The WAC Newsletter: Southern African Focus


Sven Ouzman, Guest Editor
1997 Volume 5, Number 1 ISSN 1326-9402

Southern African archaeology is an intriguing mix of a rich and varied material record, politics, problems and potentials. ‘Southern Africa’ comprises Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Southern African has a population of around 115 million people and yet there are, to my knowledge, fewer than 100 permanent posts for vocational archaeologists. Almost all of these posts are concentrated at government institutions, museums and universities. Contract archaeology is at a nascent and critical phase: if successful, more jobs, if not …

Southern Africa Focus provides an opportunity both to ‘display our wares’ and to help develop a truly regional archaeology. After all, South Africa has only been a democracy for 3 years and the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique are a thing of the very recent past. Those formal links, friendships, shared beers and so forth have only recently begun to take shape on a broad front (see article by Pikirayi).

The following 14 articles were written by an almost equal numerical mix of emergent and established researchers and fall into two broad, inter-connected categories:

Public and political archaeologies with a focus on the critical need for a largely Anglophone and sometimes colonial archaeology to come to terms with its embeddedness in southern Africa. Here ‘social’ archaeology is not a fashion but an imperative.

Work in progress with a focus on specific projects, general news and keeping in touch. Indeed, without this ‘work in progress’ the ‘public and political archaeologies’ would have little substance.

These 14 articles have interesting internal consonances (compare articles by Deacon and Morris) and dissonances (contrast articles by Hall and Segobye). The general tone is a mix of both conceptual concerns about the fundamental nature and future of the discipline and practical concerns of demographics, education, employment, funding and so forth. These issues are not new or particular to southern Africa, though they are acute and we need to come up with local and workable solutions to them (see article by Kinahan).

There is also a ‘Conference calendar’ and some other ‘Bits and Bobs’ at the end of Southern Africa Focus which tell of work done, being done and to be done.

Ironically, WAC NEWS is not widely distributed in southern Africa, though this issue will be disseminated as widely as possible. There are weaknesses in this Southern Africa Focus such as the absence of non-archaeological voices, the absence of voices from Angola, Madagascar and Mozambique and the dominance of South African voices, but overall it appears as if southern African archaeology may have escaped the syndrome of despair and dependency common to some developing regions. Whether this appearance reflects a reality will become apparent at WAC 4 in 1999 and in the years thereafter.

Sven Ouzman
Rock Art Department
National Museum
PO Box 266
South Africa


Archaeology in a dangerous time
Geoffrey Blundell
Practising archaeology in the socio-political milieu of South Africa has never been a simple case of putting forward arguments from the safety of an armchair. For many years archaeologists such as Martin Hall, David Lewis-Williams, Tim Maggs, Aron Mazel and others challenged the racist underpinnings of the dominant version of South African history. This was part of a widespread liberal academic movement that severely criticised the Apartheid government. Some academics, such as the anthropologist David Webster, were assassinated by government agents for their activism. Other academics were monitored because of their Marxist or otherwise ‘questionable’ viewpoints.

While the threat of physical harm has since passed, practising archaeology in South Africa is far from being a ‘safe’ occupation. Take, for example, the dramatic increase in ‘alternative’ interpretations of South Africa’s past in the last few years. These interpretations often make wide-ranging and insupportable connections between South Africa’s archaeological record and that of other parts of the world: either emphasising some sort of universal human connection or invoking ideas of the ancient colonisation of South Africa by exotic, non-indigenous people. The situation is not unique to South Africa. What does make the South African situation unique is the long history and political implications of these alternative interpretations which were used throughout southern Africa in the earlier decades of this century to justify the new wave of European colonisation and land appropriation. Most of these alternative interpretations argued that southern Africa had been settled aeons ago by (white) people from the Mediterranean region. Complex archaeological remains such as Great Zimbabwe and rock art were held to be the products of these white Mediterranean people. Consequently, the argument proceeds, white people had owned the land long before the arrival of black people, and were thus justified in re-appropriating it from 1652 onwards.

What is so alarming about the interest in alternative interpretations of southern African archaeology is that they are not put forward only by people with a racist agenda – indeed, many people who passed through a flawed education system put forward these interpretations. The greatest problem facing archaeologists in present-day South Africa is just how to go about liberating people from a ‘colonial mindset’.

In order to challenge persisting stereotypes of South Africa’s past, archaeologists are engaging the public more directly than before. For example, at Wits University The San Heritage Centre, or Rock Art Research Unit, has set up a public outreach programme that includes tours of our research facilities, a web site, lectures to schools and other public audiences, research on and the drawing up of proposals for the presentation of rock art sites to the public in addition to publishing both academic and popular papers. Moreover, the Centre has implemented a highly successful capacity-building project with an historically-disadvantaged University in order to expand the base of expertise for rock art research.

While such measures by the Centre and other archaeological groups (see articles by Esterhuysen & Smith and Schoeman et al.) are important and do seem to be having a positive impact, they also have less favourable implications. The increased interaction with the public has, for example, led archaeologists into a position where they represent potential and real resources for manipulation by political movements. If it were a simple case of liberal versus conservative positions the problem might be less daunting but, in spite of world opinion, South African politics has never simply been a case of binary oppositions. Rather, it is a country in which ideologies are numerous, shift, overlap and often compete. In order to challenge persisting stereotypes of South Africa’s past, archaeologists are forced to negotiate the subtleties and nuances of these ideologies; they cannot just turn a blind eye as they can and sometimes do in countries where indigenous people have limited political power. Archaeology in South Africa is dangerous because nothing can be taken for granted and most decisions are tendentious. Yet, it is this kind of cutting-edge social environment that makes archaeology something more than just sterile and academic – it makes it an enterprise with relevance.

San Heritage Centre
University of the Witwatersrand
PO Wits 2050
South Africa7


South Africa’s new heritage legislation
Janette Deacon
South Africa’s National Monuments Act of 1969 is outdated and no longer reflects cultural heritage conservation priorities. In June 1996 the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology appointed a Writing Team who consulted heritage legislation in other countries and local interest groups in order to produce the Draft National Heritage Bill which is expected to be presented to Cabinet and then to Parliament during 1997.

