National Geographic Society Newsroom

Using High-Tech Photography to Reveal Ancient Rock Art

During the second part of our adventure into the dark realms deep within Dahaisi cave where legends say a giant white snake dwells, we discovered and documented an ancient pathway worn smooth by ancient visitors to the cave. However, the main reason we came to Dahaisi was to document the wide array of rock art...

During the second part of our adventure into the dark realms deep within Dahaisi cave where legends say a giant white snake dwells, we discovered and documented an ancient pathway worn smooth by ancient visitors to the cave. However, the main reason we came to Dahaisi was to document the wide array of rock art using the latest photographic techniques. To this end the photographer, Daniel Britton, has been working tirelessly in less than ideal conditions. Here is his story.

By Daniel Britton

The first thing I noticed as I clambered down into Dahaisi cave is the gradual loss of the beautiful light that for me as a photographer defines Socotra. Colors on this amazing island in the Indian Ocean seem brighter and more vivid than usual. In the cave this colour is replaced by a grey gloom. Increasingly dark shadows hang around the edges of my vision as I slowly became accustomed to seeing the world through a narrow cone of light projected from my borrowed headlamp.

This is my first experience of caving and when I turn off my headlamp to sample the true darkness that I’ve been told can only be found deep within a cave, I am not entirely sure if the increase in my heart rate is a sign of exhilaration or a somewhat more primal fear of the darkness. I quickly turn the headlamp back on.

 

Daniel Britton and Dirk van Dorpe setting up the camera for Infra-red photography (Photo by Julian Jansen van Rensburg)
Daniel Britton and Dirk van Dorpe setting up the camera for Infra-red photography (Photo by Julian Jansen van Rensburg)

As I pass through increasingly narrow passages I find myself crawling on hands and knees with Dirk van Dorpe, a seasoned caver making reassuring noises and advising me to get lower still as I slowly crawl along with a backpack full of cameras, tripods, and lighting rigs.

Heading deeper into the cave the first pieces of rock art begin to appear around us. Isolated motifs of enigmatic figures briefly acknowledge our passing.

The hidden motifs of Panel 5 are revealed using infra-red (Photo by Daniel Britton).
The hidden motifs of Panel 5 are revealed using infra-red (Photo by Daniel Britton)
The expedition team records Dahaisi cave’s final chamber. (Photo by Dirk van Dorpe)

But we are heading even deeper to the final chamber where most of the cave art is found. This is where my work begins. In this final chamber I am faced with a collection of esoteric images.

Horned human figures, quadrupeds and a multitude of cruciform and geometric motifs are spread across five rock panels.

 

Julian Jansen van Rensburg and Daniel Britton recording images using Infra-red photography. Photo by Dirk van Dorpe.
Julian Jansen van Rensburg and Daniel Britton record images using Infra-red photography. (Photo by Dirk van Dorpe)
The Dahaisi cave expedition team from left, Peter De Geest (Geologist/ caver), Daniel Britton (Photographer/ Archaeologist), Julian Jansen van Rensburg (Archaeologist), Dirk van Dorpe (Caver/ Photographer).
The Dahaisi cave expedition team from left: Peter De Geest (Geologist/ caver), Daniel Britton (Photographer/ Archaeologist), Julian Jansen van Rensburg (Archaeologist), Dirk van Dorpe (Caver/ Photographer). (Photo courtesy Daniel Britton)

Photographing Art

Each panel needs to be photographically documented using standard digital photography and infra-red photography. The visible light photography is fairly straight forward using a standard professional digital camera and battery powered studio lighting. The biggest problem is keeping my sweat, the result of near 90 percent humidity and temperatures of 82°F (28°C), from dripping into the electronics as I set up the lights.

These initial shots are impressive, revealing not only the motifs but the colors and textures of the cave walls.

It suddenly occurs to me that this is the first time the entire panels have been revealed as a single entity. They are all relatively large and it is likely that the lamps and flaming torches used to illuminate the rock surface by people in the past would only ever have shown a small portion of the panel at any one time. I simultaneously feel like an honored guest and intruder, conscious that I am seeing the images out of context and in a way unintended by their creators.

 

Dirk van Dorpe standing next Panel 5 where over 100 motifs were recorded. (Photo by Daniel Britton).
Dirk van Dorpe stands next Panel 5 where more than a hundred motifs were recorded. (Photo by Daniel Britton).

Infra-red

Once the initial documentation has been undertaken I set up my equipment to begin with infra-red photography, using a modified digital camera and infra-red floodlights. We are not using this to see in the dark, but rather to view the spectral images of motifs long since lost to the degradations of time.

A close up of the motifs only visible using infra-red. (Photo Daniel Britton).
A close up of the motifs reveals images only visible using infra-red. (Photo Daniel Britton)

 

 

Mysteries Revealed

The results are astounding, especially on Panel 5. When we first played our torches over this panel we counted maybe a dozen motifs, but when viewed under infra-red light it soon became apparent that there were nearly one hundred! Staring at the viewfinder and watching the profusion of strange geometric patterns and cruciform shapes appear in front of your eyes is a truly magical experience.

These amazing discoveries have exceeded our hopes and expectations. Seeing what we have achieved makes the long, hot, humid days spent in the cave, the sweat that threatened to short out the electronics, the bruises, cuts, and scrapes sustained crawling through the cave each day and the difficulties we faced getting here all seem insignificant.

Not one of us on this expedition would trade his place, despite the legendary giant white snake whose presence was almost tangible at times.

Read All Posts by Julian Jansen van Rensburg

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Julian Jansen van Rensburg
Growing up in South Africa kindled Dr Julian's interest in exploring remote and wild places. Having completed his PhD in Archaeology and MA in Maritime Archaeology, he has spent the last decade working and running projects across the world. He is the author of a several journal articles and book chapters relating to his research.