© 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]

Blue Water Ventures International
Gold Artifacts Discovered in 19th-Century Shipwreck That Was the ‘Titanic of Its Time’
Blue Water Ventures International
Blue Water Ventures International

On June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski was sailing off the coast of North Carolina, headed for Baltimore, when one of its boilers exploded, killing numerous passengers and causing colossal damage to the ship. It sank in less than an hour, taking two-thirds of its passengers with it. In January 2018, divers finally found the wreckage, and their latest expedition has brought back numerous new treasures, according to The Charlotte Observer, including a gold pocket watch that stopped just a few minutes after the boiler reportedly blew up.

The Pulaski disaster, which the Observer refers to as “the Titanic of its time,” was notable not just for its high death toll, but for whom it was carrying when it went down. The luxury steamship’s wealthy passengers included former New York Congressman William Rochester and prominent Savannah banker and businessman Gazaway Bugg Lamar, then one of the richest men in the region. At the time, the North Carolina Standard called the sinking “the most painful catastrophe that has ever occurred upon the American coast.”

An engraving showing the 'Pulaski' exploding
An 1848 illustration of the Pulaski explosion
Charles Ellms, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Divers from Blue Water Ventures International and Endurance Exploration Group (which owns the rights to the site) have located a number of artifacts that support the belief that the wreck they found is, in fact, what’s left of the Pulaski.

While they have yet to find the engraved ship’s bell (the main object used to authenticate a wreck), divers identified a few artifacts engraved with the name Pulaski, as well as numerous coins that were all produced prior to 1838. The 150 gold and silver coins discovered thus far are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today. They’ve also discovered silverware, keys, thimbles, and the ship's anchor.

A close-up of the gold pocket watch
Blue Water Ventures International

And in their most recent expedition, the divers found a unique gold watch that further supports the claim that this ship is the Pulaski. The hands of the engraved solid gold pocket watch on a gold chain—a piece only the wealthiest of men could afford—are stopped at 11:05, just five minutes after the boiler reportedly exploded.

The excavation of the remains of the ship will hopefully illuminate more of its story. Already, it has changed what we know about the ship’s final night: The wreck was discovered 40 miles off the North Carolina coast, a bit farther than the 30 miles estimated in initial newspaper reports of the disaster.

The investigators hope to eventually find evidence that will allow them to pinpoint why the deadly explosion occurred. While such explosions weren’t rare for steamships at the time, the crew may have pushed the ship beyond its limits in an attempt to reach its destination faster, causing the boiler to burst. Expeditions to the wreckage are ongoing.

[h/t The Charlotte Observer]

Evening Standard, Getty Images
$2.5 Million in World War II-Era Cash Discovered Beneath Winston Churchill's Former Tailor's Shop
Evening Standard, Getty Images
Evening Standard, Getty Images

A valuable secret has been hiding beneath the floorboards of a sporting goods store in the UK since World War II. As the BBC reports, about £30,000 in roughly 80-year-old British bank notes was unearthed by a renovation project at the Cotswold Outdoor store in Brighton. Adjusting for inflation, their value would be equal to roughly $2.5 million today.

Owner Russ Davis came across the hidden treasure while tearing out decades-worth of carpet and tiles beneath the property. What he initially assumed was a block of wood turned out to be a wad of cash caked in dirt. Each bundle held about £1000 worth of £1 and £5 notes, with about 30 bundles in total.

The bills are badly damaged, but one surviving design element holds an important clue to their history. Each note is printed in blue, the color of the emergency wartime currency first issued by the Bank of England in 1940.

At the time the money was buried, the property was home to the famous British furrier and couturier Bradley Gowns. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Lady Clementine Churchill, were reportedly regular customers.

The reason the fortune was stowed beneath the building in the first place remains a mystery. Davis imagines that it might have come from a bank robbery, while Howard Bradley, heir to the Bradley Gowns family business, suspects it might have been stashed there as a getaway fund in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, as he told the New York Post.

The hoard will remain in the possession of the Sussex police as more details on the story emerge.

[h/t BBC]


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