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African Studies, 69, 2, August 2010

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red

Peter Delius and Maria Schoeman
University of the Witwatersrand and University of Pretoria
Stonewalls connect over 10,000 square kilometres of the Mpumalanga highveld into a complex web
of homesteads, towns, terraces and roads, that stretches for 150 kilometres in an almost continuous
belt. They suggest a substantial population, and speak to the investment of vast amounts of labour in
infrastructural development along with extraordinary levels of agricultural innovation and productivity. This network of stone embodies Bokoni, the pre-nineteenth century home of people from
a range of origins who practiced distinctive forms of agriculture (Maggs 2008) and participated
in regional and international trade (Delius and Schoeman 2008). Yet, the academic gaze seldom
rested long on these extraordinary archaeological/historical sites, hence thin archaeological
accounts are supplemented by even thinner historical accounts. Whilst archaeologists and historians
largely ignored Bokoni, exotic accounts have proliferated. In this article we explore why so little
academic research has focused on Bokoni and why exotic accounts became so dominant.
Key words: agricultural terraces, archaeology, Bokoni, exotic paradigm, historiography, Mpumalanga, precolonial, southern Africa, stonewalled sites

History of Scholarly Writing

History of Archaeology

Archaeologists working on Bokoni have a daunting amount of material to work

with, and have had to grapple with thousands of stonewalled sites. Sites vary
from single homesteads to three kilometre long towns, and are located on a
range of topographies from gentle rolling grassland hills to inaccessible kloofs
on steep mountain sides. Some of the sites are rich in material culture whereas
even potshards are scarce on others. The variation and complexity of the sites
allows research into subtle differences and local complexity. For example on a
regional scale the sites form distinct clusters along rivers, which Coetzee (2008)
argued are in part the result of the trade routes winding through the area to the
coast. But, on a locally more refined scale other factors shaped site location and
concentrations. Some of the site concentrations speak of town formation and possibly political hierarchies, whist others track the development of individual homesteads (Maggs and Schoeman 2008).
The focus of research interest in relation to these sites has shifted over time. Agriculture, settlement patterns, dating and trade are the key current concerns. Earlier
research mirrored the changing dynamics of archaeology in South Africa. The first
detailed study of the Mpumalanga stonewalled sites was conducted by ECN van
ISSN 0002-0184 print/ISSN 1469-2872 online/10/020235 20
# 2010 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd on behalf of the University of Witwatersrand
DOI: 10.1080/00020184.2010.499200

236 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

Hoepen (1939), who argued that the sites were built by the Black Africans, probably the ancestors of Pedi and Ndzundza speakers who lived in the region until the
1930s. His work did not entertain the suggestion that the sites might have been
built by non-Africans and has been corroborated by subsequent research. This
interpretation followed on his examination of stonewalls, as well as the complete
range of material culture found at the sites. But exploring identity was not Van
Hoepens main concern; instead he focused on describing the size and architecture
of the stonewalled enclosures and reached conclusions about the functions of the
These structural concerns also marked Revil Masons research. Mason (1962)
described the terraced settlements on the escarpment and outlined preliminary
excavation results. This localised research raised questions about the regional distribution and Mason (1968) reported on the 1792 stonewalled settlements in the
drainage basin of the Steelpoort, Sabi, Crocodile and Komati rivers that were
identified in a preliminary aerial photograph survey (Mason 1968; Evers 1973).
This groundbreaking aerial photography work still forms the methodological
foundation of contemporary research in the area and many of the later insights
of Maggs (2008) and Coetzee (2008) were guided by aerial photograph-based
site mapping. More localised mapping informed Maggs (1995) exploration of
settlement layout through the rock engravings depicting the stonewalled settlements of Bokoni. He is circumspect about assigning identity, rather exploring
how people saw and mapped their world.
This caution has not been characteristic of research on the ceramics of the area.
Fundamental to this research was a desire to link material culture with contemporary communities. This tendency was visible in the first archaeological study of the
sites by PW Laidler, who argued, based on the decoration, that the pottery associated with the ruins was comparable with pottery of known Zulu origin (1932).
The coupling of ceramic style with ethnic identity has been a dominant feature in
southern African archaeology in the twentieth century (Hall 1984a, b). It even is
present in the more intensive archaeological research in the 1960s. Mason (1968)
did not dwell on identity, possibly because he was more concerned with site distribution, but other programme members (Evers 1973, 1975; Marker and Evers
1976; Collett 1979, 1982) argued that the sites could be attributed to the Pedi
because the settlement layout and ceramics indicated a close cultural affinity
with modern Pedi, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Pedi
polity controlled the Lydenburg area. Whilst they indicated that there are similarities in settlement layouts, their argument largely rests on ceramic style,
since precolonial Pedi sites had not been studied yet.
The extent of Evers commitment to linking identity and style was demonstrated
in his doctoral thesis. Evers (1988:1 7), intent on linking ethnic groups, for
example the Pedi, with specific ceramic styles, argued that culture is the historical
transmission of ideas and values, through verbal and non-verbal systems. Human

