Historical Archaeology in South Africa

Martin Hall

Archaeology Research Group, Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa


Historical archaeology has been, until quite recently, a neglected field of study in South Africa. Emphasis has long been placed on the Stone Age and on the following Iron Age, when farmers – the ancestors of the majority of the population of South Africa today – moved slowly down from the north, taking the summer rainfall region of the subcontinent into cultivation and pasturage long before the Portuguese first rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the fifteenth century (for overviews, see Deacon 1984; Hall 1990a). Apart from a few isolated but important studies, all systematic research in historical archaeology has been confined to the past fifteen years.

A major reason for this neglect is the politics of disciplinary boundaries. The proper domain of archaeology has been understood to be “prehistory”, and the study of the tangible relics of colonial settlement has been left to “cultural history” – in South Africa, a poorly defined area of work, largely curatorial. Architectural historians have looked at colonial buildings, but rarely in any sort of social context, while other historians have usually spurned any engagement with materiality. Because the field has been mapped out in this way, the rich material remains of early colonialism and the post-colonial period were long neglected (for interpretations of the history of archaeology in South Africa, see Deacon 1990; Hall 1990b).

This began to change with the initiation of new research programmes, firstly in Cape Town and Stellenbosch (Abrahams, 1984, 1985; Vos 1980, 1993), and later in the wider Western and Eastern Cape (Hall 1991, 1992; Jeppson 1991; Malan 1990; Schrire 1988; Werz 1990; Winer and Deetz 1990). Although there are still large areas that have been only cursorily examined, or not researched at all, it now seems fair to claim that historical archaeology has been launched as a discipline in its own right in South Africa – a status marked by the first overview papers and edited collections (Hall 1993; Hall and Markell 1993), by the inclusion of historical archaeology in some university syllabi and by the increasing number of completed postgraduate dissertations in the field (examples are Brink 1992; Gribble 1989; Malan 1993; Vos 1993).

Historical archaeology in South Africa

In a recent overview in the Annual Review of Anthropology, I suggested that historical archaeology in South Africa can be characterized by four themes; the archaeology of impact, the archaeology of the underclass, the archaeology of the mind and the archaeology of the text (Hall 1993).

The study of the archaeology of impact is based on the idea of the frontier as a complex, volatile zone of interaction. Examples of studies within this frame have been the excavation of a Dutch East India Company outpost on the Atlantic seaboard north of Cape Town (Schrire 1990; Schrire and Deacon 1989; Schrire and Meltzer 1992) and work in the Zeekou Valley, in the arid southern Cape interior, where the aim has been to trace a full archaeological sequence from the earliest human habitation through until the division of the land into colonial stock farms (Sampson 1994; Sampson, Crass, Moir, Saitowitz and Westbury 1994; Sampson, Hart, Wallsmith and Blagg 1989).

Work such as this has recognised that colonial frontiers have more than one side to them, although finding evidence of new ways of life from the perspective of indigenous communities is particularly challenging. Rock art sites sometimes have clear representations of hunter-gatherer interactions with European settlers, but there has been little systematic study of these images. At first sight, trade beads offer immense possibilities in the study of the early colonial frontier (Saitowitz 1990). But consignments were often moved about the world before they reached their eventual destinations, and the potential of bead studies to add anything new to what is already known from documentary sources has so far seemed limited.

An archaeology of the underclass is particularly appropriate for South Africa, which was a slave society from its earliest years until well into the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Dutch East India Company soldiers were drawn from the European peasantry, often vagrant before boarding ship as a last resort, and at their destination regarded as of less value than slaves who, after all, had resale value. Examples of research projects designed specifically to explore underclass life include excavations at the estate of Vergelegen, a day’s ride from Cape Town and built in 1700 with a lodge to house some 200 slaves (Markell 1993). The full architectural imprint of the slave lodge has been unearthed, although the archaeological samples have been frustratingly insubstantial. A second project has been the excavation of parts of Cape Town’s Castle, the administrative centre for the Dutch East India Company in South Africa. This work has given evidence for the substantial and sustained use of a long, dark basement store as housing for those at the bottom end of the highly hierarchical Dutch colonial world; debris from in situ hearths, pits and floor surfaces (Hall 1992). In the town itself, servants and slaves were housed in back yards. In Barrack Street, archaeological evidence has come from well deposits, with a stratigraphy spanning about a century. By comparing artefactual assemblages with inventories, it has been possible to discern the ligaments of both underclass life and distinctions of gender (Hall, Halkett, Klose and Ritchie 1990). Bree Street was allocated as building land slightly later. One plot was acquired by a lawyer, who rented shacks to a large number of people in his back yard. Their debris, which includes the fragments of many hundreds of ceramics and one of the largest faunal assemblages from any archaeological site in southern Africa, is valuable testimony to the nature of underclass life in the early years of the nineteenth century (Hall, Amann, Halkett, Hart, Klose, Malan, Poggenpoel and Portuesi 1993). Less is known about underclass life in the countryside. Paradys, a Company outpost in the forests that backed Table Mountain, has a sequence that covers much of the eighteenth century and artefact assemblages left by woodcutters and slaves (Hall, Malan, Amann, Honeyman, Kiser and Ritchie 1993). Steenberg, a large estate not far to the south, has recently been the focus of excavation, but analysis has yet to be completed.

