Driekops Eiland - Towards a New Interpretation
Driekopseiland Rock Engraving Site

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Introducing a new interpretation of Driekopseiland - abstract, introduction and chapter headings with extracts

By David Morris, McGregor Museum, Kimberley

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The rock engraving site of Driekopseiland, west of Kimberley in the Northern Cape, is distinctively situated on glaciated basement rock in the bed of the Riet River, and has a wealth of over 3500 engravings, preponderantly geometric images. Most other sites in the region have greater proportions of, or are dominated by, animal imagery. In early interpretations, it was often considered that ethnicity was the principal factor in this variability. From the 1960s the focus shifted more to establishing a quantitative definition of the site, and an empirical understanding of it within the emerging cultural and environmental history of the region. Concern about the theoretical positioning of research has since come increasingly to the fore.

Results of this more recent work shows that the evidence of social groupings here in precolonial times is not easily resolved in simple ethnic or techno-economic terms. It is suggestive more of a complex 'mosaic' of cultural responses to changing social and environmental circumstances. Significant cross-cultural continuity in key beliefs and rituals of more recent times within Khoisan society, and even beyond, can be demonstrated, so that indeed, in some senses, the 'traditional' ethnic debate over Driekopseiland is of questionable relevance.

The placement of sites in the landscape, it is argued, is a fundamental feature that has been generally overlooked in the interpretation of Driekopseiland. Drawing on the concepts of 'topophilia' (Deacon 1988), of dynamic landscape temporalities (Ingold 1993), and the construal of places and rock faces as meaningful supports mediating spiritual realms in Khoisan beliefs (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990), it is suggested the placement of the engravings on expanses of rock that are submerged when the river rises may be a key to their interpretation. In this light, the variability between engraving sites in the region could be a reflection more of different metaphoric understandings of place and of landscape, than of the discrete cultural, ethnic or techno-economic contexts that much previous writing on Driekopseiland implied. Furthermore, a dynamic interplay between history, rock art and the local environment can be shown to account for the differences between apparently older and younger spreads of engravings at Driekopseiland itself (the older art here being distinguished by a greater proportion of figurative imagery).

Following a critique of past approaches, a theoretical framework is developed that considers the art as part of cultural practices (specifically the female puberty rites) in particular places, that would have been negotiated by people who thereby invoked meanings which, while 'full of the past', were not a fulfilment merely of 'ulterior structure'. These processes constituted a making and re-making of individual and collective histories. Important strands which both reinforce and constrain the argument are derived from a range of rich nineteenth and twentieth century Khoisan ethnographies. The interpretation is a challenge to the ways that variability in rock art, and in other archaeological traces, in the wider region are approached, and expectations arising from this study may be tested in future work.



Driekopseiland is one of South Africa's most extraordinary and renowned rock engraving sites (Stow 1905; Wilman 1933; Battiss 1948; Van Riet Lowe 1952; Slack 1962; Butzer et al. 1979; Fock & Fock 1989; Morris 1990a; Lewis-Williams & Blundell 1998). Well known as it is, it has puzzled researchers for more than a century. The site consists of over 3500 engraved images, on exposed glaciated andesite basement rock in the bed of the Riet River, which is submerged when the river rises. More than 90% of the engravings are 'geometric' motifs. Such images are present, and often common, at a significant number of engraving sites in the region (Fock 1969; Fock & Fock 1989), but nowhere in the area do they occur in such numbers and density relative to figurative engravings, nor in quite so singular a locality.

There has been no dearth of interpretive possibilities put forward for the site, including those entertaining ancient exotic involvement. Van Riet Lowe (1952) hypothesised that some of the engravings, evincing a 'feeling for writing', were more than mere pictographs, and Willcox (1964) wondered about resemblances to child art; but most early accounts were concerned with the issue of authorship. At base, many writers displayed a preoccupation with ethnicity and the reified art-making capacities and aesthetic sensibilities of respective cultural groups - 'Bushmen', 'Korana', and sundry interbred combinations (not to mention foreigners). These approaches were very much in the "traditional" mode of archaeological explanation, as characterised by Renfrew and Bahn (1991:407). A yardstick implicit in much of the debate was articulated most explicitly by Cooke (1969) in what he termed the "true art of the Stone Age Bush people." Against this measure, Driekopseiland was, for him at least, no match. There is as yet no agreement on the identity/ies of those responsible for the engravings at Driekopseiland.

