Off-beat Conjectures
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Off-beat Conjectures

By David Morris, McGregor Museum, Kimberley

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Loony Claims

Loony claims are not uncommon at the fringes of archaeology, and Driekopseiland has had its share of eccentric suggestions as to age, context and authorship. Phoenicians, Egyptians, Minoans, and Khazar merchants (believe it or not) have all featured. Evidence is alleged to exist showing human sacrifice, and mining by ancient sea-voyagers and adventurers who left messages in Ogham scripts, together with Celtic crosses and signs of the zodiac.

Some of these extraordinary assertions are detailed and examined below.


What can archaeology say when faced with crackpot conjectures?

Archaeologist Bruce Trigger, in "A history of archaeological thought" (Cambridge University Press, 1989), puts it well when he characterises our discipline's take on this matter:

"Archaeologists cannot rule out the possibility that extraterrestrial visitors have influenced the course of human development to some degree, any more than they can exclude the biological existence of purple unicorns. Yet, clumsy, inadequate, and uncertain as our present scientific understandings of cultural change may be, they account for what is observed in the archaeological record in both its totality and individual features, while extraterrestrial salvationism keeps alive only by making speculative and always inconclusive claims about isolated phenomena." (1989:406).

The demand for certainty (to which many of these fringe ideas pander with some success) is what Bertrand Russell has referred to as a natural urge, but an "intellectual vice". Russell expands on the ways of science: what is at issue, he insists, is not so much "what opinions are held" but rather "how they are held". Ideas should be taken up only tentatively, "with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment" (Russell, B. 1950. "Unpopular essays". Republished by Unwin Paperbacks, 1976).

The ideas with which we now contend are expressed with a sense of righteous certainty. Research suggests other possibilities that, though we can do no more than hold them tentatively, show up these extravagant claims as, at best, a re-hashing of old discredited notions that enjoy minimal support by way of any relevant evidence.


"Preserving the archives of ancient Africa"?

A recent article in the Sunday Independent newspaper (Johannesburg, South Africa, 21 September 2003), entitled "Spirit of the rocks - preserving the archives of ancient Africa" (authored by Karl Muller), articulates the ideas of Brenda Sullivan and Credo Mutwa on rock engravings. The article describes Driekopseiland where the engravings are said to be "certainly among the oldest known records of Africa". Sullivan is author of the book "Spirit of the Rocks" (Pretoria: Human and Rousseau, 1995), while Mutwa expounds upon engravings in his book "Song of the Stars: the Lore of a Zulu Shaman" (Edited by S. Larsen. New York: Station Hill Openings, Barrytown Ltd, 1996).

"Created by peoples unknown"?

"Ancient, but as yet undated," it is stated, "the rock engravings are a true mystery, created by peoples unknown. Even the San, known for their rock paintings, say they do not know who the engravers were." This statement (which is factually incorrect - see for instance Dia!kwain in Bleek and Lloyd 1911) derives from Sullivan's writings. She seems satisfied that rock paintings were the work of San artists, but seeks to persuade us (1995:91) that "the rock engravings were the records of many peoples, other than the San." [Actually, not all rock paintings in South Africa can be attributed to the San either - see for example Northern Sotho rock art]. She explains that "the San themselves said that they did no know who had made the engravings, and credit was given to the ancestors...Their ancestors could have been almost anyone." She adds that this was "all the more likely, as osteological remains found show that races other than the San have in the past occupied sites where rock engravings occur" (1995:91). The scholar Sullivan cites on this is Wilman which, as will be shown, is rather ironic, because while Sullivan proceeds to argue for exotic authorship for the engravings (the "scribes" of literate traders, perhaps merchants of the Khazar Empire; or perhaps Egyptians, as the Muller article contends), Wilman was in fact one of the first researchers in South Africa to consider the engravings to be fully indigenous to Southern Africa and likely to be the work of the "Bushmen" in particular.