The archaeology of mind, predicated on structuralist principles, has long been close to the heart of historical archaeology, and this approach has had a substantial impact in South Africa. Vernacular building traditions, for instance, have been studied at Verlorenvlei – a cluster of small farms surrounding a river estuary and wetlands on the Cape west coast (Gribble 1989). The search for a Verlorenvlei “competence” is a direct application of approaches used in examining Virginia’s colonial architecture. This work has been matched by research on the eastern colonial frontier by the University of California Berkeley (Jeppson 1991; Scott and Deetz 1990; Winer and Deetz 1990, 1992). Here, a multifaceted research programme is directed towards the study of architecture, the positioning of buildings within the landscape, artefacts from excavations and documentary evidence for material culture. Again, the organizing principles have been those of structuralism – the search for a “cognitive system” of symmetrical oppositions.

The fourth theme in the archaeology of colonialism in southern Africa – the archaeology of the text – has the notion of discourse as central to its approach. Material culture is seen as one of a number of texts which are interactive and which can explain one another (Brink 1992; Hall 1992). Unlike structuralist approaches, which tend towards global generalizations and statements about cognitive organization, textual archaeologies force a close reading of each situation. For instance, the emergence of new architectural forms in the Cape countryside during the first half of the eighteenth century has been studied along with the composition of land grants, oaths of loyalty to the Dutch East India Company and other documents to show how free farmers in the new colony were marginalized by the official hierarchy, and responded in a “language” of material culture (Brink 1990, 1992). A second example is an interpretation for the Castle’s moat (Hall, Halkett, Huigen van Beek and Klose 1990). Although it was intended that the new fortifications should defend the Dutch garrison, it was always clear that the moat could add little to the defence of the Castle in the event of attack, and excavation has shown that the moat was little more than an easily-waded ditch. Its value was symbolic – a declaration of Dutch colonial authority.

Agreements, disagreements

There are, of course, other ways to characterise the emerging raft of knowledge that constitutes historical archaeology in South Africa. But although there would be divergent opinions about both antecedents, there would also be broad agreement about the core identity of the discipline. All historical archaeologists working in the area would, I think, agree that their central concern is with the lives of ordinary people, even if evidence for the texture of everyday life has often to be approached through the debris left by the elite (who, of course, generally left much more rubbish behind them than did subordinate communities). This consensus of the importance of “small things forgotten” is a benefit of the youth of the discipline in South Africa; of the avoidance of the advocacy of white supremacy which has been a burdensome legacy for older historical disciplines.

All historical archaeologists would also agree about basic methodology. Ceramics, whether Asian, European or locally manufactured, are valued for the information that they can give about chronology, social status and change through time. Clay tobacco pipes are recognized as the basis for relative chronology, and faunal assemblages (although as yet little studied) are seen as important for their reflection both of diet and of differing social position within the colony. Probate records (available for the seventeenth, eighteenth and early decades of the nineteenth century) and property transfer deeds are seen as the basis of documentary contextualization and also as additional sources of information about material culture. Consequences of this consensus are that any historical archaeologist working in South Africa would be comfortable at that annual rite of corporate renewal, the meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, and that published reports of work in South Africa closely follow North American protocols.

Disagreements within the academy, although unaired in print, are probably similar to disagreements within the North American community of scholars. There is tension at the boundaries of practice. It is accepted that archaeologists can legitimately study anything that is dug out of the ground, whether this be a small piece of engraved ostrich eggshell or a harbour wharf buried by land reclamation. However, the same cachet is less readily conferred on material debris from above ground, particularly if these artefacts are on a larger scale; buildings, city plans and landscapes. Still greater unease hangs like a haze around studies of representations of objects (rather than of objects themselves) – graphic and verbal images of the material world. The question, although often unspoken, seems ever present; “is this archaeology?”

