June 2, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
Wednesday 6th May.
Today we make the long drive from the border down to the south of Kruger and sadly neither Clare nor I are able to share in the driving so it is all on poor Johan, but he is very laid back about it all. As you’ll expect from me by now, the prospect of a long drive across South Africa is something I am looking forward to.
But first a real treat. A bush walk with Brigitta who showed us Koaxa’s Shelter yesterday. Its early morning and before breakfast but the bush is already alive with sounds and movement, hopefully nothing that’s planning on making us breakfast. The Mopane Bush Lodge takes its name from the mopane trees with their distinctive double winged leaves. They are everywhere and our walk is along narrow game trails. Brigitta cautions us to silence as there are leopard in the area, and Johan adds we should watch out for water buffalo too. Johan has a very healthy respect for these dangerous critters. Whenever I am out in the bush I can’t help thinking about hominins. With enclosing mopane all around us, and rustlings in the undergrowth, it reminds me of just how dangerous a life our earliest ancestors led.
Then its breakfast, and the long drive south. For me this is a day of pure pleasure. Effectively we parallel the western side of Kruger Park. Kruger is huge, 360 km long. As we travel south the view through windscreen is increasingly dominated by the Drakensberg Mountains. We pass the entrance to Blyde River Canyon, a breathtakingly spectacular gorge, a favourite of mine from the old days. This section is known as the Drakensberg escarpment, separating Kruger and the Lowveld, from the Highveld and central plateau to the west. It is amazing.
We arrive at the Malelane gate in southern Kruger in the dark and Johan has a meal and a well-deserved early night, as does Clare. I opt for a well-deserved G&T and the wi-fi, on the balcony which overlooks the river. In the darkness beyond is Kruger. I can’t help thinking about how hominins would have fared at night out there. My old friend Rob Hosfield has been on about this for a while, and listening to the night sounds across the river I think he is on to something.
In retrospect checking e-mail was a mistake.
Thursday 7th May.
An early start and we are heading through Kruger for Berg-en-Dal camp. In Afrikaans this means mountains and dales. It’s a fitting name for this part of the park. My earlier trips to Kruger were in the middle sections of the park which are much flatter. We meet our two guides Rasta and Peter, and we are off hunting for rock art sites. The morning is taken up with a visit to three of them.
This is real adventure stuff as we leave the vehicles and head off into the bush on foot with Peter in front and Rasta bringing up the rear, rifles loaded and ready. I ask the two of them if the places we visit have names, but they shake their heads. We call them Rasta’s Shelter, Peter’s Koppie, and Round-the-Corner rock, though I presume the rock art specialists who will have studied these sites have other names for them. There is a clear difference between these sites and Koaxa’s Shelter up north. To start with they are much more exposed to the elements and the images have suffered more. They are paler and the paintings more difficult to see. Peter and Rasta who haven’t visited these sites for a few years shake their heads sadly. The images have deteriorated a lot since they were last here. ‘Gone soon.’ says Rasta who really cares about these sites. They are an interesting contrast to Koaxa’s Shelter and important if for no other reason than they show the range and diversity of the art, as well as the problems faced in conserving it.
Peter hands out biltong and we trek back. At one point Peter makes the stop sign. We all freeze, and I just know Johan is thinking buffalo. He’s got me at it too. False alarm. A bit further on and the guys are excited about some prints – possibly cheetah – they haven’t been seen this far south in the park for a while. Again I am thinking of hominins moving through these landscapes while everything out there is bigger fiercer, stronger, and has bigger teeth. It’s a wonder we actually made it!
The afternoon is taken up with a game drive. We see plenty of elephant, buffalo and giraffe and a nervous family of warthogs. A rhino comes close to the van but we stay quiet and he wanders off. Those poor hominins.
It’s been another memorable day and the game drive was just excellent. I’ll never forget walking through the bush though, that was real Africa too. Another quiet evening on the veranda with a G&T, smoking my e-pipe. This time I wise up, I leave the wi-fi alone.
Friday 8th May
Today is our last day in South Africa, and both Clare and I are feeling rather sad about leaving. It has been a magical trip. We drive up the N4 leaving the Lowveld and climbing the escarpment at Ondervalle where Paul Kruger had his house in the last days of the Boer war – again Johan fills the landscape with stories and history. Were back on the Highveld and heading for Joburg.
