Preserving and Sharing Humanity's Oldest Stories

Ancient Art Archive Founder Stephen Alvarez photographing 36,000 year old cave art in France

"I started the Archive not just to preserve ancient art sites and our common cultural heritage, but to share them with everyone"

Recording our passage through life is basic human instinct. Nearly the first thing that humans do in a new landscape is create art: an intimate handprint on a cave wall, a detailed etching on a rock, a sculpture on the landscape so large it is only completely visible from space. In a time before written language, the oldest art is the story of mankind, told in the first person.

The creation of art over 130,000 years ago was humanity’s first true innovation. Art embedded in the land played a critical role in the pre-agricultural world. During that time of early human development, art was the glue that bound increasingly complex societies. It helped us cooperate. It built a common visual language, a vocabulary of symbols and ideas still in use today. Art helped provide us with intellectual advantages in a dangerous world inhabited by stronger, faster creatures. Art defines our species; making art remains the one behavior that truly separates humans from animals. 

Producing a lengthy story on why humans became artists inspired National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez to found the Ancient Art Archive: 

Standing in front of 36,000-year-old cave paintings in France, I felt time collapse and the artist speak straight to me across an unimaginable gulf of time. The experience changed me. I started the Archive not just to preserve ancient art sites and our common cultural heritage, but to share them with everyone

 

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Gamepass Shelter, Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa

The Ancient Art Archive explores all six continents where prehistoric paintings and engravings exist in situ. With the help of leading archeologists and art historians, the Archive identifies artistically significant works that are best preserved through virtual modeling. Because preserving the artwork naturally draws attention to it, the Archive only selects art that has protected access.

The Archive preserves these ancient art sites using sophisticated photography, 3D modeling, and virtual reality technology. We meticulously record each piece in a way that captures its power and beauty.

The Archive then shares this work, allowing users - who may never be able to visit these far-flung places -  to experience that work as if they were standing in front of it, allowing the deep past to move and inspire us across time, and beyond language. 

"Most people don't know that this legacy is severely threatened..."

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Archaic Southwest Polychrome, Arizona

Today, most of us are unaware of the beauty, and sometimes even the existence, of the oldest art. Even fewer of us know that this legacy of the earliest human artworks is increasingly threatened with destruction - by climate change, modern development, religious intolerance, and even tourism. These threats are real and immediate. Images that have existed for 40,000 years could disappear tomorrow with the careless touch of a hand. In our lifetime, we stand to lose some of the world’s oldest paintings and engravings. 
 
The Ancient Art Archive pre-empts this process of loss. The images, video and dimensional models contained within the Archive help ensure the preservation of our shared history of creativity and innovation, and they also help promote education and conservation efforts linked to prehistoric sites. Through modern technological platforms, art that would in many cases disappear can be saved and presented to new international audiences. The Archive project is scalable, modular, and it permits contributors from many locations to add images and information. 
 
We must act now to preserve this fragile legacy. To preserve the story of humanity in an evolving and immersive visualy library that can speak across generations and is available to all. 

The Horse Panel of Chauvet, France

Ancient Art Archive Board of Directors

Stephen Alvarez, Founder. Photographer and Filmmaker

Gregory Crouch, Board Chair and Treasurer. Author

Sarah Lowe, Secretary.  Member Frost Brown Todd LLC

Jan Simek, Ph.D., President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Archaeology, University of Tennessee Knoxville