Landscapes of Rock Art

“Placed within a landscape setting, rock-art becomes a more complex and expressive visual language” (Chippindale and Nash, 2004:23)

Apart from the quantity and diversity of rock art images in this collection, one of the most notable features is the landscapes within which they occur: vast undulating deserts; mountainous regions carved out by the wind and rain; verdant wooded environments; and lacustrine and coastal backdrops, are all testament to the diverse contexts in which rock art has been placed across the African continent.

Indeed, the defining characteristic of rock art beyond its association with rock surfaces, is its placement within the geographical landscape. Landscapes can be social, cultural, economic, political, ritual, or sacred – but more than anything the geology of the landscape has to be favourable in order for rock art to be placed within it in the first place.

In archaeology, context is everything, and we may assume that the positioning of images in the landscape is equally important. But what exactly is the relationship between rock art and the landscape? Any connection between the placement of images and the environment, if indeed there is a correlation to be made, varies depending on cultural group, belief systems, economic and social structures, geology, topography and climate. While we cannot make any overarching theories, as Chippindale and Nash observe, “All rock art was initially created or caused to be created by someone, for someone; its landscape position would have been important” (2004:21)

However, a major concern for archaeologists is the concept of “landscape” itself. The conception or notion of “landscape” is genenerally a cultural construct - how people perceive a landscape is certainly not a universal perception and this potentially influences and problematizes our understanding of how cultural groups in the past conceived of their environments. For example, Western cultures often focus on large-scale topographical features in the landscape, whereas often indigenous group, such as !Kung San who inhabit the Kalahari, their frame of reference is more nuanced, such as “where a certain veld food may grow, even if that place is only a few yards in diameter, or where there is only a patch of tall arrow grass or a bee tree…” (Smith and Blundell, 2004:248). Archaeologists tend to concentrate on prominent features of the landscape, but indigenous groups may be more concerned with the minutiae of the environment, pebbles, holes, flora and features less likely to survive in the archaeological record.

Our perceptions of landscapes also differ. For example, the Sahara may appear to Western eyes as flat, featureless, austere and demanding, but for those who live in the desert it can be filled with meaningful reference points and relationships. It has been noted that in the Sahara the “Tuareg rely heavily on the most prevalent of global navigation methods: landmark recognition. They have learned to read what appear to the foreigner as featureless plains in the same way that we come to recognize our own home environments, albeit swapping shifts in relief, rock and sand colour for road signs etc…” (Gooley, 2010). This makes a landscape approach challenging because it will always be from the perspective of what we perceive.

This idea that the landscape is not a passive backdrop but an experiential one took hold in archaeology in the early 1990s with an interest in the Phenomenology of Landscape (Tilley,1994). The basic premise of this philosophical approach is how humans’ experience ‘being’ in their worlds, whereby the idea of landscape comprises sets of relational places linked by pathways, movements and narratives. Tilley proposed that phenomenology provides a useful tool to think about how people in the past interacted sensorially with the landscape in which they lived.

So how might we see the importance of landscape, or perhaps not, in the rock art of Africa? It is interesting to note that out of the hundreds of thousands of rock art images across the Continent, not a single depiction from this Collection is an unambiguous representation of a landscape as we understand it in a Western sense. There are tableaux which may include trees, shrubs, huts or features in the landscape such as bees’ nests, but there is nothing that represents a landscape scene in the modern artistic sense. And yet, we might assume that features in the landscape would have been important. For example, particular rock formations might have acted as way markers and permanent or seasonal rivers and springs would have been important places utilised by pastoralists and traders.

The following rock art studies demonstrate both the advantages of a landscape approach in thinking about the placement of images and the creation of special places, but also the role of cultural subjectivity in understanding the importance of landscape.

A study of the Brandberg Mountain in Namibia has shown the decision making processes involved in the placement of rock art images. The Brandberg is Nambia’s highest mountain and is located in the north-western Namib Desert. Although rainfall is low in the region, the granite composition of the massif means that water can be stored in “pans, crevices and pot holes from one rainy season to another”, making this an advantageous resource in an arid landscape (Lenssen-Erz, 2004:132).

