African Archaeological Review

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 299–319 | Cite as

A (Digital) Future for Saharan Rock Art?

  • Savino di Lernia
Original Article


First visited by westerners in the mid-nineteenth century, Saharan rock art has since received a great deal of attention. The richness and diversity of this region is recognised by the inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list of three properties: Tassili-n-Ajjer in Algeria, Tadrart Acacus in Libya, and Ennedi in Chad. The situation in many North African countries now makes this vast region very difficult to access: safety in the field is not guaranteed and few research funds are available. Today, a new generation of African and foreign scientists has no access to rock art sites in the north of the continent and the lack of fieldwork may entail a lack of safeguard and awareness. The growth of digital technologies over the last 15 years has revolutionised methods for recording rock art sites. Digital technologies are also used to mitigate the gap between artworks and accessibility in those countries where turmoil and social instability make fieldwork impossible. However, much of the documentation and most digital recordings of artworks currently available on the Internet lack an archaeological context. Equally, many of these websites barely mention methodological and theoretical aspects. It is also difficult to understand the extent of awareness among local communities in remote areas—sometimes suffering a digital and linguistic divide—and if (and how) they are genuinely able to exploit these digital resources. Here, I collate some examples from different parts of the Sahara illustrating that the recording, management and dissemination of rock art still present highs and lows. I argue that we should share theories and methods within the digital scientific community, with a view to adopting a shared nomenclature and a public thesaurus, making our cataloguing criteria explicit and, finally, developing an ethical code of conduct involving local communities.


Rock art Accessibility Conflict Digital divide Archaeology Context Sahara UNESCO WH list 


L’art rupestre saharien, visité pour la première fois par les occidentaux au milieu du XIXe siècle, a reçu beaucoup d’attention depuis lors. La richesse et la diversité de cette région sont reconnues par l’inscription sur la Liste du patrimoine mondial de l’UNESCO de trois biens: Tassili-n-Ajjer en Algérie, Tadrart Acacus en Libye et Ennedi au Tchad. La situation dans de nombreux pays d’Afrique du Nord rend cette vaste région très difficile d’accès: la sécurité sur le terrain n’est pas garantie et peu de fonds de recherche sont disponibles. Aujourd’hui, une nouvelle génération de chercheurs africains et étrangers n’a pas accès aux sites d’art rupestre dans le nord du continent et le manque de travail sur le terrain peut entraîner un absence de sauvegarde et de sensibilisation. La croissance des technologies numériques au cours des 15 dernières années a révolutionné les méthodes d’enregistrement des sites d’art rupestre. Les technologies numériques sont également utilisées pour combler le fossé entre les œuvres d’art et l’accessibilité dans les pays où les bouleversements et l’instabilité sociale rendent le travail de terrain impossible. Cependant, une grande partie de la documentation et la plupart des enregistrements numériques d’œuvres d’art actuellement disponibles sur Internet ne sont pas liés à un contexte archéologique. De même, beaucoup de ces sites internet ne mentionnent guère les aspects méthodologiques et théoriques. Il est également difficile d’évaluer le niveau de sensibilisation des communautés locales dans les zones reculées - qui souffrent parfois d’une fracture numérique et linguistique - et si (et comment) elles sont réellement capables d’exploiter ces ressources numériques. Ici, je rassemble quelques exemples de différentes parties du Sahara illustrant les inégalités des modalités (ou moyens) d’enregistrement, de gestion et de diffusion de l’art rupestre. Je soutiens que nous devrions partager les théories et les méthodes au sein de la communauté scientifique numérique, en vue d’adopter une nomenclature commune et un thésaurus public, de rendre explicites nos critères de catalogage et, enfin, d’élaborer un code de conduite éthique impliquant les communautés locales.



I am grateful to Elizabeth Galvin, Jorge de Torres and Helen Anderson for inviting me to contribute to this Special Issue on “African Rock Art.” I also take the opportunity to thank all the British Museum staff for their help and support during the conference. This paper is a review based on my experience in North Africa and benefited from discussions and exchanges with many colleagues over the years: in particular, I wish to thank Giovanni Boccardi, Nuria Sainz, David Coulson, Dirk Huyge, Karim Sadr, David Pearce, Rudolph Kuper, Heiko Reimer, Axel Van Albada and Marina Gallinaro. I wish to thank two anonymous reviewers, whose comments on a first draft of the manuscript greatly improved the final version. As noted above, all illustrations, unless otherwise specified, are based on the “Archive of the Archaeological Mission in the Sahara, Sapienza University of Rome.” Research in Libya was generously and continuously funded by Sapienza University of Rome (Grandi Scavi di Ateneo) and by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGSP). I thank Emanuele Cancellieri for GIS processing and maps. Any errors are the sole responsibility of the author.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dipartimento di Scienze dell’AntichitàSapienza University of RomeRomeItaly
  2. 2.School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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