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Rock art and Natal Drakensberg hunter-gatherer history: a reply to Dowson.

A further contribution on art, history and archaeological attitude in South Africa.


Dowson (1993) takes issue with aspects of an article of mine, 'Changing fortunes: 150 years of San hunter-gatherer history in the Natal Drakensberg, South Africa' (Mazel 1992a), published in Antiquity. The essence of Dowson's critique is that by excluding rock art from the paper I commit a host of crimes, one of which is that my '"archaeological" construction continues to negotiate a "primitive" stereotype of the Bushmen' (Dowson 1993: 642). (Is it only art which separates us from 'primitiveness'?) Furthermore, Dowson suggests that by not dealing with the rock art I promote the same views of San hunter-gatherer history as the 19th-century British colonialists (as in 'Changing fortunes' I use the term San in preference to Bushman): 'Our constructions of the past can go beyond a colonialist approach, with its abhorrent stereotypes, only if we are sensitive to the creativity of indigenous people. For the Bushmen, this involves turning to their rock art.' (Dowson 1993: 642, my emphasis). Dowson believes that my approach is symptomatic of the way in which rock art is marginalized by South African archaeologists: 'The exclusion of rock art research from archaeological practice in Southern Africa is commonplace, even today' (Dowson 1993: 641). Thus, the South African archaeological community stands charged by Dowson for marginalizing rock art.

The following response to Dowson will not cover all the issues that he has raised due to space constraints. Instead, I will concentrate on some of the principal issues.

Misrepresenting 'Changing fortunes . . .'

Before proceeding, I need to highlight Dowson's confusion concerning the aim of my paper, which I explicitly stated at the outset: 'to trace and understand the making of the Natal Drakensberg San hunter-gatherer history over the last 150 years' (Mazel 1992a: 758). No attempt was made to construct Natal Drakensberg San history. This history was cursorily dealt with in four short paragraphs to provide the readers with some background. Dowson's confusion about the aims of my paper emerges in the third sentence of his Comment (Dowson 1993: 641): Mazel's history documents 150 years of Bushman hunter-gatherer occupation in the Natal Drakensberg and their changing fortunes at the hands of historians and archaeologists.

The second point is correct, but I am at a loss trying to establish the origin, or meaning, of his first point. Dowson has confused the aim of my paper, that is the making of the history, with the history itself, and this has resulted in a series of groundless misrepresentations and accusations, such as, 'Despite deconstructionist jargon, Mazel's Drakensberg history effectively remains colonial in character' (Dowson 1993: 642).

Some thoughts on rock art studies and Natal Drakensberg San history

Dowson (1993: 642) calls for a 'new concept of "history" that breaks from emphasizing a chronology of certain kinds of events, one which accepts other evidence and other kinds of statements and constructions'. With regard to the San, Dowson (1993: 642) believes that they 'have painted their history', and further that 'rock art negotiates their history more than occupational debris and early colonial reports'. Herein lies the essence of the problem -- not how we define history or what kinds of information should be used in constructing San history -- but that Dowson considers rock art to be the key to San history. I disagree, and I consider his comments about history and my approach to San history as not only ill-informed and misleading, but I believe that they obfuscate what underlies his response to my paper. I therefore am going to disregard them.

Numerous difficulties beset viewing rock art as the key to constructing San history, but the one which particularly concerns my research programme is the lack of a firm chronological context for the majority of the Natal Drakensberg paintings. Nonetheless, I would like to make it clear that I believe that the paintings form part of the San historical process, and that if, or more positively when, we are able to date them, they will be an important component in constructing these historical processes.

Since 1981, I have been researching Thukela Basin, Holocene, hunter-gatherer history, of which the northern Natal Drakensberg forms a part. A major thrust of this research has been to construct a social history for the San hunter-gatherers (Mazel 1987; 1989a; 1989b; 1992b). During my research I have given considerable thought about how to integrate the rock paintings, and the interpretations thereof that have been developed by David Lewis-Williams and others, into this historical trajectory. However, each attempt has been stymied by the lack of a firm chronological context for the paintings. While it could be that the problem lies in my approach to the subject, all the other hunter-gatherer contexts in which I have seen these elements integrated suffer from uncertainty concerning the chronological association between the rock art and the other data. The problem increases the further back in time one goes. The inability to date the paintings has been the source of concern and debate for many years. Twenty years ago Inskeep (1971: 102) stated:

We are in the embarrassing position of having a rich source of documents on a phase of prehistory which often we can read (in part at least), but which we cannot arrange in groups, or in chronological order. The situation is somewhat akin to that in the great 'cabinets' of Europe before Thomsen proposed his Three Age System.

