The African Rock Art Image Project at the British Museum launched in 2013, to document, research and make available c. 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent. The collection spans several millennia of rock art production and the images are being uploaded over five years to the British Museum’s searchable online database. As an entirely digital collection, the project has focused its display, dissemination, research and database on the project website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart
When considering the design of the project’s website, which is hosted within the research section of the British Museum’s main site, the project team focused on several key aims:
- To make the images and research openly available to the widest possible audience (especially to those in Africa) for free
- To give visitors both the breadth and depth of information to explore and understand the incredibly diverse and complex topic of Africa’s rock art
In developing the site, the project considered that for some audiences, the very existence of rock art in Africa is a new concept. To provide context for the wider collection, the site thus gives prominence to a series of introductory articles on topics such as chronology and techniques which facilitate learning about rock art and its associated terminology. It answers key questions such as “How is rock art made?” and “How old is rock art?”. Additionally, it features a tracker wheel of the project team’s progress to make the 25,000 images available over the five years of the project. Finally, there are links to the project blog and the database.
As the collection of 25,000 images of rock art can be rather intimidating to start, visitors are able to navigate the collection through an interactive map, which also shows which countries we are currently working on.
When one clicks on an area of the map, they are taken to a country introduction page, such as this one from Algeria, which features key facts, background to the area, chronologies, subjects, featured sites and a link to explore the collections from just that country.
The visitor may also explore the collections thematically, or through a closed analysis of some of the most famous sites in Africa. This article on camels in the Sahara (“Sailors on Sandy Seas”) mixes the rock art images with other British Museum objects (such as camel saddles, terra cotta figures and other pieces of material culture) to show the history of camels and their importance to the peoples of the Sahara throughout history.
The analysis of a key site is an important part of any rock art scholar’s work. Therefore, the visitor is guided to interpret and understand these sites. This page features a key site in Chad and offers an interactive photo-stitch of the images which allows them to explore the photos in context from wider landscapes to close-up details.
All of this allows the audience to explore the collections and to truly understand the importance of what they are looking at. This search, for example, shows how a person can look for representations of horses in the rock art collection. This can be refined to time period, location, or a number of other thesaurus-controlled or free text search features.
But one of the main features of this collection is to put rock art in context. It cannot be solely studied in a vacuum, so one is able to search the main British Museum collections with the rock art integrated as well. This search for “chariots” shows rock art representations of chariots, along with Greek vases, sculptures, Assyrian reliefs, a Bengali print and a Romano-British vessel that all feature chariots (which, again, can be refined by dozens of controlled fields).
The project runs a blog and several social media channels to explain what we are working on and how we conduct our research. This blog post is on photo-enhancement and manipulation software that can reveal images of rock art that are invisible to the naked eye.
Finally, the project ensures that the site is especially available to users without broadband internet or with mobiles as the primary source of internet (as is often the case in several parts of Africa). As the project continues, the Museum will continue to build a site that becomes the go-to source for anyone with a specific interest in African rock art, whether from an academic or cultural perspective, or from a more general interest in historical imagery. By focusing on the most striking images from the collection, the site capitalises on the wide reach of the British Museum’s website and social media channels to attract a new, global audience to this incredibly rich and varied resource.
The African Rock Art Image Project is supported by the Arcadia Fund