Archaeologist wins best heritage project award

You wouldn’t think that it would be difficult to arrange a time to see an archaeologist.

One imagines them leaning back languidly in some dusty excavation, gently dusting off an artefact or two, thinking about it, then toddling off home.

It was when trying to schedule a time to see Dr Jayson Orton that one realises just how wrong one can be.

The reasons that archaeologists and heritage specialists like Dr Orton are so busy are both good and bad. Good because before an area is built on or otherwise developed, legislation de- mands that someone checks to see that there isn’t anything of heritage value first. Bad because, for the most part, the heritage is recorded – then built over.

This sort of mixture of emotions can be seen in the project that led to Muizenberg resident, Dr Orton winning the Best Heritage Project Award last month.

The award, by the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs is for his work up the West Coast, about 50km northwest of the Olifants River mouth for Namakwa Sands, where heavy minerals (metals such as titanium) are extracted from the sand, the sand is put back and the area rehabilitated.

Developers – in this case the mining company – are expected to pay for a researcher such as Dr Orton to do his thing.

Dr Orton’s first step is a surface survey of the site to see if there is anything of heritage value, then, if there is, and it cannot be preserved, the next step is to carefully and systematically excavate the site recording and mapping the archaeological artefacts which are then moved to safety, by law into a provincial museum. In boxes.

Researchers can go to the museum – in our case Iziko – to go through the cardboard boxes, look at the spatial reconstruction and other records and do further investigations.

“We learn an awful lot about the past through this process so there are great benefits even though the site has been physically destroyed,” said Dr Orton.

Once the on-site assessment is at the point that there is enough information and enough has been rescued, the developer can “destroy” the site.

Dr Orton won the cultural award for going the extra mile on what would otherwise have been an ordinary commercial archaeology project.

He continued the excavations in his own time to develop it into a research project even after the legally required cultural resource management project was completed. He couldn’t resist the opportunity because what he has found is very exciting.

It’s a Late Stone Age site and, unusually, it contains many colonial trade items.

“What makes it particularly special is that there are about 700 European glass trade beads. In all my other research, I have only seen seven. This is really unprecedented.

“Some of the beads are known to have been made only in the late 19th century.”

What this means is that potentially only about 100 years ago some Late Stone Age occupation was still going on in what was always quite a remote part of the Cape.

It also raises questions about the culture of the Khoekhoen as the site seems to contain some material that is typically Bushman and other material currently regarded as more likely to be Khoekhoe.

Explaining his use of the terms Khoekhoen and Bushman as op- posed to the more commonly used Khoisan, Dr Orton said that most academics do not use the term Khoisan which is a blanket term for two groups, one group being primarily pastoral and the other primarily hunter-gatherers, preferring the terms Khoekhoen and Bushman.

”As I understand it, San is a derogatory word which comes from Khoekhoe language and means something along the lines of ‘other’,” he said.

Having focused on the densest parts of the site, Dr Orton had rescued about 80% of the material during the commercial component of the project, but went back there a few weeks ago for more excavation to “fill in the gaps” and sample the in-between areas that would link the dense clusters of artefacts.

Now all that’s left is for Dr Orton to finish the analysis and “do a lot of thinking”.

“South Africa is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of archaeological heritage,” said Dr Orton, “although the problem with the south-western part where we live is that it has the longest history of colonial development.

“Not surprisingly, the places that were seen as the best by our ancestors are still seen as the best, and so are built on over and over again.

Noordhoek beach car park, for example, was a Stone Age site. There are still some archaeological sites – legally meaning human occupation debris more than 100 years old – in Kommetjie at Klein Slangkoppunt, stuck between the river and houses, at Cape Point. The excavation of Peers Cave happened in the 1920s and was a bit ham-handed by today’s standards but Simon’s Town has a lot of colonial history still in good nick,” he said.

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