The most significant change is that the Draft Bill establishes an holistic and national system for the protection and management of cultural heritage. A National Heritage Council will be established to co-ordinate and allocate funds to programmes in national museums, archives and the South African Heritage Agency (SAHA, formerly the National Monuments Council’s Head Office).

As South Africa’s new Constitution lists cultural matters as a concurrent national and provincial responsibility, provinces that have the competence will be able to apply for the devolution of powers currently held by the National Monuments Council’s regional offices and write their own heritage legislation within the frame provided by the Draft Bill. Provinces will take on these responsibilities only if they employ a professional archaeologist to manage a permit system. Posts for such archaeologists have been filled in KwaZulu-Natal Province and have been advertised in the Eastern Cape Province. It is expected it will take several years before all nine provinces are fully operational. The SAHA will, however, continue to issue permits for archaeological excavation, collection and export at national level.

A considerable concern was formulating a definition of ‘archaeology’. In the Introduction to the Draft Bill ‘archaeological’ means:

a. material remains resulting from human activity which are in a state of disuse and are in or on land and are older than 100 years, including artefacts, human and hominid remains and artificial features and structures;
b. rock art, being any form of painting, engraving or other graphic representation on a fixed rock surface or loose rock or stone, which was executed by human agency and is older than 100 years, including any area within 10 m of such representation;
c. wreck, being any vessel or aircraft, or any part thereof, which was wrecked in South Africa, whether on land or in the maritime cultural zone referred to in Section 5 of the Marine Zones Act (Act 15 of 1994), and any cargo, debris or artefacts found or associated therewith, which is older than 60 years or which the SAHA considers to be worthy of conservation;
d. features, structures and artefacts associated with military history which are older than 75 years and the sites on which they are found.

The Draft Bill has addressed several issues which have been problematic, such as who has legal ownership of ‘archaeological’ artefacts. When the Bill is enacted, all archaeological artefacts will become the property of the State and may not be collected, bought or sold without a permit. Anyone in possession of a collection of artefacts will have two years in which to register it with the SAHA. Thereafter, anyone who has an unregistered collection will be deemed to have acquired it illegally.

Another issue is that of graves. Present legislation does not protect the graves of people buried without a gravestone after 1652. The Draft Bill gives protection to all graves older than 60 years that are not in a formal cemetery. Communities with an interest in graves must be consulted and agreements must be reached with them before any disturbance of graves can take place.

The Draft Bill requires that an assessment of the heritage resources be carried out prior to all forms of development, including agriculture and mining (see article by Morris), even in cases where an environmental impact assessment is not required under other legislation.

The Draft Bill also provides for the restitution of cultural property. When a community with a bona fide interest in an object held in a publicly funded institution makes a claim for its restitution, the parties must enter into negotiation. If there is no agreement, the SAHA will mediate and make a final decision about the future of the object.

The regulations for these and other aspects of heritage conservation are currently being drafted and will be available for comment within months. Anyone interested in obtaining copies of the Draft Bill or the Regulations should write to me at:

National Monuments Council
PO Box 4637
Cape Town
South Africa


Why archaeology, now, in South Africa?
Ronette Engela
For forty years South African scholarship has been largely consumed with the need to understand the creation and machinations of the Apartheid state. In an effort to understand the tragedy that engulfed our society, sociological and recent historical studies have formed the focus of the humanities and liberal arts. Although the archaeological community was busy with its own robust and intellectually challenging debates, very little of this work entered the mainstream of South African academic life. Archaeological information most often functioned as text in the form of brief introductory remarks or was relegated to footnotes of curiosity-value. Indeed, one of the premier intellectual forums – the South African Review of Books – has only ever published four articles pertaining to archaeology.

As an emergent archaeologist this bleak intellectual scenario can be demoralising. Why then am I, and many of my contemporaries, embarking on a career in archaeology? Faced with a dearth of financial resources, what is the fascination of archaeology that keeps one motivated? For me, part of the answer lies in the recognition that, with the democratic changes on the national political arena, archaeology is uniquely poised to enter a new phase.

In the arena of archaeological activity with which I am most directly involved – late pre-colonial and early post-contact societies – the relevance and importance of archaeological research is experienced daily. The significance of this type of archaeological information lies not only at a local community level, but also has an impact on broader national debates. Debates concerning cultural identity, nationhood and the development of African paradigms of knowledge are meaningfully affected by archaeological information. And, for the generation of archaeologists of which I am part, the crucial question is: to what extent can archaeology shape and influence these debates?

For many South Africans the direct importation of an American multiculturalist discourse strikes a distinctly discordant note. The conceptual basis of this discourse – the notion of separate and bounded ethnic identities and cultures – sounds uncomfortably similar to the rhetoric used by the Apartheid state in its intellectual justification for the policy of ‘separate development’ (indeed, the correct translation of the Afrikaans ‘Apartheid’ is ‘separateness’). Yet, despite our abhorrence of notions of narrow nationalisms, it would be intellectually irresponsible to deny the reality of socially organised identities: identities that are presently keenly felt and often expressed by their advocates in terms of primordial conceptions of the past. In this process, the past has become a terrain of struggle where knowledge can be mobilised as a questioning device or used as an exercise in the service of nationalist enterprises. And it is in this often very public terrain of contestation that archaeology has the potential to provide a crucial body of evidence.

However, for archaeologists to constructively enter the debate and provide such evidence, I suggest it is imperative that we retain our distinctive disciplinary position. We cannot provide historical information of the same definition, scale or texture as oral historical or archival material. What we can provide is a unique historical perspective through our ability to construct knowledge through the code of material culture. Through this cognition of materiality an illuminating light can be thrown upon those aspects of society that cannot be easily accessed through language and narrative constructions – those knowledges that exist ‘outside’ and beyond the epistemic restrictions of language.

