150 Years of Archaeology in SA
Discovering the past
A lecture to the Western Cape Branch
of the South African Archaeological
Society in 2009
Hilary John Deacon
[email protected]
A Lady’s Tale
She says – driving Land Rovers, smoking cigars and making
discoveries is what attracted her to archaeology.
Now an eminent historical archaeologist, Janette Deacon rarely
gets a lift in a Land Rover and does not smoke – but she does
make discoveries. Her discoveries are “small things forgotten”,
like porcelain fragments and clay pipe stems, but they tell an
intriguing story of colonial times. That is what archaeology is
It is her efforts and the efforts of many others that contribute to
150 years of progress in South African archaeology.
These slides are some benchmarks of that progress.
Benchmark 1: Recognition
1858 – TH Bowker
collects stone artefacts
from the Fish River area
in the Eastern Cape. They
are deeply buried and
therefore very old.
Victorian collectors find
stone artefacts in
abundance. Curiosity
about stone artefacts
drives the development
of archaeology.
of Ancient Artefacts
Benchmark 2: Bushman
All finds are attributed to
the Bushmen/San, who are
recognised as the ancient
inhabitants of the area.
1870 – Archaeology is
recognised as a field of
study by Langham Dale.
First prehistories are written
– search for explanations.
Beginnings of interest in
San ethnography and
Implements, 1858-1900
Benchmark 3: Antiquity
of Man, c.1905
Louis Peringuey recognises Acheulian
artefacts in the vineyards around
Stellenbosch as being like those in France
that were considered most ancient.
Acheulian artefacts
Benchmark 4:
Early Researchers, c.1900-1923
Many of the early researchers in South Africa were museumbased scientists who undertook excavations, built up collections
and published their findings. Some were motivated by the search
for fossil human ancestors, like the Neanderthals of Europe.
John Hewitt, the Director of Grahamstown’s Albany Museum
from 1910-1958, was a zoologist and authority on reptiles and
amphibians who did archaeological fieldwork in his vacations.
He excavated the type sites of Wilton and Howiesons Poort and
other sites near Grahamstown.
Benchmark 5: First
Professional Archaeologist
1923 – Astley John Hilary
Goodwin is appointed to sort
out the museum collections.
1929 – Publishes The Stone
Age Cultures of SA with
Clarence van Riet Lowe.
Astley John Hilary
Goodwin, 1900-1959
Clarence van
Riet Lowe
Goodwin’s Three Age Scheme
With additions and dates
Framework for South African archaeology developed by Goodwin and Van Riet Lowe
Benchmark 6: Another
Major Contribution
by Goodwin
1945 – Goodwin founds the
South African Archaeological
Society; he starts and becomes
editor of the South African
Archaeological Bulletin.
Goodwin was a journalist at
heart – his publications helped
the growth of archaeology in
South Africa.
Benchmark 7: Discovery
of Australopithecus
1925 – Raymond Dart
describes the first fossil
australopithecine prehuman ancestor, the skull
of a child from Taung, in
the Northern Cape.
1936 – Robert Broom finds
more australopithecines at
Sterkfontein and Swartkrans,
near Johannesburg.
These fossils showed that
pre-human ancestors evolved
in Africa, not in Europe.
Raymond Dart, Robert Broom, Abbe Henri
Breuil, Clarence van Riet Lowe
“Cradle of Humankind”
Ron Clark at Sterkfontein
Predation hypothesis
CK “Bob” Brain at Swartkrans
Benchmark 8: True
Humans – Modern Ancestors
“… not only were people … some 100 000 years ago anatomically modern but
they were also behaviorally modern.” – HJ Deacon, 1989
In the 1980s, the “out-of-Africa” hypothesis
and the study of the emergence of modern
humans created new interest in Stone Age
archaeology and, in particular, Goodwin’s
Middle Stone Age (MSA).
Klasies River
Sibudu stone artefact with
ochre stain from hafting
MSA people were modern and cannibals
Benchmark 9: Dating:
Science in Archaeology
Relative dating means a is older than b.
Chronometric dating gives the age in years before the present (BP).
