Archaeology is the study of the material traces of past human activity; a set of methods and techniques used for writing history based on the material remains that humans leave behind. It covers the span of time from our earliest ancestors, and in principle extends to within moments of the present. It is most commonly applied to periods for which there is little record except the material one. Archaeology is often said to be the study of stones, old bones, and ancient monuments: but it is, of course, ultimately, a study of and for people.
Research is based on fieldwork (surveys and excavations) and analysis of existing collections. Upgraded archiving of the collections enhances their value as research collections. Current projects reflect research initiated by the museum as well as a range of collaborative ventures with or by visiting researchers. Research feeds directly into the museum’s display and education programmes and is vital to keeping these programmes current and dynamic.
The McGregor Museum’s archaeology collection dates back to 1908 when Maria Wilman, first museum director, accessioned the first items.
The Wilman Years
Maria Wilman, Cambridge educated daughter of the Karoo, produced a paper on the rock paintings at Ntlo-Kholo, Lesotho, as the museums first publication in 1911. Alongside her active pursuits in other fields, she continued to amass data on rock engravings around Kimberley, in the Karoo and as far afield as Botswana. These records, with photographs and rubbings she made, were published in 1933 in a book that was the standard text on this art for more than four decades.
In 1944 Dorothea Bleek – daughter of the renowned Dr W.H.I. Bleek of watercolours and pencil drawings of rock engravings, made by George William Stow when he was on the Diamond Fields in the early 1870s. The set includes seven copies of engravings from Riverton, a site which was submerged when the present weir was built in 1906.
Power and Swan
John Power became director of the museum after Miss Wilman’s retirement in 1946. His fine watercolours and rubbings of rock art supplemented the collection. He published remarks on the Driekopseiland rock engraving site. His contribution to the museum’s archaeological collections in general, from the days of his youth in Kimberley, was enormous. James Swan, a noted amateur archaeologist and collector, recorded rock paintings along the Ghaap Escarpment. He left a bequest in the form of the Swan Fund, administered by Oxford University, which continues to support archaeological research in South Africa.
Gerhard and Dora Fock
Dr G.J. Fock came to the McGregor Museum in 1958 as South he and his wife, Dora Fock, spent weekends recording local rock engravings – carrying on where Wilman had left off. Following Fock’s retirement in 1967, their quest for recording rock art became a full-time project. Between them they produced more than 120 publications, lectures and exhibits on the art – including three books in their Felsbilder in Südafrika series. Their collection was donated to the McGregor Museum in 1987.
Northern Cape Rock Art Trust
In 2001 the McGregor Museum, along with colleagues in the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and other stakeholders in the Northern Cape, contributed to a project funded by the national Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism, to develop sustainable public access to rock art in the Kimberley area. One of the express conditions was that the development should generate jobs as part of poverty alleviation. The first phase has seen the opening of the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre. Furtherance of the project and its overall aims is now ensured by the formation of the Northern Cape Rock Art Trust, with trustees including representatives of Khoe-San communities and organisations, and experts on rock art.
Research is based on fieldwork (surveys and excavations) and analysis of existing collections. Upgraded archiving of the collections enhances their value as research collections.
Current projects reflect research initiated by the museum as well as a range of collaborative ventures with or by visiting researchers.
Archaeological Data Recording Centre.
A major undertaking from the late 1980s has been computerisation of records (1908 to the present), part of a general upgrading of the archaeological archive for the Northern Cape.
Museums and universities around the world often keep human remains from archaeological sites – and face issues concerning their respectful treatment in relation to changing attitudes.
But there are sometimes remains with a rather different history, obtained – often in the name of science – by the robbing of graves of recently dead individuals. Trafficking in so-called Bushman “relics” has emerged as part of the colonial legacy of museums in South Africa and Europe.
As archaeologists and museologists at the McGregor Museum we condemn these practices unconditionally.
Some of the atrocities are revealed in the paper by Martin Legassick and Ciraj Rassool, which the South African Museum (Cape Town) and the McGregor Museum (Kimberley) have now jointly published. This important work will help museums to redress the wrongs of the past.
Reverence for the dead, past and present, makes human remains the most sensitive of materials that archaeologists are likely to uncover. Skeletons and grave goods are today treated with the utmost dignity and, where possible, living descendants are brought into negotiated partnerships in the management of sensitive material. Graves are not disturbed unless for very good reason
The treatment of sensitive collections began to be debated in museums, and displays with human remains were removed in the years that followed.
Codes of ethics in the archaeological and museum professions were revised with respect to the handling of burials and human remains.
The Museums Association Conference in Kimberley adopted a resolution calling for the return of the remains of Saartje Baartman, and for a workshop (also held in 1996) to address the issues around human remains in museums. Funding was not forthcoming to implement all the recommendations.
The McGregor Museum’s “Ancestors” display acknowledged past atrocities.
Publication of “Skeletons in The Cupboard” by the South African Museum (Cape Town) and McGregor Museum (Kimberley).