By consciously seeking to empower other paradigms of knowledge we can respond positively to one of the post-colonial challenges of fracturing the dominance of Eurocentric and metropole knowledge production. Like most intellectuals rooted in previously colonised societies my work is animated by the urgency of the political: I believe that the subaltern has indeed been speaking (loudly and clearly) within its own world and, indirectly, within ours too. And problematic as the moment of recovery of the subaltern voice is, archaeological studies go some way towards such a reclamation.

Department of Archaeology
University of Cape Town
Private Bag
South Africa

Archaeological Resource Development Project
Amanda Esterhuysen and Jeanette Smith
Our teaching of history needs to adopt a new approach where history should no longer be stereotyped – archaeology will be valuable in this respect.
Lenasia High School

The introduction of a ‘Pre-History’ or Archaeological component into the South African School History syllabus in 1995 represented an important milestone in curriculum development. For the first time all South Africans could be formally introduced to the long, rich and uniquely African history of their country. Furthermore, the ‘Pre-History’ component provides teachers with an opportunity to explore the use of an archaeological approach to teaching history. We argue such an approach offers an important means through which children can master the skills of historical enquiry and by which teachers can achieve the aims and outcomes of the New Qualification Framework so that history can be re-vitalised through inter-disciplinary networking.

The problem to date is that very little support or resource material has been made available to teachers by the Department of Education, and textbooks often ignore, marginalise or provide little useful information on South African archaeology. Teachers, especially those working with economically disadvantaged communities, where texts are often lacking, outdated or unaffordable, are apprehensive about their lack of knowledge about archaeology and how it should be taught. In order to address this problem we have begun to work with teachers and within various economically disadvantaged communities in Soweto and Lenasia near Johannesburg.

These teachers have been eager to apply the new information and have provided positive feedback:

This is an effective means through which teachers can introduce and dispel issues relating to race, and restore a sense of heritage to all South Africans. Zodiac Primary School
A very innovative way of presenting history. It’s a break from the past, textbook approach. Sekano-Ntoane Secondary School
Pupils are able to see, touch objects before them and they will not be able to forget the lesson. Ngunghunyani Secondary School
It teaches a child about biology and science at the same time they learn about ancient history. Khauhelo Junior Primary School
I think it is good if pupils are taught archaeology, because it helps them develop creative thinking and enjoy most aspects taught.

Dikgabane Primary School

In order to provide teachers with a more permanent support system the Department of Archaeology, University of the Witwatersrand, is looking to establish an Archaeological Resource Development Project (ARDP). This project will adopt a two-pronged approach that will involve both the teaching and university communities. In this way both qualified and prospective teachers can acquire access to archaeological resources and students of Archaeology and History can be trained in educational and public concerns. It is further hoped that this project will impact on future school curriculum development.

Department of Archaeology
University of the Witwatersrand
PO Wits 2050
South Africa


The transformations and future of South African archaeology
Martin Hall
Archaeologists love phases, so perhaps we could look at the history of our discipline as a series of slow, static ages separated by episodes of intense change. In this view, the founding ‘fathers’ of South African archaeology, A.J.H. Goodwin and C. Van Riet Lowe’s dynamic co-operation and competition in the 1920s – 1940s would give way to a slower period of consolidation, during which knowledge of the Stone Age was widened and strengthened. A second transformation came with the application of radiocarbon dating and the development of the Iron Age as a concept – within a few years archaeologists had discredited the convenient old myth that African farmers moved south of the Limpopo at the same time that Europeans colonised the Cape – and fifteen hundred years was added to South African history. Another transformation came with new insights into rock art in the 1970s and 1980s showing that, far from being the artistic doodles of primitive minds, southern African rock art is related to a reality that we struggle to conceptualise in our academic language. Since then, the neuropsychological and shamanistic hypotheses have become so widely accepted in professional archaeological circles that it seems difficult to imagine that we were ever without them.

So what of archaeology at the close of the millennium? South Africa is presently the national paragon of political change. As archaeologists working in South Africa, we have been transformed from pariahs to exotic collectibles; everyone wants us in their edited volumes and at their conference sessions. From being the raison d’être for the formation of the first World Archaeological Congress in 1986, we are to be the hosts of its fourth meeting in early 1999 (see ‘Conference calendar’). We could say that we are in the midst of yet another transformation in our discipline.

Of course a lot has changed in South Africa. But a great deal also remains, distressingly, the same. As far as archaeology is concerned, we still do not have a school curriculum that expresses the full depth and richness of human experience. Embarrassingly, in a part of the world that may have hosted some of the earliest morphologically modern humans (see article by Wurz), human evolution is still not taught at the core of our science education. For most ordinary South Africans, archaeology and its discoveries are as mysterious as they have always been. There are few popular books about our archaeological past (see ‘Suggested Reading’) and, at the very time they should be expanding their horizons, museums are facing unprecedented budget cuts. Not surprisingly, many of the old racist myths about Africa and the African past still prosper, hindering the development of an informed national consciousness.

There are also disturbing symptoms within the profession. Fewer students than ever before are choosing courses in archaeology at South African universities, and fewer still are electing to major in the subject. At a time of substantial cutbacks in university funding, this makes our Departments of Archaeology vulnerable (see article by Schoeman et al.). Fewer archaeologists than ever before are applying for research grants from government agencies, and this makes funding categories vulnerable as agency managers look for ways to balance their budgets. Despite vigorous campaigns and bursary schemes, we are finding it difficult to attract black students to the discipline, or even a representative cross-section of South Africans to our public lectures and open courses. To any outsider, archaeology in the ‘New South Africa’ must seem very white.

Consequently, the decade between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his appearance on the podium as Patron of the Fourth World Archaeological Congress might witness the cruellest period of change in the discipline of archaeology.

Department of Archaeology
University of Cape Town
Private Bag
South Africa


Heritage conservation, small-scale mining and the role of public archaeology
David Morris
Our archaeological heritage is fragile enough without the impacts of development. In the past, South Africa’s National Monuments Act was interpreted such that mining and agriculture – the activities that most heavily impact archaeological sites – were exempt from certain critical provisions (see article by Deacon). The result has been, in MacIntosh’s apt phrase, an ongoing “haemorrhaging of Africa’s past” (see ‘Suggested Reading’). The new realities of development in South Africa highlight the need for public archaeology to promote heritage awareness and conservation at community level.