One of the most influential writers on South African history in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century and beyond was George Theal. His views were repeatedly reiterated in school history texts, for instance, right up to the 1960s-70s, and they emerged even in other serious writing (Dixon, Molema, Preller etc) of the twentieth century. As government archivist, his prolific grand narratives were taken to have established the "facts" of the past, and one of these was his summing up of the San. Theal declared that the Bushmen, "though gifted with artistic tastes" were "an almost unimprovable race...[who] had become inert and stagnant": a condition "not sufficient to satisfy God's law of progress" (1919:19). In an evolutionary sense the San represented the lowest stage of humanity and were, quite simply, "pure savages" (1919:425). If all of this seemed self-evidently true, as it apparently did to many people at the time, then the sophistication evident in South Africa's rock art, and in some of the engravings in particular, clearly posed a difficulty: could these images be attributed solely to such people without the influence (or original authorship) of higher cultures from outside?

Wilman's willingness to see the Bushmen as the "original authors" of rock engravings was indeed at odds with the views of her colleagues. Many renowned scholars writing on rock art, such as Louis Peringuey, believed that the Bushmen were responsible only for the most recent "decadent art", which was marked by a process of "conspicuous retrogression". There was no evidence in his view that the engravings at places such as Kinderdam, which were "superior in finish and artistic merit", were the work of the Bushmen, but were rather made by members of "a most powerful race" who also produced "Palaeolithic" stone tools (found alongside the engravings there were handaxes and cleavers, now known to be of the order of say half a million years old). (On the latter score, one may find twentieth century litter alongside rock engravings, which tells one nothing, necessarily, about the makers of the art - a point that is also relevant to Sullivan's arguments about osteological remains and, as will be seen, Mutwa's, about square structures). In the first half of the century it was generally accepted that South Africa was occupied by successive waves of migration and invasions of different races and peoples. Theal did much to cement such ideas into a "given", only the details of which needed to be worked out. Moreover, the subcontinent was seen as a racial and cultural cul-de-sac where earlier racial stock was either wiped out or hybridised (at one extreme amongst these views, the doctrine of eugenics held that race mixing led to degeneration or deterioration. It was a theory that fueled angst amongst whites, and spurred segregationalist politics to the fore). In these terms even a scholar of the calibre of Schapera could state that "the stone industries associated in South Africa with the Bushmen were not indigenous to the country, but constitute an invading element which penetrated into it from the north-east and superseded the two pre-existing stone cultures" (Schapera 1930:27). Implicit in the thinking of this time, then, was the idea that rock art making was part of one or more of the cultural packages introduced to the subcontinent in waves, where the engravings, possibly older than the Bushman paintings, may have belonged to an earlier (purer?) pre-Bushman stratum. Some writers envisaged long-distance cultural influences on an even grander scale, such as in Dart's (1925, 1959) suggestion that in the "pictorial art of the Bushmen" there was "preserved through the lapse of centuries unassailable evidence of the impacts of ancient civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamian areas". Van Riet Lowe (1952) ventured into this kind of territory with respect to Driekopseiland, where he believed the engravings were ideographs evincing a "feel for writing". [Much later, Slack (1962) republished van Riet Lowe's paper as an appendix to - and springboard for - her own more extravagant speculations concerning Driekopseiland. Bent as she was on making representational sense of every engraving (Willcox 1964), she made inherently improbable connections that involved links with "an Egyptian or even Mediterranean civilization". No less a scientist than Dart - it is to be remembered - was still making similar claims just three years previously. Reference to van Riet Lowe's paper pops up still later in Hromnik's book, "Indo-Africa".] None of this left very much room for local agency, and the more extreme versions were frankly racist.

It is rather remarkable that Wilman was prepared to challenge the diffusionist orthodoxy of her day, espoused by scientific heavyweights such as Raymond Dart (1925), and in less extreme forms by Goodwin and van Riet Lowe (1929). Her reasoned conclusion (1933:59-60), based on careful observation at many sites in the Northern Cape, was that it seemed "extremely likely" that by far the bulk of the engravings were the work of Bushmen (some were of different authorship in Tswana and colonial contexts); and, even more extraordinary, that there was a "probability of the engraving practice having developed in South Africa, among certain Bushman tribes".

In this light, it is odd that Sullivan should cite Wilman in defence of the view that the engravers were of "races other than the San".

Today our understanding of the place of rock art in the Later Stone Age of Southern Africa, and its origins in earlier contexts here, fully vindicates Wilman's assertion; and no serious scholar would defend the kinds of pronouncements to which Dart was prone when venturing outside his field of anatomical expertise.

One of the chief supports for racism, and a justification for apartheid, has been the invariable linking together of perceived physical type, way of life, material culture, language, etc, as a means for clearly distinguishing one primordial race-cum-culture type from another. Again, Theal (1919:42-46) provided one of the most widely influential templates for this. The reality is very different: in Southern Africa it is being found that ethnic groups cannot be distinguished by way of DNA, such has been the history of interaction; identity construction is by its very nature dynamic, negotiated, contested; culture is not self-contained, self-regulating, and readily defined as a bundle of specific attributes; and all of these things are marked chiefly by change. Barnard, in his magisterial survey of hunting and gathering groups, states, plainly, there is no such thing as a "typical Bushman". Structuralist templates as to the way different cultures conceptualise the world may be equally constraining (there is no such monolithic thing as "western science" or "traditional knowledge system" - such categories cannot be asserted a priori but, to the extent that they may reflect peoples' behaviour or ways of thinking, they must be matters for historical enquiry). Back in the early part of the twentieth century, however, it was widely believed that the physical form of one's skull was a straightforward index to one's racial type, and this in turn could be taken as a reflection upon what one did for a living, what form of language one spoke, what thoughts one might have thought, etc (see Theal 1919:42-46); even what kinds of art one was inclined to make.

In terms of the physical skeletal evidence, alone, the early work in this field has long since been superceded. Robert Broom's ultra-typological classification, for instance, which produced the so-called "Australoid" race (the "osteological remains" to which Sullivan might be referring), was derived inter alia from alleged differences among human remains from along the Riet River (vicinity of Driekopseiland). A re-analysis of these skeletons shows them all to belong to a "morphologically homogeneous" population (no great differences) that was "Khoisan-like".

Sullivan sets great store by the fact that "the San themselves said that they did no know" who made the engravings. Apart from the fact that Bushmen did tell Stow, and Bleek, and Orpen, independently, that it was their people who had made the engravings and paintings, uncertainty about very ancient examples would be expected. Actually, if anyone was too emphatic in claiming ancestral links with material culture that is many thousands of years old, one would be naive to accept such claims at face value. Oral traditions decline in reliability in relation to increasing temporal distance; and in the absence of other methods of finding out, it is archaeology that must adjudicate.

Archaeological arguments need to evaluate the evidence at many levels, and bring different kinds of clues to bear in the construction of hypotheses about the past. A sense of how the problems have been conceptualised previously, and how knowledge has changed, is important to the endeavour. In bringing many different strands of evidence together, the way these constrain one another is every bit as important as the way they support one another. Epistemological concerns must be central - rules about observation and generalisation, about holding to a line of evidence or giving it up to the test.

What one hopes to have shown is that the initial premises in Brenda Sullivan's thinking on authorship in the engravings has a history, in the first instance, that links back to widespread ideas of the early twentieth century which located prime influences beyond southern Africa and in societies other than the Khoisan.


The antiquity of Driekopseiland's engravings?

Briefly, on the claim that the engravings at Driekopseiland "are certainly among the oldest known records of Africa", it can be mentioned that, while the rock art at Driekopseiland is thought to be late Holocene in age (no more than a few thousand years old at most - see web page on dating the engravings), there are engraved stones securely dated at up to 10 500 years old at Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape; painted stones at Apollo 11 in Namibia at some 27 000 years; and the engraved ochre from Blombos at 77 000 years. This does not diminish the interest of the Driekopseiland engravings, but exceptional antiquity, contrary to what is indicated in the Muller article, is not what distinguishes them.


Ogham script(s) in South African rock engravings?

In the Muller article, the allegedly non-Bushmen rock engravers come to be referred to as "the ancient ones". Sullivan sees the engravings as relating to high priests or sacred kings of "Old Africa" - while she sees the engravings at Driekopseiland specifically as "notations, perhaps calculations related to the moon, and/or trader tallies". Here, the "scribes" of literate traders, perhaps merchants of the Khazar Empire, "diligently scratched notations on the rocks" - "rune-like symbols" (1995:94) and "Celtic crosses" (1995:51). In the Muller article it is stated that Credo Mutwa was "able to translate some of the symbols found on the rocks using an alphabet called Ogham...".

Mutwa's published remarks on these matters will be examined presently, but in terms of their major influence, it is perhaps appropriate to begin with the work of the marine biologist, H.B. Fell - a Harvard professor who extra-murally ventured into fields of epigraphic study in which he had a reputation for having more temerity than training and expertise. Many of his claims have been dismissed for being fantastic and improbable - hardly surprising considering his arm-chair methodology, making pronouncements that all but ignored the specific contexts and circumstances of the materials he was interpreting. Most notorious is his "decipherment" of so-called Ogham script on a Neolithic artefact dating to nearly 2000 years before the invention of the acrophonic alphabet. This served only to underscore the deficiency of his methodology and his arrogant unconcern with the fundamentals of interdisciplinary scholarship.

One must wonder what the actual evidence might be for Ogham scripts at sites like Driekopseiland. On the one hand, it can be stated that neither there nor at any other sites in the Northern Cape do engravings convincingly and consistently resemble Ogham scripts; nor are there any supplementary archaeological or contextual data that would alert one to this being a possible line for further investigation. On the other hand, engravings similar to those at Driekopseiland, far from being peculiar, do occur at many sites in this region: a surprisingly large number of both painting and engraving sites have geometric imagery, and at these there is positive archaeological evidence that hints strongly (and often exclusively) at a Khoisan rather than any other kind of association. At 91 sites in the Riet-Vaal-Orange Basin, only 20% do not have geometric images; more than 50% have up to one third of the images being geometric; in the remaining 24% the proportion of geometrics to non-geometrics rises between a third and more than 90%. As far as non-geometric imagery goes - images of eland, rhino, elephant, etc - the profiles for Driekopseiland and other sites in the region are remarkably consistent - antelope being the predominant class, eland featuring most prominently, and so on. In these respects one could begin to draw relations of similarity further afield and it is clear that as a whole the rock engravings of the Northern Cape belong in the same kind of worldview as do the paintings of, say, the Maluti Mountains or the Cederberg.

But let us now consider the wisdom that Credo Mutwa brings to our understanding of rock engravings, which he reads as a form of Ogham script. Mutwa adds a new dimension in ascribing to Ogham or Ogham-like texts a world-wide distribution and an origin in "remote antiquity": "Some say it was invented by the Phoenicians, some say it was invented by the Celts. But I believe it is much more ancient than either of these two peoples" (1996:194).

Mutwa dispenses with any possible Bushman link in the engravings in the following terms: "The owner of this farm...told us that these engravings had been made by the people called the Bushmen, and this is the opinion of many in the scientific establishment in South Africa." Evidently associating rectangular stone walling with the engravings (itself an unwarranted hypothesis), he questions whether the Bushmen were makers of square structures "built many thousands and thousands of years ago." And "Do Bushmen," he continues, "possess a form of writing of the type we call igam or polu in the language of the Zulus and which was called Ogham in Europe?" (1996:191-2).

Note in this passage, as elsewhere in his book, the way that western outlooks, empirical epistemologies and the "scientific establishment" are roundly demonised and dismissed - lacking, by implication, indigenous perspectives or wisdom or ritual insights. An "academic paradigm" is easily set up as a straw man, even a kind of conspiracy, at odds with other forms of discourse, whereas, actually, researchers in rock art today routinely engage and integrate diverse epistemologies in complex, sophisticated interpretations grounded in (supported and constrained by) appropriate indigenous perspectives.

Sharing his insights, Mutwa proceeds to interpret one particular engraving of the god "Bel" or "Baal" as indicating a "rock of sacrifice" where human sacrifices took place. The engravings show that "on this rock the person to be sacrificed has had his or her heart torn out of his or her body", while other images represent "the hearts of three people who were sacrificed upon this rock at different times". The god in question "was worshiped both by the Phoenicians and by the ancient Babyonian (sic) people" (1996:192). "The rock exhibits a very dark surface...due to the blood of the many victims that were slaughtered upon this rock". Similar rocks occur on different continents "And it is accepted by many scientists that these rocks were engraved by ancient people who traveled throughout the world in ships in search of copper, gold, and tin" (1996:192).