Research from the 1960s was increasingly concerned with a quantitative definition of the site, and to appreciate it within the emerging cultural and environmental history of the region (Butzer et al. 1979; Fock et al. 1980; Fock & Fock 1989). The engravings at the site do appear to span, in part, the last two thousand years, a period of widespread change, when new trajectories become apparent in the rock art traditions of other parts of southern Africa (Parkington 1996; Dowson 1998; Jolly 1998; Denbow 1984:183). In this context it is relevant to enquire in what ways existing art traditions might have been influenced by the appearance of new life-styles and social groupings. It is even possible that an immigrant group might have produced a subset of the art - perhaps a tradition quite distinct from that generally referred to as 'San art' (Smith & Ouzman in press). But the nature of interactions between groups, and the archaeological signatures of this across the landscape (e.g. Humphreys 1988), suggest that some past questions and characterizations in this respect were simplistic. Interaction between different subsistence modes and cultural groupings in the last 2000 years have resulted in a complex 'mosaic' of responses in the region that are not easily resolved in ethnic or techno-economic terms.

A new interpretation

Against this background, significant cross-cultural continuity in key beliefs and rituals within Khoisan society, and even beyond, can be demonstrated (e.g. Wilmsen 1986; Barnard 1992; Guenther 1999), rendering, in some senses, the ethnic debate at Driekopseiland irrelevant. Ethnography on these rites and beliefs, spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, suggests ways for building on earlier tentative speculations regarding the significance of 'place' at Driekopseiland (Morris 1988; 1990a; cf. Parkington 1980) and of 'topophilia' (after Deacon 1988), as the basis for a new interpretation of the engravings here (first proposed in a shorter paper, Morris 2001, in press). It is argued that concepts developed by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1990; Lewis-Williams 1996), on the construal of places and rock faces as meaningful supports, and insights from Deacon's (1986; 1988; 1997) work in the Upper Karoo, are germane to a consideration of metaphoric perceptions of landscape features at Driekopseiland and other rock engraving sites in the Northern Cape (cf. Ouzman 1996; 1998). Temporal variability in the rock art suggests that engraving practices, and, perhaps, their local social contexts, were by no means static; that different expressions possibly of similar beliefs may account for the engravings at Driekopseiland of different character and seemingly earlier period. The approach has the potential to explain aspects of variability between engraving sites of the wider region without having to invoke different ethnic authorships - while not ruling out the possibility of processes of interaction and a dynamic flow of ideas involving different communities in the landscape.

The hypothesis

The hypothesis being proposed is that the unique combination of geographical features at Driekopseiland, and the way it is marked with rock-art, is a key to its interpretation; and that the variability between engraving sites in the region is a reflection more of different metaphoric understandings of place and of landscape, than of the discrete cultural, ethnic or techno-economic contexts that much previous writing on Driekopseiland implied.

The concepts of "topophilia" (Deacon 1988), of dynamic landscape temporalities (Ingold 1993), and the construal of places and rock faces as meaningful supports mediating spiritual realms in Khoisan beliefs (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990), are to be drawn upon in the development of the model. It is the intention to assess this new interpretation of Driekopseiland against archaeological and rock art records
from the region, and a wide range of relevant nineteenth and twentieth century ethnography and contemporary remnants of indigenous knowledge.

Some thoughts on theory

Anticipating some of the discussion in Chapters 3 and 4, one of the primary concerns of this thesis is that bounded, primordialist "ethnic groups" and Durkheimian conceptions of "culture" have not served as appropriate units of study in rock art research in South Africa, and with reference to Driekopseiland in particular. This is not a new observation: Inskeep (1971) implied it clearly enough three decades ago in his paper on "The future of rock art studies in Southern Africa", when he referred to the hazards of an "either or" approach to the authorship issue: "it tends to condition the mind to a narrow field of possibilities, whereas the truth may be very complex" (1971:101).

[....Remainder of Chapter I available from the author]

II Driekopseiland and surrounds

"The question of space is too important to be left exclusively to geographers."
- David Harvey, 1989, cited by Rodman 1992:643.

"The landscape tells - or rather is - a story."
- Tim Ingold, 1993:152.

Driekopseiland is strikingly different from other sites in the region in that it is situated on glaciated andesite pavement, between high silt banks, in the very bed of the Riet River. Its content, too, is singular - more than 3500 engravings, 90% of which are geometric designs. The environmental setting was first considered in some detail when Karl Butzer, with Gerhard and Dora Fock, investigated it in the hope of teasing out some broad chronology of palaeoenvironmental change, in order to suggest periods when it would have been possible to make the engravings (Butzer et al. 1979).

One consequence of the site's placement is that when the river rises, in the wet season, the engravings are submerged (see Coulson & Campbell 2001:121). But during years of drought, almost a defining feature of local geography, the site is left high and dry for most of the year, an impressive expanse of rock, stretching virtually from bank to bank, in two main exposures and extending, together, some 160 m along the riverbed. In the elaboration of a new interpretation it is to be argued that this unique setting, with the engravings seasonally exposed and submerged by that most potent of symbolic elements, water, had become a locus of particular cultural and social significance. The natural had become 'super-natural' (Tilley & Bennett 2001), in a process of incorporation rather than simply inscription (Ingold 1993:157); and in this sense the environmental features must be fundamental in any discussion of the meaning and significance of Driekopseiland.