Our last stop is the University of the Witwatersrand and the new (well new since my day) Evolutionary Studies Institute. Wow. Dr Bernard Zipfel gives us a tour and we get to see the new study centre with its facilities for researchers to come and study A. sediba, Littlefoot and the Taung child, and so many other of the famous fossils that have made South Africa such an important place for the human story. The museum attached is just fantastic. But beware, there is something lurking in wait here that’s far more dangerous than Johan’s buffalo – the bookshop. Boy did the bank account take a beating in that particular hominin trap.
I also get to see my old friend Professor Kathy Kuman though sadly there is too little time to talk with her about her work and what her students are up to.
Then it’s the airport and sadly goodbye to Johan.
Clare and I have many happy memories to take away, new friends made and old ones revisited. I have seen more of a country I passionately love and learned more about some of the best archaeology in the world.
Really, I wish you all had been here to share it.
May 27, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
Tuesday 5th May.
We were supposed to have an early start this morning so we could make good time as we head north for the border – guess who blew it! Yup yours truly set the alarm wrong. A timely call from Clare who couldn’t quite hold back the giggling got me out of bed and off to breakfast in a hurry.
Johan bundled me and my stuff into the bus and off we went. Once again the drive was an instruction as Johan filled in all the gaps in the landscape with stories and titbits of local history. I don’t know how many times I have said this, but the only way to get a real handle on South Africa as a country is to spend time driving around. If nothing else you get to appreciate its size and how varied its landscapes really are. For me this was one more ambition ticked off the bucket list. Long ago I’d driven south west from Joburg to Capetown on the N1 highway and always planned to do the opposite run, northeast from Joburg to the border. Yesterday we’d come up to Mokopane from Joburg on the N1, and now we were on the same road heading for Musina and Mapungubwe. Tick, and job done.
Once through the highlands on whose southern slopes Mokopane/Makapan is located, we are on another flat plain until we hit Louis Trichartd and the last mountains before the basin of the Limpopo. The mopane tree blankets the landscape here, though as we approached the area of Mapungubwe the view through the windows was dominated by long parallel ridges of rock formations which I guess are volcanic dykes. We arrive about mid-morning, and it is another treat for me. My first ever South African rock art experience.
Our guides are Armand and Brigitta from the Mopane Bush Lodge and we take a short walk through the bush to Koaxa’s shelter. Wow!! No amount of brilliant photography or clever word-smithing can ever do these places justice. It is some of the most vivid and emotive archaeology I have ever experienced. Might be heresy for some, but I found it more moving that the cave art in Europe that I have seen. Somehow the connection to the painters seems more real here, perhaps because of the open air location. To view the art you have to lie on the same rock the artists used to paint their images. It connects you straight away. Many of these paintings may have been shamanistic, so the rock face would have been a porous membrane between our world and another. It is somehow easier to imagine the artists lying on their backs and transcribing their experiences and beliefs on to the rock face. There is something more shadowy, almost murky about European cave art.
All too soon we have to leave this beautiful spot. I scored a personal triumph here – a beautiful discoidal core on a rock surface on the way to the shelter. Like an idiot I forgot to photograph it.
After lunch it was off to the Mapungubwe interpretation centre. It is an impressive modern architectural interpretation of the traditional beehive hut-structure and contains a replica (I assume) of the famous golden rhino discovered at the site. Since we had a bit of time on our hands we took a quick drive to a local viewing point. Here the Shashe river meets the Limpopo – the border of Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, but not a fence or border control in sight. It is part of the great trans-border park situated here, to allow animals to range freely and migrate across their traditional territories. The view is amazing – real Africa.
Toward the end of the day Clare, Johan and I join a cheerful tourist group on one of the only three visits allowed to the Mapungubwe site a day. Mapungubwe is one of the glories of southern African archaeology and a jewel in the crown of world civilization. It is not as well-known as Great Zimbabwe, yet it represents the emergence of a large complex state in the South African middle Iron Age (from say 900 to about 1350 AD). Mapungubwe itself did not really come into its own until well within this period (c. 1250 AD) when chiefs moved their residences onto the hill top and commoners were confined to the area below and surrounding the hill. Some archaeologists believe this is the emergence of a social organisation based on class-distinctions, the roots of what later emerges in Great Zimbabwe.