1950s – Radiocarbon chronometric dating revolutionised the
understanding of the past 40 000 years.
The first radiocarbon-dated site in SA was
Matjes River, near Plettenberg Bay. The
11 000-year-old shell midden was much
older than expected.
Radiocarbon is now routinely used along with
other methods, such as Optically Stimulated
Luminescence (OSL) dating, which can be
used for samples older than 40 000 years.
CSIR Laboratory,
Dating and Stable Isotopes
Cango Caves stalagmite analysed by John Vogel carries a record
of temperature changes in the caves over the past 30 000 years.
Inside Cango
John Vogel
Benchmark 10: Rock Art
Rock art is to archaeology as birding is to zoology:
it popularises and informs on the subject.
1700s and 1800s – Early travellers find and copy rock
paintings. More than 15 000 rock art sites are now on record.
Rock paintings from the Cederberg
Interpreting Rock Art
Beyond the narrative explanations
Seminal publications:
People of the Eland, 1976, Patricia Vinnicombe
Believing and Seeing, 1981, David Lewis-Williams
Most famous
Rock art is religious and shamanistic.
Pat Vinnicombe
David Lewis-Williams
Oldest dated rock
painting in southern
Africa – 27 500
years old
Rock art interpretations have drawn on San ethnography.
1870s – Records from these
/Xam San prisoners at the
Breakwater in Cape Town
were compiled by Wilhelm
Bleek and Lucy Lloyd.
1950s-1990s – Information
from contemporary San was
compiled by anthropologists.
These records also contribute
to Later Stone Age studies.
Benchmark 11: Who
were the Khoekhoen?
1970 – Frank Schweitzer recovers sheep bones
and pottery from Die Kelders, showing that
Khoekhoe herders lived there 2 000 years ago.
1488-1650s – Historical records by European
sailors to the Cape illustrate Khoekhoe people
herding sheep and cattle and living in matjes
People in Namaqualand still live in matjes
huts, farm small stock and speak Nama, a
Khoekhoe click language.
Benchmark 12:
Dispersal of Early Farmers
1952 – The term “Iron Age” is adopted to describe the cultural
changes brought to SA by Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated
southwards from central and eastern Africa about 2 000 years ago.
Iron Age people introduced mining and metal working, livestock
such as cattle, sheep and goats, and crops such as sorghum and
millet. They also introduced modern social structures.
Example: Mapungubwe, now a World Heritage Site, first excavated in the 1930s
The distribution of Iron Age sites around Mapungubwe and the Limpopo River
The main access to Mapungubwe Hill
was via this narrow cleft
Mapungubwe period stone walling on the
Southern Terrace
Glass beads brought to Mapungubwe from
India through trade on the eastern coast of
Africa were melted down and made into
larger beads using baked clay moulds.
Fragments of Chinese celadon from
the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD)
were found at Mapungubwe. They are
placed here next to a whole celadon
wine kettle from a museum.
Gold from
Iron Age people at Mapungubwe exported gold and ivory and imported glass beads,
celadon and cotton in the Indian Ocean trade network
Significance of Mapungubwe
The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape was the centre of the first
kingdom in southern Africa established by the cultural ancestors
of the present-day Shona and Venda.
It includes more than 400 archaeological sites and the three
successive capitals of Schroda, K2 and Mapungubwe, occupied
between 900 and 1300 AD.
This period laid the foundation for a new type of social
organisation in Southern Africa.
after 150 years
• Archaeology has branched out into many different areas of
special interest.
• There is growing public interest in archaeology.
• Archaeologists have achieved professional status.
• The results of archaeological research have become an integral
part of the education system.
• Archaeology is a recognised component of national heritage.
• Archaeological sites are the focus of tourism initiatives.
• There are increased funding and job opportunities (mostly in the
applied field of heritage impact assessments conducted ahead of
Some Aspirations and Needs
• Growth of organisations like the South African Archaeology
• Strengthening of heritage organisations involved in the
protection and curation of archaeological data, sites and
• Attraction of nationally representative practitioners to the
• Planning for future growth.

150 years of Archaeology in SA: