Report on Long Weekend Outing to Mapungubwe and Other Sites
Sarel de Klerk
Sat, 24/06/2023 - 00:00 to Wed, 28/06/2023 - 00:00
Report on Long Weekend Outing to Mapungubwe and Other Sites – 24 to 28 June 2023

As you drive north of the Soutpansberg you enter a different climatic zone. No more the Highveld winter chills of July, but the tropics. Cast off that jacket, it is time for shorts and a T-shirt and maybe a pullover after the sun has set over the Limpopo valley.
25 members of the South African Archaeological Society (Northern Branch) enjoyed three full days of a self-drive guided archaeological tour of the Mapungubwe National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dr Tim Forssman, who was our guide, is at present head of the Archaeology Department at the University of Mpumalanga in Mbombela (Nelspruit). The National Park comprises just under 30 000 hectares surrounded by a buffer zone of 100 000 hectares of the most wonderful scenery, made spectacular by its geology and the hidden secrets of its history. The Park is situated at the meeting of the borders of three countries – South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe – where the Kaap-Vaal craton dips down to meet the Zimbabwe craton,
creating a chink in the earth’s surface through which the Limpopo River flows. Rust red cliffs, krantzes and koppies lie scattered around like the toys of a primeval giant, and in the valleys between them grand baobab trees stand sentinel over the ancient landscape.

We were delighted, if slightly apprehensive, to share our road from the entrance to the National Park to the Leokwa hutted camp with a large herd of elephants, no doubt en route to the Limpopo River to assuage their late afternoon thirst. Dr Forssman accompanied us to various archaeological sites in the Shashe-Limpopo confluence area (SLCA) that regular visitors to the park would rarely get to see, namely Balermo Main, Kaoxa and Little Muck Shelters, Leokwa Hill, and finally, to the famous and still somewhat mysterious perpendicular hill of Mapungubwe. These sites are all historically interconnected, with some occupied by Stone Age hunter-gatherer groupings, and others settled later by Iron Age herders and farmers. We drove on very bumpy and indistinct tracks as far as our vehicles would go, then got out and walked. The rocky ground encompassed open grassland savanna mixed with mopani woodland. The walks were a struggle for some members of the party; however, the rewards for making the
effort to get there were many. We viewed rock art, the sites of previous archaeological excavations, and a working dig. At each site, Dr Forssman explained with wit and encyclopaedic knowledge what we were looking at and what had been found and dated. He took us carefully through sites in chronological order from the oldest Stone Age artefacts at 100,000 years old to more recent events in the thirteenth century CE.

At Balerno Main Shelter

On our first day we visited the hunter gatherer sites of Balerno Main and Kaoxa Shelters. Balerno Main Shelter is on the farm of the same name, some 10 km south of Pontdrift. This shelter is a shallow but large north-facing cave in a sandstone outcrop. It was first excavated in 1998. The stratigraphy indicated that the shelter was occupied by hunter-gatherers from about 11 120 to 10890 BCE. There then seemed to be an interval, with hunter gatherers again occupying the cave from 6230 to 6060 BCE. It appears the hunter-gatherer groups would have had the SLCA landscape to themselves until about AD 900, when the Zhizo people settled and began farming here. At mid-day we left for the Geology Research Centre at Venetia Mine, which archaeologists were allowed to use for occasional accommodation and meeting purposes. Here, under a shady lapa, we enjoyed a picnic lunch and further discussion of artefacts found in the area. One of the accompanying archaeologists, Ms Justine van Heerden, presented her model of a traveling museum. It consisted of a set of plastic trays tray mounted in a wooden frame for easy transport. The boxes were stacked in chronological order from the oldest at the bottom. They covered the Early and Middle Stone Ages, with examples of stone tools, ostrich eggshell beads and animal teeth, then a depiction of a rock painting showing a herdsman with fat tailed sheep, The fourth tray displayed glass and metal beads, potsherds and iron implements, while the top box housed some examples of items used in experimental archaeology, including materials used to attach a stone arrowhead to a wooden shaft.