One of the main reasons we were staying in Kimberley at all was to assist the museum staff with a particular, and rather singular, survey and excavation. The location and circumstances of this field project were quite remarkable.
This was on the location of an historic hunting reserve, where every one of the buildings where guests were quartered and entertained was built well before World War II. Even the huge ancient charcoal refrigerator was intact and in use. This was a large cylindrical structure with double mesh walls. When the game was afoot and dozens of buck were killed by sports hunters over a few days, the space between the double walls was filled with charcoal and wetted down. The steady evaporation from the charcoal chilled the space inside the cylindrical building down to refrigerator temperature, so the carcases could be hung, processed, and aged over a week’s time.
The accommodations sported brass-fixtured porcelain bathtubs, fine cut glass adorned cabinetry, an excellent dining facility and a bar. None of which we were allowed near except for the one brief tour snuck in between paying guests.
Within the reserve was a small flat topped hill. This hill was the gravelly remains of an ancient river bed, the old thalweg of the Gariep River4, or some version of it, that probably flowed at this spot several tens of million of years ago. The volcanic plugs I mentioned earlier were already old at the time that this river flowed, so the gravel bed of this ancient river could contain diamonds eroded out of those plugs, which may have been upstream.
Subsequently, the land was eroded down such that what was once a river bed was now a hilltop.
Now, here’s a bit of geological esoterica for you: There is a debate raging between three or four guys that no one has ever heard of as to whether the river in this area flowed from east to west as it does now (more or less) or if this river channel was part of a system that flowed from the south to the north (and then to the west). I’m betting on the latter because in this river bed we found the eastern most known occurrence of a certain type of rock known as Asbestos Hills Jasperite. In order for this Jasperite to have gotten here, either the Jasperite deposits to the southwest of this site once extended well to the east, or the river flowed from the southwest. Did the Jasperite deposits ever extend that far east? Well, there is a rather esoteric debate raging among a few guys about that one too…
This is not a digression … there is a relevant point to be made here. The ancient volcanic plugs with the diamonds were to our east (and west) but not to the south. If this river was draining the region of the volcanic plugs, there is a good bet that this gravel deposit would include diamonds. If, however, the river flowed form elsewhere, say from the southwest, then there is no reason to expect diamonds.
Whether there were diamonds or not, this hilltop was still a gravel bed representing an old river base, and in this region of South Africa, this meant that people would show up with bulldozers and strip it for diamonds. Regular people (with bulldozers) could legally file a diamond claim pretty much anywhere. A claim needed to be used within a very short time after filing, and you could not renew it indefinitely. Many of the old claims owned by the apartheid-linked megacorporations had been abrogated. The diamonds were now owned by the people. This was probably a good thing in a way, but is also meant that a bunch of Joes with bulldozers could legally take down the fence to this game park and strip this hilltop. Legally they were then required to restore the land to its original state, but that never happened.
As a result, the megacorporation that owned this particular game reserve … and if you’ve heard of diamonds you’ve heard off this corporation … decided to strip out the gravel themselves so that no one else could work this claim. This would minimize damage to the game reserve. The geologists had gone over the deposits and had found no diamonds. If there were diamonds there, there were not too many. Unfortunately, the word “diamond” was part of the place name assigned a century ago to this spot. So, the idea that diamonds were not here was absurd to anyone looking at a map.
Meagdiamondcorp decided to remove all the big trees, strip out the gravel, process it for diamonds, throw the gravel back on, and replant the trees. This would be done in a few months time with minimal disruption to the game park. But there was one small problem: The hilltop was covered with archaeological sites.
And that is what the McGregor Museum was doing there. My field school joined the McGregor and we carried out a survey and excavated a bunch of stuff. The archaeological materials ranged from the Fauersmith (close to a half million years ago) to historic, with various time periods in between represented. It was great fun to work on this project because we were working on foot in the middle of a game park. As you know, this is how I roll.5 As they say.
And of course, on the edge of the hill overlooking the best potential hunting grounds, ancient Bushmen/San6 people had made a pile of rocks, as they tended to do. These cairns were often linked with ceremonial activities, and now and then, they were burials.
So we excavated the pile of rocks that was fairly likely to be a burial. The procedure we followed, which is normal, is to excavate very carefully and on the first sign that the feature was a burial, we were to stop and then other things would happen. That would be complicated, but such things are fairly routine for the McGregor staff. If we found no evidence of anything at all, then we would assume that the pile of rocks was a pile of rocks.
But until then, it was safe to assume that we were messing with yet another grave. It is said, and I cannot tell you where I heard this, that messing with bushmen graves gets you extra ghosts. Not that I believe that, but that is what is said…..
Interested in some Anthropologically Inspired fiction? Have a look at Sungudogo by Greg Laden.
Footnotes will be found at the end of the last post in the series.