Some of the issues of conservation versus development were thrown into sharp relief early in 1997 at a site near Barkly West in the Northern Cape Province when the Provincial Minister of Agriculture and Land Reform officially declared open an alluvial diamond mining site for the African United Small Miners Association. The Department of Mineral and Energy Affairs issued permits whose only requirement in terms of heritage sites was a statement by the applicants as to whether he or she knew of any archaeological or cultural resources that would be impacted. In fact, the mining site abuts the declared National Monument of Canteen Koppie where rich and well-preserved Victoria West and early Acheulean units, estimated to be up to 1,4 million years old, have been documented. Prospecting pits dug by the miners indicated that the archaeological site extends into the mining area.

Access to mining permits, long denied to black miners, had been broadened in the 1990s, and pressure was soon exerted for re-opening the Canteen Koppie diggings. Mining permits continued to be issued for dozens of similar locales along the Vaal River and elsewhere, many of which impact on archaeological sites.

In the case of Canteen Koppie, the National Monuments Council was able successfully to test in court a new interpretation of the Act – namely that while key provisions do not apply to the removal of archaeological implements during mining – it does not exempt mining from requiring a permit to disturb, damage, excavate or alter the site. The miners have since applied for permits, which have been granted with provisos concerning archaeological documentation and salvage.

The case was widely reported in the press. The Provincial Minister of Agriculture and Land Reform and the miners felt that it was possible to rehabilitate the site after extracting the diamonds – that the project would provide jobs for 200 miners and generate funds to conserve the site and establish an open-air museum. In response, the National Monuments Council pointed out that the mining process would totally destroy the archaeological aspect of the site.

At issue is the conflicting nature and value of archaeological resources; a conflict heightened by the lure of diamonds and their glittering promise to an underdeveloped community. Yet many community members were supportive of efforts to conserve and develop the site as a tourism and educational facility with long-term spin-offs for the people of Barkly West. Some people were probably aware that mining of the site would be of finite duration and the benefits limited.

Even this partial support for conservation would almost certainly not have existed at all had the archaeologists involved not participated in community consultation from 1995 and formed a provisional local heritage committee (with small miner representation). An application for Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) funding for developing the site emerged from these meetings. One of the RDP principles is “to link culture firmly to areas of national priority … to ensure that culture is entrenched as a fundamental component of development”. The funding has not yet materialised.

The Canteen Koppie experience highlights some of the needs for public archaeology development in South Africa. Communities such as those at Barkly West lack background knowledge to most of the heritage sites in their environment. High levels of unemployment within such a community do not augur well for conservation when these same heritage sites also happen to contain diamonds. The concept of ‘developer pays’ is rather meaningless in this context. Conveying the message that heritage sites are unique, non-renewable and can be of long-term benefit and meaning (in often intangible ways) to the local people is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that public archaeology in situations such as these will have to meet.

McGregor Museum
Museums Northern Cape
PO Box 316
South Africa


Challenging perspectives from our past: a student view
Alex Schoeman, Kim Sales and Joanna Behrens
Archaeology, like so much else in South Africa, faces an exciting transitory period dominated by challenges to the way in which we produce our past and its articulation with wider social responsibilities. This has implications both for the training of archaeologists and the practise of archaeology. There are two key issues: education and employment and consultation.

First, the changes in South Africa since 1994 have resulted in slow increases in the number of students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds enrolling for archaeology courses. The correction in student demographics raises a number of challenges which stem principally from the inadequate schooling the majority of these students have received (see article by Esterhuysen and Smith).

These challenges should be dealt with through evaluating and adjusting current methods of teaching and entrenching programmes to assist students with the challenges of university study. Indeed, it is ironic that as the appropriateness of traditional lecturing methods is raised for debate, major universities are pruning established support structures. One solution may lie in the interactive, tutorial-based systems successfully precedented at a number of international universities. Such an approach would also facilitate a re-negotiation of course content as the opportunity arises for the expression of multiple, but not unbalanced perspectives in the production of South Africa’s past (see article by Blundell).

Developing a new approach to the discipline is hampered by the redistribution of state subsidies to universities. These financial cuts will make it difficult for the next generation of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to pursue postgraduate research and compounds existing problems of access to current literature. Circumvention of these issues is possible by obtaining sponsorships for postgraduate research, conducting income-producing field schools to help fund research, ensuring that all students have access to journals via the internet and journal and book sharing between departments and institutions.

With the growing number of archaeology graduates comes the paradoxical need to generate employment at a time when institutional posts across the country are being frozen. Potential employment lies in the development of Cultural Resources Management (CRM) work. It is, therefore, necessary to produce graduates with skills appropriate to contract work and avoid exacerbating the dichotomy already evident between academic archaeology and contract archaeology. For this reason, the affiliation of the national CRM controlling body with the Southern African Association of Archaeologists represents a positive step. In our day-to-day practise we need to ensure that meaningful contact is maintained between contract archaeology and academic archaeology and that the results of contract work become widely available.

A second key issue facing archaeology is consultation and the need to recognise the interests and rights of communities. Clearly, our definition of ‘community’ must include direct descendants with historic links to archaeological sites and objects, people resident in the area, people forcibly removed from areas under Apartheid legislation and so forth. It is essential that we consult with stakeholders and work with them in the process of excavating or studying sites. To ensure accountability to communities, consultation procedures should become a National Monuments Council permit requirement.

This accountability process raises a number of challenges such as the identification of the ‘appropriate’ community; whether it is appropriate to work with the ‘traditional’ or the ‘political’ leaders where both lay claim to a site, how to deal with land claims regarding more recent sites or how to deal with more than one community claiming site ownership. A number of these problems can be more easily resolved by working across disciplines, for example, with Social Anthropologists or Sociologists during consultation.

