Review of Immortalizing the Past by Paul Hubbard

Editor and compiler: A Nhamo
ISBN: 978-1-77922-065-3 (hardcover)
Weaver Press, Harare 2007
Prelims vi, pages 182, illustrations XXX
ZAR 180, US$ 25

Paul Hubbard
7 Hillside Road, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
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Peter Garlake, the foremost researcher on the rock art of Zimbabwe, said in his history of Zimbabwean rock art studies that ‘[n]o one better exemplifies the strengths of such amateurs and the contributions that they could make to prehistory in an undeveloped country than Lionel Cripps’ (Garlake 1993:3). Unfortunately, Cripps’ extraordinary contribution to the study of rock art has remained largely unknown as he published very little while, since his death in 1950, his numerous volumes of copies have lain virtually untouched in the cupboards of the Zimbabwe Museum of Human Sciences in Harare. Therefore, Ancila Nhamo, the University of Zimbabwe Archaeology Unit and the National Museums & Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) are to be congratulated on making this representative collection of his pictures available.

The book begins with a brief discussion of the different types of rock art and their distribution in Zimbabwe. The second section provides an all-too-short biographical sketch of Lionel Cripps and his ideas as to the meaning and significance of the rock art that he so faithfully reproduced. Cripps was born in India in 1863 and in 1890 joined the Pioneer Column that occupied Zimbabwe, later becoming the country’s first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. He settled in eastern Zimbabwe, in the Vumba Mountains, and irrevocably, fell madly in love with his adopted country. Interested in many aspects of the country’s history and pre-history, and an amateur artist of no mean talent, Cripps’ passion when he retired (at the age of 72!) became the rock paintings. Through sketches, tracing and painted copies, he reproduced rock art from hundreds of sites, recording almost every image, its dimensions and relationship with other figures on the panel (see Garlake 1993, 1997; Nhamo 2006 for more biographical details). Interestingly, Cripps seems to have anticipated many of the current ideas about the interpretation of rock art, arguing as he did, that religion was a prime influence in its conception and development.

The third section of the book, entitled ‘Images on the Rocks’, describes the Cripps collection in detail and provides an overview of his methods and techniques of copying the art. Again, Cripps appears ahead of his time, given that he often copied the entire context of the paintings on the rock face and their position in the shelter or cave. This foreshadowing Lewis-Williams and Dowson’s (1999) much cited suggestion that the rock face forms an interface between sacred and secular worlds. The next section considers the variety of motifs prevalent in Zimbabwean rock art in general, with a good and easy to understand explanation of current research methodology and ideas on the meanings of the art.

The heart of the book consists of the four subsequent sections that correspond to the different provinces where Cripps worked between 1938 and 1940 – Masvingo, Matabeleland, Mashonaland and Manicaland. Cripps was a true pioneer in Zimbabwean rock art studies and few of his contemporaries had travelled as far or seen as much of the art as he did before his death. Even today, many of the areas he visited, like Plumtree in western Zimbabwe, remain largely unexplored by today’s professional archaeologists. Many of the images reproduced here serve both as an invaluable record of what exists and hopefully will goad future research in these areas. As Garlake (1993:6) once put it,

[i]f the paintings could mean so much to one man, one can hope they do the same for many others, especially now that our understanding of the prehistory of the country and of the place of the paintings in it is so much more sophisticated.

This book contains over 280 detailed drawings, a sample of the 7066 figures Cripps copied from 580 sites. Most are labelled but frustratingly these labels seem to have been placed merely where they fitted with little apparent thought as to their relationship with the relevant picture. This necessitates a great deal of irritating paging back and forth between picture and label. In addition a few of these labels were not very helpful nor informative. Most were far too brief and a few were obscure.

