African rock art, or petroglyphs, are cultural and historical treasures. Many of them are among the oldest human artworks on Earth. They provide a window in time, giving us a glimpse of the lives, worldviews, and even the climate of our distant ancestors. Some petroglyphs are straightforward depictions from prehistory, while others are deep mysteries. This dual nature gets expressed by the San, who sometimes say that the white-ink art at Tsoldilo was drawn by their ancestors, while the red-ink pieces were drawn by God.
Unfortunately, many of these petroglyphs have been lost or are currently in danger. For instance, in Zimbabwe, bushman cave paintings that date back thousands of years are now being destroyed as caves are converted into churches. Since 1995, the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA), which is based in Nairobi, has sought to protect, conserve, and promote the value of African rock art. The project started as a vision of the famous paleontologist Mary Leakey. Under the direction of David Coulson, it grew from a preliminary effort to catalog local petroglyphs into a scrappy but continent-spanning project that works with hundreds of local communities, and has drawn praise from such luminaries as Kofi Annan.
Yet TARA has faced an unusual challenge in promoting its work. Petroglyphs cannot be moved, and many of them are very hard to visit—they are deep in caves, or high up on cliffs, or in remote and dangerous locations like Tassili n’Ajjer. While TARA offers rock art safaris for intrepid scholars and other enthusiasts, only a small number of people can ever hope to access most of these sites. So how do you show the world something immobile that almost no one will get to visit?
This challenge, twelve thousand years in the making, is being met by cutting-edge technology. The British Museum, with the help of the Arcadia Fund, is now hosting an online “exhibit” of African petroglyphs, gleaned from tens of thousands of photographs taken by TARA workers. These are presented as an interpreted collection, but also as an impressive virtual reality piece. Clicking on the Game Pass Shelter site, you can hear the birds, and you may get vertigo looking down the side of the canyon. It is a novel approach, and it may raise new problems of curation and conservation, but at a minimum, it makes these masterpieces accessible to a much wider audience than could ever see them in person.