Past and present stories of Africa

New techniques, new attitudes and new perspectives on southern African archaeology mean that the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) is blazing a new trail and setting the standard for how archaeology should be done in southern Africa.

From challenging the widely-accepted narratives about ancient civilisations like Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, to driving a transformative agenda of decolonising African archaeology through community engagement and new modern curricula, UP isensuringthat archaeology is relevant to South Africans today.

“The Department is broadly interested in the politics of archaeology: African archaeology is what I would define as a yet-to-be-transformed discipline,” says Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu,a researcher in the Department. “We’re certainly looking to provide and champion a more Afrocentric approach.”

Most of the research at UP focusses on Iron Age archaeology, although Dr Ndlovu himself studies rock art left behind by much older societies. There are two major Iron Age civilisations of interest in this part of the world: Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe.

Both are what Ndlovu calls complex states: “Both states show evidence of complex society and social stratification: a clear distinction between the elite and the commoners,” he explains. “These classes emerged because of trade with communities beyond the African continent. Those in power could use the trade networks to stay in power.”

On the edges of Mapungubwe’s influence

New research and excavations in the Limpopo Valley are providing an unprecedented understanding of the 13th century Mapungubwe state, and turning Western ideas about political structures in Africa on their heads along the way.

Read more (Page 2)

Tapping ancient water for the present

Researchers at UP’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology are piecing together how the ancient communities of Great Zimbabwe sourced and managed their water resources. While many think the bustling paradise was abandoned due to water scarcity, research shows that this ancient state was very sophisticated in managing their water supply.

Read more (Page 3)

UP researcher traces new maps of ancient networks

Archaeology Master’s student Kefilwe Rammutloa has contributed to a new understanding of Mapungubwe by reconstructing the trade networks in Southern Africa from 700-1400 CE. Using materials like gold, iron and glass beads, she is piecing together social dynamics between settlements.

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Painting a new picture of South African rock art

Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu’s research into the ancient rock art found in overhangs and on rock walls around South Africa is revealing new interpretations for long held beliefs about the meaning behind the art.

Read more (Page 5)

Decolonising archaeology at UP

Decolonising science is an oft-cited buzzword these days, but what does decolonising archaeology mean? Professor Innocent Pikirayi, Head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria, has set out to answer this question through his ongoing work at the institution.

Read more (Page 6)

Watch the video in the sidebar where the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) tell a new story about archaeology and heritage in southern Africa.

On the edges of Mapungubwe’s influence

New research and excavations in the Limpopo Valley are providing an unprecedented understanding of the 13th century Mapungubwe state and turning Western ideas about political structures in Africa on their heads along the way.

Dr Ceri Ashley and Dr Alexander Antonites have worked in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) since 2011; their research focuses on materials, particularly ceramics. They have been working together to look at how small, 13th century settlements in the Limpopo Valley functioned away from the political and economic centre of Mapungubwe, where previous research of this kind has historically been focused.

“We worked to the east of Musina; the eastern extent of the Mapungubwe influence in the 13th century, and 20 to 30 km west of Musina,” she says. “We have been excavating several sites over the last four years.”

Ashley and Antonites set out to document a ‘forgotten archaeology’ of the people who lived away from the capital at Mapungubwe. They found themselves challenging the traditional ideas about political structure that would make Mapungubwe the ultimate centre of political power in the ancient state: where the elites and their wealth would have been located.

Hoping to expand on UP’s long historical association with Mapungubwe, the researchers wanted to better understand the political landscape of this nation in 13th century southern Africa.

“The patterns we see in these areas do not necessarily conform to the structure that we find at the centre,” she says. “We wanted to get a more representative archaeology by looking at small sites where everyday people lived.”

Upon excavating three sites, Ashley was surprised by how ‘rich’ they were. She says that the rise of Mapungubwe is believed to be linked to long-distance trade networks via the Indian Ocean, which created an unequal system that concentrated wealth and political power at the centre - the famed Mapungubwe Hill, or ‘Hill of Jackals’.

As an example of this great wealth, a royal grave was found on top of the Mapungubwe hill with gold objects and more than 24 000 glass beads in it. These glass beads are believed to be evidence of the trade network that existed (as they were not made in the region but imported) and an indication of wealth.

Based on conventional models of trade and political power, the researchers did not expect small, short-lived family-level sites away from the capital to have access to this kind of elite goods. That is however not what they found.

