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Saving Rock Art

Saving Rock Art

The high-tech virtual world has a way to save our rock art – Africa’s largest and most concentrated collection of paintings south of the Sahara. It’s called Rock Art Mapping…

Words: Andrea Abbott

Pictures: Michelle Dye, Carl Grossmann, Angus Forbes, Kira MacDougall, Rory Clark

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Africa being the Cradle of Humankind, it stands to reason that our continent has, according to Kenya-based Trust for African Rock Art (Tara), ‘the greatest diversity of rock art of any continent, with some of the world’s oldest art’. Furthermore it’s here in Southern Africa where some of the biggest concentrations of this art can be found.

An especially important treasury is the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Park, inscribed as a World Heritage Site not just for its exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity but because it contains, Unesco advises, ‘many caves and rock shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara’. These paintings ‘represent the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in that region over a period of 4 000 years’.

Archaeologist, Annie van de Venter-Radford of Amafa, KwaZulu-Natal’s heritage conservation agency, says, “All regional art is important but, stylistically, Southern African art is unique worldwide. Our paintings represent a unique cache of artistic and cultural representation of a people and lifestyle dating back to the Stone Age.”

An especially famous panel is found at Game Pass Shelter in the Kamberg. Known as the Rosetta Stone of Southern African Rock Art, it was the site where archaeologists first unlocked the mystical symbolism of rock paintings.

But this priceless heritage is in serious jeopardy. Natural factors such as erosion, veld fires, bushes growing next to paintings, bird and insect nests, and water seepage are taking their toll on these fragile works. Humans are also to blame.


“Graffiti in the Berg, even in protected sites, has been a big problem for decades,” says Carl Grossmann, chairman of the African Conservation Trust (Act). Carl points out that it’s possible to slow down the deterioration of rock art through, for example, nest removal and firebreaks, but erosion is unstoppable. And so an art form he describes as “an eye to the past and the last visible traces of a section of humanity that has disappeared,” is doomed to vanish too.

Is there no way it can be saved? In situ, probably not. But in the high-tech virtual world there is a way. Undertaken by Act, the trailblazing Rock Art Mapping Project (Ramp) is ensuring that, long after the last painting has faded, people will be able to experience and appreciate the ancient artworks.

“Ramp began as a KZN university pilot project funded by Lotto in 2003,” says Carl, whose background is in land surveying. “We were experimenting with photogrammetry – photographic map making – which had never been used for terrestrial purposes.” During that stage, the surveying team explored the Berg extensively, finding many previously unrecorded rock art sites. “We added 80 new sites to the database – most of them in the Cathedral Peak area.”

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This led to the first digital database of rock art – until then all records were paper-based – as well as the correction of some of the data. “The previous extensive mapping was done by the Natal Museum (now the KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in the 1970s when the GPS was unknown,” Carl explains.

Also during the pilot stage, the first demonstration of 3D laser technology from France was carried out. This heralded the second phase, a three-year project that started in 2010 and in which laser scanning was used to create 3D computer-generated models of rock art sites.

There were two parts to the project. The first was the archaeological component that updated records, recorded accurate GPS co-ordinates, and captured digital photographs of the sites, the surrounding landscape and each painting, even the most faded, and noted any other factors such as graffiti and fire hazards that could impact the art.

This information was fed into the digital database housed at the KZN Museum with a duplicate kept at Amafa. The second component involved innovative 3D laser scanning. Michelle Dye, Act’s geographic information system and heritage documentation specialist, explains to me how it worked.

How Laser Scanning Works

A: Laser scan ‘point cloud’ consisting of millions of measured points each with an xyz coordinate.

RAMP 6 How it works_1

B: A solid model/mesh created from the points.

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C: High resolution imagery is draped over the model to give a realistic representation of the site.

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Michelle Dye operates the Leica ScanStation C10 scanner at the Isandlwana Battlefield.
A point cloud of the Isandlwana Battlefield consists of 780 million points. Scanning took 7 days and this final point cloud is made up from 50 individual scans.

Being less technically minded than a brick, I might not have got the full picture but this is how I understand it. Laser scanning accurately measures sites by recording millions of points, each just a few millimetres apart in space. The outcome is a 3D surface known as a Point Cloud.

