by Janette Deacon
Rock Art Network member
It was the thought of this kind of personal memory that was uppermost in our minds in early April 2021 as we stood on a hill in the Northern Cape, South Africa, and looked across the landscape at what was once the country of the |xam Bushmen who lived on these flat lands of the Upper Karoo centuries ago (Fig. 1). In the distance we could see a small tree at the Bitterpits, a water hole that belonged in the mid-nineteenth century to a |xam man named ǁkabbo, or ‘Dream’ (Fig. 2). Around us on the hill were rock engravings (petroglyphs), a rock gong, and stone artefacts that showed the presence of ǁkabbo’s ancestors over thousands of years. In his memory it was a reliable place to find water, and the hill was the place to climb when the springbok herds were likely to appear. Above all, it belonged to him and his family. We were there that day because his memory had been transferred by pen and paper to a map in the hands of Wilhelm Bleek in Cape Town in 1870.
Like the more famous rock paintings, most rock engravings in South Africa were made by the same Later Stone Age San (Bushman) people for much the same reasons and probably over the same time period (mainly within the last 5-10,000 years) as the paintings. The difference is that whereas the painters added colour to surfaces in rock shelters and caves, the engravers removed the darker weathered outer surface of rocks in the open, exposing a lighter monotone surface beneath (Fig. 3). Sometimes they simply outlined the animal in one fine line (Fig. 4). Masters of their craft could make these images visible even in starlight. In the Northern Cape, engravings are found on black dolerite boulders. The images are mostly of animals (Fig. 5, Fig. 6, Fig. 7) through which !gi:ten (ritual specialists in healing and rain-making) drew power from the spirit world for the benefit of the living. An understanding of their significance has been pieced together from the testimony of ǁkabbo and others that was faithfully recorded, and then curated for almost a century, by members of the extended family of Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd.
Appropriately, the Bleek Collection, or more correctly the Bleek and Lloyd Collection, was nominated by the University of Cape Town in 1997 to UNESCO's Memory of the World Project that was established in 1992. It is an international initiative to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity. It calls for the preservation of valuable archival holdings, library collections, and private individual compendia all over the world that are deemed to be of such significance as to transcend the boundaries of time and culture. The Bleek and Lloyd Collection consists of notebooks, papers and correspondence of Dr W.H.I. Bleek (1827-1875), his sister-in-law Dr Lucy Lloyd (1834-1914), his daughter Dorothea Bleek (1873-1948), and G.W. Stow (1822-1882), a land surveyor and contemporary of Bleek’s. Together the documents record the results of research into the now extinct |xam San language, beliefs and folklore. A large proportion of the collection has been scanned and digitized at the University of Cape Town thanks to the faithful and untiring efforts of Professor Pippa Skotnes since the late 1980s, and is freely available online at http://lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za.
Fig. 8). It was this map that led me in 1985 to the triangle of land between Kenhardt in the north, Brandvlei in the south west and Van Wyksvlei in the south east (Fig. 9). The names of some places had changed over the intervening years, and new ones were added, but most were the same or similar enough for me to be sure I was in the right area. It was exciting to identify places in the landscape that had been described 115 years before in a now-forgotten language 900 km away in Cape Town. Some places on the sketch map that were not marked on the maps of today were known to the people living there. The names of a few farms on the map were still on signposts, and the notebooks hid more clues. Jose Manuel de Prada-Samper, for example, found a smaller sketch map tucked into one of Lucy Lloyd’s notebooks and in 2017 published additional evidence of ǁkabbo’s memory of his world around the Bitterpits and that of his son-in-law |hanǂkass’o.
Since my first exploratory trip in 1985, I have been to the |xam heartland more than 50 times and as the memory of this part of the world has unfolded from the map, boundaries of time and culture have indeed been transcended. It is clear from analysis of the rock engravings that the choice of subjects is indeed similar to that in the Drakensberg paintings with the eland the most common animal, and human figures often displaying the postures of trance. I often had the feeling, though, that the landscape must still be populated by memories of the |xam teachers whose lives had been turned upside down by foreigners with colonial laws and practices, but how could this be expressed in photographs that made them visible? After a chance meeting with photographer and filmmaker Craig Foster in 1998, we experimented with several ideas. I had read a review of a book that described how Jorma Puranen, the author of Imaginary Homecoming (1999), had printed photographs of Sami people taken in the early twentieth century in Finland and had photographed the photographs in the landscape from which these people had come. We tried it in the |xam landscape but the contrast was too stark. Instead, Craig made 35 mm colour slides of the photos taken of |xam people in the 1870s and we projected them onto surfaces in the landscape in the early evening and at night with torchlight to illuminate surrounding areas. The effect was electrifying and we had much satisfaction taking people like ǁkabbo, Dia!kwain and |hanǂkass’o home in our book My Heart Stands in the Hill published in 2005 (Fig. 10, Fig. 11).
