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© TARA/David Coulson
© TARA/David Coulson

Explore 30,000 Years of African Rock Art

© TARA/David Coulson
© TARA/David Coulson

Many people associate rock art with Lascaux and other sites in Europe. But Africa has a rich tradition of rock art depicting 30,000 years of life on the continent that gave birth to the human race. Much of this treasure trove is now online.

The African Rock Art Image Project comes from the British Museum, where for the past two years a curatorial team has been cataloging and digitizing some 25,000 photographs of rock art from across Africa, originally assembled by the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA). More than 10,000 images from northern African countries are online already, and another 15,000 images from the western, central, and southern regions will eventually join them.

The paintings and engravings were created by a wide variety of cultures from different eras. Here are a few of our favorites—and their stories.

In this intimate scene dating back perhaps 6,000 years, one person washes another's hair, and between them is a vessel possibly containing a hair conditioner of rancid butter. It's a detail from a larger painting located in the Uan Amil rock shelter in southwestern Libya that some say depicts the preparations for a wedding. Uan Amil was occupied mainly between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. One researcher has suggested that based on the hairstyles, today’s Wodaabe nomads of Niger resemble the people shown here. As the British Museum notes:

Among numerous social groups throughout Africa, hairstyling and hairdressing hold great cultural and aesthetic significance. Coiffures have been regarded as indicative of ethnic origin, gender and stages of life development—as well as simply fashion—and have been related to power, age, religion and politics.

This pecked engraving rock of female camel carrying a load, accompanied by three calves, was discovered in the Tassili n’Ajjer ("plateau of chasms") region of southwest Algeria. Camels were domesticated in Africa in the early first millennium CE. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tassili n’Ajjer has more than 15,000 rock paintings and engravings dating back as far as 12,000 years ago. Some are 13 feet tall—the largest found in Africa.

People pressed their painted hands against this rock shelter wall sometime between 2000 BCE and 200 BCE in a desert region of Mauritania known as Guilemsi. The art in the region is unusually varied, with distorted humans, naturalistic cows, and abstract geometric patterns all sharing wall space. (These hand prints are unusual too.) Did different groups of people with unique artistic traditions decorate the caves at the same time, or does the diversity represent different time periods? Archaeologists aren't sure.

This lavishly decked-out warrior and horse were discovered in Niger's Aïr Mountains, a desert region in the north, and date from 1500 to 3000 years ago. Art from the so-called Libya Warrior era often shows chariots, charioteers, horses, and figures like this one, who has an ornate, three-plumed headdress, highly decorated clothing, three spears, and a shield. Some 1000 engravings of warriors have been recorded in this region of Niger and in neighboring Mali. Horses were first introduced to Africa via Egypt around 1600 BCE.

The life-size engraved figures found at the Niola Doa rock shelter in northeastern Chad are both vibrantly patterned and highly formal; figures posed and adorned in this manner have been found at a half-dozen sites in the region. Together, the thousands of painted and engraved images found in the mountainous Ennedi Plateau are one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara, with a fantastic variety of styles and themes. They could be up to 7000 years old. Are the figures here wearing clothes (note the belt of birds around the waist of the left figure) or body paint, or are they sporting scarification? Are they girls? It isn't clear, but today, Niola Doa means "the place of the girls" in the local language.

All images © TARA/David Coulson

[h/t Archaeology]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
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This Just In
Flights Grounded After World War II Bomb Discovered Near London City Airport
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

London City Airport grounded all flights on the night of February 11, after a World War II bomb was found in the neighboring River Thames, The Guardian reports.

The half-ton bomb was revealed Sunday morning by development work taking place at the King George V Dock. Following its discovery, police set up a 702-foot exclusion zone around the area, closing local roads and shutting down the London City Airport until further notice. According to the BBC, 261 trips were scheduled to fly in and out of London City Airport on Monday. Some flights are being rerouted to nearby airports, while others have been canceled altogether.

The airport will reopen as soon as the explosive device has been safely removed. For that to happen, the Met police must first wait for the river's tide to recede. Then, once the bomb is exposed, they can dislodge it from the riverbed and tow it to a controlled explosion site.

The docks of London’s East End were some of the most heavily bombed points in the city during World War II. Germany’s Blitz lasted 76 nights, and as the latest unexpected discovery shows, bombs that never detonated are still being cleaned up from parks and rivers more than 75 years later.

[h/t The Guardian]

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