[....Remainder of Chapter II available from the author]

III A history of ideas and the interpretation of Driekopseiland's engravings

"...the present - which is where all history starts from and returns to."
- Keith Jenkins, 1991:68.

"Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity."
- Stephen Jay Gould, 1981:21.

Stow remains one of the few observers to hint that the singularity of the rock surface at Driekopseiland might itself have had some role in the choice of this locale for the placement of the engravings and hence in their meaning and significance. It seems almost obvious that this was so, yet most other assessments of the site's significance all but gloss over the point and move quickly to the debate that has revolved mainly upon explanations of the particular imagery engraved here (different as it appears from that at other sites in the region); and much of this writing has resorted to a familiar trope - where difference is concerned - namely, ethnicity and the relative explanatory merits of different authorships.

To understand and assess these and other perspectives, it is necessary to examine the history of rock art interpretation at this site - and in South Africa as a whole - and the intellectual contexts within which ideas have been developed. This is an approach famously advocated by the philosopher and archaeologist R.G. Collingwood, who believed "no historical problem should be studied without studying....the history of historical thought about it" (Collingwood 1939:132, cited by Trigger 1989:2). It stands to reason that the existing literature in a field will set strong constraints on how a problem might be conceived, suggests Young in his critical study of the scientific and ideological perspectives in the nineteenth century debate on man's place in nature; he stresses further (1973:369-70) that "science is a social activity, born of society, and mediating its structures and values, at least as much as it is born of nature."

David Clarke has characterised archaeology as an adaptative system "related internally to its changing content and externally to the spirit of the times" (1979:85). Trigger, moving to some extent beyond the internalist-externalist dichotomy that Young (1985:245-6) has criticised in the historiography of science, arrives at a perhaps more subtle characterisation in his wide-ranging history of archaeological thought. He finds that while archaeological evidence acts as a constraint on interpretation and is significantly enhanced, in the history of the discipline, by advancements in archaeological method and practice, "subjective factors clearly influence the interpretation of archaeological data at every level" (1989:407). These are not prone to being eliminated simply by a commitment to "neutral" science and proper procedures, as argued by the "more ardent positivists"; nor are subjective influences necessarily negative, having functioned at times in the history of archaeology as a creative element spurring research. Trigger (ibid.:410) asserts that archaeology is "neither separate from society nor a mere reflection of it, but has a role to play in a rational dialogue about the nature of humanity, which a better understanding of the relationship between archaeological practice and its social context will facilitate." Perhaps implicit in this is a point made more explicitly by Jenkins (1991) in his distinction between 'history' and 'the past', in which the present is "where all history starts from and returns to." Jenkins adds the significant insight that "the past's hold on history is really the historian's [in our case, the archaeologist's] hold on history", since "evidence...as opposed to traces, is always the product of the historian's discourse" (1991:49-50). The one sure thing in 'history' is that it is constructed in the present, a point made in the South African context by Parkington and Smith (1986) when they insisted that "archaeological facts, far from speaking for themselves, are created and marshalled consciously or subconsciously by archaeologists for a variety of purposes" (ibid. 1986:43). The constructedness of archaeologists' 'data' is emphasised, too, by Chippindale (2000), who warns that with the greater ease by which data are manipulated today, so also it becomes easier "to treat the data as given things rather than to enquire after just what these given things are, just where they come from, just what uncertainties, assumptions, classifications, and concepts their created existence depends upon" (ibid.:609; cf Aunger 1999). Chippindale argues for use of the term 'capta' rather than 'data' as a more accurate reflection of the class(es) of evidence in question.

This chapter offers a critique of the ideas previously advanced - and the problems conceived - respecting the rock art at Driekopseiland, relative to the "spirit of the times", and the way researchers have construed as evidence the engravings and archaeological traces they found. The critique is extended through Chapter 4 as part of a characterisation of the archaeological and environmental contexts of the art as these may presently be understood.

[....Remainder of Chapter III available from the author]

IV Rock art, history and environment at Driekopseiland

In the 1960s-80s G.J. and D. Fock, in their study of the rock art of the Northern Cape (with significant inputs from the work of Butzer and colleagues), built on the foundations in particular of Wilman's work, producing a new baseline regional survey (e.g. Fock 1969; Butzer et al. 1979; Fock 1979; Fock & Fock 1984; 1989). It was as a part of this survey that Driekopseiland was recorded and mapped in some detail (Fock & Fock 1989). Their findings took the Driekopseiland debate forward in the sense that they established more clearly the nature, and possible age, of this extraordinary site.