The location seems to be a huge bowl set into the side of the valley as it sweeps down to the Shashe-Limpopo. Within the basin are plateaux, one of which is the Mapungubwe hill itself, another is K2 the focus of an earlier phase of extensive social influence in the region. Other plateaux were occupied at the same time as Mapungubwe hill and were either sacred sites or were for cattle, one of the sources of wealth and power in this society. At sunset it’s a very atmospheric place. The sun goes down over Botswana, and then there is that soft half-light of the African dusk when the bush starts to wake up. Our guide armed with a rifle, takes us back to the vehicle. He has a special link with this place, it was his grandfather and great grandfather who first showed the Europeans where the site was – though his great grandfather refused to actually accompany the party in case they disturbed the spirits that still live there – sensible man.
It is easy to see why this is still a special place, and so richly deserving of its World Heritage status. The spirits may well have been appeased a little when, more than ten years ago now, human remains from archaeological investigations were ceremonially reburied on the site in the presence of sangomas who are the traditional healers and diviners of southern Africa.
What a day!
As ever, wishing you were all here.
May 18, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
Please see details for TOMORROW’s CAHO seminar here https://cahoseminars.soton.ac.uk/events/.
May 18, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
Monday 4th May. Another emotional day in South Africa.
We drove up from Joburg this morning heading for Mokopane and the archaeological and palaeontological sites at Makapansgat, now known as Makapan. The name will need little introduction to human origins students. The Limeworks cave is famous throughout the world. It was here that Raymond Dart identified Australopithecus prometheus, a fire using Australopith, later reclassified as A. africanus. Ron Clarke has resurrected the name for a new species of Australopith he believes is present here and at Sterkfontein, the Littlefoot skeleton. It was also at the Limeworks that Dart established his Osteodontokeratic industry, believing his fire making Australopiths made weapons from the bones, teeth and the horns of the animals they killed, as well as using them on each other. At that time the Australopiths were seen by many as the root of Homo, so the ‘killer ape’ hypothesis was the explanation for the aggression seemingly inherent in our own species. There is some great video footage of Dart wielding huge bones as clubs or suggesting that jaws could be used to gouge out eyes. He actually looks as if some brutal atavistic forebear has suddenly possessed him – scary, but then this was the time of Apartheid, Vietnam, and the race riots in the American south. Maybe it made a kind of depressing sense back then. Thankfully that nonsense was refuted by South African scientists and their colleagues.
Clare, Johan and I were taken around the Limeworks by Moloko and Peter, two of the local guides at Makapan. The sites in the valley are now a northern extension of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site in Gauteng (the other satellite site is Taung). I’d forgotten how big the Limeworks cave actually is. The side chambers disappear off into the murky distance. It is no wonder that Alf Latham and his then student Andy Herries spent so long trying to work out how all the bits related to each other, but then that’s cave stratigraphy for you. The breccia dumps outside the cave still preserve fossils discarded from the mining operations.
For me the most poignant part of our visit was the Cave of Hearths, the next locality on our Makapan tour. I had worked here in the late 1990s and early 2000s with Anthony Sinclair of Liverpool University and Pat Quinney now at Wits. It’s a fantastic site, and one of the few Acheulean localities with a secure(ish) date. The cave today is an open shelter-like space. In the Middle Pleistocene, before progressive roof collapse, it was a much more enclosed space, with a narrower entrance and a talus cone leading into a dark and narrow tunnel-like cavity. Between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago, handaxe making hominins either lived inside the cave or at its entrance. The famous hearth’s from which the cave got its name were really manganese deposits, but Revil Mason who dug the cave in the early 1950s, reported evidence for localised concentrations of fire within the cave itself. The handaxes and cleavers from the site are now stored in Wits University. They are made on quartzite mostly, either from big flakes or natural slabs. The proximity of this fine grained high-quality tool stone must in part explain the hominin presence. But I was always intrigued by Judy Maguire’s discussions of the Makapan cave valley. The valley is a micro-climate with water and vegetation through-out the year. Just to the south is the open veld of the Springbok flats. Standing above the cave and looking down into the valley it is not hard to see why early humans found it such an attractive place to live. A focus on micro-climates with perennial resources would be a good strategy for handaxe makers living in and around the mountains here.
