A glimpse on the potential of rock-art culture in Eritrea

About Eritrea - History & Culture

Rock art is a man-made depiction or engraving of early human activity.

In the absence of written evidence with regard to the prehistoric people, we heavily rely on these man-made depictions to narrate a story that we are for the most part oblivious to.

As the name suggests these prehistoric depictions are either drawn or engraved on rock surfaces. Rock arts or engravings are mainly found in rock shelters, rock dwellings and caves.

Rock arts can be considered as the masterpiece of prehistoric people not only because they depict and portray the people’s way of life, but they also convey, alongside many of their other attributes, their creativity. They also reveal contextual information related to the habitat the people lived in, the economy or the subsistence system they practiced, the religion and deities they worshiped and the society and community they shared their lives with.

Rock art sites are also referred to as pictographs or petroglyphs and are present in every society located in every corner of the world. This is why rock arts can be considered as the universal expression of the human intellect.
This kind of art lets us understand the relation prehistoric man had with the habitat. By interpreting the art we comprehend the esthetic language of the sedentary man and that of the nomad, of the hunter and the herder, of the warrior and the farmer. By analyzing the style and the content we can identify which of the following the designated rock painting or engraving belonged to.

In Eritrea, there are a multitude of rock art sites all over the country. Zelalem Teka, with regard to the distribution and significance of ancient rock art sites in Eritrea, affirms that the major concertation of rock art sites in Eritrea are around the Adi-Qeih area, a town located at the Eritrean southern region and is also known for its vast and variety of archaeological remains. Other rock art sites have been documented around the town of Haicota and the Barka River. Here drawings and engravings of animals, humans and abstract representations have been documented around the villages of Cullite, Dinae and Elit. In the northern part of the country rock art sites are present around the localities of Qarora Rora, and figures represented in these sites include cattle, goats, sheep and some geometric design. Core localities for these representations are Ciakat, Nagran and Deudeu. The central part of the country is characterized mainly by rock engravings rather than rock paintings. Two in particular are worth mentioning, Baati Mariam and Daaro Paulos, where engravings of human figures are quite prominent. Studies carried out by Cervicek in 1972 put into light engravings of animals and abstract designs in areas such as Quantebba, Mehba Worki, Harom, Qortamit, Maji Melehess, Lamdrara and Dembe Wedi Mudui. Rock art sites are also evident around the city of Tio, where engravings and depictions of camels and geometric designs are mainly present.

A study conducted in 2002 by a group of Italian scholars on the elements that compose the red and black paints that characterize a significant number of the Eritrean rock arts elucidated that all the red and black paints, taken from a wide range of samples collected by Paolo Graziosi around 1960, revealed the presence of hematite and manganese hydro-oxides respectively. These results are not conclusive and, for this reason, rock arts in Eritrea require further inquiry.

Thematic representations vary from location to location and the following are the most recurrent themes. A) The representation of a cow and its calf is an indication of pastoral societies. This kind of representations are present in sites like Adi Qansa, Cor Sahune, Nishto coho and a number of other sites. B) Anthropomorphic figures of a group of men horizontally placed -- except in some cases these anthropomorphic figures are represented without any type of clothing and are often drawn in association with bovines. An important example is that of Sullum Baati. C) Anthropomorphic figures of warriors -- here the men are represented with long and elegant bodies, with broad shoulders while showing off their metallic spears. Prominent examples are that of Zeban Ona libanos, Metecca Are and Kesad Kerni. D) Animal figures of a feline ready to attack -- these kinds of representations are visible in sites like Adi Alawti, Zeban Kebesa and Jago, but in the first site the feline seems to have been hurt representing him as the attacked rather than the attacker. E) Anthropomorphic figures representing scenes of farming -- these kinds of drawing portray images of daily life and are of very rare occurrence in the Eritrean context. In fact, the only example of this type is the very unclear image found in the site of Enda Abba Gerima and that of Hishmele. F) The majority of the representations present in the Eritrean context are herds. These images are of a group of oxen, sheep, goats and other related concepts, and these portrayals are closely related to representations of cows with their little ones. Examples of this kind are that of Hishmele, Qarora and Sullum Baati.

It is important to mention some of the most prominent and well-known rock art sites to create awareness among the society. A) Hishmele: This site is located near the town of Adi-Qeih. The paintings are found in two rock shelters. In the first one the representations include 17 bovines and 8 humans depicted in red paint while in the second one 21 humpless long-horned cattle, one human figure and a sheep are depicted in the northern part of the shelter, while in the southern part 8 cattle without a hump and long horn and a sheep are represented. B) Adi Alewti: this site is found at the Qohaito Cultural landscape and the representations comprise around fifty animal figures, which are mostly camels and donkeys. A herdsman is depicted at the top of the stone with a round head and a long stick. Except some, all the animals carry loads, and this suggests the use of animals as a means of transportation. C) Iyago: These sites are located at approximately 1 km from the historical place of Qohaito. The images are mostly of animals with a few anthropomorphic depictions. D) Maelewya: Unlike the other rock art sites surrounding the town of Adi-Keih, this particular site is characterized by engravings rather than paintings.

The representations include seven humans with spears and a few animals. E) Mai Nefhi: In this site anthropomorphic figures are engraved on the walls of the cave. The differences in the size of the figures are indicators of age difference. Sex difference is indicated by the shape of the head; while flat heads represent men the round ones represent women.

These are very few examples of the multitude of rock art sites located in Eritrea and can be taken as indicators of the geographic distribution and the iconographic themes of rock art sites in Eritrea.

Rock art sites are widely distributed within the country, and it is important to make people aware of their presence and distribution so that they could be protected by the community living around these areas. By communicating their importance and their socio-historical values rock arts will be shielded from vandalism and any kind of destruction that might come their way.