There are approximately 1000 rock art sites in the Brandberg, made by San|Bushmen, and human occupation dates back at least 6000 years through to the 20th century. Depictions predominantly comprise human figures closely followed by large game animals, and the number of paintings at a site ranges widely from just one to more than 1000 images (Lenssen-Erz, 2004:138). San|Bushmen used the mountain for economic and subsistence purposes such as food, water, shelter and raw material. The landscape was categorised based on certain characteristics,although each site could have served more than one purpose. For example, sites that were associated with conspicuous landmarks in the landscape; short or long-term living sites; aggregation sites; and casual or deliberate ritual sites. The majority of sites are casual ritual sites with long-term living and aggregation sites quite rare (Lenssen-Erz, 2004:147). For the most part San|Bushmen visited infrequently, in small groups and for short term durations, and the placement of rock art sites seem to be at these locations. Although the choice of place may have been initially motivated by practical concerns, once at a spot, the place was often used for ritual activities. It has been proposed that ritual activity “increases in frequency if a group is facing more than ordinary problems” (Lenssen-Erz, 2004:148), and although the San|Bushmen went to the Brandberg because of an advantageous ecosystem, they often seem to have been in a state of crisis, for example in times of drought (Lenssen-Erz, 2004:148). The strategies chosen to mitigate such crises, was the recurring performance of rituals, including the creation of rock art, to cope with the critical environmental circumstances, thus maintaining some semblance of social stability.

In an insightful study in South Africa, Smith and Blundell (2004) attempted to interpret northern South African rock art from a landscape approach to identify its relevance in this context. Southern African rock art has benefitted from many years of intensive and systematic research as well as valuable ethnographic and ethnohistorical records. As such, the meaning of rock art in this region is well understood in comparison to other parts of the continent and as a result makes a useful test case.

The study area focused on the northern province of South Africa, where three types of rock art traditions are found. The oldest, that of the San|Bushmen is characterised by fine brushwork of humans and animals, typically in red pigment (Smith and Blundell, 2004:254). Concurrent with the San tradition are finger painted geometric designs, although the authorship is unknown. Finally, superimposing these are a variety of images, that include quadrupeds, spread-eagled designs, people, locomotives, wagons and guns that stylistically are attributable to Bantu-speaking farmer peoples who inhabited parts of eastern, central and southern Africa (Smith and Blundell, 2004:255). Of the more than 300 sites in the study area, there appeared to be no clear pattern between the placement of San|Bushmen rock art or geometric art and features in the landscape (Smith and Blundell, 2004:255). In fact, San|Bushmen rock art relates to “the power and experiences of San religious specialists with the other world – the realm of god, the spirits and mythical creatures … (and) it is argued that paintings sites were places of negotiation” (Smith and Blundell, 2004:256). The power of place for San|Bushmen was mediated through the physical rock face upon which the images were inscribed, which acted as a veil between the physical world and the spiritual world. As such, landscape is conceptual for San|Bushmen and in the absence of the ethnographic records explaining this phenomenon, a landscape approach provides no insightful observations in this context (Smith and Blundell, 2004:256).

In contrast, farmer art is more closely tied to the landscape. It is confined to hilly areas only, with a significant number located in shaded valleys near perennial water sources, which from a pastoralist perspective would make sense (Smith and Blundell, 2004:257). The composition of the images, the vivid white imagery and the seemingly aggressive subject matter might suggest that the art demonstrated territories, warning away other herding groups with evidence of conflict between groups. However, ethnography indicates that farmer art in this region actually is inextricably linked with boys’ initiation ceremonies. The sites are close to water so that boys can bathe after circumcision. Sheep and cows are painted not because people herded them but for important instructional educational purposes. And what may be perceived as images of aggression actually reflect the upheavals of the 19th century Ddebel and Swazi raiders (Smith and Blundell, 2004:258).

As Smith and Blundell have shown, a landscape approach to rock art in northern South Africa would have been “embarrassingly far off the mark” (2004:258) without being able to draw on ethnographic and ethnohistorical information. This does not negate the validity of a landscape approach as a legitimate and rational method of analysis, what is of concern for Smith and Blundell is “those arguments that treat landscape as an unproblematic given” (2004:259).

The physical nature of rock art, its immovability, means that it is fixed in a landscape. Those landscapes can be expansive or confined; they can be conspicuously visually arresting and subtly nuanced. The rationale behind the siting of rock art are varied, but ultimately these are “pictures in place” (Chippindale and Nash, 2004:1) and the importance of place is socially and culturally constructed.


Lenssen-Erz, T. 2004. ‘The landscape setting of rock-painting sites in the Brandberg (Namibia): infrastructure, Gestaltung, use and meaning’, in Christopher Chippindale and George Nash (eds), The Figured Landscapes of Rock Art: Looking at Pictures in Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chippindale, C. and Nash, G. (Eds) (2004) The Figured Landscapes of Rock-Art: Looking at pictures in place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gooley, Tristan. 2010. ‘Natural Navigation with the Tuareg in the Libyan Sahara’, in Navigation News, March 2010.

Smith, B. and Blundell, G. 2004. ‘Dangerous ground: a critique of landscape in rock art-studies’, in Christopher Chippindale and George Nash (eds), The Figured Landscapes of Rock Art: Looking at Pictures in Place. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilley, C. 1994. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments. Oxford: Berg.