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Wilfrid Laurier University Office of Research Services
October 26, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Rock shelters in the Mnweni Valley in South Africa

Gary Warrick: "Community archaeology in South Africa -- rock shelters, rock art, and the 19th century British colonial legacy"

The idea for a research project doesn’t always begin in the library or the lab or while sitting at the computer.

            Gary Warrick’s current indigenous archaeology project in the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains), South Africa, had its start during a holiday at a community-run backpackers’ hostel in the Mnweni Valley.  With a Laurier internal travel grant, he went back last summer with the intent of setting up a research program to look into the 19th century legacy of British colonialism in the area. 

            Warrick’s most recent archaeological work involved colonialism here in southwestern Ontario, looking at Davisville, a 19th century Mohawk-Mississauga community on the Grand River.  That project was the subject of the 2008 Silvercord Productions documentary “Written in the Earth,” winner of the 2008 Public Communications Award from the Canadian Archaeological Association for best documentary film on archaeology in Ontario.

            Canadian archaeology has become primarily compliance-based, providing evaluation of locations for development.  In his Six Nations research, Warrick worked with the community and -- “this is important,” he said -- discovered great interest on the part of local indigenous people in participating and sharing in the research.

            During that project, he began thinking of the responsibility of the academy to the rest of the world, looking at ways that archaeological research can make contributions to real communities and contemporary society.  His current project, in many ways, builds on his experience in Ontario.

            Why Africa? While a number of scholars have been doing archaeological research in South Africa, they haven’t included the 19th century.  British colonialism is still a legacy in the Drakensberg area, with ripples affecting the lives of indigenous people today. 

            Warrick’s Mnweni Valley research involves Zulu-speaking farmers (amaNgwane and amaZizi) and some of their ancestors who intermarried with the survivors of the San hunter-gatherers in the late 19th century. The descendants of the mixed San-Zulu families will be interviewed in the oral history portion of the project. The overall goal of the work is to document the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the San from the Mnweni Valley region.  His specific research plan is threefold: 

            First, with the help of a South African PhD student, he will be doing an analytical study of the rock art that still survives in the rock shelters in the valley.

            He will include the oral history component mentioned above, interviewing descendents of the 19th century residents – the community has a strong oral tradition and stories of that period have survived.

            Finally, he will be doing community archaeological research on the rock shelter sites in the area where the San, the indigenous people in the Mnweni Valley, lived.  Many of the rock shelters in the side valley still have early paintings on their outside walls, with themes relating to historical times.  Excavations will look for 19th century artifacts such as maize and glass beads associated with the local culture. 

            In describing his project, Warrick repeatedly used the phrase “community archaeology.”  There is a significant difference between community archaeology, which actively involves the people in the subject area, and traditional archaeology, which has tended in the past to dig and then leave, often taking the artifacts away from the community.  According to Warrick, the ethical way of doing international archaeology includes real community involvement and capacity-building, always asking the question “how is this going to benefit the descendents of these people?” 

            Part of the reason that Warrick has already been welcomed and had much of his project approved by local authorities is the fact that he plans to involve the community.  Living in a marginalized rural area, the Mnweni Valley people voice a common refrain:  “if only we could keep our young people here.”  The area is off the beaten track, near the Lesotho border.  Warrick’s project would, among other things, include local young people, offering them training and skills in archaeology that could be useful in other situations.  Adding to the local tourism economy and providing resources for the documentation of local history, Warrick is looking forward not only to investigating an important gap in archaeological knowledge but doing so side-by-side with the descendents of the people who created the artifacts he will be studying.

            Warrick also commented on how international researchers must, after all, do “double duty.”  In some ways, it’s much easier to do research at home in Canada -- you can just be a researcher.  Working at an international location, you also have to be aware of the politics, health care, history and social system that provide a context for your work.  And doing community-oriented research, as well, means working side-by-side with local people, acting as a trainer and resource as well as a researcher.

            Still, he recognizes a huge potential not only for the scholarship that will result but the capacity-building for the local people that will accompany his project.  He anticipates being a “richer person” for investigating the community possibilities in his research.