More recently, Lewis-Williams (1993: 49) commented:

Chronocentrism, moreover, marginalises the most prolific and easily accessible (only in the sense that excavation is not required) body of data on the Later Stone Age -- rock art. In any event, much of the art can be sufficiently dated to allay the misgivings of all but the most incorrigible chronophiles.

I disagree with Lewis-Williams that 'much' of the art can be dated. In the context of the Natal Drakensberg, Lewis-Williams is presumably referring to the paintings of horses, sheep and cattle and colonial scenes which probably date to between ad 1830 and 1870. But he is overstating his argument; there are no paintings of horses and colonial scenes, and few of sheep and cattle in the north, which contains the majority of the Natal Drakensberg paintings. In my recording of 160 painted sites in the south, domestic animals and colonial scenes, although an important feature of the art, occur in less than 15% of the sites (Mazel 1981; 1984; field notes).

Moreover, Lewis-Williams is inconsistent about our knowledge concerning the age of the paintings. In contrast to the view cited above, Lewis-Williams & Dowson (1992: 15) recently stated:

Archaeologists do not know how old the Drakensberg paintings are because there is at present no way they can be dated. . . . This is a disappointing situation, but none the less we do know something about the age of the more recent paintings.

In the same publication, Lewis-Williams & Dowson (1992: 18) mention that various 'educated guesses' have put the oldest Drakensberg paintings at about 800 years, but stress that this is no more than a guess. So far as I can establish, the 800-year date is not an 'educated guess,' but derives from Denninger's (1971; see also Willcox 1971; Vinnicombe 1976) paper-chromatographic dating of the paintings, which is considered unreliable (Rudner 1989). In essence, we are no nearer to dating the majority of the Natal Drakensberg paintings than we were when Denninger embarked on his project in the late 1960s. Thus, we are not yet in a position properly to integrate the rock paintings with the 8000-year-old Natal Drakensberg hunter-gatherer historical record known from surveys and excavations, except perhaps in an uncertain way for the ad 1830-1870 paintings. Despite differing with Dowson about rock art and history, I acknowledge that omitting the former from my discussion of the making of Natal Drakensberg history was an oversight. With hindsight, I realize that I should have discussed this issue in order to have made the points covered here. Thus, Dowson was correct in querying this omission after I had mentioned that the Natal Drakensberg is world-renowned for its rock paintings, both in terms of abundance and the contribution that their interpretation has made to the understanding of rock art world-wide. However, I want to make it clear that this oversight was not informed by the reasons advocated by Dowson, such as the desire to marginalize the paintings and the people that produced them, or because of supposed colonial loyalties. Rather, it had to do with the limitations of the paintings with respect to constructing San history. In fact, as Dowson notes, by overlooking the art I ignored my own earlier work, which attempted to use the paintings to obtain a better understanding of Natal Drakensberg San history (Mazel 1981; 1982; 1983; Manhire et al. 1986).

Is rock art being ignored by South African archaeologists?

Dowson (1993: 641) accuses South African archaeologists ('with very few exceptions') of marginalizing rock art in their archaeological practice. He goes on to give the impression that the study of rock art is itself being neglected in South Africa. Once again, I must disagree with Dowson. I believe that, on the whole, South African archaeologists are extremely proud of the country's rock art heritage as well as the advances South African archaeologists have made in the interpretation of rock art, particularly the work of Lewis-Williams. Moreover, during the 1980s a growing number of South African archaeologists were researching rock art. Consequently, there are more archaeologists today actively involved in rock art research than at any other time. In addition, the Southern African Association of Archaeologists (SAAA) biennial conferences for the last 12 years have all contained rock art sessions. Besides these, since 1981 there have been five national rock art colloquia, and the number of participants at these has grown from 10 to 29. These events have been organized by the Archaeology Departments of the Natal, McGregor and National Museums and the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Finally, South African archaeologists have published extensively on rock art during the last decade or so, including a Goodwin Series volume devoted to the subject (Lewis-Williams 1983).

Returning to my initial comment, there is no lack of interest in rock art nor a lack of desire to use rock art in constructing dynamic hunter-gatherer social histories, but clearly there is an inability to conceive of a way forward without having a firm chronological framework for the majority of the paintings. Otherwise, we would not be in the present impasse.

