on sensitive site location can only be released to bona fide researchers on application to the Curator of Precolonial Archaeology at Iziko Museums.

Copyright to the ADRC records rests with Iziko, and although UCT has been granted permission to host low-res digital versions on the UCT Libraries website, access to high-res images and documentation needs to be granted by Iziko’s Archaeology Unit. Questions of permission and gatekeeping were an explicit aspect of what we needed to negotiate as part of this partnership. We needed to think our way very carefully around the question of ‘open access’, and what that actually means.

Until recently, the status of these records was precarious. Not only were they vulnerable to physical deterioration and loss, but they were also difficult to access and use.

Preservation of and enhanced (albeit restricted) access to these rare records will enable possible links to established archaeological data bases such as South African Heritage Resources Information System (SAHRIS) and the South African Rock Art Digital Archive (SARADA), as well as facilitating better research access.

The digitisation of these records is a major addition to UCT’s research resource base and has established an important protocol for future collaborative digitisation and research projects.

Two further phases are envisaged, and will be funded through future applications. In the first phase, the remainder of the Rock Art records of the ADRC will be digitised. In the second phase, two further collections from the Social History Department of Iziko Museums of South Africa will be digitised: the Drury Correspondence, and the Physical Anthropology Correspondence.

All three collections relate to key and ongoing areas of current research at UCT in Anthropology, Archaeology and African Studies. This project establishes an important protocol between Iziko and UCT around collaboration and resource sharing, and brings an invaluable research resource to UCT to the benefit of university researchers and students.

Iziko site records

The materiality and texture of these records varies substantially across time. The early records reveal quite an ad-hoc free-form approach, with people jotting down notes in random notebooks with beautiful little sketch maps… You know: ‘Leave your car on so-and-so’s farm, turn left at the waterfall, walk up the hill, but watch out for the baboons’, or whatever.

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View the Iziko Rock Art archive on the Digital Collections website.