COLLECTING PREHISTORY:
AMATEURS AND PROFESSIONALS IN LATE-COLONIAL AFRICA

The 1920s and 1930s were a period of heightened interest in the prehistoric archaeology of sub-Saharan Africa, both in the newly independent Union of South Africa and in the British colonies and dependent territories of Kenya, Uganda, Somaliland and Rhodesia.

In the flurry of these activities, a leading role was played by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Miles C. Burkitt, keeper of the stone age collections, was also the lecturer in prehistory at the Department of Archaeology. Through his teaching, the first of its kind in Britain, Cambridge led the way in the development of professional archaeological research in Africa.

Introduced to prehistoric research by the Abbé Henri Breuil, Miles C. Burkitt (1890 - 1971) specialised in the identification of stone tool types and their attribution to successive archaeological periods or cultures (e.g. Acheulean handaxes, Mousterian scrapers), and also in the analysis of prehistoric rock art. In 1927 Burkitt was invited to South Africa, where his former student John Goodwin took him on a 'grand tour' of the main Palaeolithic sites of the region. This visit encouraged local prehistorians to develop their own terminology and to publish their results, and it also contributed to the growing interest and even fascination among the public at large for prehistoric archaeology.

These Cambridge-educated students of African prehistory include such leading figures as Desmond Clark, Thurstan Shaw and Louis Leakey. Born in Kenya of British missionaries, Louis S. B. Leakey (1903 - 1972) completed his undergraduate studies at St. John's College in the mid-1920s and immediately returned home to head the 'East African Archaeological Expedition'. His surveys and excavations at Oldoway Gorge in Tanzania gained world-wide notoriety in 1959, with the discovery an early hominid (Zinjantropus Boisei) in association with some of the earliest known stone tools. These combined archaeological, palaeontological and stratigraphic studies established sub-Saharan Africa as the undisputed 'cradle' of humankind.

Cambridge also served as a centre for a great number of amateur archaeologists, whose substantial contributions to the field deserve greater recognition. From all over Africa, they wrote to Cambridge about their finds and their collections, asking for advice on the identification and classification of stone artefacts and offering comments and interpretations on a wide range of archaeological topics. The wealth of correspondence, maps, photographs etc. preserved in the archives of the Cambridge Museum and the University Library can help us appreciate just who where these amateur archaeologists, how did they proceed in their research, and finally why they were motivated to study the prehistory of Africa.

 

WHO?

Many of these amateur archaeologists worked for the British Colonial Administration. Often recruited to the colonial service from Cambridge and Oxford, these administrators became for the most part District Commissioners or Magistrates, but some of them took on more exotic functions such as 'Pasturage Officer' or 'Elephant Control Officer'. The colonial associations and amateur standings of these individuals are expressed in a letter by Q. Theodore Culwick from Singida, Tanganyika Territory in January 1929. Fascinated by the origins and meanings of the rock art found in his district, Culwick appealed to Burkitt for advice and instructions:

I am keen to follow up any likely opening in this matter but being a chemist-turned-Administrative Officer I am cramped for want of knowledge. If you think that measurements of these tribes might help in this matter, I would gladly try to obtain them if I could get instructions as to what measurements to take. Also I am wondering if other remains of the 'painters' might not be obtainable, & I should value any information as to what I should look for.

Missionaries of various persuasions were another active group of amateur archaeologists. Usually more knowledgeable and enterprising, they contributed considerably to our knowledge of Africa's prehistoric past. Archdeacon W. Owen, for example, made a series of important discoveries in Uganda and Kenya, in collaboration with Leakey, P.T. O'Brien and J. Wayland. The Reverend Neville Jones, for his part, published highly original works on Rhodesian prehistory, and eventually abandoned his missionary vocation to follow a full-time archaeological career at the museum in Bulawayo.