From the Cave of Hearths the board walk leads you up to Historic Cave, the scene of a terrible massacre in the early 1850s when the local tribes’ people were cornered by Boers. Opinions vary as to the cause of the conflict. It is an eerie place that always makes me shiver – uneasy ghosts. Moloko vividly reconstructs the story of the last days of the poor souls trapped in the cave. I never want to stay long here.
From Historic it was quick trips to Buffalo Cave and to Ficus, the very deep cavity with a small lake at the bottom of it. Not one to forget in a hurry. Again Peter and Moloko enthusiastically describe the work done at these sites and you can still identify the sampling points where speleothem has been taken for dating. All around us are the evidences of Iron Age peoples as well, re-emphasising the Makapan valley as a rich multi-period archaeological locality. All in all it was good to go back – many happy memories to chase the ghosts away.
From here it was off to the local hotel we are staying in, and dinner. All three of us are tired, but feeling today was a full and interesting day. Tomorrow we go north to the border and the ‘lost city’ of Mapungubwe. I am really excited about this as I have never been before and it is one of the glories of SA archaeology.
Till I write again, wishing you were here,
May 14, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
Saturday 2nd May. I’m here in South Africa helping Andante Travels, who specialise in heritage and historical tourism, design a tour that would reflect some of the key aspects of South Africa’s rich archaeological heritage. It goes without saying that no tour could ever hope to fully reflect the sheer scale and diversity of this beautiful country and its history. So our job is to pick a few key moments from it. Knowing me you can bet that human origins is going to be a big part of it – hardly surprising in a country that has made such a huge contribution to understanding our origins.
Andante’s Clare Tuffin and I arrived in Johannesburg just after breakfast. We met our South African guide for the week, Johan van der Biljon, and straight away headed for the Apartheid Museum in Joburg’s Ormonde suburb. It’s a museum I have visited before, but no matter how many times you go it is impossible not to be affected by its grim message, and if you want to understand something of South Africa’s current situation, you have to look into its recent history to start with. Apartheid had been about drawing lines between people, and making judgements about them depending on which side of the line they were. I think South Africa will always have racial difference at the heart of much of its social and national thinking, only now it is about showing that those lines don’t mean anything; where better to show the basic unity of the human race than in a country whose national identity has emerged from the fires of intolerance and wilful misunderstanding. This touches on one of the most important contributions that human origins can make to our world – reinforcing the fact that the visible differences between all humans are very recent, so the lines that divide us are too shallow to mean much.
That’s what I like most about the Apartheid Museum, it is not only an introduction to modern South Africa, it is an introduction to modern humanity. You walk through its exhibits, count the hangman’s nooses symbolising lives brutally taken, and you can’t help but think about who we are, why we do what we do, and what our responsibilities are to each other. These are questions that the study of human origins is uniquely placed to contribute to.
After the museum it was time to check into our hotel and a good night’s sleep.
Sunday. An early start and a visit to Maropeng. This impressive museum/visitor centre was built long after my time in SA, and was a part of the Cradle of Humankind’s successful bid for World Heritage status. I had heard mixed reviews from various people about the centre, but I found it a very positive experience, even the boat ride through the ice age was fun. Our guide was Lindwe and she hit an excellent balance between enthusiasm and knowledge. SA’s contributions to palaeoanthropology are there for all to see, the Taung child, a bevy of Australopiths and Paranthropines, great reconstructions of the skeleton of Australopithecus sediba, and an equally impressive cast of the Littlefoot skeleton which Professor Ron Clarke is calling Australopithecus prometheus. These last are just the most recent of SA’s contributions. The full hominin story is presented along with skulls and lifelike reconstructions. We can hum and hah about whether these map onto our own preconceptions of what hominins actually looked like, but at the end of the day the exhibits are there to bring the story of human evolution alive to the general public, and that is not an easy task. What impressed me more than anything about Maropeng’s rendering of the human story was how it was set within the bigger picture of science, and biological and planetary evolution.
