Preservation through digitisation: Putting Africa’s rock art online

Hidden away amidst the whirring of large-format digital scanners, a small team continues its work to digitally preserve Africa’s rock art heritage.

The  South African Rock Art Digital Archive (SARADA) is based at the Rock Art Research Institute at Wits University and has been involved in the digital preservation of this ancient art form for the past 12 years.

Led by Azizo Da  Fonseca, the team has managed to develop a database of over 280,000 records spanning 7,000 rock art sites. In effect, it is the largest rock art digital archive in the world. Desp[ite this monumental achievement, Da  Fonseca believes there is a lot of work ahead of the team as South Africa alone has about 15,000 known rock art sites.

His team have so far digitised collections owned by the Rock Art Research Institute, Iziko Museums of Cape Town, Natal Museum, National Museum (Bloemfontein), University of Cape Town (UCT), and the University of South Africa (UNISA) among others.

Database consists of 20 TB of data so far

The original ‘documents’ comes in various formats including 35mm slides, photos, redrawings and tracings. Digital images are also stored on the database to make them accessible to other researchers.

“We store the images as TIFF files which range from 40mb to 1.6GB depending on the size of the art and the format we receive it in,” says Da Fonseca. “We have 20TB of storage and a mirrored replica for redundancy.”

After receiving a R7-million grant from the National Lottery, SARADA is focusing on expanding its collections. The project has an international outlook and is currently negotiating with museums abroad which have African rock art collections.

Da Fonseca believes the collections can be used by researchers as a starting point in their research.“This is an African project for the people of the world,” he says.

The full database is available online at



Google your heritage

Google has partnered with the Rock Art Research Institute at Wits (RARI) to showcase some of South Africa’s rock art heritage to the world.

The partnership is part of Google’s Art Project, which features art from famous galleries and museums from over 40 countries. The art featured also includes the South African National Gallery (SANG) in Cape Town.

RARI director Professor Benjamin Smith said it was important for South Africa to play a leading role in this international initiative.

“We explained to them and convinced them that this online art gallery would not be complete without the inclusion of South Africa, the place where art began.”

Azizo Da Fonseca, director of the Ringing Rocks Digitizing Laboratory and the African Rock Art, said Southern African rock art provides an insight into the San’s rituals and beliefs. He said  the San made most of Southern African rock art.

Smith said South Africa had the oldest piece of art, dating back 17 000 years, and the longest continuing art tradition in the world. “South Africa truly has some of the finest rock art in the world and, by highlighting these sites online, we’re encouraging people to go and actually visit the real thing.”

Da Fonseca said rock art proves the existence of the descendants of Sub-Saharan Africa’s first inhabitants. “Its relevance is further emphasized in its inclusion in the South African coat of arms.”

The art featured is taken from sites that are run by communities and open to the public.

View it at


A woman's back is painted with rock art of snakes and horses at the removal site in Mount Currie, KwaZulu-Natal. CREDIT: Reproduced with permission. From the archive of the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.


Published in Vuvuzela 11th edition, 20th April 2012

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