[See web page "Dating engravings and the archaeological context of Driekopseiland" which provides this Chapter IV in full]

V Placing art in a landscape

"I think nature is made by the artist, and that nature does not exist until
the artist creates it in his own way. It is possible that the artist,
in defining the reality around him, makes a new kind of reality,
a reality that the generation after him will understand."
- Walter Battiss, 1960, cited in Berman 1983:58

Constructing the landscape and making of it a new reality - to paraphrase Battiss (cited by Berman 1983:58, cf. Skotnes 1994:319) - is patently one of the more obvious, yet until recently often overlooked, aspects of rock art, as pointed out by Whitley (1998) and Heyd (1999), amongst others: Skotnes (1994), Bradley (1991); Bradley et al. 1994), Solomon (1997), Ouzman (1996; 1998; 2001), Hartley & Vawser (1998) touch on this in various ways; while Ross (2001) argues that the placement of rock art be considered as basic to the very definition of the art. Unlike markings placed on other materials (mobiliary items such as wood, hides or small stones, or stationary but transient ones such as trees or sand), as Heyd remarks, the fact that rock art is made on rock, on a geological substrate (Whitley 1998), and is fixed in a determinate relation to its surroundings (Heyd 1999:454), points to a fundamental aspect of its context deserving of analysis. Such analysis, in relation to available ethnography in the South African context, appears, moreover, to be pregnant with potential (e.g. Deacon 1986; 1988; 1997; 1998; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990), where the surfaces on which images were placed, constituting a "most fundamental part of the context", were, in Lewis-Williams and Dowson's (1990) significant paper on rock paintings, "in some sense a veil, a 'painted veil', suspended between this world and the world of the spirit" (ibid.:15; cf. Lewis-Williams 1988; cf. Skotnes 1994). Such surfaces were indeed, in this view, places where the spirit world was immanent. If fresh insights are to be had on the significance and meaning of the Driekopseiland site and its engravings, it is suggested that a useful start could be a consideration of the placement of rock engravings in the landscape.

[....Remainder of Chapter V is available from the author]

VI Driekopseiland - a powerful place

If places in this landscape came to be imbued with meaning and power, then, it is argued, Driekopseiland, in its remarkable setting, and marked with more than 3500 rock engravings, was certainly such a place.
[See extracts on web page "Driekopseiland - a powerful place" The full version is available from the author].

VII "Not without dust and heat" - Landscape and history

"...to the question, 'what is archaeology the study of?', I believe there is no better answer than 'the temporality of the landscape'."
- Tim Ingold, 1993:172.

"The paucity of landscape features in San art is partly illusory: art and landscape are inseparable"
- Anne Solomon: 1997:71

[....What follows is the final paragraph from Chapter VII: the full version is available from the author]

When, a few years ago, Chippindale (1994:6) referred to a deep and intractable dispute amongst archaeological scientists at the more 'objective' end of the discipline - which showed no sign of being ended early "by indisputable facts" - he remarked: "perhaps the obvious insecurity of our knowledge makes those of us at the 'soft' (in fact more difficult and therefore more truly 'hard') end of the business less inclined to certainty that just one view must be right." Indeed, where there is no universally agreed understanding of the role and meaning of art in modern societies, the difficulty of establishing meaning and social context in the art of non-literate societies of the past, Megaw and Megaw (1994:293) have noted, is likely to be even greater; and the ranges of possible interpretation wider. What has been attempted here is but a start that provides some hint of the possible significance and context of the engravings at Driekopseiland. In a recent review on emerging trends in rock art research, Ross (2001:547) has suggested that "we will never perhaps be able to decipher the exact meaning of these paintings and markings on stone, nor perfectly recreate the cultures and environments in which they were made, because those times have disappeared. But the places remain. Let us begin there." This has seemed to be a sensible way - in this case - to proceed. Subject to widely varying explanations in the past, it has been suggested that possibly the most outstanding feature of the engravings at Driekopseiland has been all but ignored: their placement, and the implications of this in terms of their meaning. An appreciation of the temporality of the landscape, building on earlier considerations of time and place and the ways that landscape features have been imbued with meaning, has provided pointers to fresh ways for approaching variability in the engravings. In this light, relative to a cross-section of ethnographies, it has been suggested that changing metaphorical understandings of place may be more germane to a history of Driekopseiland than would be appeals to ethnicity, to cultural difference or to changing techno-economic contexts. Rather it was in places like Driekopseiland that cultural practices were negotiated and acted out by people who thereby invoked meanings that, while "full of the past", constituted a making and re-making of individual and collective histories - of which the art and its settings survive as the now fragile material traces.

Appendix: Against the Stream: a brief history of conservation at Driekopseiland.

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