‘The Maropeng visitor’s centre. Maropeng means ‘returning to the place of origins’ in the Setswana language.’
The afternoon was a blast from the past for me.
I’d first visited Sterkfontein maybe fifteen years ago, on a memorable day when Professor Kathy Kuman gave us a tour. I recall vividly the thrill of that first visit. Walking on the metal catwalks, looking down into the deep excavations, I was experiencing one of the most famous sites in hominin research, one that I’d been reading about since undergraduate days (now feeling more and more like the Pliocene!). That same sense of privilege was with me as Dr Dominic Stratford explained the many changes in interpretation and especially in the dating since that time. Then it was over the valley to look at Swartkrans, another renowned palaeoanthropological site with Paranthropus and suggestions of the earliest traces of fire. It is only when you try and get your head round the stratigraphy at these sites that you start to realise just how complicated cave excavation and interpretation really is. Finally, we were permitted a brief look at Kromdraai, which was particularly exciting for me as I had never visited this site before. This is another famous Paranthropus locality, currently being excavated by South African and French collaborators. I was genuinely surprised at how small the original Kromdraai A excavations were. The new excavations are much bigger and I can’t wait to hear what they discover.
So it was back to the hotel, dinner, and a much needed beer. Visiting legendary sites is a thirsty business. But Clare, Johan and I had one treat left. Stargazing with a local astronomer called Vincent Nettman. I never really got astronomy before, but through his telescope – sorry, reflector – I could clearly see the cloud rings of Jupiter, its moons, and even the rings of Saturn. Absolutely amazing!
Tomorrow is another busy day as we travel up north to Makapansgat, so I’ll sign off now. As always, wishing you were all here.
February 8, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
We have updated our seminar pages with two new events and more details of the CAHO seminar series with sponsorship by Archaeopress. Have a look and hope to see many of you at our next event with Dr. Anne-Lyse Ravon on the 18th February, 5pm in the John Wymer lab.
February 3, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths
The details of the next two seminars are up on our seminar page, with more to follow shortly. I’d like to thank Archaeopress our new seminar sponsor for this semester. We will be detailing a number of seminar exclusive offers at each event as well as details of how to order and also publish with Archaeopress. So make sure you drop in….
November 26, 2014
by Samuel Griffiths
Our next CAHO seminar will take place next week. View the details here…
The two documents below have been provided by Dr. Wenban-Smith for anyone to view.
July 9, 2014
by Lucie Bolton
Sadly we didn’t get into Font-de-Gaume, the beautiful painted cave at one end of the village of Les Eyzies. They limit the numbers in order to protect the paintings, and we couldn’t really argue with that. So it was over to Cap Blanc and the amazing sculpted frieze of horses dated to the Magdalenian. Some thirteen metres of white limestone wall have been sculpted into a magnificent procession of horses. Today the site is on a wooded slope of the River Beune, but originally it would have been set in a treeless landscape and the frieze would have had a greater visibility, as would its location within the broader terrain. Another feature which emphasises how differently these images would have been consumed by their original makers and observers is that there is evidence at Cap Blanc for pigment on the frieze itself. It’s a memorable and thought provoking site, nicely reconstructed along with the Magdalenian burial in front of the frieze.
We drove north that afternoon (Sunday), camping just south of Nemours in the evening. The following day was one of the most memorable of the whole trip. I know I have waxed lyrical on how good it has all been (and it has), but this was such a great finale.
