A History in Paint and Stone from Rose Cottage Cave, South Africa

Article excerpt

In South Africa, as in so many regions, the world of dirt archaeology in shelter. floors and of rock art on shelter walls, have also been rather separate as domains of study. In research at Rose Cottage Cave, bridges are being made to link both strands of evidence to the forager social strategies from which both derive.

Rock art and `dirt' archaeology

Southern Africa has an abundance of forager rock art(1) in the form of engravings and paintings; it is similarly rich in Later Stone Age (c. 25,000 b.p. until time of living memory) deposits containing bone, ochre, shell, stone and wood artefacts as well as archaeological features such as hearths and activity areas. For much of its history, southern African Later Stone Age research has been a descriptive discourse concerned with artefact sequences and typologies. Excavated material culture has provided information that relates principally to economic, environmental and technological aspects of forager life; only recently have social implications been considered (Wadley 1987; Mazel 1989; see also Barham 1992). Rock art research has a much longer history of using social theory to interpret imagery and has focused on issues such as religion (Vinnicombe 1976; Lewis-Williams 1981a), political strategies (Campbell 1986; Dowson 1994), forager-agriculturist contiguity (Hall 1994; Prins & Hall 1994; Jolly 1996; Ouzman 1995a) and the construction of regional histories (Loubser & Laurens 1994; Yates & Smith 1994). Though polysemic in nature, it is generally agreed that the production and content of most of the forager rock art in southern Africa centres on the hallucinatory visions and experiences of San religious adepts or shamans (Lewis-Williams 1981a; Huffman 1983; Deacon 1988; Kinahan 1991; Garlake 1995; see also Dowson & Lewis-Williams 1994). Because excavated material culture and rock art are visually disparate and because rock art was, for a significant period, considered something of a `Cinderella' body of research, southern African archaeologists tend to separate and compartmentalize studies of rock art and `dirt archaeology', with comprehensive research all the poorer for this tendency. We suggest that a more open-ended approach to the Later Stone Age, utilizing multiple strands of evidence, will throw new light on problems and may point to new research questions and directions (see, for example, David et al. 1994; Hall 1994; Tacon & Brockwell 1995). Our study attempts to understand both rock art and excavated material culture as integrated elements relating to forager social strategies. We do not, however, contend that all rock art and excavated material culture were necessarily part of similar social strategies or that they were always complementary.

We recognize that open-ended approaches are potentially fraught; for example, establishing the precise temporal and conceptual relationships between rock art and excavated cultural material is problematic (but see Humphreys 1971; Morris & Beaumont 1994; see also Campbell & Mardaga-Campbell 1993). Even a match of radiocarbon or other dates obtained from excavated deposits with dates obtained from paint samples is no guarantee of synchronous occupation.

Strands, `cables' and `tacking'

The challenge is to understand and integrate visually disparate material culture signatures such as painted images and lithics. If used wisely, each strand of evidence can act as an independent verification or limitation for an argument. In our efforts to integrate rock art and excavated material culture we use Bernstein's metaphor of `cables' and `tacking' as a heuristic device (Bernstein 1983). Wylie, citing Bernstein, argues for a practicable path between objectivism and relativism by suggesting that multiple strands of evidence can be twisted together to form a `cable' of evidence, the cumulative `weight' of which is sufficient to make an argument plausible even if no strand is sufficient in itself (Wylie 1989). …