High definition cameras then record photographs of the site and 360-degree panoramas (both stills and videos) that are used to colour the Point Cloud. Back at the office, the points and images are used to build digital 3D models and virtual tours of sites that, along with all the other captured data, are entered into the database. Hyperlinks to the virtual tours, web albums and videos, and 3D fly-through views of sites are also contained within the database.

At the end of that second part of the project (also funded by Lotto), Carl and his team had documented more than 500 sites and scanned just over 80, all in the Drakensberg. It might all sound straightforward, even if it is technical but, as Carl says, it was incredibly hard work. “Most of the sites are very remote. To get to them we had to negotiate tough terrain, carrying all the survey equipment – tripods, scanners, cameras – as well as all our food, clothes, cooking and sleeping gear.” For the students who took part in the first phase, it was the experience of a lifetime. “Some had never heard of the Drakensberg let alone been there.”

And still there is more to do. “There are another 450 sites to scan but we need more funding,” adds Carl. “Our overall goal is to establish a full archaeological database of the thousands of rock art sites occurring from the Berg to the coast, and to do 3D scans of them all.”

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In the meantime, the hard toil has resulted in a comprehensive and readily accessible database that – over and above being a permanent archive of rock art and an exceptional resource for researchers – has many practical applications. One of these is in reserve management, particularly with regard to annual block burns. “Knowing exactly where paintings are,” Carl points out, “staff can clear away any combustible material near those sites ahead of fires.”

Also very useful are hyperlinks to Google fly-through maps that, like Google Street Views, show the terrain and features such as hiking trails and waterfalls in relation to the surrounding landscape. This helps field rangers to locate sites in difficult terrain.

There’s something for the man in the street, too. Interactive virtual tours of sites open to the public allow people unable to reach remote locations to freely explore the caves and shelters at the click of a mouse. Those physically able to reach the sites can first do a digital recce of them and access contact details of appointed custodians to arrange a real-life tour.

And so a dwindling but important ‘gift from our ancestors… that shows the emergence of human nature’, as Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, and Tara supporter, described rock art, has been given a futuristic new chance.

The importance of this is best expressed by Nelson Mandela who, when endorsing Tara in 2005, said, ‘Africa’s rock art is the common heritage of all Africans, but it is more than that. It is the common heritage of humanity’.

Scanning an historical Voortrekker homestead in Estcourt. The deterioration is evident and beams have been placed to hold up one of the main walls.
Scan data of the homestead. At the bottom is a cross-section of the unstable wall showing that it is leaning by 7.7cm. On the right is a zoomed in section of the main crack measuring 5.1cm across.

Rock Art in South Africa

  • Independent research professional and one of South Africa’s top experts on rock art, Dr Janette Deacon says that the total number of sites logged on various databases is 8 650.
  • However she adds, “If you take into account that, whenever one does a dedicated search in an area, you can expect to at least treble the number of recorded sites, and that engraving sites have been very poorly listed. I would think that 25 000-30 000 is a conservative guess for South Africa.”
  • ‘Engraving sites’ refers to petroglyphs. These differ from rock paintings in that they’re engravings or carvings into the rock panel.

African Conservation Trust

  • Founded in 2000, the organisation’s first project was a hippo census in Malawi. It has since evolved into a broad-based conservation NPO concerned with issues such as species conservation and range expansion, soil erosion, recycling, conservation agriculture (food security), fracking in the Midlands, the proposed cable car in the Drakensberg.
  • Aside from Ramp, other important heritage work includes detailed 3D scanning of battlefield sites (providing new tools for historical analysis), and threatened historical buildings such as corbelled houses in the Northern Cape and a Voortrekker house in Estcourt in KZN. The scanning assesses threats and damage, and the information derived assists with restoration and management of the buildings. Where a building is too far gone, laser scanning conserves the structure in digital format.
  • A forthcoming project is underwater scanning of heritage sites along our coastline, which will be done in conjunction with the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
  • And, as partners of Anqa – a project by the International Council on Monuments and Sites – and CyArk – a digital archive of the world’s heritage sites for preservation and education – the Trust is on standby to document cultural heritage sites in North Africa and the Middle East (especially Syria, Iraq and Turkey) that could face destruction by militant groups.


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