There are numerous positive aspects to a community based approached, such as gaining access to local oral histories about the sites and facilitating community understanding of archaeology and the value of archaeological remains. This will, in turn, promote the conservation of sites and the empowerment of communities. Furthermore, a proactive approach will prevent possible community backlashes, and we have the advantage of learning from the consultation experiences of archaeologists in Australia and North America.

Addressing these issues in a creative manner is essential if we are successfully to meet the challenges of producing accounts of the past that incorporate more voices. The continued growth and pertinence of archaeology in South Africa depends on our constructive engagement within and outside the discipline.

Department of Archaeology
University of the Witwatersrand
PO Wits 2050
South Africa


San rock art in contemporary South Africa
Anne Solomon
Houses, health services, education, water, jobs – these are South Africa’s current and persistent priorities. Conserving and researching the extraordinary wealth of San or ‘Bushman’ rock art is not on the priority list. Although there are large areas of the country which remain archaeologically under-explored – and the rock art unrecorded – only a handful of people work full-time with the art. The massive and frustrating problems of dating (see ‘Bits and bobs) and of establishing archaeological and historical contexts for the art, further nudge rock art research to the edge of mainstream archaeological research. The fate of the San – dispersal, absorption and, in some cases, extermination – means that there are no direct descendants to act as cultural custodians. Yet the art is unique in South Africa’s abundant archaeological record and demands acknowledgement as one of the most precious components of our cultural heritage.

That San rock art has a place in the newly developing cultural forms of post-Apartheid South Africa has long been recognised by contemporary artists, who have incorporated San images into their works. Within the discipline of archaeology there is a more compelling reason for concentrating more attention on the art: here we see the San imaging themselves and their history. Although our knowledge of it is inevitably filtered through contemporary consciousness the rock art – perhaps more so than other material debris from past lives – provides some small window into the ideologies, intellectual traditions and most importantly, the imagination of the San.

Since the nineteenth century, it has been clear that understanding the art requires a journey into the world of San thought. Nineteenth century ethnographies, which include hundreds of accounts of myths, narratives, stories and traditional ‘customs and beliefs’, provide many insights into the experience of some San speakers of the recent past. As researchers such as Patricia Vinnicombe and David Lewis-Williams have shown, studying the art and ethnographies in tandem is a fruitful way of coming to grips with the San conceptual universe which differs in so many ways from our own.

Rock art research in South African archaeology has, in many ways, developed along a different trajectory from ‘mainstream’ archaeology in terms of its theoretical underpinnings, the kinds of questions posed and (sometimes) answered and the extent to which researchers must mediate their own cultural biases. The innovations in rock art research in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as Lewis-Williams’ critiques of empiricism in archaeological interpretation, prefigured and fuelled the ‘interpretive’ turn in the last decade or so of South African archaeology. As ‘art’, the visual traditions of the San have been at the forefront of the interface between archaeological knowledge and practise, on the one hand, and the cultural life of a new(-ish) nation on the other. The extraordinary range of the art in terms of form, media, styles, and techniques captures the public imagination, as does its striking artistic skill and beauty. As an historical resource the art is virtually unparalleled. Why then do the concerns voiced in the correspondence which led up to the 1911 Bushman Relics Protection Act sound so familiar nearly a century later?

According to Vinnicombe there was “a burst of interest in rock paintings” shortly after the turn of the century. Attention was drawn to the paintings and engravings as the sole record of a vanishing people: to the problems of natural decay, vandalism and “wanton destruction”. As the millennium approaches, much has been done by bodies such as the National Monuments Council to protect the art and to educate the public as to its cultural value. Yet the vandals are still active and there are, to my knowledge, only four permanent posts for rock art specialists – in a country which may have as many as ten thousand rock art sites. The need for large-scale survey and recording programs is almost as pressing now as it was ninety years ago, especially as new technologies and research questions develop.

On the positive side, the political changes in South Africa have created a climate for wide public interest in San art, as well as other indigenous art traditions. It is becoming more widely realised that the art is more than a curious relic from the past – it is also a resource for the future.

If the deserts are on the march, are African pastoralists really to blame?
John Kinahan
Starving children, cattle dead from thirst in a landscape of stunted trees and shifting sand: these are familiar images of misery in the more arid and marginal areas of Africa as perceived by the outside world. While observers acknowledge the great complexity of the social and economic processes that conspire in the suffering of rural Africans, most agree that catastrophe awaits unless the desertification of the continent is slowed or averted. So pervasive and so obviously commonsensical is this view that it forms the unquestioned premise that initiates often desperate interventions by African governments and the international community.

Africans – more particularly pastoralists – have only themselves to blame, say ecologists and conservationists who subscribe to the neo-Malthusian views on which desertification narratives are usually based. Hardin’s influential but critically flawed ‘tragedy of the commons’ is one pillar of the argument that pastoralists, having literally grazed themselves off the map on Africa’s advancing desert fringes, are a continuing threat to the natural environment. Equilibrium, it is claimed, cannot be maintained in savannah ecosystems under traditional herding practises unless herding is subject to rigorous management with strictly controlled stocking rates.

This somewhat authoritarian approach is under increasing attack from new research forming the basis of a counter-narrative to received wisdom on the African environment. Equilibrium models and the notion of ecological climax have given way to a more subtle and nuanced understanding in which traditional herding practices are seen to be based on an alternative ecology that has much to teach its formal scientific counterpart. Furthermore, empirical weaknesses in the conventional view, with its doomsday projections of famine and disaster, have identified several areas that require more study. One such area comprises detailed comparative histories of pastoral landuse which matches settlement data to small-scale environmental changes.

Historical or ‘time series’ data, are extremely difficult to obtain for hyper-arid parts of Africa, where populations are mobile and often mistrustful of administrative interference. Coarse-grained data may be derived from human and livestock census results, old aerial photographs and modern remote sensing, but these data provide flimsy support for models of herding strategy and decision-making that directly reflect the interface between pastoral communities and their environment. Very detailed information on the size, positioning and duration of settlement over many decades is required: information that often lies beyond the reach of reliable memory but which is well within the territory of archaeological research.

