Fine-lined rock engraving of an antelope

San Hunter-Gatherer2019

Origins Centre

Origins Centre
Johannesburg, South Africa

This engraved boulder forms part of the biggest collection of rock engravings on display in Africa (The Rock Engraving Archive), consisting of almost 80 engraved boulders. This boulder depicts an antelope, engraved by incising.

Many of the fine-lined or pecked animal engravings were created by San hunter-gatherers. There is an ongoing debate about whether the geometric images were made by migrating Khoe pastoralists, mapping their arrival and spread along water courses of South Africa. Some researchers argue that without dates it is impossible to resolve this question and alternative interpretations are offered, from example that the geometrics may rather simply represent the spread and change of ideas amongst the San.

Rock engravings, like paintings, have a history of being removed from their original context. During the 1800s travellers and naturalists removed rock engravings from local sites to add to European collections. The art, along with other artefacts, and animal and human remains featured as curiosities in museums around the world. From the 1920s to the 1960s many painted and engraved panels were removed to museum collections, as it was believed that this was the best way to protect them. These engraved boulders were collected from various localities around South Africa including the Magaliesberg, North West Province, the Joe Gqabi municipal district of the Eastern Cape, Krugersdorp District, Rustenberg district. Most of these pieces were housed in Museum Africa, from where they were moved to Wits University, and placed under the curatorship of the Rock Art Research Institute in 2005. In the 1960s Dr Friede and Prof. Mason under the auspices of the South African Archaeological Society assembled a major collection of rock engravings that had been removed from their original location at sites in the Magaliesberg, and around the Klerksdorp and Schweizer-Reneke region of the North West Province. The engravings were arranged for exhibition to the public in a special enclosure in the Johannesburg Zoological Gardens (now the Johannesburg Zoo). This was officially opened on 5th September 1970 as the Museum of South African Rock Art. However, the exhibit, curated by Africana Museum (now Museum Africa), was difficult to maintain and staff grew increasingly uncomfortable about the social implications of displaying indigenous art in a zoo. In the early 1990s the rock engraving exhibit was closed, and the smaller pieces were taken to Museum Africa, because the museum’s floors were unable to support the heavier boulders, 36 were left displayed at the Zoo. Over time the rock engravings exposed at the Zoo became weathered and covered in moss and lichen. Anxiety over their neglect led, in May 2000, to their removal to Wits University under the curation of the the Rock Art Research Institute and with funding from the Department of Arts and Culture. Between 2000 and 2004 a team of conservators worked on cleaning, conserving and restoring these engravings. Today, every effort is made to conserve rock engravings in their original context. However, engravings are salvaged when mining and other developments place them under threat.

The majority of the engravings are on dolerite rocks. Just a few are on blue wonderstone. Various techniques have been used to engrave the images. These include pecking and fine-line engraving using a sharp object (such as a harder rock). The sound that some rocks made when struck would have added to the auditory experience, and a mark would have been left each time the rock was struck. Marks from the sharpening of tools and weapons against the hard surfaces also add a layer of meaning to the rocks.

We now have a better appreciation for how the engravings interacted with their landscapes; for example, how the experience of the art changes with the light, wind, rain, sounds and also the social perspective of the viewer. Some of the engravings can only be seen with carefully positioned lighting, as would have been the case in their natural landscape - at certain times of day the engravings would have 'magically' appeared.

With the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), Origins Centre aims to facilitate the collection and organising of information and interpretations of about these displaced pieces of art and the people who created them.

These national treasures are now a permanent component of the Origins experience.

RE_2005_134_38 (RE/2005/134)


Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more


Google apps