The Project

COSMO-ART proposes to develop a new approach to rock art management

COSMO-ART aims to develop a strong holistic and integrated methodological framework to improve sustainable rock art heritage management and provide decision-making tools for heritage agencies. The management framework for cultural heritage has shifted from focusing on the conservation of physical sites to managing the values underlying their significance, but the implementation of this values-based approach faces challenges where there is cultural and population diversity. COSMO-ART will address these challenges with a Cosmopolitan Approach to identify cross-cultural points of interest for sustainable rock art management. The consortium, with diverse scientific expertise and cultural backgrounds, ensures the success of this approach. The method will be tested in two areas (Erongo, Namibia; Kimberley, South Africa) and improved with data integration and participatory tools. The ultimate goal is to contribute to the renewal of heritage management methodology and its applications.

Hypothesis, positioning and objectives

COSMO-ART is the continuation of several research projects. It is the result of meetings between researchers and partners from different institutions and different countries. This timeline shows the main milestones that have structured the setting up of this project.

Rock art, a graphic manifestation on static rock support and a testimony to the creativity of the Homo genus, spans a wide chronological spectrum ranging from prehistoric to modern, or even contemporaneous, and a wide spatial distribution all over the world. The stakes involved in its conservation and management are especially complex, with several sets of values intersecting, including “traditional” and “official” systems. In the development of integrated and sustainable rock art heritage management plans, the current challenge is to renew our understanding of the values attributed to rock art sites.

COSMO-ART aims to study the challenges faced by rock art management in southern Africa. In this region, heritage practices tend to remain Western-inspired and, as a result, heritage policies rarely include the local perspectives on objects, places and knowledge to which people may grant a symbolic or identity value. This project aims to tackle a certain number of questions: Who are the users of the sites and at what scales? What are the values attributed to rock art and by whom? How are these values used, possibly adapted, and conveyed by dissemination actions (from education to tourism development)? What are the systems of values drawn in and legitimised by the construction of Heritage Authorised Discourses? What are the perceptions of the vulnerabilities of these sites? How do Western-inspired conservation measures and traditional custodianship systems work together? A generation after the end of Apartheid, what does ‘rock art heritage’ mean for all the stakeholders?

COSMO-ART has also applied goals and seeks to develop a strong holistic and integrated methodological framework to improve sustainable rock art heritage management and development and provide useful decision-making tools for heritage agencies. Indeed, the overarching management framework for cultural heritage has progressively shifted from one centred on the conservation of the physical fabric of sites to the management of the values underpinning heritage significance. While today this values-based heritage management is nearly universal, aspects of its implementation are challenged, especially where culture and population diversity produces intermingling and sometimes conflicting sets of values. In such a context, values-based approaches reach their limits and cannot provide the necessary sound framework for efficient management. The result is the ultimate failure of many development projects with ensuing disillusionment and resentment. This is especially the case  with rock art in southern Africa. Although recent management plans attempt to consider the diversity of values attributed to rock art, a gap nonetheless persists between intention and execution. It is mostly ascribable to the difficulty grasping multi-faceted, contextual, conflicting and constantly changing values.

COSMO-ART aims to tackle this methodological lack with the implementation of a Cosmopolitan Approach, to identify cross-cultural and interacting points of interest, which, we contend, is the cornerstone of an unruffled and sustainable rock art management process. The ultimate aim is to propose an efficient tool for rock art managers and developers to help them design sustainable solutions that avoid the pitfalls of classical values-based approaches. This satisfies largely shared wishes to make the results of heritage science accessible to those who need it in their daily life. This imperative of sustainable management is all the more essential in southern Africa where expectations of economic development and empowerment are high, especially in remote and rural areas where rock art sites are mostly found.

The fundamental critique of heritage-making processes at the core of COSMO-ART requires a reflexive approach. Researchers are indeed also stakeholders in the phenomena they study and are likely to influence them. This critical and reflexive stance on our own practices and positioning as researchers filters through the entire project.