Fig. 12). With Alma Reichert and Toetie Dow we admired rock engravings of eland and elephants, tapped rock gongs that sent melodious sounds floating on the wind, saw the stone tools and grindstones left behind on the ground (Fig. 13). We met old friends and paid a brief visit to The Young Man who was Turned to Stone at the Glance of a New Maiden. In this story told by Dia!kwain, he described the fatal consequence of a broken taboo. During her first menstruation when custom ruled that she be isolated in a hut and forbidden to see or communicate with anyone other than an old woman who brought her food and water, a ‘new maiden’ heard a young man playing the goura or musical bow. He was playing so sweetly that she could not resist looking out of the hut. When she did so, their eyes met and he was turned to stone. He was clearly visible to us on the side of the mountain and it was easy to see why local people with other cultural beliefs had named the stone ‘Lot’s Wife’ (Fig. 14, Fig. 15).
Fig. 16). Displays that draw attention to the map and the significance of the Bleek and Lloyd collection can be seen in the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, at the !Khwa-ttu San heritage centre at Yzerfontein an hour’s drive north of Cape Town, and at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley and the Origins Centre in Johannesburg, but not yet in the area of ǁkabbo’s map.
Miraculously we had no punctures, and left the Flat Bushman territory before the locusts began to swarm. We will return to re-locate engravings of elephants within sight of the Bitterpits (Fig. 17) and to keep the memories on the map alive and add new ones. Five days after we arrived home, a fire at the University of Cape Town library and special collections building became a nightmarish reminder not only of the need to preserve memories of the world like the Bleek and Lloyd archive, but to appreciate just how precious they are.
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A small selection of useful references
Bank, Andrew. 2006. Bushmen in a Victorian World. The remarkable story of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushman folklore. Cape Town: Double Storey
Bennun, Neil. The Broken String. The Last Words of an Extinct People. London: Viking.
Blanding, Michael. 2014. The Map Thief. New York: Gotham Books.
Bleek, W.H.I. and L.C. Lloyd. 1911. Specimens of Bushman folklore. London: George Allen.
Deacon, Janette. 1986. “My place is the Bitterpits”: The home territory of Bleek and Lloyd's/XAM San informants. African Studies 45 (2): 135-55.
Deacon, Janette. 1988. The power of a place in understanding southern San rock engravings. World Archaeology 20 (1): 129-40.
Deacon, Janette. 1996. Archaeology of the Flat and Grass Bushmen. In Janette Deacon and Thomas Dowson eds. Voices from the past: /Xam Bushmen and the Bleek and Lloyd collection: 245-70. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
Deacon, Janette, and Craig Foster. 2005. My Heart Stands in the Hill. Cape Town: Struik.
Deacon, Janette, and Pippa Skotnes. 2014. The courage of ǁkabbo: celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Specimens of Bushman folklore. Cape Town: UCT Press.
De Prada-Samper, J.M. 2017. ‘I have ||gubbo’: ||kabbo’s maps and place-lists and the |xam concept of !xoe. South African Archaeological Bulletin 72 (206): 116–124.
Lewis-Williams, J.D. 1981. Believing and Seeing. Symbolic meanings in Southern San rock paintings. London: Academic Press.
Lewis-Williams, J.D. 2010. The imagistic web of San myth, art and landscape. Southern African Humanities 22: 1-18.
Puranen, Jorma. 1999. Imaginary Homecoming. Oulu: Pohjoinen.
Skotnes, Pippa. 2007. Claim to the Country. The Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd. Johannesburg: Jacana.
Vinnicombe, P. 1976. People of the Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensberg Bushmen as a Reflection of their Life and Thought. Pietermaritzburg: Natal University Press.