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red Herrings 237

beings use their cultural meaning systems to communicate, converse and develop
knowledge about, and attitudes towards, communal life. Furthermore, culture is a
meaning system about which there is a general consensus concerning the limits of
meaning and understanding. He argued that there was great similarity across
different types of material culture and that it also was reflected in the ceramic
style. Evers (1988) thus concluded that ceramic style was reflective of cultural
group identity and could be used to identify producer community identity.
Collett (1979, 1982), drawing on this approach to ceramics, also identified the
sites as Pedi. This approach is not surprising as Thomas Huffman, who has consistently argued that ceramic style reflects identity, supervised Colletts MSc
thesis. For Huffman ceramics were fundamental to understanding the past. He
even argued that [a]lternative interpretations of the Iron Age in East and southern
Africa exist because of different approaches to the construction and application of
ceramic sequences (Huffman 1980:123).
Linking identity to material culture has not been the sole domain of archaeologists.
It also is reflected in rock art research. Mbewe (2007) argued that the engravings
associated with the Mpumalanga stonewalled sites reflected an Nguni Koni past.
When the Koni ancestors moved to Mpumalanga they Ngunised people in their
path . . . by stamping their own cultures in areas that were occupied by other
people (Mbewe 2007:91). Mbewes cultural conquerors were followed by the
Pedi in AD 1650 and immediately became dominant over the Koni, but even
they had to engage with the eternal Nguni identities of the Koni (see Delius and
Schoeman 2008 for a historically rooted account of Koni-Pedi history). This is
supposedly seen in the Pedi adoption of the centre/side settlement plan and dropping of the scallops in their dwellings and led to the copying of outside identity in
the art. The results of this interaction between the Pedi and Koni created hybridity
of identity, which is reflected in the art (Mbewe 2007).
Marker and Evers (1976) had noted that the Koni occupied the Lydenburg area,
but argued that they were under the leadership of the son of the Pedi leader
Thulare (Marker and Evers 1976). They appear to assume this Pedi leadership
meant that the Koni became Pedi, because in their cultural model of the past communities form homogenous units. This tribal model (Hall 1983,1984a) was foundational to ceramic style research. On the basis of ceramic style and in spite of the
oral link between the area and the Koni they described the sites as Pedi.
In research on the neighbouring Ndzundza area Schoeman (1997, 1998a, b) challenged the identification of the stonewalled sites as Pedi, pointing out that Pedi
oral traditions referred to the Kutoane (Badfontein) area as a Koni stronghold,
which the Pedi attacked under the leadership of Mampuru. Huffman (2004) also
used this information. His portrayal of the Koni as ethnically homogenous
however was based on ceramics not historical sources. These sources, rather
suggest great regional fluidity between groups and non-ethnic group identity
(Delius and Schoeman 2008).