“We were surprised that we did find materials like glass beads at these sites,” says Ashley. “We started to think about why we were seeing something that should be very tightly controlled, in a settlement that has only three to five houses in it.”

Ashley and Antonites determined that the widely accepted political model did not apply here. “These small societies are far enough away from the capital that they did not have to conform to the political structure, which implies that they had agency.”

Ashley argues that the relationship between the core and the periphery - the centre and the hinterlands - was much more complex than just a top-down political control-and-cohesion model as has always been assumed.

“Taking this idea further, we think that it was probably done with the knowledge or consent of the elite of Mapungubwe,” she explains. “These elites needed these small communities for resources that ultimately fed back into the centre.”

For Ashley, all these results are in line with her mission to make the story of Mapungubwe a little more complex.

“It provides a new dimension that is making our understanding of the Mapungubwe state more interesting and more complicated,” she says. “It is important in the broader history of southern Africa, and perhaps other regions on the continent as well.”

Ashley and Antonites are currently conducting an archaeological survey of several sites, and continues to conduct more excavations and more post-excavation analysis to shed light on the lives of the unknown people of the hinterlands.

See photo in the right sidebar ''On the edges of Mapungubwe's influence''. Studying the materials found at small communities located on hills around Mapungubwe is helping UP researchers paint a clearer picture of power and politics in the ancient state. Image credit Dr Alexander Antonites.

Tapping ancient water for the present


Researchers at UP’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology are piecing together how communities living in the 11th-16th century CE city of Great Zimbabwe sourced and managed their water resources. While many think the bustling paradise was abandoned due to ecological disaster, research suggests that Great Zimbabwe has a sophisticated water network and management system.

Professor Innocent Pikirayi is the Head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP). He works on the rise, development and demise of societies in Southern Africa, including that of Great Zimbabwe, which dates back to the second millennium.

“My research looks at ancient settlements’ management of water resources and the impact this had on Great Zimbabwe’s landscape and its sizeable population,” he says.

Pikirayi conducted a field survey using a combination of archaeology, geology and soil chemistry to piece together the role of water in the development and ultimate demise of Great Zimbabwe. His approach to field archaeology, involves limited excavations, focusing on soil profiles exposed through gully erosion and other forms of surface disturbance. He also engages with local communities for a better understanding of the landscape around Great Zimbabwe.

So, how exactly did these ancient communities manage their water resources? To answer this question, Pikirayi analysed water management in Great Zimbabwe’s urban areas.

“It seems that the residents managed their water resources very well; the evidence shows that as the settlements grew, they expanded the resources by creating more reservoirs. They also managed the spaces within the settlement so as not to interfere with the reservoirs that they had built,” he says.

“We are analysing the data to see what patterns are emerging around Great Zimbabwe in terms of its water resources, the character of its catchment, and its landscape,” he explains. So far, he has found that Great Zimbabwe encompassed a cluster of interconnected springs, from which ancient residents channelled water towards the ancient city, for storage in reservoirs that they built.

The residents dammed some of these reservoirs to ensure a continuous water supply. Today, communities around Great Zimbabwe have tapped into some of the springs and store water in similar reservoirs, which has led to a highly productive agricultural sector in the region.

Pikirayi is also trying to piece together the events that caused residents to abandon the Great Zimbabwe plateau in the 16th century. Prevailing theories point toward an ecological disaster, but Pikirayi’s findings point to an alternative scenario, such as political unrest.

Pikirayi concedes that the jury is still out on exactly what happened, but he has considered other theories. “There is a time that we can associate with the Little Ice Age, when there was a decrease in rainfall in southern Africa, but Great Zimbabwe as a micro-environment was not affected.”

“We are analysing soil samples to see whether they show any form of disruption in the past,” he explains. “Our analysis shows a continuity in settlements from the 11th century to the present without any major disruptions. When people left it probably had nothing to do with a deteriorating environment, or the depletion of water resources,” he concludes.

See the image on the right sidebar for "Tapping ancient water for the present''. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe show evidence of sophisticated water storage and management practices.

Painting a new picture of South African rock art

Archaeology researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) are finding new ways to interpret the ancient rock art found in overhangs and on rock walls around South Africa.

Painted as many as 3 000 years ago, Bushmen rock art offers insights into some of the earliest groups of people to live in South Africa - an indigenous group known collectively as Bushmen. Their art, painted mainly in red, brown and white mineral pigments, depicts the animals they encountered in their nomadic wanderings, as well as human figures and symbols representing their spiritual worlds.

