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Rock Art Namibia Africa

Rock Art of Twyfelfontein, Namibia, Africa
A Survey into the Relationship between
Animal-Engravings and Cupules

Twyfelfontein Cupules

1.1: Introduction

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Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa

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In and just east of the Namib Desert of Namibia, the oldest desert in the world, some of the most impressive but desolate landscapes of southern Africa may be experienced. At a certain point, some 100km inland, this desert gradually turns into steppe. Among the many impressive "Inselberge" and plateaux dominating that contact zone is a tranquil valley that bisects a large sandstone plateau (Figure 2). Located in this valley is the rock-art site of Twyfelfontein (1 in Figure 1), a really magical place. Its enchanting atmosphere is not only created by the attractive colours of the red and yellow sandstones and its many imposing rock formations, but also and especially by the hundreds of mainly animal engravings that have been pecked into numerous rock surfaces by prehistoric peoples. Often, gigantic boulders are grouped close together, forming inviting labyrinths composed of towering blocks, creating narrow passages, quiet alcoves and stark shadows. And when you go through such a passage, you are often taken by surprise by the sudden spectacle of a large rock panel covered by beautifully engraved animals that almost seem to come to life in the natural, slanting spotlight of the blazing sun. When the sun sets, the colour of many rocks turns to deep red, enhancing the special atmosphere of the place even more, until, slowly, the animals disappear into the darkness. Just possibly the animals came to live again (in another world?) in the flickering light of fires during nocturnal rituals like medicine dances.

Twyfelfontein is also one of the biggest and most important rock-art concentrations in Africa. The site contains several rock-art styles, of which the iconic style is the most ubiquitous. The iconic style depicts tangible things and natural living beings, like animals and their spoor, as can be seen in Figure 11. Less frequently represented at Twyfelfontein is the geometric style, which is characterised by abstract figures like circles, ovals (Figure 5), and all sorts of lines like curving and wandering lines and serpentine grooves. However, at Twyfelfontein we also find a special kind of rock-art, notably cupules.

A cupule is a small hemispherical depression, 5cm in average diameter, which has been pounded or pecked out of the rock. Universally, cupules are found in isolation on rock surfaces, but are also frequently associated with iconic art (see right) and with geometric art (Figure 5), although the association is often obscure. The cupules and other art forms may also have originated independently on the same panel.


The vast array of extraordinary art at Twyfelfontein has an enormous value for the scientific world and must be ensured for the future. But because of its attractive rock-art in a spectacular landscape, Twyfelfontein has also become one of the major tourist attractions of Damaraland and is advertised in almost every travel guide to Namibia. These conflicting interests may cause severe friction at the site itself. Fortunately, the law protects the major concentration of rock-art at Twyfelfontein and custodians are always present to guide tourists around. However, other rock-art sites nearby lack that protection and vandalism, though still scarce fortunately, is increasing. What also came as an unpleasant surprise, is that recently a large lodge for tourists was built right behind a major group of rock-art near Twyfelfontein, forever destroying the site's sacred atmosphere. It is therefore essential that the whole rock-art complex at Twyfelfontein gets legal protection and constant supervision. In general, it is imperative that before any rock-art site is developed for tourism, a comprehensive survey is required, together with a detailed site-management plan that can only work if there is a good understanding of the site and its environments (Ouzman 2001a). To avoid any damage to the rock-art, all Namibian sites that are not officially guarded will only be represented by a number in the text and on the maps, even when it concerns sites in the desert that are very hard to find and to reach.

But also for several other reasons, an up-to-date survey, which should record in detail all art, is urgently needed. First, I was surprised that the only comprehensive survey on Twyfelfontein dates from as long ago as 1975. It was written by Dr. Ernst Rudolph Scherz, who was the first to record most of Namibian rock-art. His unrestrained dedication yielded three invaluable volumes of information on Namibian rock-art (Scherz 1970, 1975, 1986). His lavishly illustrated books are of inestimable value for all researchers visiting Twyfelfontein, and indeed most other Namibian rock-art sites. These books still supply the rock-art scholar with a firm basis, and last but not least, save researchers an enormous lot of time in the actual search for the many rock-art panels in the field that are often hidden in a jumble of boulders, also at Twyfelfontein.