238 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

While the material culture of these communities left a striking and enduring mark
on the landscape other forms of historical evidence are considerably sparser. By
the time that literate observers reached the heartland of Koni settlement there
were no chiefdoms of any size remaining. In the fragments which remained the
incentive to craft oral traditions of any depth was very much reduced. Most of
those groups who retained a clear identity had moved to the north but were now
marginal elements under the sway of other kingdoms. It was not to be until
well into the twentieth century that traditions from some of these groups were
recorded if in rather perfunctory fashion (Van Warmelo 1935, 1944a, 1944b,
1953). But by the time these memories were harvested they did not stretch
much beyond the fact that groups had once lived in the area to the south. In the
1860s when oral traditions were first gathered in the region the Pedi Kingdom
had enjoyed a long if interrupted period of political and economic hegemony
and it was also the prime focus of an intense though faltering missionary effort.
These circumstances ensured that the history of that Kingdom provided the
primary focus of historical enquiry. The Swazi Kingdom was the major alternative
point of interest while some of the more powerful and recalcitrant local chiefdoms
such as the Ndzundza Ndebele, the Pulana, and the Kopa were also the objects of
some curiosity from missionaries and officials. While much was made of the
impact of Mzilikazis Ndebele, the basic assumption behind most accounts was
of history interrupted rather than of a past that had been radically reconfigured.
This rather restrictive focus influenced most historical writing in the twentieth
century although both Winter (1912) and Hunts (1931) account of Pedi traditions
contained important glimpses of the historical processes to the south of the heartland of that Kingdom. But by far the most significant collection of evidence about
the Koni past was the by-product of research on linguistics. CW Prinsloo wrote a
masters thesis on the Sound and morphology of Sekoni as contribution to the study
of Sotho and to the classification of tribes (1936). Having grown up amongst Koni
labour tenants and having mastered the language, Prinsloo did not have to be told
about the existence of these groups. His attempts to discover more about them
through reading published accounts yielded limited return. But fortunately he
also spent a good deal of time discussing history with elders who still resided in
the region. He did not conduct interviews in the systematic and self-conscious
way that might endear him to current experts on oral research. But he did identify
key informants, mainly distinguished between different bodies of evidence and
even provided some excerpts from testimonies in Sekoni with translations to
follow. In consequence he provides unrivalled glimpses into the history of these
groups and some insight in their circumstances in the 1930s. He clearly associated
them with the stonewalling on the escarpment, described their earlier expansion,
their travails in the 1820s and dispersal thereafter. He indicated contemporary
forms of settlement mainly on farms and noted remaining foci of political authority. Reading this material today is both illuminating and frustrating. History was

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red Herrings 239

of secondary interest to him and it seems likely that he collected far more information than found its way into the final text of his thesis. But we have thus far
not been able to locate his research notes and this hunch cannot be tested.
The fact that historians did not follow his lead at the time was the outcome of the
general lack of recognition of the significance or even possibility of African
history that prevailed then in the world of professional history. The fact that his
work was mainly ignored from the 1970s until very recently despite the flowering
of Africanist scholarship in this period can be partly put down to Pedi-centrism
(Delius 1983). Also significant was the fact that the thesis title in the absence of
the subtitle which was rarely given suggested content very far removed from
historical issues and the thesis itself was not easily or widely available. But this
explanation does not explain why the growing body of archaeological research
we have described above had such limited impact on historical writing. This puzzling state of affairs is perhaps best explained by the absence of effective communication between archaeologists and historians from the 1970s to the 1990s
which, of course, in turn demands explanation. Shula Marks and other pioneers
of historical writing about African societies in the 1960s saw archaeology as a
key ally in the struggle to put precolonial history on the map. But in the 1970s
the growing influence of materialist perspectives and interest in processes of
industrialisation led to a shift of focus to more modern history (Bozzoli and
Delius 1990). At the same time the cultural emphasis of some archaeologists
discussed further below deepened the intellectual estrangement. The resulting
lack of intellectual exchange had a number of unfortunate consequences. One
of them was that those historians particularly those associated with the
History Workshop who made increasing attempts from the 1980s onwards to
make their work available to wider audiences had limited interest in, or fresh
research on, earlier history. The attempts that were made to popularise precolonial
history certainly in the Transvaal did little more than recycle established perspectives and thus perpetuate a view of the past dominated by the role of powerful
nineteenth-century polities (New Nation and History Workshop 1989). Archaeologists who might have been able to fill this void even with the rather sparse
historical material at their disposal singularly failed to do so. This silence left
the field open for exotic theories to flourish in explanation of the remains of a
world which, at least in the public domain, appeared to be of little interest to
conventional academics.

The Exotic Paradigm

The best known and most substantial of the alternative explanations of these sites
has been offered by the historian Cyril Hromnk. He has long maintained that most
of the significant innovations and social systems in Africa are the result of Indian
influences a perspective which led him to argue that the Mpumalanga stonewalled sites are Indian/Hindu temples and that the Indian settlers who worshipped
in these temples lived in nearby shelters or caves. They interacted with local San