Moving beyond radical categorisations

Working with the values attributed to rock art sites or other heritage objects requires a deconstruction of the notion of ʽheritageʼ, and a detailed examination of what constitutes significance for the different actors amongst the stakeholders of a heritage site. Assessing the values attributed to a heritage place is nonetheless a difficult endeavour due to the diversity of value types and their inherently contested and changing nature. In post-colonial contexts such as in Africa, the consideration of heritage values through an analysis of the stakeholders often juxtaposes the values of those working in heritage institutions with those held by ʽlocal communities’. In addition to the difficulties associated with the identification and definition of ‘local communities’, this type of approach tends to stereotype stakeholders by category. Typically those working in heritage institutions are stereotyped as emphasising materialist, tangible and preservationist values and ʽlocal communitiesʼ are seen as emphasizing spiritual, intangible and living heritage values. Reductive, this approach does not hold up when confronted with real-world dynamics, which instead reveal multiple hybridized values that do not categorise neatly at any scale of analysis.

The aim of COSMO-ART is to offer a cross-cultural method that can produce a set of value categories recognised as relevant by all local stakeholders and in all contexts. Whilst such a method must, by definition, produce locally specific categories, the process should be transferable to other rock art sites, other archaeological sites and more generally to other heritage sites. We do this to resolve the problem of imposing the familiar and universal existing categorisation of heritage values (aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value), that whilst intended to be cross-cultural, arose out of dominantly Western discourse. Our approach to cosmopolitanism is inspired by the work of A. Appiah and L. Meskell who advocate a philosophy of being, in our case an approach to heritage, that emphasises mutual points of contact stemming from a common humanity. We chose this kind of cosmopolitan approach not only because we feel that it is contextually appropriate in post-colonial southern Africa but also because it moves us beyond the traditional binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘white’ and ‘black’, ‘managers’ and ‘communities’. We also chose this kind of approach as we argue that this one enables management plans to be created around a consensus on management objectives.

Scientific productions and meetings

We decided to diversify the types of deliverables to better demonstrate the interest and efficiency of the project, both to academics and heritage practitioners, aiming at a high local input. In addition to traditional scientific production, we also disseminate our results to local communities and authorities. Indeed, one of the aims of COSMO-ART is to produce recommendations of direct utility and applicability to rock art managers.

  • Digital: Geographic Information System (GIS) integrating uses and values attributed to rock art sites.
  • Printed: scientific articles on methodology and results in open access international journals; a synthetic collective publication, on the renewal of methodology in heritage sciences and the Cosmopolitan Approach, with a strong applied focus.
  • Oral: several presentations in international congresses. Public events such as conferences about rock art heritage will be organised in Namibia, South Africa and France, at local and national levels.

The implementation of a Cosmopolitan Approach requires that several fieldwork sessions be jointly carried out by several members of the consortium, in a co-construction process involving the various users of rock art sites. Besides the collection of data such fieldwork sessions provide an opportunity to arrange for times of co-construction and return of the research results, to have them validated by all the stakeholders. It is indeed through such a strong association with civil society that research can achieve its transformative role. These informal exchanges are completed with regional workshops to discuss collectively the participants’ different standpoints towards rock art sites. These times of exchange are designed so as to ensure free expression.

Studied sites

The aim of COSMO-ART is to extend the Cosmopolitan Approach to two new areas: the rock art sites in the Kimberley region (South Africa) and those in the Erongo massif (Namibia), and even more to develop and strengthen this approach in establishing the Cosmopolitan Approach as the line of conduct preliminary to all research actions. Building on an accumulated expertise, COSMO-ART proposes to compare rock art sites developed for tourism but with different research histories and socio-economic contexts. Kimberley (Northern Cape, South Africa) and the ≠Gaingu Conservancy (Erongo, Namibia) areas provide such sites. Both regions have a rich rock art heritage characterised by (i) acute conservation issues due to open-air conditions, (ii) a high scientific interest for the investigation of the contacts between hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers; (ii) economic issues over traditional and anticipated new resources (agriculture, mining, wildlife, cultural heritage); (iii) presence of displaced populations and related land and legal issues as well as (re)appropriation phenomena; (iv) intermingling of public and private projects for heritage and tourism development, initiated by various groups of stakeholders and revealing multiscale processes of appropriation; (v) various approaches to management and development at different degrees of implementation; (vi) social and political instrumentation in a post-colonial context marked by indigenousness issues; (vii) localisation in spaces with strong environmental stakes (natural and landscape resources). In short, both regions accumulate rock art management and development issues that we propose to address through a Cosmopolitan Approach.


South Africa