According to Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, rock art in South Africa has long been interpreted from the aspect of shamanism, where the images represent the efforts and visions of the medicine man or shaman.

“Shamanism gained ground as a potential interpretation for Bushmen rock art in the 1970’s and remains the most dominant interpretation today,” he says. “I feel that we have generalised to explain everything through shamanism. I think we need to consider additional interpretations.”

Ndlovu and his students are interested in totemism - the idea that specific animals represent certain social groups. These groups believed that they drew spiritual power from the type of animal depicted in their drawings. Ndlovu’s research thus focuses on the representations of animals in rock art.

“I argue that different Bushmen groups had different totems in the same way that some Bantu groups have today. In the early 1900s, the idea of totemism was put forward, but it was never supported and did not gain traction among archaeologists,” he explains.

Ndlovu believes that the biased interpretation of Bushmen rock art symbolism stems over-reliance on limited historical records - one interview from KwaZulu Natal and one set of observations from the Western Cape. From these early ethnographic studies, the eland is now considered the most important animal to these societies. However, Ndlovu’s recent field work suggests something different.

“When I look at the areas where most of our rock art research has been undertaken, those have been the areas where eland dominate,” he argues. “The ethnographic records are based on interviews with people from areas where this animal is abundant.”

He works at sites in the Northern Cape, Free State, and KwaZulu Natal, and has also studied art from Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

“If you go to the Brandberg/Daureb area of Namibia for example, you note that eland hardly appear in the artwork, and if you go to Zimbabwe, you will note that kudu generally outnumber eland in the drawings,” he explains.

Ndlovu is attempting to paint a more complete picture of Bushmen rock art by looking at examples from areas of South Africa that have not yet been adequately studied. He hopes that the information he uncovers will help explain the motivations and meanings behind the art beyond shamanism.

To do that, he takes undergraduate and postgraduate students into the field to record the numbers and distribution of different animal images in Bushmen paintings. They take photographs of the art, and make detailed recordings of the type of paintings at each site. His early findings suggest that researchers have overemphasised the significance of eland in bushman rock art.

While the work is still in progress, Ndlovu is convinced that his work is on its way to changing the dominant narratives around Bushmen rock art in South Africa.

UP researchers are studying the animal paintings in Bushmen rock art sites around South Africa, hoping to better understand the motivations and significance behind these ancient artworks. See images in the right side bar.

Isn’t ‘bushmen’ a derogatory term?
The earliest indigenous people of southern Africa have many names - Khoekhoe, San, KhoiSan, ?Kung, Basarwa - with no single name accurately describing all of them. Ndlovu chooses to use the term Bushmen because it is a common name for these indigenous peoples. He does not consider the term derogatory in this context

UP researcher traces new maps of ancient networks

Mapping trade networks in the Mapungubwe state is revealing complex political and social structures and changing researchers’ ideas of how the Great Kingdom was structured and operated.

Archaeologists have long known that the social and political structures of the Great Kingdom of Mapungubwe were unconventional, and UP researcher Kefilwe Rammutloa uncovered further complexity in her Master’s research. She has assembled a database of goods found at multiple sites in the Greater Mapungubwe Landscape (which extends from the northern parts of South Africa to Botswana and Zimbabwe) to find hidden trade networks and see what they can tell us about the politics of the earliest complex society in southern Africa.

Having grown up in Mamelodi, Pretoria, Rammutloa has always been interested in past societies, human evolution, heritage and ancestry. While enrolled for heritage studies at the University of Pretoria (UP), she majored in archaeology, where she found an environment that nurtured her passions and interests.

Over the course of her studies, she was encouraged to stay abreast of the latest developments in archaeology, which emboldened her to continue her studies in this field. Her journey eventually led her to her Master’s research where she focused on trade and exchange networks in the Greater Mapungubwe Landscape.

She studied trade relations between 700 and 1400 CE, a period she found interesting as it was during this time that the region witnessed the emergence of social and political complexity.

“I wanted to find out how the political changes in the region affected the trade networks at the time,” she says. “I studied materials such as glass beads that came through the Indian Ocean trade network system and how these materials were redistributed in the landscape.”

Rammutloa also studied metals such as gold, copper and iron, which were mined in certain areas within the landscape. “Gold and copper for example were highly valued. I am interested in how these goods were controlled, distributed and redistributed in the landscape,” she explains.