A third and more diverse group of amateur archaeologists are those with localised but highly comprehensive knowledge of a specific area: either land owners such as ranchers and farmers, or prospectors in search of diamonds, gold and other valuable minerals. H. W. Foster from Kiptoi in Kenya belongs to this later category. As he wrote to Burkitt in June 1932;

Have not had much time for study recently as I have been very busy prospecting on some new goldfields near here. While looking for gold I discovered a large number of stone tools & a cave site which I have begun to excavate. This has already yielded me some thousands of tools of Epi-Palaeolithic period & I believe further excavations will lead to vastly greater numbers & probably other periods in the near vicinity. Would a representative series & a note on the circumstances of the finds be of any interest to you or to the Cambridge museum?

 

HOW?

The correspondence of these amateurs provide unique insights into the actual practice of archaeology in late colonial Africa. In most cases, their first encounter with prehistory occurred in the course of their ongoing administrative, pastoral or economic activities. Given the near-absence of legislation for the protection and study of prehistoric antiquities--and indeed given the near-absence of a professional archaeological service--these amateurs went on to excavate the sites they discovered, also to classify and organise their finds. These finds were usually added to their private collections, but they also made attempts to interest museums in Africa and in Britain in representative series, and to exchange specimens with fellow collectors.

Particularly detailed information on a broad range of practical issues can be gathered from the correspondence of Farquhar B. Macrae, colonial administrator at Mumbwa, Northern Rhodesia. In several letters written to Burkitt in 1925, Macrae mentions the discovery and the initial condition of the site, the range of methods--including the manpower--used to excavate it, as well as the different categories of finds, their description and packaging. With his enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, Macrae went further than most amateurs. For one, the support and advice he received encouraged him to publish some reports on his prehistoric finds in learned journals. It appears that he also introduced a new generation of colonial administrators in his district to the pleasures of prehistoric research in Southern Africa.

 

WHY?

Undoubtedly these amateurs considered archaeology to be an enjoyable and worthwhile occupation, whose results they were keen to disseminate. Besides engaging in invigorating outdoor exercise, these archaeological activities also enabled them to profitably occupy their free-time with challenging intellectual stimulation. Interest in prehistory was a means to meet kindred souls and to create social networks, and also a source of prestige and authority for the individuals concerned, the settler community to which they belonged, and the Empire as a whole.

Of course, the practice of prehistoric archaeology in sub-Saharan Africa was closely related to the distinctive cultural, historical and ideological settings in which it was carried out. It is notorious that some colonists and colonial regimes--notably in Southern Africa--did try to use archaeological remains to deny the historical rights and the cultural potential of the local indigenous populations. However, so far as our amateur archaeologists are concerned, the vast majority do not seem to have had deliberate imperialist or racist agendas. On the contrary, the following examples clearly show that their attempts to recover and publicise the prehistoric past--in this case the study of rock painting--was also aimed at the interests of local African societies.

One such case was that of Major Philip E. Glover, a plant ecologist serving as 'Senior Pasturage Officer' in British Somaliland in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the course of his travels, Major Glover had discovered several prehistoric caves containing rare examples of Rock Art, about which he entered in an extensive correspondence with Miles Burkitt. In line with still prevailing diffusionist theories, these rock paintings were considered to be located 'half-way' between the Rock art of the Western Mediterranean and the supposedly derivative 'Bushman art' of Southern Africa. In calling for more research on the subject, Major Glover was unusually explicit about the benefits he aimed for. Following the examples of South Africa and Kenya, he hoped that the publicity generated by these prehistoric remains would increase the notoriety of British Somaliland, and thus draw attention to the social and ecological problems which threatened its inhabitants.

The topic of Rock art and its origins also preoccupied Cannon Edward Patterson, from Cyrene, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia. Patterson was not convinced by the theory advanced by the Abbé Breuil, Burkitt's erstwhile mentor, whereby some of the Rock paintings of Southern Africa were produced by 'white' visitors or colonists from the Mediterranean (e.g. Phoenicians). Patterson rather believed that some of the so-called 'Bushman art' could actually be the recent production of Bantu artists--that is, artists belonging to the main indigenous populations of contemporary Africa. In support, Patterson presented some examples of drawings made by the youngsters in the orphanage he directed. It is not surprising that the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa saw these activities with suspicion. Both Patterson's educational project and the evident artistic quality of these paintings indicate that the study of the prehistoric past, besides being an important scientific activity, is also deeply embedded in the social and political context of the present.