There is also disagreement, again largely unspoken, about whether or not archaeology should be explicitly political. In one sense, archaeology has inevitably been politically engaged in South Africa. As an ideology, apartheid required that the past be seen as an unchanging (and unchangeable) vista of ethnic separation and inherent primitivism. Simply to do archaeology has been to engage critically with this racist view of the world. But, not withstanding the implications of showing that South Africa’s indigenous communities have a deep and rich history, many archaeologists have felt that to link specific political agendas to research goals is to sacrifice scientific objectivity and to compromise the search for truth.

Others, probably a minority, disagree, arguing that our constructions of the past are always connected to the issues of the present. Although the recent history of archaeology in southern Africa has yet to be written, 1985 was probably a landmark year. The withdrawal of invitations to more than twenty South African archaeologists to attend the forthcoming World Archaeological Congress meeting in Southampton and the dramatic escalation of the South African government’s war on the majority of its country’s inhabitants cancelled for some the option of neutrality on the issue of the politics of the past. There is now a strong genre of politicised work within South African archaeology and historical archaeology which includes gender studies, focus on museums as agencies of public education and concern with “people’s archaeology” – the relationship between academic practice and grassroots participation in the creation of the past.

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What are the most important current issues in South African historical archaeology? As with the profile of the discipline’s past, this must be a personal view. However, it is surely common cause that 1994 will be the most significant year in South Africa’s recent history. The first election on an open adult franchise will mark the formal end of white minority rule established 342 years ago, and the collapse of the political barricade between the south and Africa north of the Limpopo River. In turn, this will allow the historical archaeology of South Africa to become connected with the archaeology of colonialism and post-colonialism in the rest of the continent. It will be possible the match the study of the rule of the Dutch East India Company in the Cape with the study of the Dutch West India Company’s exploration and exploitation of the West African coastline, and of the connections that brought together Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. To the east, it will be possible to model the combined impact of Dutch, British and Portuguese colonial enterprises (made impossible for more than two decades by the border between post-colonial Mozambique and South Africa).

This opening of the continent should, in turn, allow the relationship between historical archaeology in South Africa and in the USA to assume a more realistic perspective. Although the importation of North American methodology has been the sound foundation on which the discipline has been built in South Africa, and although the comparisons between the development of colonial settlement in the Western and Eastern Cape and the Chesapeake have been valuable and provocative, it has begun to seem as if South Africa is the USA’s 51st state. Future work needs to recognize that colonial southern Africa was formed within the Dutch and Portuguese frames of global expansion (in both of which North America was marginal) and that the subcontinent was claimed as a British colony after the rise of industrial capitalism, Britain’s loss of its American colonies, and the French Revolution. Comparisons are valuable, but so is historiographic context.

Splicing South Africa back to its continent will also, I believe, challenge the generally accepted definition of what historical archaeology is about. The definition of the discipline as the archaeology of European global expansion may have the value of describing what most historical archaeologists actually do, but it also perpetuates a Eurocentric vision of African history and a problematic sense of division in the study of the past. Modern South Africa was formed more from the rich palimpsest of indigenous responses and connections with the East than from the intact grafting of segments of European society, and within a generation of Dutch East India Company settlement at Table Bay in the mid-seventeenth century a mestizo society was in formation.

In addition, other important parts of the past, which fall outside the conventional definition of historical archaeology, are known from the combined study of artefacts with documentary sources; examples are rock art made by indigenous hunter-gatherer communities, the pre-colonial states of southern Africa and farming communities known through both their material traces and through recorded oral traditions. Merging the kingdoms of the Stone Age, the Iron Age and Historical Archaeology into a federation of academic pursuit will yield rich rewards.

Finally, a priority for the future must be the more effective communication of knowledge about the past. South Africa is particularly burdened with assumptions about how things were, whether these images are of the colonial gentry sitting beneath the oaks smoking long clay pipes in contentment, or of a pre-colonial Eden, free of all exploitation. Archaeology has been largely confined to three university departments, a handful of museums and academic publications; this will need to change if the discipline is to survive the extensive reordering of priorities which will come with the beginning of the post-apartheid era.


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