It is surprising and disappointing that, in spite of this obvious need, archaeologists have hardly addressed the modern implications of the earlier material record. Indeed, most archaeologists with an interest in African pastoralism continue to apply outmoded concepts of savannah ecology within a framework derived either from static artefact typologies and sequences or from the frequently unreliable observations of early colonial administrators and travellers. Although these approaches have been criticised in archaeological debates and hold little promise for a better historical understanding of modern pastoral landuse and its environmental consequences, they do not exhaust the potential for an archaeological contribution.

Archaeological techniques and the lessons of experimental studies in site formation and taphonomy can provide valuable insights that are not easily gained from the new ecological investigations of African pastoralism. One of the most useful contributions would be detailed transformation models which track the physical processes involved in the gradual disintegration and disappearance of abandoned pastoral encampments. An improved understanding of these processes could provide a means to develop finer-grained landuse histories than are presently available. This, in turn, might serve as an adjunct to both oral history and formal ecology in a more holistic approach to the environmental issues of pastoral landuse.

This year a new pastoral research project which aims to address this range of problems was launched under the umbrella of the regional project ‘Human Responses and Contributions to Environmental Change in Africa’ (see article by Pikirayi), co-ordinated by the Sub-Department of African and Contemporary Archaeology at Uppsala University in Sweden. The pastoral project will run over three years, with fieldwork concentrated in north-western Namibia, central Tanzania and southern Eritrea. It is intended that the project be integrated with related research in the same areas so that some results can be fed directly into other ongoing development research. Bearing in mind the WAC commitment to the interests of indigenous communities in archaeological research, any comments and suggestions from readers would be greatly appreciated.

PO Box 22407


Going social in the Thukela Basin, South Africa
Aron Mazel
Extensive research into Holocene Thukela Basin hunter-gatherer history began in 1980 with an excavation programme which has seen the excavation of fifteen rock shelters. The Thukela Basin, situated in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, stretches from the Drakensberg Mountains in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east, and contains a series of archaeological zones each with a different mix of resources. Initial research was aimed at establishing how hunter-gatherers exploited differing resources available in these zones and how this influenced their material culture. I soon came to appreciate that this type of ecological approach was seriously flawed as the environment was perceived, primarily through the concept of adaptation, as a deterministic explanatory mechanism. As many others have argued, this approach is inadequate in documenting and understanding the actions of past people. Furthermore, this approach promotes the view that people are helpless spectators always subject to external forces.

With this realisation, my focus changed to the construction of a social history for the Thukela Basin hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherer history, as with all human history, is socially constituted and doing proper justice to it requires consideration of social issues. In pursuing this goal, there are many factors that require attention – such as changing environments, availability of raw materials and so forth – which should be used to inform but not govern the construction of hunter-gatherer social history. Some of the topics I have investigated during the research programme include; the importance of place; intensification of subsistence practices; articulation between the social relations of production and forces of production with an emphasis on gender relations; and interactions between hunter-gatherers and agriculturists during the last 2000 years.

I now focus on the social development of Thukela Basin hunter-gatherer society as this provides the backdrop against which other scenarios have been developed. This exercise has been informed by close examination of the material culture record and an investigation of differing social hierarchy schemes and identification of levels of organisation. I have also tried to develop a better understanding of the identification of social entities in the archaeological record.

The alliance network was identified as an appropriate level at which to tackle social (re)structuring. I have used the term ‘social region’ to apply to an area encompassed by an alliance network. Social regions have been viewed as geographical areas containing distinct groups of bands integrated through a dynamic network of social interaction into a cohesive social unit able to reproduce itself socially and economically. Individuals and groups would have been linked into local and regional processes of social reproduction through these networks. This approach has enabled me to do an on-the-ground analysis of these entities and in particular their spatial parameters and temporal development.

In trying to identify these alliance networks, I established that a wide range of material culture would be useful in this exercise: stone tools, raw materials, ochre, modified bone, ostrich eggshell pieces, beads and marine shells. I have concentrated on the spatial and temporal distributions of these items.

Acquiring an increasingly deeper understanding of the social development of Thukela Basin 10 000 – 2000 b.p. hunter-gatherer society has been an ongoing exercise as each excavation usually produces refinements to this scheme. At present, I believe that this society experienced four phases of social development. The first phase (ca. 10 000 – 7000 b.p.) relates to hunter-gatherer re-occupation of the Thukela Basin following a hiatus of more than 20 000 years. During this time there was a social region focused on the eastern Biggarsberg in the north-east. The second phase (ca. 7000 – 4000 b.p.) relates to the spread of hunter-gatherers into large parts of the Basin during which time there would have been one large social region. The latter part of this phase witnessed considerable restructuring associated with population growth, resulting in the emergence around 4000 b.p. of three, or perhaps four, alliance networks in the area previously occupied by one. This short period of flux has been viewed as the third phase. These alliance networks persisted until 2000 b.p. when internal social and economic factors along with the arrival of agriculturists influenced further changes, and this has been considered the fourth phase.

Many challenges still remain in developing a deeper understanding of Thukela Basin hunter-gatherer history – these will be tackled through the excavation of more rock shelters in areas which require further coverage and the ongoing development of theoretical models.

South African Cultural History Museum

Lesotho archaeology in the 1990s
Peter J. Mitchell
The last ten years have witnessed a major upsurge of archaeological research in Lesotho. Having previously worked in Lesotho’s western lowlands, in 1992 my attention turned to the eastern highlands commencing with the re-excavation of Sehonghong, a painted shelter first investigated in 1971. Sehonghong is one of the very few sites in southern Africa to combine a long sequence of Late Quaternary human occupation with high quality organic preservation. Though faunal and botanical analyses are not yet completed, it is clear that Sehonghong has a much more complex occupation history than previously thought and that occupations were highly ‘pulsed’ (intriguingly, many of these pulses can be paralleled at sites as far away as the Atlantic coast north of Cape Town). Sehonghong also formed part of a shifting system of exchange networks linking South Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard to the central plateau.