240 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

and this resulted in the Quena (Khoekhoe), who continued to live in the area until
they were displaced by African farming communities in the last millennium.
These Indians and later Indo-San built stonewalled sites and dominated southern
Africa until displaced by black farming communities after the 1200s (Hromnk
1981, 1983).
This history is not reflected in the material culture found at the stonewalled sites.
Archaeological excavations of the sites have not found material that suggests
Indian or other foreign use. To explain the complete absence of Indian material
culture Hromnk asserts, the Asian element was at all times relatively small
(Hromnk 1983:38). But, he also states I have no doubt that African soil could
have borne millions of Indians (Hromnk 1983:38).
The sites also do not reflect the history of the San or Khoekhoe. The archaeological signature of both communities is well known. Sites of the hunter-gatherer
ancestors of the San (see Mazel 1986; Wadley 1993, 2000; Mitchell 2002) and
the pastoralist ancestors of the Khoekhoe (Smith 2008; Sadr 2008) are not
defined by stonewalls; rather microlithic stone tools dominate. In the historic
period the two communities spoke similar languages that were related to the
San language cluster (Guldermann 2008). Due to the close language affinities
between Khoe and San speakers, and documented interaction and intermarriage
between the two groups, the term KhoeSan is sometimes used to embrace both
communities. The main difference between them was ownership of domestic
stock. In addition DNA studies on San and Khoe communities conducted by
Himla Soodyall have shown that San and Khoe DNA do not contain any Indian
DNA. Rather their DNA belongs to the oldest African human branch and the
additional elements of Khoekhoe can be found in Africa and in interaction
between black African farming communities and the hunter-gatherer ancestors
of San (Soodyall et al. 2008).
Rather than Indian or KhoeSan material culture, the excavations of the stonewalled sites have yielded substantial amounts of clearly African material
culture such as ceramics and dakha house remains both in the spaces demarcated
by the stonewalls as well as in levels under the stonewalls. Hromnk (1981) imagines these Africans to be BaPedi, who supposedly are a Quena-Black mixture,
and are a degraded version of the earlier noble BoPedi/pirir (Hromnk
1981:38). Hromnk (1999) further claims that the first Bantu speakers came to
Mpumalanga when the Indian or Quena gold traders brought them to the area
as slaves. He claims the BaPedi are the descendents of mixing between the
Indian traders and their African slaves, these descendants acquired their knowledge from their Indian lineage, but is not as advanced as their Indian ancestors
(Hromnk 1999).
This argument resonates closely with the claims made in the nineteenth century
that the Shona were inferior to the people who built Great Zimbabwe. Those
suggestions were offensive at the time but if the authors could be resurrected

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red Herrings 241

and called to account now, they could perhaps plead ignorance. The same plea
cannot be entered on Hromnks behalf. Today, there is an overwhelming
amount of credible evidence that shows Bantu-language speaking African cattle
keeping, crop growing farming communities have lived in sub-Saharan Africa
for at least the last 3,000 years (for example Phillipson 1993; Schmidt 1997; De
Maret 2004, Eggert 2004).
By AD 400 and not in the sixteenth century as claimed by Hromnk, these early
black farming communities lived in most parts of southern Africa suitable for
growing sorghum and millet their two key staple crops. This area of settlement
included Mpumalanga, where their descendants made the internationally
renowned Lydenburg Head sculptures. The Lydenburg Heads were not an isolated
find; rather they form part of a bigger residential site occupied by black African
farming communities. Archaeological excavations found ceramic vessels decorated in a style similar to the Heads, as well as other debris produced by the
village (Evers 1982; Whitelaw 1996). The site has been dated to the early sixth
century AD using C14 techniques.
Stonewalls were first used in southern African settlements in the eleventh century
AD by black African farming communities who built the earliest state in southern
Africa, K2-Mapungubwe. Stonewalls were used to construct the southern slope
terraces and the hilltop royal area of Mapungubwe (see Fouche 1937; Meyer
1998). The Mapungubwe leaders, whose skeletons were found in gold-rich
graves on top of the hill, were African men and women. Similarly the people
buried at K2, the capital preceding Mapungubwe, were Africans (Rightmire
1970; Steyn 1997).
Since the end of the Mapungubwe hill occupation the use of stonewalling has
become widespread in southern Africa. Extensive stonewalling characterised
Great Zimbabwe, contemporaneous Great Zimbabwe elite sites as well as elite residential zones in Zimbabwean successor states such as Khami (see Caton-Thompson 1931; Summers 1971; Huffman 1986b, 2000; Pikirayi 1993, 2001) and Venda
(see Huffman 1986a; Loubser 1991). In addition, stonewalling characterises sites
associated with Tswana (see Hall et al. 2008; Boeyens and Hall 2009), Sotho
(Maggs 1976) and Southern Ndebele (Schoeman 1997, 1998a, 1998b; Van
Vuuren 1980). Clearly then black Africans have been building in stone for at
least a thousand years, which means that the Mpumalanga sites that date to the
last 500 years follow a tradition established by black southern Africans half a millennium earlier. In contrast, outside of the imaginings of Hromnk and his followers, there is no evidence that people ancestral to the San and Khoekhoe
people have a tradition of building extensive stonewalled sites. The absence of a
tradition of stonewalled building by the San and Khoekhoe does not diminish
their achievements or level of advancement. The San for example were the
authors of the exquisite art of the Drakensberg. Hromnk and his followers,
however, imply that building and using stonewalled sites signifies an evolutionary

