Pre-colonial Archaeology

Pre-colonial archaeology collections

The Saldanha calvarium (archaic Homo sapiens) from Elandsfontein, Western Cape, dating to about 500 000 years ago.

The Pre-colonial archaeology collections, obtained through professional excavation and the donations of enthusiasts since the 1890’s, consist of stone and bone artefacts, shell, pottery, faunal material as well as rock art reproductions. These collections cover all the important periods of human development, from 1.4 million to 300 years ago. Collections from the Early Stone Age include artefacts and fauna from Elandsfontein (also known as Hopefield and Saldanha) – the well known skull cap of archaic Homo sapiens dating to between 700 and 400 000 forms part of this assemblage. The prehistory of anatomically modern humans are preserved at coastal sites like Klasies River Mouth and Blombos Cave. At Klasies River (120 000 to 60 000 and 5 000 to 500 BP) human skeletal remains of early Homo sapiens, dating to 115 000 years ago, were found. The wide variety of faunal and shell species, changing stone tool designs and relatively high numbers of ochre indicate that these early humans lived like recent coastal hunter gatherers. Blombos Cave, with assemblages of between around 140 000 to 70 000 years ago, is renowned for the discovery of two pieces of ochre with deliberately engraved geometric patterns, dating to 77 000 years ago. This is the clearest evidence anywhere in the world for the ability to conceptualise symbolically. The ochre was found together with polished bone points, shell beads and bifacially shaped stone tools. Other collections that highlight early modern human behaviour include Sea Harvest, Hoedjies Punt, Duinefontein, Die Kelders Cave, Diepkloof Cave, Elands Bay cave, Klein Kliphuis and Nelson Bay cave. Assemblages from 20 000 until 300 years ago include Byeneskranskop and Kasteelberg. 

The earliest anatomically human remains found in South Africa, Klasies River, Eastern Cape, dating to 115 000 years ago.

A distinctive component of the pre-colonial archaeology collection is a number of original rock paintings and engravings that were removed from sites in the early twentieth century. Iziko museums have a rich and varied collection of almost 2 000 rock art reproductions (copies of rock paintings) from the mid- 19th century to the more recent past. Pioneers of these exquisite renditions, for example Stow, Tongue and Frobenius, represent but a few of the copyists of Iziko Museum’s remarkable collection, a valuable archive honouring the memory of the San and their ancestors. The rock art reproductions have been digitised by the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg as part of the South African Rock Art Digital Archive's project (SARADA). This project, funded by the Mellon Foundation, involves the digitisation of rock art archives held in institutions and by private individuals around South Africa and abroad, providing online access for scholars, researchers and the public. The Archaeological Site Data Records at Iziko further contain information on Stone Age and Rock Art sites in South Africa, as well as some data for sites in Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The Quaternary and Archaeological Photographic records holdings include photographs and transparencies of Quaternary fossil and archaeological sites, excavations, fossils, artefacts and rock art.

The Physical Anthropology collection includes human skeletal remains from the Later Stone Age and Colonial Period, predominantly from archaeological contexts (a number have been 14C dated). A smaller number of remains come from much older contexts of the Middle Stone Age (Klasies River Mouth, Die Kelders, Blombos Cave) and Early Stone Age (Elandsfontein). The Human Remains Policy of Iziko stipulates that any research on Holocene human remains need to be approved by the Human Remains Committee. 

Ms Valerie Mienies and Ms Wilhelmina Seconna are employed as Collections Management Assistants at the Pre-colonial archaeology unit. Ms Mienies is interested in the links between rock art and psychology and Ms Seconna’s main interest is in human and biocultural evolution. They liaise with researchers, visitors and school groups on rock art and artefactual collections and physical anthropological and faunal collections.

Researchers and visitors to Pre-colonial archaeology

Fossilised human footprints discovered at Langebaanweg, Western Cape, dating to 117 000 years ago.

The Pre-colonial archaeology unit is often visited by South African and international researchers. Topics like the evolution of modern humans, diet and disease, settlement patterns, the origins of pastoralism and the expression of symbolic systems through rock art and other artefacts are researched.

A number of international projects are affiliated to Pre-colonial archaeology:

A permanent exhibition funded by De Beers, /Qe Power of Rock Art exhibition honours and celebrates the spiritual energy of the rock art of early South African ancestors. Pre-colonial Archaeology currently displays two temporary exhibitions“Beads: Ritual and Ornamentation” and “Unconquerable Sprit: George Stow and the rock art of the San”.

Contact details

A rock art reproduction by Hoehn from Diepkloof, Western Cape.

Social History Collections Department 

Iziko South African Museum 

Iziko Museums of Cape Town 
PO Box 61, Cape Town, 8000 
South Africa

Curator pre-Colonial archaeology
Wendy Black
Curator pre-Colonial archaeology

Tel: +27 21 481 3883
Fax: +27 21 481 3993

Collections Management
Wilhelmina Seconna: