Deanna White

Unidentified San artist, Rock Art of Men Dancing, prehistoric period. Paint on rock. San people, South Africa.

Figure 1. Reproduction of Unidentified San artist, Rock Art of Men Dancing, Date unknown (Prehistoric period), Paint on rock, San People, South Africa.

Art history and archaeology both deal with the interpretation of the material past. Archaeology has traditionally been identified with the study of prehistory and ancient cultures. However, with the growth of industrial archaeology, the more recent past has also been an area of study. In fact, the entire range of human history is archaeology’s purview. 1

Archaeologists excavate sites around the world to locate objects on which they perform physical analyses, to date and identify material composition. The principal techniques used to date objects are: dendrochronology, radiocarbon, statistics, and stratigraphy.2 Dendrochronology involves dating wooden artifacts by using the characteristic patterns of annual growth rings in timber and tree trunks. Radiocarbon dating determines the age of organic materials by measuring their content of the radioisotope 14C, which begins to decay after the death of the organism. Statistics require archaeologists to make inferences about the characteristics of a group of objects on the basis of numerical information (i.e., comparing measurements or patterns of artifacts found at different dig sites in the same area).3 Archaeological stratigraphy derives from the geological principle that sedimentation takes place chronologically. Ancient artifacts are typically found below the surface; the age of the surrounding stratum allows archaeologists to draw conclusions about the context of the object. Many objects lack identifying information, such as text or symbolic motifs, forcing archaeologists to collect data, conduct experiments, and formulate hypotheses in order to draw conclusions about the relevant time and culture associated with each object.4

In addition to dating, archaeology has made significant contributions to our understanding of the cultural traditions of various indigenous peoples. For example, researchers from the Rock Art Research Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg have investigated rock art across southern Africa. Rock art constitutes southern Africa’s most widely known and most abundant archaeological evidence.5  San rock art is the best known of these traditions. J.D. Lewis-Williams writes that early perceptions of the San were negatively shaped by the “ignoble savage” stereotype, based on a perception of their art as crude and obscene.6 Scholars at RARI have used the institute’s resources to present a counter-image that emphasizes the complexity, subtlety, and intellectual content of San rock art.7

Rock Art of Men Dancing  is a reproduction of a rock art painting found in a cave located within Drakensberg Park in South Africa [See Figure 1]. The original painting, or pictograph, dates to the prehistoric period, around 3,000 years ago. The scene shows the central religious rite of the San, the trance dance.8 On the left, abstract figures of men and women are depicted with raised hands. On the right, a juggler stands alongside a seated individual who appears to be clapping while a nearby group of women are depicted with raised hands in an exhibition of ritualistic behavior. Bending forward at the waist is a common dance posture frequently depicted in these types of paintings and can be seen in the more central figures.9 The dance can take several forms: often women will sit or stand around a fire and clap while shamans dance in the center.10 As the trance dance increases in intensity, the women’s clapping and singing combine with the men’s persistent dancing to create more spiritual energy for the shaman to enter into a trance.11 In the center, musicians are seated on the ground, while figures using stilts continue to dance around the floating shaman entering the spirit world. Among the San, shamans are believed to perform important tasks such as healing the sick, influencing the weather, visiting far-off places, and controlling the movements of herds.12

Archaeologist are able to date pictographs, which are painted onto the surface of the rock, using radiocarbon dating of the organic materials in the pigments. The majority of pigments used by San rock artists come from minerals: red, brown, and yellow pigments are made from various ochres; white is derived from silica, china clay, and gypsum while black comes from specularite or other manganese minerals and only very rarely from charcoal.13 Once powdered, minerals were bound with organic materials such as blood and egg albumen to form paint.14

Archaeology has significantly contributed to understanding the origins of image making in Africa. It has promoted cultural understanding of San people and other indigenous groups. The work of archaeologists have helped to create a more comprehensive timeline of human activity.


  1. Eric Fernie, Art History and Its Methods (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995), 324.
  2. Fernie, 325.
  3. Barbara A. Kipfer, “Statistics,” Archaeology Wordsmith. Accessed April 27, 2015.
  4. R. J. Brickstock, “Archaeology,” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.
  5. J. D Lewis-Williams, “Image and Counter-Image: The Work of the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), University of the Witwatersrand,” African Arts 29: 4 (1996): 39.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, 40.
  8. “San Rock Art of Southern Africa,” The University of Witwatersrand University
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Trance Dance,” South African Rock Art Digital Archive,
  11. Ibid.
  12. Rock Art of Southern Africa,” The University of Witwatersrand University,
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.