The final section is entitled ‘Past and Present’ and is a comparison of Cripps’ reproductions with recent photographs from Zimunya Communal Lands in Manicaland. This section can be regarded as a ‘test’ of the accuracy of the copies and in comparison with modern standards Cripps comes off second-best. His copies often lack the finer details, most especially lines and dots which today’s researchers often consider essential elements to the interpretation and understanding of the art. In fact, Cripps admitted in a publication that he often only copied pictures that were eye-catching, easy to copy or pleasing to look at (Cripps 1941). This does not, however, undermine the importance of his copies for they remain an invaluable archival record of many sites across the country.

When I first heard about this book, I was wont to ask, why publish copies that fail to meet today’s standards of accuracy and representation? Nhamo justifies her decision on the basis that many paintings have disappeared and will continue to disappear due to weathering and human action. There remains a very real need to copy rock art and to publish this work. Her point is amply demonstrated on pages 166-167, which show that the site of Chiuya has been extensively vandalised with graffiti since Cripps’ copies were made. As Nhamo says ‘after realising the wealth of information contained in this collection, it was decided to make it more available to both the scientific community and the general public through this publication’ (p5). One can only agree.

Questions will be asked about the relevance of his copies to contemporary debates about the interpretation of southern African imagery. As this review and indeed the book, has shown, many of Cripps’ ideas about the meaning and significance of the rock art were decades ahead of their time. This book is a timely reminder that ideas about the meaning and interpretation of rock art have changed a great deal since they first began to be studied, although not as much as some would like to argue. As noted above, his copies are not exact replicas, and so perhaps will not be of much interpretative use to professional rock art researchers. The book will, however, serve as a useful guide to the depth and richness of the rock art in the country and will hopefully spur more researchers to study it and more of the general public to visit and appreciate it.

Despite the above-quoted intention to serve both an academic and general public, I remain slightly uncertain as to the actual audience of this book. As it stands, I believe it will serve for academics and a rather specialised portion of the ‘general public’, but not everyone. It is not a coffee table book. The lack of colour pictures is also lamentable. Having seen the original copies, I wish that a colour section had been included. I can only assume that this was done to keep down the costs of production, an all-important consideration in Zimbabwe today. Instead the pictures are printed in a purplish sepia-like two-tone that generally shows the figures and scenes crisply and clearly. However some of the lighter colours in the copies suffer, making them hard to see (eg, figures 69 and 70).

There are several academic concerns – the referencing is poor. Several books and articles referred to in the text do not appear in the minimal bibliography, including Garlake’s (1997) article, a quote from which starts the book. The quality of writing varies, ranging from simple and understandable (not simplistic) to rather academic, while there are several grammatical errors. The provision of an index would have added considerably to the value of the book. Lastly, the contents page is not always correct.

Gripes aside, the book is an attractive and important medium publicising the otherwise forgotten contribution of Lionel Cripps to Zimbabwean Rock Art studies. I honestly hope it will make its way into many homes and libraries in Zimbabwe and further afield; it deserves to. Cripps’ ‘dedication to recording this art form has not been equalled in the history of rock art studies in Zimbabwe’ (p7) and his admirable work should be better known. The paintings ‘were always a large part of Cripps’ physical and mental landscapes and so they can be for others who love the countryside like he did’ (Garlake 1993:6). This book is a first and good step in doing justice to the work of a remarkable man.


Cripps, L 1941. Rock paintings in Southern Rhodesia. The South African Journal of Science 37:345-349.

Garlake, PS 1993. The first eighty years of rock art studies in Zimbabwe. Heritage of Zimbabwe 12:1- 24.

Garlake, PS 1997. The First Eighty Years of Rock Art Studies, 1890-1970. In Pwiti, G (ed) Caves, Monuments and Texts: Zimbabwean archaeology today. Uppsala: Societas Archaeologica Uppsalensis (Studies in African Archaeology 14):33-53.

Lewis-Williams, JD & Dowson, TA 1999. Images of Power: Understanding San Rock Art. Halfway House, South Africa: Southern Book Publishers (Pty) Ltd.

Nhamo, A 2006. Then and Now: a look at the Lionel Cripps’s Rock Art Collection from the 1930s and 1940s. Zimbabwean Prehistory 26:13-18.