Ancient ink saved by modern inkjet technology

Epson’s large format printers help preserve Africa’s prehistoric rock paintings.


Large format printers donated by Epson are playing a key role in a world heritage project in Tanzania concerned with preserving hundreds of unique rock paintings. Printed reproductions of the paintings are helping to raise awareness locally and internationally, create jobs and foster a sense of ownership and pride among the local community. First documented by anthropologist Mary Leakey in her 1983 book Africa’s Vanishing Art, the paintings are found in their hundreds around the Kondoa province of central Tanzania, part of the Kondoa UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The paintings are some of the world’s earliest examples of rock art, and are estimated to date back as far as 29,000 years. They feature humanoids, animal-insect hybrid creatures, semi-realistic animals and geometric motifs, thought to be illustrations of a parallel supernatural universe experienced by Sandawe Bushman shamans in trance states. Unfortunately, the paintings are deteriorating through the effects of natural weathering, and from acts of vandalism that range from casual graffiti to uncontrolled dynamiting in search of fabled treasure.


The Rock Art Conservation Centre (RACC) in Arusha came about in 2009 through the efforts of Finnish paper-maker Seppo Hallavainio, who has lived in Tanzania for more than a decade. “The project started from a discussion with photographer and digital printing professional Gary Wornell, who had worked closely with Epson on several occasions,” said Seppo. “The plan was to make these little-known supernatural paintings known to the public. We started activities within the community, to educate them about what they have around them and how they might benefit from it, as it is they who should be the guardians of the rock art.”


The central idea was to establish a sustainable and self-supporting large-format printing facility for the reproduction of cave and rock paintings. This would generate revenue through sales of prints to tourists and other visitors to RACC in order to fund the protection and further study of the art. Michael Hunt, regional sales development manager for Africa, Epson Europe, and Shaun Robinson, account manager at Epson’s South Africa office, visited rock art sites at Kolo and Masange, as well as RACC, where they saw the activities already in progress. “They were very interested in what they saw and understood the value of using Epson equipment as a tool to make rock art more visible,” recalled Seppo.


In spring 2011, Epson delivered and installed two printers: an Epson Stylus Pro 9900 and an Epson Stylus Pro 3800, which print at up to 44 and 17-inch widths respectively,

enabling prints to be made for sale in a variety of sizes. “Epson’s products are engineered to reduce impact on the environment at all stages of the product lifecycle. But as well as helping to protect our planet’s future, these printers are preserving its past,” said Michael Hunt.

“At Epson, we believe in giving back to the communities that support us,” commented Shaun Robinson. “The rock art preservation initiative has given us the opportunity to preserve our planet’s heritage while, at the same time, establishing potential future tourist attractions and revenue-earners for the local population.”


The sustainability aspect of the programme revolves around the use of hand-made papers manufactured from readily-available local vegetation, such as mulberry, cotton and fig. Seppo, who is highly respected as a paper-maker in his native Finland, is teaching his skills to local women’s groups. Gary Wornell has put his years of expertise in coating and printing on a wide variety of media using Epson printers to use by ensuring the papers and printer work together reliably.


Gary visited Tanzania to run a series of photography and print workshops in February 2012 for local schoolchildren, paper-makers associated with the centre, and both professional and amateur artists and photographers. “With the support of Epson and its versatile large format printers, we have made it possible to print reproductions of these remarkable images on locally-made paper – an innovative and exceptional use of technology in a developing region,” Gary said.

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