242 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

achievement. This is a flawed interpretation. The San and Khoekhoe, as well as

many southern African farming communities did not build in stone, because the
use of stonewalling was not significant to them in the contexts of their hunter-gatherer, pastoralist or grassland lives.
Gold and metalworking forms another important part of Hromnks argument.
According to him Indians introduced metalworking to southern Africa some
time before AD 12 or 1300. His argument is based on an astounding mix of
similar word parts and race assumptions (see for example Hromnk 1981 and
1999), but again this assertion is disproved by archaeological research during
the last 100 years which clearly shows that black African people have been
mining, smelting and working iron and copper for at least the last three thousand
years (for example Schmidt 1997). Whilst gold processing does not seem to predate the last millennium (for example Fouche 1937; Meyer 1998; Swan 2008), the
technology used is the same as that developed earlier for copper and iron.
Most subsequent exotic accounts take their lead from Hromnks work though they
often provide their own twist to the tale. A good example of this tendency is the
recently self-published book Adams Calendar by Johan Heine and Michael
Tellinger. This colourful volume reproduces all the weaknesses cited above but
is further distinguished by the extraordinary hubris of the authors who claim to
have discovered that a somewhat motley cluster of stones some standing
near Kaapsehoop is an ancient Calendar and the Oldest Man-made Structure
on Earth. They go even further and, with strong echoes of the legendary
Psychic Episodes at Great Zimbabwe (Clarkson Fletcher 1941), offer the opinions
of three mystics as the concluding corroboration for their speculations as to the
date of the site. They also link Adams Calendar with Great Zimbabwe because
it is built along the same longitudinal line as Great Zimbabwe and the Great
Pyramid and proffer the thought that the site is an active portal for off-worldly
beings to come and go (Heine and Tellinger 2008). This interpretation seems
to have been deduced from a line drawn on a map because Great Zimbabwe is
located at 30856 17 E, the Great Pyramid can be found at 31812 44 E, whilst
Kaapsehoop, Mpumalanga (the site of Adams Calendar) is at 30846 . BoKoni
stretches between about 29855 E and 30855 E.
The exotic explanations of the Mpumalanga stonewalled sites also stress that they
date from ancient and/or biblical times. For example, amateur astronomer Bill
Hollenbach dated the site dubbed Adams Calendar to be around 75,000
years, based on the movement of the peoples in southern Africa and the emergence
of rock art during that period. But, they claim that it could in fact be even older
dating back to the dawn of Homo sapiens some 250,000 years ago (Heine and
Tellinger 2008). This dating method is similar to the must be method used by
Bent (1892), Hall (1905) and Hall and Neal (1902). This does not make it
wrong per se, but when the assumptions underlying the statement are examined
the flaws become apparent, for example 75,000 years ago only hunter-gatherers

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red Herrings 243

lived in southern Africa. At this time, their rock art was limited to geometric
scratches on rock and they did not build stonewalled structures. The book,
drawing on Hromniks work, also implies that some of the sites, presumably contemporary with Adams calendar relate to Hinduism, one of the oldest surviving
religions. But, Hinduisms roots only date back as far as 1500 to 1000 BC, not
75 000 BC (Chakrabarti 2001) and the available evidence clearly show that the
walls were built in the last 500 years. We get some indications of this from oral
traditions, which similar to relative dating methods are not completely reliable.
Material remains in the villages support the oral information.
The book has even been derided on the websites, which normally provide a sympathetic context for such musings.1 But it may prove of value to the training of
new scholars. It provides a particularly striking (and lavishly illustrated)
example of the kinds of arguments put forward by most of the antiquarian or
alternative explanations that have flourished since the 1970s. These arguments
are advanced with little, or no, reference to fact or logic. They run along the
lines of Let us speculate that such and such might be possible. Then a few
pages later Since I have shown that such and such probably happened. And
then a little later As such and such has been conclusively proved. All of this
without any connecting logic or evidence. Other ideas are advanced on the
basis of Surely anyone can see that it is impossible that, and therefore so and
so must have been the case (Kennard-Davies 2005).
A slightly different path is followed by Richard Wade, who previously worked
with the Makomati foundation, led by Heine, which funded some of Hromnks
research. He argues that the ruin fields were built by a culture that predates
Mapungubwe (thus pre AD 1200) and with Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe
. . . share a structurally archived reverence for the vast resources of the sky in
less architecturally monumentalization for a special reason (Wade 2009:117).
Simply put, he argues that the sites are observatories, whilst simultaneously
trying to embed them in African culture.

