Origins Centre Rock Engraving Archive

The Rock Engraving Archive opened to the public at Origins Centre in 2019. Origins Centre museum with the Rock Art Research Institute has the honour of protecting, conserving and displaying these national treasures.

Origins Centre

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

The Collection

In the 1900s these engraved boulders were collected from various localities around South Africa including Gauteng, North West Province, Eastern Cape and Limpopo. In the 1970s, the engravings were arranged for an outdoor exhibition at the Johannesburg Zoo. Over time the rock engravings became weathered and covered in moss and lichen. In 2000, they were removed to storage at Wits University under the curation of the Rock Art Research Institute for safe keeping. In 2019, they were finally put on public display at Origins Centre.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

The engravings were made by the San and Khoe, the first peoples to inhabit southern Africa. Many of the engraved depictions are realistic animal forms, unlike much of the San painted rock art. The engraving in the foreground depicts a giraffe.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

The majority of the engravings are on dolerite and sandstone boulders, and a few on the softer, blue wonderstone. Various techniques have been used to engrave the images, including pecking and fine-line engraving using a sharp object. The engraving in the foreground depicts a wildebeest.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

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, which was presumably the intention of the engraver, and added to the impact of the image.

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving of an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Pecked animal forms

Many engravings were made using a pecking technique. This involves knocking an implement or stone against a boulder to remove small pieces of rock to create the image.

Pecked rock engraving of an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Engraved (pecked) juvenile elandThis eland is only 17 cm in height, yet the folds and details of the skin of the eland are perfectly depicted.

Pecked rock engraving of a rhinoceros (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Rhinocerous were sometimes engraved near the rocks they used to rub against. Engraved perhaps an act of brokering relations with the beasts that were associated with these places.

Rhinoceros rubbing-stone (1900) by RhinocerosOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

This boulder forms part of the collection, but the smoothing was not produced through human activity, but from rhinoceros' rubbing against the stone to ease an itch. These rocks are used again and again by many rhinos.

Pecked rock engraving depicting an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

The eland is the largest of all the antelope and the one which all San groups agree has the most supernatural potency. This potency was summoned at the healing dances through song and rhythm.

Stylized re-drawing of eland head rock engraving (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Fine-line animal forms

Fine-line engravings are made with a sharp object which is used to score lines to create an image

Fine-line rock engraving depicting the head of an eland (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

The rock on which these engravings are made is incredibly hard, yet the artists were still able to perfectly and skillfully depict animals' forms.

The head of an eland is depicted here, showing the distinctive dewlap at the base of its neck.

Fine-line rock engraving depicting a rhinoceros (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Rhinoceros

Fine-line engravings are often made with continuous and often flawless strokes.

Fine-line rock engraving depicting a elephant (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Fine-line engraved elephant

Stylized re-drawing of geometric pecked rock engraving (2019) by KhoiSanOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Geometric designs

Geometric engravings are difficult to ascribe authorship to. Scholars largely agree that geometrics pertain to personal markings used in girls’ initiation ceremonies in both Khoe and San societies. 

Geometric pecked rock engraving (2019) by KhoiSanOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Engraved (pecked) geometric designThe symbolism and meaning of many geometric designs, such as in this example, are still unclear.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

The Origins Centre Rock Engraving Archive with the Rock Art Research Institute aims to gain new information and understandings about these rock engravings and the people that engraved them.

Geometric pecked rock engraving (2019) by Khoe (Khoi) herdersOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Engraved (pecked) geometric sun-like design.These geometrics are thought to represent (Khoe and San) girls’ personal designs on their skin aprons at coming-of-age initiation ceremonies.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

These engravings cannot be dated. Given the known movements of people in and around Southern Africa, some are likely more than 2000 years old, perhaps even many thousand years older.

The Rock Engraving Archive (2019) by San and Khoe (Khoi)Original Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

In the early 1900s, engravings were removed from the landscape and placed in museums in South Africa for protection, study and display. Today, every effort is made to conserve rock engravings and painted rock art in their original context. However, rock art is salvaged when mining and other developments place them under threat. Origins Centre is honoured to curate, protect and display these beautiful and powerful national treasures.

Stylized re-drawing of pecked rock engraving depicting a zebra (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

Bring the engraved animals to life in augmented reality!

The Origins Centre has an Augmented Reality (AR) App that's bringing the museum to life! Get a sneak peek into this fun experience from home, by downloading the OriginsCentreAR app for free (available on IOS and Android). Choose 'Engravings', scan these orange re-drawings, and watch the animals appear on your screen

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe peoples of Southern Africa
National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences
Rock Art Research Institute, Wits University
Amanda Esterhuysen
Steven Sack
Tracings: Brent Sinclair-Thomson and Ghilraen Laue
Architects: 24/7 (Nabeel Essa, Yoliswa Dlamini, Natasha Laurent)
Vanguard Movers
Museum Curators and Collections Managers: Tammy Hodgskiss, Lara Mallen, Catherine Namono
Online exhibition curator: Tammy Hodgskiss

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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