Workshop on “Human Remains in the Museum’s Collection”.
From the revelations in Legassick and Rassool’s publication, it appears possible that up to 30 skeletons in the McGregor Museum collection may have been obtained by unethical means. We need to identify which these are, and to deal appropriately with the remains that were subject to atrocities.
It is hoped that:
- Discussions will lead to negotiate processes to deal with these issues.
- We may obtain resources for addressing the issues, and for upgrading the documentation and storage of skeletons of bona fide archaeological context. A place for dignified safekeeping needs to be set aside or built, with negotiated access policies and controls.
- The launch of the book and the workshop that follows will be a way of taking this process forward.
For archaeologists and communities interested in their history, human remains of the distant past, objects found in graves, and burial patterns can provide valuable information not otherwise available. They can yield evidence about individuals and the societies in which they lived. They reflect beliefs, customs, social identity, subsistence, health – and even crime.
Skeletons and ‘race’
It was once believed that ‘race’ classification was possible from a few skull measurements. But fixed racial types do not exist. Broad characteristics may be shared within a population, but individuals vary and communities never exist in total isolation from others. Racism is a form of prejudice and intolerance that has no biological basis.
A young person died about AD 1560
Remains of a burial were carefully salvaged near Kimberley in the early 1990s. More than half the grave was washed away in a donga. A permit was obtained to save the rest of it from destruction. The few remaining bones showed it was a child, about 12 years old. A calibrated radiocarbon date showed the child died in about AD 1560. The type of burial suggested the child was perhaps a member of a Khoisan community, but two metal earrings showed interaction with a metal-producing group, possibly Tswana. More than 3100 ostrich eggshell beads showed that the individual was buried with a simple necklace, and an ornamented apron. Grave goods do not always reflect gender, so we cannot say if the child was male or female. Nor can we be certain of its ethnic identity. But the grave provides important clues on social interaction between different communities more than 400 years ago.
Tracing life histories
New study techniques yield new evidence. Isotopic research in the 1980s-90s detected diet in skeletons from Cape sites. At first, diet averaged over a lifetime was shown. By refining the technique it was possible to trace change in diet, evidence of a person’s life history. This helped identify a slave, removed from a life in the tropics to one of servitude at the Cape. There is no knowing what new techniques will arise in the future.
“Scientific needs will have to accommodate personal feelings and religious
“Scientific needs will have to accommodate personal feelings and religious beliefs concerning the handling of human remains”
– M. Steyn et al., Thulamela, 1998
Museums and archaeologists, on the one hand, and communities, on the other, can establish common ground with regard to sensitive materials. Mutual interests in preserving and protecting the evidence of the past, and in re-writing our histories, can be recognised. Museums and communities can form partnerships for keeping human remains safely and with dignity.
Recent projects to salvage human remains accidentally disturbed during development work are described here: Gladstone Cemetery Consultative Forum
- Legassick, M. & Rassool, C. 2000. Skeletons in the cupboard: South African museums and the trade in human remains, 1907-1917. Cape Town & Kimberley: S.A. Museum and McGregor Museum.
- Morris, A. 1992. The skeletons of contact: a study of protohistoric burials from the lower Orange River Valley, South Africa. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand Press. 3
We play a role in concert with other heritage authorities, institutions, interest groups, and individuals in helping to conserve sites, which are the contexts of non-renewable and fragile traces from the past. By arrangement with SAHRA, the McGregor Museum Archaeology Department issues National Site Numbers for the Northern Cape.
Archaeological resources in the landscape – being unique, non-renewable and fragile – are highly susceptible to damage by agriculture, mining and development. The department undertakes archaeological impact assessments and mitigation in terms of heritage and environmental legislation and regulations.
See Heritage Management page.
Education and Tourism Resources
Including Outreach – Publication – Display – Education – Tourism Research results are communicated by way of: publications for the scientific community and the wider public; displays; education programmes and community outreach; and tour guiding. In the past decade archaeology staff have been involved in developing displays at the McGregor Museum, Wonderwerk Cave, Barkly West (Canteen Kopje and new Barkly West Museum), and Wildebeest Kuil at the Rock Art Centre.
Development of archaeological tourism has potential to benefit the people and the economy of the Northern Cape. Learning about our pre-colonial history can be enriching and empowering in other less tangible ways.
The Northern Cape Province boasts an enormous wealth of archaeological sites and resources that provide perspectives on our past that are not available in any other, written or oral, form. Archaeological study of these sites is, except in the most recent instances, the only means of discovering and understanding the pre-colonial history of the Northern Cape.
Many of the sites are of national or even international significance. They are unique, non-renewable and fragile.
HERITAGE CONSERVATION AND ALLUVIAL DIAMOND MINING AT CANTEEN KOPJE, BARKLY WEST: A CHALLENGE FOR PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY
(An earlier version of this article appeared in WAC News : The World Archaeological Congress Newsletter ISSN 1326-9402, 1997 Volume 5, Number 1 : SOUTHERN AFRICA FOCUS, Sven Ouzman, Guest Editor)
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.