Why has the Exotic Paradigm had such a Significant Impact?

The fog that has shrouded these structures from proper attention is in part the
product of racist assumptions that long bedevilled the study of Africas past.
Hromnks argument and those of his acolytes resonate with much earlier colonial
perceptions of race in Africa. In this model black Africa has no history until the
lighter skinned people arrived, as described by Hromnk (1981:1). Defining Africans as Negroid people, we come to the conclusion that her [Africas] history
began at the end of the last century or will begin in a few decades. These ideas
prevailed when antiquarians were guided by a racist model in which white was
superior and African black people were completely inferior. In between these
two poles peoples with other skin colours were allocated categories according
to the extent of their pigmentation.

244 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

One of the most tenacious ideas amongst European visitors to the continent in the
nineteenth century, and within the settler dominated societies in the twentieth
century, was that Africans could not, and did not, build in stone (for example
Hall and Neal 1902; Dart 1955). This idea meshed with a wider colonial assumption that Africa had no meaningful history beyond the unrewarding gyrations of
barbarous tribes (Trevor-Roper 1963). History, in short, began with the arrival of
Europeans. What then to make of the imposing material remains to be found in
many parts of the continent? And how could the stone structures scattered all
over southern Africa be explained?
The most imposing of all of these structures Great Zimbabwe was the lightning conductor in the debates generated by this question. The early explorers (for
example Bent 1892) and gold diggers (Hall and Neal 1902) who stood beneath its
towering walls were convinced they had the answer. They were convinced it could
not possibly be the work of neighbouring African societies. Instead they, and
many colonial writers who followed them, delved into a ragbag of arguments variously based on solar and planetary alignments (Bent 1892) and architectural
similarities (Mallows 1985). On this basis they concluded that these were
ancient ruins built by conquerors from the Middle/Near East. The Queen of
Sheba, wandering Jews, Egyptians, Arabs and even Phoenicians were all
offered as candidates for the position of former rulers of the state. All the
clearly African material culture they found was dismissed as recent, dug away
and discarded (Bent 1892; Hall and Neal 1902). Only gold that could be sold,
or material culture items that seemed to be linked to non-Africans were collected
and studied (Hall 1984b).
Aside from lack of evidence, leaps of logic and internal contradictions, what made
these arguments remarkable was the tenacity with which they were held in the face
of an accumulating body of work by professional archaeologists and historians
(for example MacIver 1906; Caton-Thompson 1931). This work also challenged
the idea that the site is thousands of years old. We now know that the construction
of the stonewalls at Zimbabwe started about AD 1300 and that these walls were
added to in several phases until the site lost its status as the capital of a powerful
state based on the gold trade in the mid 1400s (see Caton-Thompson 1931;
Summers 1971; Huffman 1986b, 1996, 2000; Pikirayi 1993, 2001). This interpretation was implacably opposed by large sections of the settler population but with
the demise of Rhodesia, the exotic school of explanation went into rapid decline.
There are very few people left who imagine that Great Zimbabwe now a world
heritage site and until recently a major southern African tourist destination is an
expression of anything other than African culture and history.
In the case of Great Zimbabwe, the pendulum of explanation swung from early
obsession with exotic rulers to a recognition of its primarily indigenous nature.
Interestingly, the much more limited discussion of the stone sites on the Mpumalanga escarpment has tended to move in the opposite direction. Exotic expla-

