Trespassing as a way of being: Ancestral heritage in South Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Silvia Tomášková

16 May 2022

“I’m asking what is heritage, how do we think about it, what is it used for, and why are we arguing for certain kinds,” said Silvia Tomášková of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

STIAS fellow Tomášková was discussing an archaeological project she has been involved in for 10 years in Wildebeest Kuil in the Northern Cape, South Africa.

STIAS Fellow Silvia Tomášková during her seminar on 12 May 2022

“I wish to probe the quest for an authentic past in relation to complex, layered colonial histories globally. In the context of debates on ‘land’ and ‘land appropriation’, rather than heritage, I rely on the figure of ‘trespass’ to offer a more revealing lens for the contested nature of a particular space. The concept allows us to include a wider array of voices in the story surrounding ancient, engraved images and invite viewers to consider the entangled relationships between those who came through the Karoo. Between geological deposits of diamonds, archaeological finds of early human origins, San engravings, and the resettlement of the San members of a South African Infantry Battalion in Platfontein, the land in the Northern Cape is a highly contested space,” she said.

“The project expands and complicates the narrative,” she continued. “The stories of the present and historic communities in the area add nuance and complexity to the understanding of claims on ancient, recent past and the present, arguing that every conflict has an afterlife that continues to resonate loudly.”

“The combining of the ancient past and present-day people allow us to reflect on present identities. It’s a global question due to the colonial legacy and the, sometimes, clash of indigenous history and Western science. It’s more complicated than Western science serving indigenous interests. They are not just working together.”

Tomášková explained that her interest in prehistoric art came from the work of South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams in the 1980s/90s who reinvented rock art as Shaman ritual and specifically linked it to Siberia which, as Tomášková is of Czechoslovakian descent, drew her attention. “The origins caught my interest,” she explained. “Particularly the history rooted in Russia which is never spoken about in terms of colonisation.”

This Shamanic interpretation became popular but made Tomášková question whether one could interpret the vast diversity of modes and images of prehistoric art with one frame. Wanting to know more drew her to South Africa which has the largest volume, richness and diversity of prehistoric art in the world leading to her involvement in the Northern Cape.

Different sites and different art

Wildebeest Kuil is 16 km from Kimberley and consist of two sites containing a vast collection of rock engravings. Tomášková is mapping and recording the engravings and then using photogrammetry and 3D computer-generated models which allow multiple angles and close ups to uncover what might be hidden to the naked eye.

Although the sites are adjacent, she pointed to very different types of artwork requiring different skill levels. Site 1 contains 245 engravings of which 80% are representational images of animals, humans and other abstract motifs while 20% comprise just pecking and rubbing.  Site 2 has 318 engravings (nearly all the boulders) but is the opposite with 90% pecking and rubbing and only 10% representational images. Both sites contain incomplete images and multiple images on one rock using different techniques, but there is no overlapping or overwriting which is a feature on other sites.

“It’s a large area with two hills and completely different artwork. How do we interpret this? The sites are right next to each other so why are they different?” Some of the theories she has considered is that the one site was the learning site or that the pecking might be the result of sound not image creation.

“The stone is hard,’ she said, “so the work is intense. But there are clearly different acts of engaging with the stone.”

It’s hard to date engravings exactly – rock painting is much more precise. “We have to rely on weathering,” she explained. “We estimate they are 2000 to 10 000 years old but it’s a guess.” It’s also clear that some are more recent perhaps dating from when the area was a popular picnicking site in the late 19th century.

Tomášková is interested in understanding the skills necessary to make the engravings, how people learnt to do it and whether the images were regarded as masterpieces. “Is it even art?” she asked. “It’s certainly something that took time to do and required dedication. But we tend to base our assumptions on Western notions of what art is.”

One piece of a bigger story

“I’m also interested in understanding whose heritage this is. It’s unclear who owned the land and made these engravings. There is a general acceptance that it’s ancestral San artwork but which groups?”

The nearest San settlement is Platfontein which consists of two groups – the !xun and Khwe. Tomášková explained that they are different linguistically and have little in common other than a shared history of involvement in armed conflict in Angola and South West Africa/Namibia. When the war started in Angola in the 1960s the San were hired as trackers (Flechas). When the Portuguese retreated, the Flechas were employed by the South African National Defence Force 31st Battalion in the so-called Bush War which drew them into South West Africa. With Namibian independence about 3000 families were moved to South Africa in around 1989 initially at Schmidtsdrif but after the end of apartheid the government purchased land in Platfontein in 2003 and moved them there.

The history and politics of the region are therefore complicated. “The Northern Cape is not a neutral space of the past,” said Tomášková.  “It’s a place of settlement and resettlement with multiple layers of the past living in the space.”

She also pointed out that there is very little in the archaeological archives with only one small excavation in the area which doesn’t indicate settlement. However, she also mentioned the Wonderwerk Cave in Kuruman about 200 km away which has archaeological deposits dating as far back as 1.8 million years.

“The present-day San in the area are therefore somewhat uncomfortably seated next to diamond mines and some of the earliest sites of humanity.”

“They were told the site was their heritage,” she continued. “And, of course, it has tourist value in an area with huge unemployment. I believe that it’s a useful example which may allow us to question the black box of San elsewhere.”

“To an extent it freezes them in time presenting them as unchanged and primitive when they have a modern, complicated hybrid identity. There are no simple connections but we can’t deny the history and present from which they are constructed. The youth are indigenous but also part of the 21st century.”

Tomášková believes we need more room for hybridity in our understanding of the past and of indigeneity.

“Boundaries are determined by history and culture not geography. People inhabit different places and make them their own.”

She explained that it’s about the politics of presentation and the categorisation of the San. “It’s an anthropological black box – it’s either not questioned or presented as not complicated which doesn’t reflect the multiplicity of human experience and of ways of being.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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