As part of her research she also explored how these materials, usually in the form of jewellery and ornaments, informed the relationship between elites and commoners throughout the landscape. She gathered data on the different materials from multiple sites and entered this data into geographic information system (GIS) mapping software to get a better understanding of the trade networks in the area. Her work on this front is on-going.

Dusting away the mystery surrounding this period, a picture has started to emerge that Rammutloa says highlights the complexity of the political systems and the distribution of these material cultures.

Conventional research suggests that the elite community of Mapungubwe were in control of the trade networks, meaning that they controlled the distribution of these exotic materials throughout the landscape. However, Rammutloa has found that while there are areas surrounding the capital at Mapungubwe hill that do not have evidence of these materials, these luxury goods were plentiful at sites at the edges of the kingdom.

“This indicates that people were interacting, that they had social, trade and exchange networks of their own without needing to go to Mapungubwe to trade with the kingdom,” she says. “There was circulation of goods, which indicates relationships among the peoples living in the periphery.”

These findings show that the control that the capital had on trade and on the larger society seems to have been much more complex than previously thought.

“Sometimes, on the map, you can see that there are some materials that are found in the settlements away from Mapungubwe hill, that are not available at the capital itself,” she says. “These materials, such as ivory, showed that the settlements were able to trade among themselves outside of the capital.”

Rammutloa is continuing her work in archaeological research at Yale University where she is currently pursuing her PhD.

PhD student Kefilwe Rammutloa studied valuable goods excavated near Mapungubwe to map trade networks in the ancient state. See photo in the right sidebar.

Decolonising archaeology at UP

What does decolonising archaeology mean? Professor Innocent Pikirayi and Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) have set out to answer this question through their research and teaching work at the institution.

Pikirayi acknowledges that ‘decolonising science’ has become “a heavy-handed buzzword”.

“As an archaeologist, decolonising archaeology means a change in archaeological practice from the traditional, pre-independence ways of approaching science in Africa,” he explains. “To me, it is about doing archaeology that is relevant to the present day.”

For Ndlovu, the decolonisation of archaeology predates the student uprisings that recently brought attention to the concept of decolonising science and education. He has been working towards providing and championing a more Afrocentric approach to the field.

“As a department we were already having discussions on how to improve our curriculum content four years ago in order to promote and support transformation in our field,” he says. “Last year we started transforming our curriculum, moving courses around, renaming modules and changing content.”

Pikirayi’s work focuses on the rise, development and demise of state societies in southern Africa (particularly Great Zimbabwe) dating back to the second millennium CE. He expands on the idea of decolonising archaeology by focusing on the “varied pasts” that proliferate in southern Africa, while moving away from monolithic histories of the region.

Pikirayi’s ongoing work on the archaeology of Great Zimbabwe, which rose to prominence in the 11th century, has focused on how these ancient societies sourced and managed water resources to sustain their societies. He has taken a decolonised approach to this research by changing how he conducts research, and by engaging with communities in the area.

“The usual approach to the archaeology around Great Zimbabwe are tired questions that try to find out when, how, and by whom it was built,” he says. “What we are trying to find out now is how Great Zimbabwe managed its water resources and how that resonates with present-day communities.”

Pikirayi says that decolonising archaeology means engaging with local communities in a more intense manner, since his research requires local information about water sources and their present management to understand how it was managed in the past. He elaborates that his team’s approach is to go to the communities and inform them of the important role they can play in the Great Zimbabwe research project. This project is looking at how water resources in the area were and continue to be managed.

For Pikirayi, decolonising archaeology also means presenting the field to communities affected by its findings in a new way. In addition, it means incorporating the use of multidisciplinary approaches such as geology, chemistry and archaeology, all underpinned by community engagement, to inform studies of the past.

“We are presenting Great Zimbabwe in a way that is relevant to the present,” he says. “We are asking questions that are contemporary and questions that resonate with the public, which is in turn making it possible for the public to see how relevant archaeology is.”

The decolonisation of archaeology will assist in communicating the results and impact of Pikirayi’s current research by engaging scientists in other fields, as well as professionals who might be interested in water management but are not scientists themselves.

“Instead of presenting it as a science of the past, we are presenting archaeology as a science of the present,” he says. “That makes it much more exciting because one can engage anyone who has an interest in water.”
Prof Innocent Pikirayi uses community engagement to learn about the past in a way that acknowledges local knowledge and expertise.

Prof Innocent Pikirayi, Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu

October 2, 2017


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