Concluding comment

In conclusion, I would like to register my disappointment at Dowson introducing a racial red herring into his Comment by stating that I concentrate 'on early European colonial reports about the Bushmen and the results of excavations by white archaeologists' (1993: 642, my emphasis). What motivated Dowson to introduce this element? Was it a cheap attempt to score academic points, or is it because Dowson genuinely believes that using San ethnography, and particularly the Bleek and Lloyd material, empowers him and others to speak with a 'Bushman voice'? This subject deserves a paper in its own right. Meanwhile, if Dowson's comment was informed by the latter sentiment, he would do well to heed the statement he recently made in ANTIQUITY with Lewis-Williams & Deacon (1993: 277):

Bushmen ethnography, like the art itself, is a text that requires close, critical reading and interpretation: the art does not 'illustrate' the ethnography, nor does the ethnography 'explain' the art in any direct sense . . . Interaction between researcher and text, being always historically situated and specific, is as much an artefact of social circumstances as of data. References

DENNINGER, E. 1971. The use of paper chromatography to determine the age of albuminous binders and its application to rock paintings, South African Journal of Science Special Publication 2: 80-83.

DOWSON, T.A.D. 1993. Changing fortunes of Southern African archaeology: comment on A.D. Mazel's 'history', Antiquity 67: 641-4.

INSKEEP, R.R. 1971. The future of rock art studies in Southern Africa, South African Journal of Science Special Publication 2: 101-4.

LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D. (ed.). 1983. New approaches to southern African rock art. Claremont: South African Archaeological Society. Goodwin Series 4.

1993. Southern African archaeology in the 1990s, South African Archaeological Bulletin 48: 45-50.

LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D. & T.A.D. DOWSON. 1992. Rock paintings of the Natal Drakensberg. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

LEWIS-WILLIAMS, J.D., T.A.D. DOWSON & J. DEACON. 1993. Rock art and changing perceptions of southern Africa's past: Ezeljagdspoort reviewed, Antiquity 67: 273-91.

MANHIRE, A., J. PARKINGTON, A.D. MAZEL & T. MAGGS. 1986. Cattle, sheep and horses: a review of domestic animals in the rock art of southern Africa, in M. Hall & A.B. Smith (ed.), Prehistoric pastoralism in southern Africa: 22-30. Claremont: South African Archaeological Society. Goodwin Series 5.

MAZEL, A.D. 1981. Up and down the Little Berg: archaeological resource management in the Natal Drakensberg. MA thesis, University of Cape Town.

1982. Distribution of painting themes in the Natal Drakensberg, Annals of the Natal Museum 25: 67-82.

1983. Eland, rhebuck and cranes: identifying seasonality in the paintings of the Drakensberg, Natal, South Africa, in Lewis-Williams (1983): 34-7.

1984. Archaeological survey of the Natal Drakensberg, Natal, South Africa, Journal of Field Archaeology 11: 345-56.

1987. The archaeological past from the changing present: towards a critical assessment of South African Later Stone Age studies from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, in J. Parkington & M. Hall (ed.), Papers in the prehistory of the Western Cape, South Africa: 504-29. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. International series 332 (i & ii).

1989a. People making history: the last ten thousand years of hunter-gatherer communities in the Thukela Basin, Natal Museum Journal of Humanities 1: 1-168.

1989b. Changing social relations in the Thukela Basin 7000-2000 bp, in J. Deacon (ed.), Goodwin's legacy: 33-41. Claremont: South African Archaeological Society. Goodwin Series 6.

1992a. Changing fortunes: 150 years of San hunter-gatherer history in the Natal Drakensberg, South Africa, Antiquity 66: 758-67.

1992b. Gender and the hunter-gatherer archaeological record: a view from the Thukela Basin, South African Archaeological Bulletin 47: 122-6.

RUDNER, I. 1989. The conservation of rock art in South Africa. Cape Town: National Monuments Council.

VINNICOMBE, P. 1976. People of the eland. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

WILLCOX, A.R. 1971. Summary of Dr Edgar Denninger's reports on the ages of paint samples taken from rock paintings in South and South West Africa, South African Journal of Science Special Publication 2: 84-5.
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Title Annotation:reply to T.A.D. Dowson, Antiquity, vol.67, p.641
Author:Mazel, Aron D.
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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