King's Monuments: Identifying 'Formlings' in Southern African San Rock Paintings

By Mguni, Siyakha | Antiquity, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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King's Monuments: Identifying 'Formlings' in Southern African San Rock Paintings

Mguni, Siyakha, Antiquity


A formling is a particular category of San rock art image that occurs in Zimbabwe in its thousands (Garlake 1990: 17), although a few occur in northern South Africa (Mguni 2002) and some in western Namibia (Mason 1958) (Figures 1 and 2). Some of the finest examples occur in Matopo where there is a correlation between their complexity in terms of care and detail in their execution and central placement in large shelters with deep occupation deposits (Walker 1996: 32, 60, 73). Formlings also stand out in their contextual associations with a range of other paintings (Garlake 1987, 1995; Walker 1996). They seldom occur in isolation; their contexts include images of various large and small animal species and varied invertebrate taxa. Giraffes are most common, followed by kudu, although kudu dominate across all Zimbabwean rock art (Walker 1996: 73-4).

Perhaps the most prevalent and consistent formling association is with plants and trees (Mguni 2002). Plants are painted next to formlings, at times grow on their tops or from their edges. Formlings and plants are sometimes conflated in a complex manner. Anthropomorphic associations include people, ethereal human-like figures and therianthropes (part-animal/part-human figures). Many of these contexts and conflations have not hitherto been properly investigated, yet together they hold the key to our understanding of formling subject-matter and its significance. Emphases and the choice of subjects vary in different regions, but Zimbabwean paintings are not widely differentiated from the rest of southern African San imagery. Similar artistic conventions are applied and all suggest 'a product of the same society and same artistic tradition' (Garlake 1987: 83).

Defining and describing the morphology of the formlings is essential in any quest for their subject-matter, and this in turn is critical to interpreting their symbolism. From the definition of formling morphology follows the applied concept of these paintings as 'cultured imagery', which particularises San artistic principles. It introduces an insider's perception and purpose for which rock art was produced (Mguni 2002, 2004). Imagery in a cultured system works by a set of principles; these express cultural judgements and priorities in what the imagery does and does not represent, and in how it chooses to embody various symbolic subjects. The principles of San rock art, like those of all other rock art traditions, are largely coherent with other traits in the larger San cultural world. Subjects were selectively treated graphically to emphasise or underplay aspects of symbolism, archaeologically evident to us in the material images we see, and of which the logic of formlings is part, and which will be consistent with the larger pattern of San society and the San worldly and non-worldly experiences.

This paper defines formlings, then charts their previous interpretations and finally, identifies their subject matter.

Definition of formlings

Recognising the pattern as a distinct category, Leo Frobenius (1930, 1931) coined the word 'formlinge,' to mean a form with a range of composite shapes (Goodall 1959: 62). They are peculiar because, to the uninitiated, they are unrecognisable. They may however be conveniently defined by distinctive features under the headings essential features (contour, outlines, cores, interstices) and additional features (orifices, crenellations, microdots, oval flecks, caps, cusps). I argue that ten features, isolated in bold below, delineate formlings as a unique category (Figure 2).

Essential features

The overall contours of formlings range from oval to circular forms. In examples lacking the lines that define their contours, this form is inferable from the arrangement of their other distinctive features. I call these defining lines (often single, at times multiple) outlines. Sometimes they are weathered, or they were never painted at all, but the main features remain positioned in a similar manner to those in formlings with outlines.

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King's Monuments: Identifying 'Formlings' in Southern African San Rock Paintings


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