The morning and early afternoon was spent in Musee departmental de prehistoire de’Ile-de-France at Nemours. This museum covers the area around Paris and includes some of the most important and informative sites on Magdalenian life ever found such as Pincevent and Etiolles (which we visited on our last trip). The Nemours museum, perhaps as much as any other we visited, shows the careful thought that has been put into the use of space, in this case juxtaposing inside space with outside. Each archaeological period, or sub-period, has a room to itself displaying objects and items from local excavations and archaeological sites. The rooms are flooded with natural light and in each is a large window. They look out onto gardens with representative examples of trees, bushes and grasses from each of the periods. It is a spectacular effect. Our guide Jean-Luc Rieu enthusiastically took us through the magnificent prehistoric displays, and then loaded the students down with freebies – so he was popular. Our last stop for the day, and this trip, was the magnificent Magdalenian site of Pincevent. We have to record our sincerest appreciation to Maurice Hardy and Pierre Bodu for giving us such a memorable tour round the site. This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the site’s first excavation. An impressive eight hundred visitors came to the celebration, as befitting such a world famous site. Despite being tired the team welcomed us with open arms, gave us a beer (nice people), and gave us a tour of the site that I for one will never forget.
The famous three hearths from Professor Leroi-Gourhan’s excavation are preserved as a cast and it was great to see the evidence for the different zones next to each hearth where knappers sat and different activities occurred. My old supervisor, Mark Newcomer, worked on the technology and refitting from the site, so I was familiar with some of the reconstructions of Magdalenian life from this site. It’s the quality of preservation that really grabs you. Annual inundations of fine sediments from the River Seine preserved everything. Tools and debitage are tightly wrapped around obvious hearths and it is so easy to people the scatters with Magdalenian knappers: again this one of those sites where fitting the people back into the Palaeolithic location is not difficult – so different from the Lower Palaeolithic (but then that’s the challenge!! – and the fun).
It’s been an amazing trip with some very thought provoking archaeology and beautiful scenery. I’ll sign off now and pop this in the post, before heading for the boat.
Au revoir from France,
Mac, William, Chris, Adam, Tanner, Paul, Sarah, Cathy and Jo.
July 6, 2014
by Lucie Bolton
This morning we visited the famous site of La Ferrassie. Like Le Moustier, it is one of those names to conjour with, it takes you back to undergraduate essays and assignment deadlines just made by the skin of your teeth. New work is going on there at the moment under a joint French and American team. They certainly have their work cut-out for them as they try to get to grips with conflicting stratigraphies and a sequence that is meters deep – actually sounds like great fun. William’s explanation of the convoluted interpretations of the Aurignacian sequence made my head ache, and left me with a profound respect for all those Ph.D students who grapple with the early Upper Palaeolithic – more power to ya.
We drove around for a while after La Ferrassie following its little valley up to the plateau and then back down into the valley of the Vezere. Relatively little is known about the occupation of these plateaux by the Neanderthals who were definitely in the side valleys and the main valley too. From the top you get a much better sense of landscape and of the geography of the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon world in these ice age refuges and micro-climates. One thing that always impresses me is the amount of re-occupation by modern vegetation that has occurred since the 1920s. Today this part of the Dordogne is lush and green, wooded slopes look over green flood plains. But this is all regrowth within a century. In the earlier part of the last century it was a bare landscape, much more akin to what its late Pleistocene appearance would have been. The old post-cards are a fascinating window on what it looked like. It also reinforces just how productive interglacial climate can be (even with the help of modern humans).
The afternoon was the much anticipated return to the museum in Les Eyzies and its special art exhibition, although I have to be honest I bunked off to drink a lot of coffee and answer e-mails. Good chance to catch up on my postcards too. After a late lunch it was a visit to the Abri Pataud. Hallam Movius Jnr dug there for over a decade and according to our very knowledgeable guide they pulled out more than a million artefacts – top that for a database. When you look down into the deep sections from the visitor balconies you can believe it – it’s a hell of a hole!!! One interesting piece of information from our guide was that the Gravettian woman’s burial with her new born baby involved separating the head from the body and placing it away from the main interment, but also surrounding it with engraved plaquettes.
Ok so there is no Lower Palaeolithic here (or anywhere apart from La Micoque), but William reminded me that on our first visit a few years ago there was a handaxe on display in Abri Pataud that the Aurignacians must have picked up from the river, resharpened a little, then lost in the rock shelter. It just shows you that even then modern humans recognized real archaeology when they saw it!
Tomorrow we are aiming for a painted cave and an engraved one, before heading back up north to have a peek at Pincevent. I’ll keep you posted.
As ever, wishing you were here,
Mac, William, Cathy, Jo, Sarah, Adam, Tanner Paul and Chris.