But unfortunately, the survey by Scherz is the only basis available, and after almost thirty years some things inevitably have changed. For instance, recording methods have changed, and although I do not want to minimise Scherz' great efforts to record the rock-art at Twyfelfontein in any way, his recordings show a few deficiencies. However, it must be emphasised here that Twyfelfontein is such a huge and complex site, that it is comprehensible that mistakes or omissions occur (we also missed some panels). Regular revision and updating is therefore essential.

The main problem is that Scherz was rather inconsistent in his numbering, which makes reference rather difficult. I will give some examples. At his site "O" (MK in 1986: 139), "O1" represents one decorated side of an enormous boulder and "O2" is the other decorated side of the same large boulder, But a much smaller decorated boulder facing "O1" remained unnumbered. Contrary, his site "R5" actually consists of two enormous separate blocks, both having more than one decorated panel. Also, the description of his site "B8" includes a footprint and a primitive elephant. The elephant, however, appears to be engraved on an altogether different boulder nearby, which, moreover, remained unnumbered. There are several more instances where numbering has been inconsistent or lacking. Also his bearings, also on his maps, are often inaccurate; for instance, in some cases "east" should read "NE", and the north-arrow on his Fig. 42 (1986: 136) points to the west!

The second reason is the simple fact that in thirty years several destructive agents have attacked the site and its art. Some decorated stones proved to have been partially covered by sand or trees by torrents from the plateau. Such forces also undercut and dislocated some decorated boulders and consequently even broke some. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that my wife and I could not locate some of the decorated boulders we were specifically looking for. Even the helpful guides were unaware of some rock-art reported by Scherz. Also, vandals have tried to remove parts of the rock-art panels or made new engravings, but also added (charcoal) graffiti. All these changes must be recorded.

The third reason is that more rock-art has been discovered since the researches by Scherz, although, it must be said, it is not much that can be added to his meticulous work. During the survey in July 2001, my wife and I noticed some new panels with engravings (at least, engravings that could not be related to any of Scherz' descriptions). These possible new finds will be mentioned in this paper.

As there exists no other comprehensive survey of Twyfelfontein, and certainly not one with a more adequate numbering, I decided for reasons mentioned above to use my own (provisional) numbering for the rock-art panels that I would like to discuss in this paper. My numbering will comprise figures only (e.g. my panel 4.12 is the well-known "Fabeltier"), whereas the numbering by Scherz always will feature a capital letter and a number not separated by a point (e.g. his C1 for the "Fabeltier"). I have sometimes added lower-case letters to Scherz' notation to identify individual carved stones or panels that were not labelled by him (e.g. C6c). Scherz (1986) has numbered the paintings at Twyfelfontein with two capital letters and a number, e.g. MM/1.

I would like to emphasise here again that most (statistical) information on Namibian rock-art in this survey is based upon the three invaluable works by Scherz. But still an overall survey that records and accurately labels each site, stone and panel at Twyfelfontein is urgently needed. In such a survey the cupules should not be neglected. Although Scherz recorded most of the cupule rocks, he missed some interesting examples. This part describes (or mentions) all the (possible) cupule rocks at Twyfelfontein, despite the fact that several cupule panels (and possibly some more, yet undiscovered panels) could not be located by us.

Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa

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Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa

Rock Art of Twyfelfontein, Namibia, Africa
| Namibia Preface | Namibia Introduction | Twyfelfontein Cupules | Cupules & Animals | Picture Captions |
| Appendix 1 | Appendix 2 | Bibliography | Acknowledgements |
| Bradshaw Foundation Homepage | Africa Rock Art Index |


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