British Museum to Help Save Africa’s Ancient Rock Art
With destruction mounting, is it too little too late?
David Coulson, Chairman of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), is a man on a mission: to document all of Africa’s rock art before it disappears forever. He’s doing remarkably well. Since the creation of TARA almost 20 years ago, the team of experts working for the trust has recorded more than 800 rock art sites in 19 African countries.
Now, a copy of TARA’s 25,000-image-strong digital archive has been acquired by the British Museum and will be cataloged and made available online over the next five years, the Telegraph reports. By joining TARA’s efforts, the British Museum seeks to ensure that African rock art sites are recorded and preserved for future generations.
Coulson’s endeavor was inspired by his love of African rock art and was propelled by the increasing risk of destruction faced by the sites. Vandalism, theft, development, and mineral exploitation have, at varying pace, chipped away at the prehistoric artworks to such a degree that Coulson has found that documentation is an even more urgent need (and more achievable) than in-situ preservation itself. These threats are by no means confined to sites on the African continent (see “30,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings in Danger of Destruction”).
Last summer for example, Reuters reported that several cave paintings from the Tadrart Acacus mountain in southern Libya had been defaced with graffiti and by people carving their initials into the rocks’ face. Tourism officials told Reuters that vandalism in the area had accelerated since the 2011 civil war, which plunged the North African country into armed anarchy.
Worryingly, Libya is home to some of Africa’s most important examples of rupestrian art. In 2000, Coulson’s team discovered an enormous ensemble of animal engravings sprawled across an 1,100 square foot area, near the Libya-Niger border. The engravings, estimated to be 6,000–8,000 years old, depict a group of nine huge giraffes.
One particular giraffe stood out. And at 27 feet long from muzzle to rear hoof, it is currently thought to be the largest single rock art image on the African continent. Coulson’s expedition was the first to successfully photograph the ensemble, which is now at particularly high risk of being destroyed.
In an effort to curb that destruction, the trust has become an official partner of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. The collaboration has resulted in TARA’s appointment of 11 rock art sites in Africa for UNESCO World Heritage status. Eight rock art sites have been confirmed by the UN organization. The Libyan giraffes are not among those sites.
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