By Chippindale, Christopher | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview
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Chippindale, Christopher, Antiquity

Elandsbaai Western Cape, South Africa warm and sunny

North and trending west a little out from Cape Town, through the Cape Flats sprawl and into arid ploughland. Everywhere blossoming on the wire fences is South Africa's welcoming national flower - the fetal plastic bag (a bloom shared even equally by Italy), commonly white, often with polychrome details. Into Piketberg for a snack, little town full of farmers' bakkies come into town to buy stuff for the property; the bottle shop opposite, as ANTHONY MANHIRE shows me, is a thoroughly modern building where a concrete fedazzle set over the door is the enduring ghost of the graceful central gable in high Cape Dutch houses. Above us the mountain of the Piketberg, a high craggy lump which looks promising (at least, fairly promising) for rock-art. Though I am used now to unexplored country in Australia, my English background still makes me expect every obvious archaeological acre will have been explored to exhaustion; so I am startled when I ask, and Tony says, 'Is there rock-art up there? Probably - we haven't had time to look yet.'

Then turning more west, narrowing tarmac then good gravel, we cross the sandveld and come towards Elandsbaai. Sheep, wheat, cattle, ostriches (ostriches! - this is my first time in southern Africa), vines. A spreading flock of sheep on the stubble with dark-skinned herders: the sheep not fat-tailed, but otherwise a wandering flock as shepherding people have grazed this land 2000 years. To the east, the ridges of the Cederberg, blue knife-edges retreating into far grey. Then a long straight valley, cultivated fields of pure sand on the slope, not even a streak of humus in the beige. To our left, the Verlorenvlei, a long narrow pool of water, sometimes with reeds, pelicans, glossy ibis, though we are still 15 kilo-metres from the sea. In time, opposite, where Diepkloof shelter makes an enticing lump on the sky-line, a clump of trees. Before it, with its stoop overlooking the vlei, a langhuis, neat and low, tiny windows, green door, whitewashed (to save the unfired mudbrick from running away in the wet) under a thatch from the fynbos.

A night in the University of Cape Town's station, field-base for JOHN PARKINGTON'S long-term study of the changing landscape and the Quaternary sequence around Eland's Bay. It is astonishing to me - and no less astonishing though I know it is commonplace - how much of a Holocene landscape's changing story is plainly visible on the ground, if only you have the eyes and experience: the main shelter of Elandsbaai cave; the little gray taluses spilling down below smaller overhangs that tell each of a little deposit of shell and lithics above; the rock-bar at the mouth of the vlei which separates the brackish-cum-freshwater from the saltwater systems; the 'dinner-time' camps of one-time visits that make tiny deposits of shell and charcoal scattered within the sand of the dunes; further north, the kopjes with open sites at their bases; the shell beaches, cheniers, of 'last Interglacial' age (whatever that means) in the quarry exposures; and a deep river valley where, they say, handaxes are downstream eroding out of the channel banks.

The earth scientists who work on plate tectonics teach us how thin and shallow is the zone of active geology as we see it, on and within the plates that float lightly above the deep movements. We archaeologists, who work amongst the shallow surficial deposits that lie on those plates, see the same in miniature. So we are given the beach terraces, the moving sand-dunes, the buried soils - the whole material body of Holocene landscapes often perfectly on view.

Diepkloof Elandsbaai, Western Cape, South Africa warm and sunny

Above and across from the langhuis, a high crag of rocks on the ridge-top, rounded, with a clear overhang on the left side: Diepkloof shelter. A hint of a path up to it from the farm buildings, through the low scrub and across the scree boulders, a scramble over the rounded blocks for the last yards, and into a lovely enclosed rock-shelter, Diepkloof West.

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