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red Herrings 245

nations have flourished in the last twenty years and have gained a significant grip
on the public imagination and are even to be found on some quasi-official websites. This somewhat bizarre development merits some discussion.
Great Zimbabwe lost it role as major political centre 500 years before it was discovered in the late nineteenth century and this time gap may have helped make its
history vulnerable to racist speculation. In the case of the escarpment settlements,
while most had been abandoned by the 1830s, white travellers and settlers soon
became aware that Africans had inhabited them. Oral traditions recounted by
both the previous inhabitants and by their former neighbours made clear the
sites African roots. They also did not have to be persuaded that Africans built
with stone as the bane of their existence were the stone fortresses, such as the
Ndzundza capital Erloweni or the Pedi capital Dsjate, built by African states
that dotted the landscape and which they struggled to subdue (Delius 2007).
This understanding was reflected in early writings about the history of the region.
And as noted above it is crystal clear in the results of the first intensive and rigorous investigation into the Mpumalanga sites conducted by Van Hoepen in the
1930s. Van Hoepens findings were based on remnants of oral traditions and
local knowledge, which included the recognition that local African communities
were still using similar stonewalling techniques. This early knowledge has faded
from the public arena, both in the region and nationally.
Local forgetfulness might be the product of a ruptured memory stemming from
apartheid separation. Successive sets of legislation removed communities from
land in areas declared white. The only remnants of earlier flourishing communities
were farm workers, who seldom had the resources or need to construct elaborate
stonewalled structures. But, as if commenting on continuity and rupture, the pole
and dakha homesteads of farm workers often stand in or adjacent to stonewalled
ruins. The lapse of memory might have been compounded by tensions generated
by land claims. In some areas the land claims process, even though only applicable
to post-1913 dispossessions, has required claimants to submit long and interrupted
traditions and proof of residing in the area. This imperative has often resulted in
the reconfiguration of the past and identities. Similarly some landowners express
anxiety that research on stonewalled sites might encourage land claims. It is not
difficult to see how Indians or aliens could become attractive alternative explanations for the origins of these sites. While the African origins of this world
ruffled racist feathers, the exotic alternatives led some to believe that these sites
could be the source of lucrative rewards, drawing tourists whom their preconceptions led them to imagine would be disinterested in African history culture and
But, amnesia might not have been pervasive if archaeologists popularised their
research more effectively. Public archaeology programmes about the stonewalled
sites are almost completely absent. Mason, who aligned himself with African historians, produced popular publications (for example Mason 1987) and ran an

246 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

archaeology education programme with schools in Johannesburg. This programme, mostly focusing on Melville Koppies, involved white and black school
children in excavations and regular site visits. But this programme does not
seem to have reached Mpumalanga and after Mason left the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) systematic public archaeology education programmes ended
and were only resumed in the late 1990s. The reason for this withdrawal from
active public education is not clear. Part of the explanation might stem from the
Rhodesian experiences of Huffman, who replaced Mason. Huffman (1986a) certainly felt that his work was independent from public discourse and argued that he
was not responsible for how it was used.
But the onus was not solely on Wits; a range of other institutions could have
played a role. The University of Pretoria dabbled in the area,2 but Mapungubwe
remained the main focus of their research and public outreach. As one of the
main employers of archaeologists, museums play a fundamental role in archaeological research and education, but there are no large national museums in Mpumalanga and the main focus of the Lydenburg Museum has been on the Lydenburg
Heads site, which it curates.
Archaeological research on the stonewalled sites also did not lend itself easily to
popularisation. Studies of settlement layout were abstract and seldom explored
who had actually lived at the sites a question which might have elicited
greater public interest. The technical presentation of the spatial layout,
however, mirrored archaeology as a whole. These presentations made archaeological data inaccessible and resulted in part in the invocation by Black Consciousness thinkers of an idealised precolonial past that rested on earlier representations
of Africa (Hall 1990; Hamilton and Wright 1995). Furthermore, studies focusing
on ceramic style entrenched images of tribal boundaries and stereotypes. These
ideas were anathema to leading exiled African intellectuals, who were trying to
shape a non-ethnic image of precolonial southern Africa. Paradoxically, in post1994 South Africa, bounded entities defined by culture and tradition, have taken
centre stage and stereotypes, rooted in Volkekunde and apartheid ideology, are
often represented as forms of indigenous knowledge (Kuper 1999, 2003).
Both the pre- and post-1994 projection of strongly bounded groups stand in stark
contrast to the fluidity and flexibility reflected in the writing of historians (for
example Delius 1983; Bonner 1983), who recognised that members of precolonial
polities and states often moved between power centres rather than being bounded
to the elite by ethnicity or language. Their use of oral traditions to access historical
process was fundamental to these insights. Archaeologists on the other hand
looted oral traditions and ethnographic texts to find culture and tradition, and as
discussed earlier, ignored the traditions when they did not fit the conclusions
based on ceramics.
This concern with culture stems from Iron Age archaeologists in the Transvaal realigning themselves with anthropology after the departure of Mason in the early