In 1995 I began the exploration of Likoaieng, a riverine, open-air forager living site a few kilometres from Sehonghong that has produced a sequence of late Holocene occupations with excellent faunal preservation and, in some cases, only minimal post-depositional disturbance. Likoaieng promises to contribute much to understanding the circumstances in which southern African hunter-gatherers intensified their use of riverine resources, as well as the ways in which people organised themselves spatially in the production, consumption and disposal of artefacts and food. Particularly to investigate the site’s spatial organisation, Susan Kent (Old Dominion University, Virginia) and I plan further excavations in 1998.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a massive scheme to dam successive stretches of the rivers in Lesotho’s mountains and transfer the water northward into South Africa, is having major impacts on all aspects of the country’s development, including archaeology. The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) has, for example, commissioned surveys to assess the likely impact of construction work on open-air artefact scatters, painted shelters and other archaeological sites – excavations have also taken place at four shelters, all of which have produced evidence of Holocene forager occupation. LHDA’s area of operation is likely to extend into the Sehonghong stretch of the Senqu (Orange) River Valley early in the next century, providing an additional imperative for our current work at Likoaieng. This highland area, in which Sehonghong and Melikane shelters are among the very few sites at which paintings were directly interpreted in the 1870s by Qing (a San informant), has also recently re-entered debates on southern African rock art. Taking on board the strong archaeological and historical evidence for interaction between hunter-gatherers and black farmers in recent centuries, Pieter Jolly urges archaeologists to broaden their analyses of rock art – specifically the key scenes of rain-making and trance from Sehonghong and Melikane – to include the belief systems of both Sotho-Tswana and Nguni-speaking farming communities.

Unfortunately, little of this archaeological work has been undertaken by indigenous scholars and Lesotho still lacks a National Museum, although the Evangelical Church’s Archives and Museum at Morija have developed greatly over the last ten years. Yet, despite acute financial difficulties, some progress has been made. Taole Tesele, archaeologist with LHDA and one of the foremost rock art photographers and recorders in southern Africa, completed an Honours degree in Archaeology at the University of Cape Town in 1994, and is now carrying out research for his MA. UNESCO-sponsored excavations carried out in 1995 by Cobus Dreyer (National Museum, Bloemfontein) at Thaba Bosiu National Monument, the capital of Lesotho’s first king and centre of its mid-nineteenth century struggle for independence, have also provided practical experience of archaeology for a recent graduate of the National University of Lesotho, Emily Lebeko. The Lesotho Protection and Preservation Commission, which is responsible for the conservation of Lesotho’s archaeological heritage, has plans for further training of suitable students in the future. It is to be hoped that funding will be found to sustain this and thus create increasing opportunities for Basotho archaeologists to investigate their country’s rich and diverse past.

Pitt Rivers Museum
University of Oxford
Oxford OX2 6PN
United Kingdom


The current state of archaeology in Zimbabwe
Innocent Pikirayi
A number of archaeological projects are currently running in Zimbabwe. Survey work has resumed in the Dande area of northern Zimbabwe under the direction of Gilbert Pwiti (University of Zimbabwe) with a focus on first millennium AD farming communities. Above the Zimbabwe Escarpment, which marks the northern edges of the Zimbabwe Plateau, excavations are scheduled on two Great Zimbabwe phase sites located near Mount Fura for September/October. This area was once under the control of the historical Mutapa state. These excavations will be directed by Innocent Pikirayi (University of Zimbabwe). The project – ‘Iron Age in northern Zimbabwe’ – is funded by SIDA/SAREC and is set to receive more funding that will see it continue beyond the year 2000.

Webber Ndoro, also from the University of Zimbabwe, is in charge of the project entitled ‘Human Responses and Contributions to Environmental Change in Africa’ (see article by Kinahan) – a project also funded by SIDA/SAREC. The project focuses on the area around Great Zimbabwe, the middle Shashi-Limpopo Basin and the Matopos Mountains. Survey and excavation work has already been conducted in the Mwenezi District and attempts are being made to link up with the research conducted in the Shashi-Limpopo Basin by researchers based in Botswana and South Africa.

A lot more information is now available following the detailed survey and excavations conducted by Robert Soper (University of Zimbabwe) on the later farming communities of Nyanga. These communities are connected with a fort, pit and terrace complex. The Nyanga project, which is sponsored by the British Institute in Eastern Africa, is expected to result in a major report in 1998.

The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe

(NMMZ) is continuing conservation and preservation work on major monuments such as Danangombe, Great Zimbabwe, Khami and Naletale. Major excavations are scheduled for July at the late nineteenth century Ndebele capital of Old Bulawayo as part of an ongoing research project between the University of Birmingham and the NMMZ.

History Department
University of Zimbabwe
PO Box MP 167
Mount Pleasant


Archaeological News from Botswana
Alinah Segobye
We have gone through yet another year of growth at the Archaeology Unit, University of Botswana. Our student intake has increased slightly at second year level and students are eager to find out more about our program. In addition, the National Museum, Monuments and Art Gallery has employed some of our 1996 graduates which was a major boost to student job prospects.

The Unit is running several research projects. The longest running project is the Landscape History Project funded by SIDA/SAREC which involves mapping, survey and oral history research at Phalatswe, the nineteenth century Bangwato capital in the Tswapong hills. The project participants have included Dr Alinah Segobye and Dr Paul Lane from the Unit and Dr Mats Widgren and Dr Annika Dahlberg from the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Through this project, a Motswana student is soon to complete an MA in Landscape History on Batswapong – Bangwato relations in the nineteenth century. The other SIDA/SAREC funded project directed by Dr Alinah Segobye and Dr Andrew Reid is focusing on the Holocene impact of human settlement in the Makgadikgadi area and has produced the locations and mapping of settlements from early prehistoric periods to more recent occupations. Research into the presence of early pastoralism in northern Botswana’s Okavango area has formed part of a series of discussions and publications on early pastoralism in southern Africa with Drs Karim Sadr, Andrew Reid and Mr Nick Hanson-James as the principal researchers. A project funded by NUFU (Norway) has started in the Ngamiland area focusing on Basarwa (San) communities and forms part of a University-wide program aimed at developing and co-ordinating Basarwa studies.

