The first reports on rock art in the Bandiagara region date to the beginning of the 20th century (e.g. Desplagnes 1908; Frobenius 1911). Already Desplagnes reports that the Dogon knew the significance of many rock art motifs and that they were accustomed to re-mark the paintings. More detailed research was undertaken in the 1930s. Marcel Griaule in his book Masques dogon (1938) mentioned more than 70 rock art sites in the Bandiagara region. According to Griaule recurring themes in the rock art of the Bandiagara region are masks and mask dancers, items used in the Sigui festival, such as bags, while humans and animals, such as lizards, are more rarely represented. He distinguished two main classes of paintings according to the contexts in which they were made: bammi, paintings made in a ritual context, and tonu, which lack such ritual context. According to Griaule ritual paintings were primarily made at localities where masks used in rituals relating to death were manufactured and stored, or at sites of retreat in preparation for the great mask festivals, such as the Sigui. The paintings on the rock walls were to receive and contain the released and potentially dangerous nyama (ëlife forceí) of the dead (Griaule 1938). Paintings (usually non-ritual, but see exceptional example below) were also made at circumcision sites or as rest places for goatherders and others (Gallay 1964). Some rock art sites are still used today and usually access is not permitted to foreigners and/or to women.Check the following links for further details
The large rock art site at the village of Songo with its hundreds of motifs has drawn the attention of ethnographers, art historians, and archaeologists from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. At this rock shelter a circumcision ritual takes place every three years. During this ritual, which lasts 15 days, existing motifs are repainted and new paintings are added. The successive refreshing of the paintings introduces alterations in the form of the motifs: in the course of decades paintings became larger with every painting event and once separate motifs occasionally merged into one. Generally, motifs change in two aspects: in outlines or general form, and in detail. New motifs have been added in great numbers over older paintings and in hitherto unused parts of the rock surface, successively expanding the painted area. In recent years the northern and the upper parts of the site have received the most new paintings, as the southern part of the rock wall was densely filled with motifs already. This change has been an on-going process since the site started to be used, probably towards the end of the 19th century.
The instruction period after circumcision, it is claimed by some locals of Songo, involves explanations to the boys of the traditional life and values of the Dogon adult male with the aid of the representations. The paintings are said to represent everyday objects typical in the life of the Dogon at the time when Kondi Pegue started to get used: bags of horse riders, horse fittings, masks, musical instruments, weapons, tools, blankets, etc. The information that is passed on thus is specific to the village: it concerns the history and traditions of the people of Songo. Some of these current interpretations are in contrast to the explanations of the paintings published by Griaule in the 1930s. At this time they were said to mainly represent ritual objects, such as items used during the Sigui (bags, staffs and masks). The painted circumcision site at Songo seems to be an exception rather than a rule. It is the only site known in sub-Saharan Mali where rock painting is done as a fixed part of a circumcision ritual. Usually, painting during circumcision rituals appears to be non-ritual, done as a part-time by the boys during their recovery period.
Although some work has been done on rock art in the pays Dogon our knowledge about the types of sites used for rock art making in the Bandiagara region, the location of the motifs in the shelters, their combination and interpretation is restricted. In order to gain a better understanding of rock art in the Bandiagara plateau and escarpment, much work remains to be done. However, due to the current loss of traditional beliefs and customs the use of rock art sites is diminishing, and often the significance of motifs and the function of the sites are not more than a fading memory.
1908 Le Plateau Central NigÈrien. Une mission archÈologique et ethnographique au Soudan franÁais. Paris.
1911 Auf dem Wege nach Atlantis. Berlin.
1964 Peintures rupestres rÈcentes du basin du Niger (propos de recherches). Journal de la SociÈtÈ des Africanistes 64: 123-139.
Ganay, S. de
1940 RÙle protecteur de certaines peintures rupestres du Soudan Francais. Journal de la SociÈtÈ des Africanistes 10: 87-98.
1938 Masques dogons. Paris.
Griaule, M. & G. Dieterlen
1965 Le renard p‚le. Paris.
1933 Peintures rupestres de Songo. Minotaure 2 (Special issue devoted to the Mission Dakar-Djibouti1931/1933): 52-55.
Digital publication on rock art at the circumcision rock shelter at Songo, Pays Dogon (in Dutch)
Author(s): Text: C. Kleinitz, abstract of C. Kleinitz and B. Dietz (2004), Art rupestre au pays dogon: líauvent de Songo, in R.M.A. Bedaux and J.D. van der Waals, Regards sur les Dogon du Mali. Leiden (Exhibition Catalogue)
Date created: 2003-10-18 - Date modified: 2004-03-02