Reading the Rocks and Reviewing Red Herrings 247

1980s. Mason, like many of his peers, was trained in the British tradition where
archaeology was linked to history. However Huffman, who was educated in
North America where archaeology and anthropology are closely aligned,
became increasingly influential especially in research in the Transvaal. Hall
(1983) contended that the Huffmans focus on cultural classification stemmed
from his training in American style cultural anthropology. The impact of the
anthropological turn on Iron Age archaeology in the Transvaal was severe,
especially because at the time anthropology in South Africa contended that
there was continuity over time in traditional culture that only started to break
down in the recent past. This assumption was challenged by some historians
(Hamilton and Wright 1995) as well as archaeologists in the Cape (for example
Hall 1984a, 1984b).
Anthropology however was not stagnant and the mid-1980s heralded major shifts
in anthropological practice. South African social anthropologists linked earlier
approaches to culture with racism (see Kuper 1999, 2003), and anthropological
research increasingly focused on dynamic contemporary communities. These
challenges led to a deeper divide between social anthropology at English universities and cultural anthropology at Afrikaans universities, and a larger overlap
between history and social anthropology. The content of structuralist and
ceramic-based archaeology was closer to cultural anthropology than to social
anthropology, which further led to the intellectual isolation of Iron Age
Disciplinary isolation was a key hurdle to effective research on the stonewalled
sites, because variability and complexity is best addressed in a large collaborative,
preferably inter-disciplinary, enterprise, as can be seen in some of the successes of
Masons Iron Age programme. But, due to increasing disciplinary differences collaborative research and collective programmes were no longer part of the intellectual landscape of farmer archaeology. Similarly collaboration was rare inside the
discipline. This in part stems from a series of intellectual and personal disputes
(for example Huffman 1983; Hall 1983) and distrust resulting from individual

Winds of Change?
The Mpumalanga Heritage Project (Delius 2007; Delius and Hay 2009) signalled a
shift in approach to making information about history and archaeology available
in a more accessible format. This project gave rise to a symposium on the stonewalled sites, which centred on a public debate between Hromnk and his critics
(Andrews 2007). Whilst the symposium was covered widely in the press and
the overwhelming majority of the participants felt that Hromnks analysis had
been comprehensively discredited, exotic explanations continued to multiply.
Bizarrely some intellectuals who are intent on celebrating African culture and
achievement are seduced by the notion that these sites are ancient observatories

248 African Studies, 69:2, August 2010

overlooking the fact that this depiction is based on a deeper rejection of the possibility of African-inspired innovation. We have tried to stem the tide by talking to
local landowners and conservation forums. A number of recent publications have
also ensured that a wider audience is aware of the nature of these sites (Delius
2007; Delius and Hay 2009). We are also in the process of producing an accessible
and richly illustrated book to ensure that the importance of the sites is still more
widely recognised. But much remains to be done.
Our broader, collaborative, Bokoni research project is making good progress. Its
focus includes investigations into trade routes and goods, agricultural systems and
oral histories. Some of this information will help us to counter some of the more
outlandish exotic explanations. For example scientific dating of key features, such
as terraces and house floors could provide a counterpoint to the wild chronological
speculation that has been the hallmark of much of the work in the exotic paradigm.
But, while progress has been made in the arena of research, very little has been
achieved in terms of official recognition, conservation and controlled public
access. Thus far not one of the thousands of settlements, which have been identified, has been recognised as an official heritage site. Most are on private land and,
while some landowners have been at pains to protect these sites, many have not.
Walling is regularly cannibalised for new building projects, terraces destroyed
during road construction and field-clearing operations and in one instance a precious complex of engraved stones was demolished to build a private swimming
pool. There has been high-level political recognition of the importance of these
sites, but the bureaucratic process required to create a proper plan for their protection and management show no sign of any urgency, indeed of any movement at all.
As a result a vital part of South Africas history and a heritage resource of enormous potential stands in profound jeopardy.

1. See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-chat/2033199/posts.
2. Johan Nel, personal communication, 2007.
3. Tim Maggs, personal communication, 2009.

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