"...The people who made this inscription...were not Bushmen as the owner of this farm and other people in the scientific world in South Africa love to believe. The people were a highly civilised literate people who possessed a number of kinds of writing which they used freely upon rocks that they used as shrines or as places of sacrifice and of worship." "...The language used here is the same as Phoenician...This form of writing was preserved by the black sanusis of Southern Africa exactly as it was used in ancient times" (1996:192).

"A number of rocks in remarkable things of a non-African origin...[one] carries an abacus..." (1996:193).

"This proves beyond all doubt that this was all part of a gigantic world-spanning culture of sea-voyagers and adventurers to whom the oceans of the world were no barrier whatsoever" (1996:193). "We see also...signs of the zodiac...And anyone who persists in telling me that these signs were engraved by Bushmen does not know what he is saying because at no time in their history did the Bushmen ever engrave signs of the zodiac in this way..." "Ancient and half-forgotten seafarers...came to Africa in large numbers to mine gold, copper and tin."

"We have here an engraving of two suns and an inscription, this time in ancient Egyptian..." (1996:193).

To Credo Mutwa's gold, copper and tin, Brenda Sullivan adds diamonds, and we read in Muller's article that her later book, Africa Through the Mists of Time "contains persuasive evidence that it may have been the ancient Egyptians who were here mining diamonds in antiquity".

One must be forgiven for expressing astonishment, not at the alleged accuracy of Mutwa's insights, nor at any trace of authentic indigenous perspectives (for one finds none), but at the striking resemblance of these ideas, even at levels of some specificity, to colonialist and very definitely non-indigenous notions that located agency in African history well and truly outside of the continent. In the 1890s such ideas were very much in vogue in imperialist circles, lending justification and romance to the conquest (especially in relation to Great Zimbabwe). In the 1980s they were repeated in a book called Bushman Art, by Erik Holm Snr, intended for schools in South Africa, which was thankfully withdrawn from circulation following a storm of protest by rock art researchers. They were the official party line in Rhodesia in the 1970s, when at least one archaeologist was threatened with losing his job if he suggested that Africans had built Great Zimbabwe. In that instance, radiocarbon dates were not to be mentioned, for they disproved any possible link with the Queen of Sheba. Archaeological guidebooks were censored - the first time since Germany in the 1930s.

Many of Mutwa's particular generalisations (like Sullivan's) can be put to the test archaeologically, and all evidence presently to hand suggests that they must be rejected virtually in their entirety. Where dynastic Egyptian involvement is asserted, for instance, one would like to know what material evidence exists for this. A hint that such evidence has been found at Mapungubwe (private communication from Muller) is ludicrous not least on chronological grounds: the last of the Egyptian dynasties fell at the feet of the Persians and then before Alexander the Great a millennium and a half before Mapungubwe existed.

As for Driekopseiland, it is possible to understand the engravings in indigenous terms, without the necessary involvement of Egyptians, Phoenicians, Minoans, Celts or any other "higher civilizations", or of signs of zodiacs, or human sacrifices, or items or persons of "non-African origin". No evidence points to any of the latter possibilities, except perhaps in terms of leaping generalisations that belong more in the realm of dogma than of truth.

By contrast, much evidence supports (and constrains) the kind of scenario sketched in the pages of this website, which seeks to bring all possible data sources to bear. A many-stranded argument, with multiple working hypotheses, is stronger than a simple linear chain from premise to conclusion, or from individual fact to generalisation. "Clumsy, inadequate, and uncertain as our present scientific understandings of cultural change may be," says Trigger (cited above), "they account for what is observed in the archaeological record in both its totality and individual features..." Off-beat ideas at the fringes of archaeology, with a twist of "mystery" and enormous certainty about their own claims, support an industry that keeps going "only by making speculative and always inconclusive claims about isolated phenomena."




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