Rock Art Research Institute

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The Rock Art Research Institute had its small beginnings in 1979 when Professor David Lewis-Williams moved from the Social Anthropology Department at the University of the Witwatersrand to the Archaeology Department.

A few years later, in 1983, he started a research project focused on surveying and recording the rock art of the Harrismith district, South Africa.

This project was headed by Professor Lewis-Williams, with Bruce Fordyce as the only other researcher, and was funded by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). This project grew and the necessity for interpretation of the rock art, not just finding the rock art sites, became a primary focus.

In 1986 the entity became more widely recognized and, through a series of successful projects, achieved Unit status becoming the Rock Art Research Unit (RARU), with Professor Lewis-Williams as the director of the Unit. The HSRC still funded the Unit, and additional funding came from the Centre for Science Development, as well as from Wits University.

Some of the people employed (full or part time, or as research students) by RARU are Terence Kohler (1984), Conrad Steenkamp (1984), Paul den Hoed (1984-1985), Zachary Kingdon (1986-1987), Colin Campbell (1987-1988), Thomas Dowson (1988-1994), Anne Holliday (1989-1995), Geoff Blundell (from 1993), Sven Ouzman (from 1993).

In 2000, with the Professor Lewis-Williams's imminent retirement, Professor Barry Mendelow, then the Deputy Vice Chancellor, suggested that the Unit be ungraded to an institute.

A unit is closed if the director leaves, but an institute can continue under different directorship. Institute status is the highest research status conferred by Wits University, and it was awarded to the Unit to recognise the high level of achievement in research publications and the breadth of research talent built up during Professor Lewis-Williams's twenty-one year directorship.

Today the Rock Art Research Institute (RARI) is funded by the National Research Foundation, Wits University's own Research Fund and the Anglo-American Chairman's Fund. Some activities have been and are privately resourced. Dr Benjamin Smith became the new director of the Institute after Professor Lewis-Williams. He is still the director today.

RARI is dedicated to developing an understanding of rock art by researching indigenous beliefs, rituals, customs and lifeways. Research is currently underway in all South African provinces as well as in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya. Research therefore includes the rock arts of San and Pygmy hunter-gatherers, Khoi and Nilotic pastoralists, as well as of African farmers, such as the Chewa and the Northern Sotho. Underpinning this diverse research is a focus on the complex symbolism of African image-making.

RARI has become one of the largest specialist rock art institutions in the world, attracting students and researchers from around the world. It is a leading centre for rock art training and offers undergraduate and post-graduate courses in rock art recording, interpretation and management. It is also active in rock art conservation and in the development and management of rock art tourism in South Africa. Included in these initiatives is the establishment of the Origins Centre in 2006 (www.origins.org.za), a world-class museum facility located in Johannesburg on the Wits University campus.

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