Why we need to record ancient art right now by Stephen Alvarez

2,000 year old finger tracing and modern graffiti in unnamed cave 19

Last year I started a project called the Ancient Art Archive to use photography and 3D modeling to preserve the world’s oldest art. One of the first questions that I get asked about the Archive is why now? Can’t this wait? There is so much else to do right now… It’s a reasonable question. Much of the art that we are working with has been around thousands if not tens of thousands of years. Why now?

The short answer is we need to do this now! Sites are being destroyed in front of our eyes.

A graphic illustration of that is  unnamed cave 19. Its a woodland period site (+/- 2,000 years bp) in a remote corner of the South East. The cave ceiling is covered in very delicate, elaborate finger traced mud glyphs. There are abstract figures, snakes, birds, bears, humans with rays coming from their bellies.

mud glyph snake and abstract figures in unnamed cave 19

One of the major conservation issues with unnamed cave 19 is that the art is very difficult to see. In fact, in the cave with a light mounted to your helmet the art on the ceiling is all but impossible to make out. The designs are inscribed in a thin mud veneer on the cave’s ceiling. They are very shallow. The glyphs only show up with a severe side light. To one degree their obscurity has aided in their preservation but that is a double edged sword. Obscurity means that people add modern graffiti to the artwork without meaning to damage it. The cave sees  a lot of traffic and damage to the fragile glyphs is inevitable.

The Art Archive is working on a complete model of the art in Unnamed Cave 19. It will be one of larges sites we have completed and certainly the most technically difficult model we’ve done. We are 2/3 of the way through the shooting and already have over 1500 images after 4 trips into the cave. The entire glyph passage is over 40 meters long and 15 meters wide. When the model is complete, we will be able to view the entire mud glyph passage as one composition. The model will allow us to view the engravings in tremendous detail and clarity.

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-Stephen Alvarez



About the author

Stephen Alvarez is a photographer and frequent commentator on the role technology and photography play in our interconnected world. He is founder and director of the Ancient Art Archive (https://ancientartarchive.org).