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A major lacuna in the study of southern African rock art is a thorough understanding of the chronology of the art. Poor direct chronologies are not unique to southern Africa but are a world-wide problem in rock art studies. This project aims to develop and apply techniques for the direct dating of rock art. To do so, we first need a thorough understanding of the composition of the paints used as well as weathering and other mineral products on the rock walls.

This need has led to us developing a multi-technique characterisation protocol to thoroughly understand the inorganic composition of rock art paints. This composition knowledge, particularly when linked to existing understandings of the art, is revealing new insights into the production and use of the art. It has also allowed for the direct dating of some paintings.

With the characterisation information available, we have developed new protocols for AMS radiocarbon dating rock art pigments and have published a series of new dates. We continue working to refine and further develop direct dating techniques.

In collaboration with numerous partners internationally, we have applied these techniques to rock art in areas of Botswana, Lesotho and several parts of South Africa. Analytical work is currently undertaken in Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom.

For updates on the project and news of new publications, follow the Rock Art Research Institute on Facebook.

Project staff

Bonneau, A., Pearce, D. G., Mitchell, P. J., Didier, L., Nic Eoin, L., Higham, T. F. G., Lamothe, M. and Arthur, C. 2022. Characterization and dating of San rock art in the Metolong catchment, Lesotho: a preliminary investigation of technological and stylistic changes. Quaternary International 611:177–189.

Green, D. and Bonneau, A. 2022. The essential role of pigment characterisation and colouring materials provenance study for rock art archaeology. The Digging Stick 39(3):7–10.

King, R. S., Bonneau, A. and Pearce, D. G. 2022. ‘They are all dead that I could ask’: Indigenous innovation and the micropolitics of the field in twentieth-century southern Africa. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 32(1):137–152.


Arthur, C., Mitchell, P., Mallen, L., Pearce, D., Bonneau, A., Prinsloo, F., Nthunya, P., Mothopeng, L., King, R., Meyer, J. and Nic Eoin, L. 2021. Record-making, research, and removal: mitigating impacts on rock art in a CRM context in southern Africa. The case of the Metolong Dam, Lesotho. African Archaeological Review 38(4):675–694.


Bonneau, A., Pearce, D. G., Mitchell, P. J. and Higham, T. F. G. 2020. Response to discussion: New methods for direct dating of southern African rock paintings – testing the methods, by Pieter Jolly. South African Archaeological Bulletin 75:164–168.


King, R., Pearce, D., Bonneau, A. and Mallen, L. 2018. Changing lifeways in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains, southern Africa: towards a history of innovation and belief in the late Second Millennium AD. Archaeology International 21(1):82–88.

Pearce, D. G. and Bonneau, A. 2018. Trouble on the dating scene. Nature Ecology and Evolution 2:925–926.


Bonneau, A., Pearce, D., Mitchell, P., Staff, R., Arthur, C., Mallen, L., Brock, F. and Higham, T. 2017. The earliest directly dated rock paintings from southern Africa: new AMS radiocarbon dates. Antiquity 91:322–333.

Bonneau, A., Staff, R., Higham, T., Brock, F., Pearce, D. and Mitchell, P. 2017. Successfully dating rock art in southern Africa using improved sampling methods and new characterization and pretreatment protocols. Radiocarbon 59(3):659–677.


Bonneau, A., Pearce, D. G. and Higham, T. 2016. Establishing a chronology of San rock art using paint characterization and radiocarbon dating. In Gutierrez, M. et Honoré, E. (dir.) L’art rupestre d’Afrique, Actualité de la recherche, Actes du colloque International Paris, 15 au 17 Janvier 2014, Université Paris 1, Centre Panthéon et Musée du Quai Branly:245–251. Nanterre: Editions l’Harmattan.

Hœrlé, S., Pearce, D. G., Bertrand, L., Sandt, C. and Menu, M. 2016. Imaging the layered fabric of paints from Nomansland rock art (South Africa). Archaeometry 58:182–199.


Bonneau, A., Pearce, D. G., Mitchell, P., Arthur, C., Higham, T., Lamothe, M. and Arsenault, D. 2014. Comparing painting pigments and subjects: the case of white paints at the Metolong dam (Lesotho). In Scott, R. B., Braehmans, D., Carremans, M. and Degryse, P. (eds) Proceedings of the 39th International Symposium on Archaeometry, Leuven, Belgium:319–323. Leuven: Centre for Archaeological Sciences.

Bonneau, A., Brock, F., Higham, T., Pearce, D. G. and Pollard, A. M. 2014. Date la plus ancienne obtenue par la méthode du radiocarbone appliquée directement aux pigments de l’art rupestre sud-africain. In Paillet, P. (dir.) Les arts de la Préhistoire: micro-analyses, mises en contextes et conservation. Actes du colloque «Microanalyses et datations de l’art préhistorique dans son contexte archéologique», MADAPCA, Paris, 16–18 Novembre 2011. Paleo numéro special:61–62.

Bonneau, A., Hoerlé, S., Pearce, D. G. and Pollard, A. M. 2014. Une approche multi-techniques pour la caractérisation des pigments San. In Paillet P. (dir.) Les arts de la Préhistoire: micro-analyses, mises en contextes et conservation. Actes du colloque «Micro-analyses et datations de l’art préhistorique dans son contexte archéologique», MADAPCA, Paris, 16–18 Novembre 2011. Paleo numéro special:57–59.


Bonneau, A., Pearce, D. G. and Pollard, A. M. 2012. A Multi-technique characterization and provenance study of the pigments used in San rock art, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 39:287–294.


Bonneau, A., Brock, F., Higham, T., Pearce, D. G. and Pollard, A. M. 2011. An improved pretreatment protocol for radiocarbon dating black pigments in San rock art. Radiocarbon 53(3):419–428.

Funding and support

Over the years this research has been supported by a number of sources. The project is currently supported by the South African National Research Foundation, the French Institute in Southern Africa and the National Science Foundation of the USA.

We are grateful to the numerous landowners and communities who have allowed us access to their properties and sites to undertake this research.