CAHO Seminar Series


LAST MINUTE CAHO TALK: Archaeology in Kenya

May 18, 2015
by Samuel Griffiths

Please see details for TOMORROW’s CAHO seminar here

Postcard from South Africa #2.

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.

Photostich panorama of the Cave of Hearths, taken from the entrance to Historic Cave.

Photostich panorama of the Cave of Hearths, taken from the entrance to Historic Cave.

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,


Postcard from South Africa, #1.

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.

sediba (1)‘A reconstruction of the fabulous A. sediba at the Maropeng visitor’s centre.’ 

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.

 Maropeng 2

‘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.




More seminar details…

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.cahologo master flash

Archaeopress Sponsorship

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….

AP Logo-2014

Next CAHO seminar…

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.

Att 1 – EH prehistoric period framework

CAHO seminar 04-Dec-2014 background info

Postcard #4 from the CAHO trip to France

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.

The team outside Cap Blanc; from left to right Cathy Lovell, Jo Bingham, Sarah Schwartz, Tanner Wilkerson, William Davies, Paul Bingham, and kneeling Christian Hoggard and Adam Donnelly, with Mac behind the camera.

The team outside Cap Blanc; from left to right Cathy Lovell, Jo Bingham, Sarah Schwartz, Tanner Wilkerson, William Davies, Paul Bingham, and kneeling Christian Hoggard and Adam Donnelly, with Mac behind the camera.

 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.

Pierre Bodu showing us the site of the original Pincevent excavations from the early 1960s

Pierre Bodu showing us the site of the original Pincevent excavations from the early 1960s

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.

Postcard #3 from the CAHO trip to France – John McNabb

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.

CAHO fieldtrip to France Postcard #2

July 5, 2014
by Lucie Bolton

Yesterday (Thursday) we motored down in glorious sunshine from north of Tours straight to Les Eyzies. We arrived mid-afternoon and the students spent the rest of the afternoon in the Museum of Prehistory. The special exhibition of Magdelenian art was particularly impressive and the general feeling was that a return visit is highly likely.

Today was an amazing day. A brief look-see through the fence at Le Moustier and then off to see Professor Randall White and his team’s excavation at the Aurignacian site of Abri Cellier. We were truly amazed at the amount of work Randy and the team have done in such a short time. They’d had an amazing morning with some spectacular finds made both before we arrived and while we were there which was very exciting for us. Obviously I can’t say what was coming out, but watch out for this site.


Randy invited us for lunch with his team which was great fun. Then it was back to Le Moustier, this time into the site, to share a talk by Professor Alain Turq with the Abri Cellier crew. When he found out who our guide was, young Chris Hoggard had to be helped out in a near feint.

How do you top that? A whole valley dedicated to the Aurignacian that is how (actually there is other stuff as well, but William was particularly enthusiastic about the Aurignacian) – the Castelmerle Valley.  It is an astonishing site really. Both sides of the valley are a series of connected Abri’s, some with engraved art on the walls and ceilings, others with engravings on small plaquettes of limestone. Randy thinks it was a winter site where Aurignacian groups took refuge in the small micro-climate of this dry valley practicing various craft activities. There are carved loops (pierres a anneaux) set in the roof at the front of the rockshelters from which coverings may have been hung acting as doors to keep the cold out. Randy’s team, when they dug here, found clear evidence for hearths inside the shelters. What got to me more than anything else was how much the site’s interpretation makes the Aurignacian seem personal. The archaeology is too late for me, but I can start to understand the enthusiasm people have for the Aurignacian. Sadly I don’t think I’d make a good Aurignacian hunter though. We all had a go at using spear throwers but I didn’t have the knack. Sarah and Tanner would probably have to be our chief hunters.

Our final site of the day was the great La Micoque. Handaxes at last! As Professor Turq forcefully reminded me this is NOT an abri, its deposits are river terrace aggradations abutting the limestone wall of the valley side. What was done to this site by Otto Hauser makes you weep, but thankfully a determined effort by French researchers in recent years has made much sense of what remains. Tyacian at the base and late(?) Acheulean Micoquian handaxes at the top. It is also, if I remember correctly, the oldest site in the area with the oldest levels near 450 kya.

It was an amazing day and a well-earned beer, or two, when we got back finished off the day perfectly. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Wishing you were here,

Mac, William, Cathy, Jo, Sarah, Tanner, Adam, Paul and Christian

Palaeolithic Fieldtrip to France by Dr John McNabb – Postcard #1

July 4, 2014
by Lucie Bolton

 This year’s CAHO Palaeolithic field trip to France, with the Captain William S. Davies (CAHO’s new director!!) at the helm.

Today was our first full day in France. We caught the boat from Portsmouth yesterday for a mid-afternoon sailing and were in Caen by late evening. An early start (ish) saw us on the road heading southwards for north central France. You get a real sense of how flat the loess plain is between the coast and Paris as you drive, and of course beneath the fields and trees are a wealth of Late Middle Pleistocene sites waiting to be discovered. Before we started I was privileged to see a minor miracle in the art – no the science – of putting a large volume of kit into an astonishingly small space as Jo, Sarah and Cathy decided they would take charge of the packing. With nine people and all their gear, this is one thing you have to get right. They did, and we were away.


There were two sites on the afternoon’s agenda. The first was the museum at Grand Pressigny. Wow – a museum dedicated to flint, does it get any better? – well its Neolithic, but you can’t have everything. I’d never seen the famous Livres de Beurre as these big honey coloured cores are called. They are knapped by a PCT for the purpose of making between five and ten long blades. They were knapped by masters of their craft and then traded out of the region, possibly by the makers themselves. It seemed ownership of such a blade, or a knife made from one, may have conferred much prestige on its owner. They are dated to between 2009 and 2003 BC. Like so many French museums this one is a thoughtful blend of detailed information (no dumbing down here) and elegant presentation. This was my first time here, and the museum has not been long open. If you are ever in the area it’s well worth the detour.


Livres de Beurre at Grand Pressigny.

From there it was a short drive to the Roc-aux-Sorciers, another newish museum and another one where presentation and design have been carefully and successfully blended. Here a long freeze of horses, bison, wild goats and other animals was discovered in the 1950s and investigated by Suzanne de Saint-Mathurin and Dorothy Garrod. A modern projection onto a replica of the original rock shelter surface gives a marvellous impression of the contoured surface of the original, and how the artists used the contours to convey movement within the animal freeze. Being a Lower Palaeolithic man myself I claim no knowledge of this kind of late Magdelenian art, but I was amazed by the two human faces on the freeze, and the stylistically similar ones at la Marche 30-40 km away. There, our guide told us, they have complete figures (and the Roc-aux-Sorciers has copies of them). There is something rather unsettling about looking at a face from 15,000 years ago. The reconstruction and visual show are effective and very atmospheric.

The evening was spent staying with friends of William, Chris and John Lees who lived nearby. We will long remember their kindness and hospitality. Tomorrow we penetrate even further south to fabled Les Eyzies. More from there later.

As always, wishing you were here

Mac, William, Paul, Jo, Cathy, Sarah, Adam, Tanner and Christian.