The result has been, in MacIntosh’s apt phrase, an ongoing “haemorrhaging of Africa’s past”. 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 they knew of any archaeological or cultural resources that would be impacted. In fact, the mining site was immediately alongside the declared national monument of Canteen Kopje where rich and well-preserved early Acheulean units, perhaps more than a million years old, have been documented. Prospecting pits dug by the miners indicated that the archaeological site extended 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 Kopje diggings. Mining permits continued to be issued for dozens of similar locales along the Vaal River and elsewhere, many of which have high negative impacts on archaeological sites. Sites in the Windsorton area, documented partially by van Riet Lowe and others in the early twentieth century, have been devastated.
In the case of Canteen Kopje, the then National Monuments Council was able successfully to assert a new reading of the old Act – namely that, while key provisions did not apply to the removal of archaeological material during mining, it did not exempt mining from requiring a permit to disturb, damage, excavate or alter the site. The miners applied for permits, which were granted with provisos concerning archaeological documentation and salvage. Happily, the old exemptions in the National Monuments Act no longer apply: heritage impact assessments and, where necessary, permits, are required for mining in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act which passed into law in 1999.
But issues of implementation and compliance are still with us.
The Canteen Kopje 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 are conflicting perceptions of the nature and value of archaeological resources; a conflict heightened by the lure of diamonds 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. Mining of the site, after all, 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 the community formed a provisional local heritage committee (with small miner representation). An (unsuccessful) application for Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) funding for developing the site emerged from these meetings. One of the RDP principles was “to link culture firmly to areas of national priority … to ensure that culture is entrenched as a fundamental component of development”.
Subsequently both medium-scale miners and the Department of Mineral and Energy expressed regret that mining around Canteen Kopje had taken place, as it yielded only a limited return. Small-scale diggers had left the area in a mess, which medium-scale miners were called in to rehabilitate (Terlien & Miller 2000:94-95). Some of the region’s richest archaeological heritage was destroyed in the process. Small-scale miners may still regard the declared area as a good opportunity for future mining (Terlien & Miller 2000:94).
The Canteen Kopje experience has highlighted 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 where the ‘developer’ starts from a position of poverty. Conveying the message that heritage sites are unique, non-renewable and can be of long-term benefit and meaning (in often intangible ways) to local people is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that public archaeology in situations such as these will have to meet.
- Morris, D. 1997. Heritage conservation, small-scale mining and the role of public archaeology. WAC News : The World Archaeological Congress Newsletter ISSN 1326-9402, 1997 Volume 5, Number 1.
- Terlien, D. & Miller, D. 2000. Small-scale diamond mining in the Barkly West Area. Unpublished report, University of Cape Town.
Current research projects are mainly focused on provenance studies of pottery. The most important is the study of pottery from Mapungubwe, one of South Africa’s most important archaeological sites. Other research, however, is also undertaken on an ad-hoc basis.
- PROVENANCE STUDIES
Provenance studies using PIXE, XRF or the microprobe have been carried out on:
- Mapungubwe period pottery from the Shashe-Limpopo Valley and beyond
- Venda (Soutpansberg) and Sotho-Tswana pottery
- Type R pottery from the Riet River
- Khoi Coastal pottery
- Studies on temper and clay mixing
- Early Iron Age pottery from KwaZulu‑Natal
- Miscellaneous pottery from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana
- Ostrich eggshell
- Woodstock glass
- Specularite, hematite and ochre
- SARM‑69 CERAMIC‑1 REFERENCE MATERIAL
In conjunction with Prof W. van der Westhuizen of the Geology Dept, University of the Free State and MINTEK, a reference material (previously known as a “standard”) specifically for pottery analyses was developed from a batch of potsherds and certified for a range of elements in cooperation with a number of international laboratories (Jacobson et al 2002). This reference material is known as SARM‑69 CERAMIC‑1 and samples can be obtained from Prof van der Westhuizen (email address: vdWestWA@sci.uovs.ac.za). All funds generated go back into research as the development was paid for out of our research funds. More elements (especially rare earths) need certification so this presents an opportunity for someone.
- OTHER CHEMICAL ANALYSES
- Stone patinas
- Rock art paint
- Glassy biomass slag (vitrified dung)
- Microprobe analysis of bone from Sterkfontein
- Archaeological sediments
- OTHER RESEARCH
- Later Stone Age hunters and herders in Southern Africa
- Ostrich eggshell beads as stylistic indicators of ethnicity
- Development and management of heritage sites and tourism
- Statistical analysis of Rock Art
- Decorated ostrich eggshells
- Problems and prospects in the future of SA Archaeology
- The Lunatic Fringe in SA Archaeology
- Hoodia and reparations
- MISCELLANEOUS HOBBIES AND INTERESTS
- Sociology of science
- Philatelic research
- Ethnographic photography