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British Museum acquires Trust for African Rock Art collection with support from the Arcadia Fund
Subject: Engraving of two cat-like creatures sparring in Libya's Messak Sattafet (Fezzan). c. 7000 BC.

LONDON.- The British Museum has acquired a digital copy of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) photographic archive to ensure that this important collection is preserved and made widely available, thanks to generous support from the Arcadia Fund. The 25,000 digital photographs of rock art sites from across Africa will be catalogued and made accessible through the British Museum’s online collection catalogue, drawing on documentation from TARA staff and archaeological and anthropological research. The Museum will digitise its own African pictorial collection of 19th and 20th century photographs alongside the TARA images to support the integration of this archive.

The Museum’s African pictorial collection contains nearly 15,000 photographs that range from negatives, gel photos, glass plates, prints, and most recently, digital photographs. These are used for research, exhibitions, training, community outreach, museum partnership programmes and publications. Pictures in this collection are from throughout the African continent and embody the early stages of the medium up to the present day. Subjects include daily life, art, portraiture, official government photographs, natural landscapes and pictures from pre-colonial, colonial and independent Africa. The collection also holds film, video and audio recordings from various time periods and regions.

The TARA collection will be presented through the British Museum’s Collection Online and will form one of the most complete searchable databases on African rock art worldwide. Africa’s rock painting tradition is believed to date back at least 50,000 years while abstract engravings in the Cape, South Africa have been dated to 77,000 years of age.

Today only a handful of isolated cultures still engage in rock art and a few sites are still used for rituals, such as fertility and rainmaking, showing that it is still a living form of expression. TARA’s work over the last 30 years has created one of the best and most extensive photographic surveys of African rock art. Highlights from this collection include images of sites across the Fezzan of Southwest Libya, with dates ranging from 10,000 BC to 100 AD. These include sites in the Messak Sattafet as well as in the Acacus Mountains, (part of the Tadrart-Acacus trans-frontier UNESCO World Heritage site) and depict a wide range of subjects, such as hippopotami, men in chariots and hunting scenes. There is a survey of South African sites showing the different styles and subject matters of the Khoi, San and other groups from thousands of years ago to the recent past day. The collection also includes engravings and graffiti by European settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In east Africa, the TARA archive contains geometric paintings and engravings by Twa forager-hunters as well as paintings of livestock, shields and clan markings made by Maasai and Samburu pastoralists in rock shelters. In addition to these depictions there are images of rock gongs, rocks with natural resonance once used for communication and divination.

As rock art can be susceptible to destruction by natural and man-made events, and, in most cases, is fairly inaccessible geographically, this project will allow a greater access to rock art images and research for both academic and general audiences. By integrating these images with existing African collections, the British Museum is able to offer new insights into the techniques and tools used, the subjects represented and the people that made them.

The project will take five years and involve research by Museum staff and on-going collaboration with TARA, as well as involving African communities. Through the incorporation of this collection into the British Museum’s online database, people across the world will be able to both use and contribute to the archive and its documentation. Partnership between TARA and the Museum will help preserve and disseminate this important collection and establish it as a major academic resource. By combining a wide range of research from the Museum, TARA’s international network and colleagues in Africa, the archive will capture and preserve knowledge about rock art for future generations.

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