Last season’s fieldwork included work started by Dr Alinah Segobye in 1987 in eastern Botswana’s Mokgware hills investigating settlements of early farming communities with vitrified dung middens. In the south research was carried out in the Thumaga area by Dr Karim Sadr to investigate Late Stone Age and early farming societies’ interactions which might have contributed to the end of the these Late Stone Age communities. Final salvage-based investigations were carried out in Ntsweng, the recent historic capital of Bakwena, which has been destroyed by bulldozers. Mr Alfred Tsheboeng continued work on his doctoral thesis on stone-walled settlements in the eastern part of the country.

There has been a growing concern for archaeological impact assessment in Botswana and increasingly Government departments and the private sector have engaged archaeologists from the University to carry out pre-development impact assessment. This approach provides us with an opportunity to publicise archaeology and also provides an avenue for employment.

In October 1996 the Unit organised a conference on the ‘Archaeology of Botswana’ from which a book offering, for the first time, a synthesis of the archaeology of Botswana will be produced. The symposium attracted an international gathering including Professors Alison Brooks, Jim Denbow, Tom Huffman and Larry Robbins. Student research projects have contributed a lot to Botswana’s archaeology with more than eight dissertations produced to date. We hope to widen our range and scope of publications to include more popular publications such as the National Museum’s popular newsletter The Zebra’s Voice. The Unit continues to improve its links with other departments and institutions regionally, including South Africa which has, until recently, been a no-go area as far as formal links were concerned (see articles by Engela and Hall). The next few years should prove to be exciting with WAC 4 coming to the region in 1999 (see ‘Conference calendar’).

The University now has a Motswana lecturer in museum studies who has more than 10 years experience as a museologist. She is developing short term courses in museology in addition to full courses which should prove attractive regionally and internationally (see ‘Bits and Bobs’).

There is increasing interest in Government to promote tourism and we are trying to cultivate a niche for archaeology within this sector by encouraging the national and regional museums to liase with Government departments to improve the presentation of heritage sites. As a start, sites such as Kolobeng (Livingstone’s place), Manyana rock shelter and Matsieng rock engraving site are being developed with local community involvement. The Tsodilo hills project is still in the process of being developed but will hopefully attract many visitors to the magnificent Okavango.

Archaeology Unit
History Department
University of Botswana
Private Bag 0022


The evolution of the modern mind
Sarah Wurz
The study of the evolution of the modern mind – a major focus of Palaeolithic archaeology – is plagued by problems of definition and lacks an explicit methodology. The conventionally recognised behavioural correlates of the ‘modern’ mind are often defined in terms of accommodative, post hoc arguments. These behavioural correlates are associated with the Cro Magnons of the European Upper Palaeolithic and include: art, blade and burin technology, decoration, personal ornament and burials – all of which are considered markers of modern human behaviour. Rather than reifying these marker traits through Eurocentric thinking, we need to ask why one specific constellation of traits is associated with Cro Magnons but not with other morphologically modern humans.

A species is differentiated by both its unique behaviour and anatomical features. Thus, after the emergence of morphologically modern people a unique constellation of archaeologically recognisable behaviours which are denotative of the evolution of the modern mind appeared. Some of the oldest and most informative remains of morphologically modern people are to be found at African sites such as the Klasies River Mouth sites in South Africa. The main evidence for past behaviour at these and comparable sites comprises Middle Stone Age stone artefacts.

How do we reach into the minds of the stone tool makers and what criteria should be used to infer ‘modern’ behaviour? A chaîne opératoire approach – with its focus on the life history of a tool – is used to study symbolism in stone artefacts and is useful as symbolism is widely accepted as a pervasive marker for modern behaviour. The Howiesons Poort lithic industry, known from Africa south of the Zambezi, is distinctive in its typological novelty within an otherwise relatively homogenous Middle Stone Age. This novelty lies in the manufacture of geometrically shaped backed tools. The Howiesons Poort backed tools, determined at greater than 70 000 b.p., are the oldest known examples of a major class of artefacts – backed tools – that are universally associated with morphologically modern humans and cognition. The chaîne opératoire approach to the study of the Howiesons Poort demonstrates that backed artefacts are not chance products or the result of the definition of arbitrary types but constitute material culture imbued with symbolism.

In the Howiesons Poort, siliceous stone with good conchoidal fracture properties – an often scarce and difficult to obtain raw material – was preferred for making backed tools like trapezes and segments; a selective process indicative of a special value attached to these lithics which indicates that backed tools fulfilled both a symbolic and a functional role. Backed artefact inserts mounted in composite tools like spears and used in reciprocal exchanges between males is one possible explanation for the emergence of Howiesons Poort technology. This interpretation is based on cautious inference from known ethnographic forager groups who exchange artefacts like arrows in order to maintain and strengthen social bonds. Why enhance the value of backed tools by selecting exotic raw materials if not to exchange them?

An analysis of the techniques employed to manufacture Howiesons Poort artefacts shows that a special technique was used to manufacture the blades that served as blanks for trapezes and segments. The platforms of these blades are small, plain and set at an angle to the main axis of the blank. In addition, a lip and the absence of a bulb of percussion points to the use of a flexible punch, a precocious technology usually associated with the more recent Late Stone Age. The importance of the Howiesons Poort is that it indicates an early Late Pleistocene pool of technical expertise. The choice of a special technique for the production of the backed artefacts is as much an indication of symbolism as is raw material preference. Is the absence of raw material preference and sophisticated flaking techniques in the rest of the Middle Stone Age then an indication of ‘non-modern’ behaviour? Not necessarily, as it can be argued that if humans with modern behavioural capacities used a changing and various media to express symbolic components of behaviour at differing intensities then this would reflect in the archaeological record as the ‘switched on’ or ‘switched to’ expression in different kinds of material culture. The kind of expression evident in the Howiesons Poort is simply more obvious in the stone tool component than in other sub-stages of the Middle Stone Age.

Archaeology Department
University of Stellenbosch
South Africa