Research into the Formlings in the Rock Art of Zimbabwe. (Special Section)

By Mguni, Siyakha | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Research into the Formlings in the Rock Art of Zimbabwe. (Special Section)


Mguni, Siyakha, Antiquity


In 1929, commenting on southern Africa's rock art, Leo Frobenius remarked: `... oddities occur which are completely outside our understanding. There are large forms, shaped like galls or livers, into which human figures are painted ...' (1929: 333). He coined the term `formling' to `denote this composite type of forms and yet not easily explained' (Goodall 1959: 62, my emphasis). These motifs (FIGURE 1) still remain poorly understood. In 1998, I began research into their form and meaning. In this note I set out the history of the formling debate and introduce some of my new findings.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Formlings are found principally in Zimbabwe, but they also occur less frequently in South Africa and Namibia. With oval or oblong cores as the basic `building blocks', their shapes and sizes vary. These cores have semicircular white caps at one or both ends and are usually covered in regularly patterned lines of microdots. Sometimes circular lines with an orifice bound stacks of cores. Occasionally, these boundaries have triangular or linear-spiked crenellations on their edges.

Narrative explanations saw formlings as landscape depictions. Frobenius, however, regarded them as symbolic and that relevant ethnography would aid their interpretation. He designated them `the king's monuments', noting that formlings decorated ancient tombs in rock shelters. Some writers saw formlings as material phenomena: a stockaded village or mud huts (Rudner & Rudner 1970: 86, 87), cornfields, quivers, mats, xylophones (Cooke 1969: 42), grain bins (Holm 1957: 69) and beehives (Cooke 1959: 145). The apiary view, popularized in the 1970s, has held sway until very recently (Pager 1971: 349-52; 1973). Yet others inferred thunderclouds (Rudner & Rudner 1970: 87) or, specifically, strato-cumulus clouds (Lee & Woodhouse 1970) and pools of water or rainwater (Breuil 1966:115,116). These interpretations fall into the `gaze-and-guess' category (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1999) in which the researchers' own perceptions guided their reading of the art. Whereas the apiary view is plausible in some areas, it remained descriptive and less interpretative.

San art is now known to be symbolic (e.g. Lewis-Williams 1981; Huffman 1983; Walker 1996); simplistic narratives therefore have no place in the explanation of its nuances and subtleties. Current researchers draw on San ethnography and, in particular, on San notions of supernatural potency in their explanations of formlings. One explanation is that formlings represent the gebesi or human abdomen as the fountain of potency or that they could be trancers themselves (Garlake 1995: 96). Another elevates the literal landscape interpretation to a metaphorical level: `maps' (Smith 1994: 378, 384) of trancers' preternatural journeys. New explanations have usefully advanced this study, but several aspects remain unexplained.

Recent research

Formlings carry deeper metaphoric references than have hitherto been allowed. I examine further the many repeated contexts and previously overlooked associations. These informative contexts include potent creatures and animals, people (FIGURE 1), therianthropes, botanical motifs growing from their edges (FIGURE 2) and flecks, which are sometimes elaborated into insect forms. Formlings are also conflated with bulbous plants (FIGURE 3).

[FIGURES 2-3 OMITTED]

Unlocking the symbolism of formligs must necessarily begin with a clear definition of the range of forms that are subsumed under the term. For many writers, the term is synonymous with any nebulous form; this is misleading and confuses interpretations. As Garlake (1995: 91) notes, formlings are `based on comparatively simple clusters of oval shapes'. Yet it is apparent that in some explanations single ovals are treated as if they are themselves formlings.

Almost all writers on formlings have inferred some kind of material derivation. …

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