Museological Multi-tasking on a Rainy Day at Iziko South African Museum’s Archaeology Unit

Iziko South African Museum with Table Mountain in the background (trust us, it is behind the cloud!)

Situated in the historical VOC Company’s Garden with the iconic Table Mountain in the background (except for today, with low cloud and rain providing a ‘blanket’ for the mountain), Iziko South African Museum ( the country’s oldest – established in 1825 – with the region’s largest archaeological collection. The Iziko museum complex comprises a dozen or so sites with South African Museum the primary site. Administratively divided in ‘natural,’ ‘social’ and ‘art’ history, Archaeology provides a vital bridge between these divisions. Trouble is, the quantity and range of work is vast and staff few (who hasn’t heard that before?). So here is an introduction to our work via those who work here; with their job title and what they are working on today (or yesterday). And you are all very welcome to visit and conduct research on the collection – or just see the displays.

Erica Bartnick: Collections Assistant: Human Remains and Rock Art

Erica Bartnick photographing a !Kibi or bored-through stone used as a digging stick weight

I am a Collections Assistant in the Physical Anthropology Collection. I am a dedicated, committed and motivated person, always striving to better myself in all aspects of my life. When I was offered this position of working with the Physical Anthropology Collection, I felt extremely honoured. I work with the deepest respect and discipline because I see myself working with people and not specimens as they were considered to be in the past. I feel very fortunate to have this job of being a part of the repatriation and restitution of all the human remains in our collection. I am very passionate about my work and would like this to be my chosen career path. I am not, in fact, here today – I am on leave – but this is what I did yesterday (and on the days before that):

Yesterday started by collecting boxes of human remains from the restricted access section of the storeroom and transferring them to the study area. I checked for potential indicators of unethical collection which means the presence of hair, tissue, personal information relating to the individual such as a name, and/or large number of individuals from the same site. I didn’t find any such indicators, so I didn’t have to call Sven, the Curator and he didn’t have to add to his repatriation list. Thereafter I re-assemble the individual in order for me to establish the possibility of how many individuals might be present in one single box. I then photographed the remains starting with skull (cranial) and then moving on to the post-cranial remains (that is the remainder of the skeletal body). After I have photographed the bones they are carefully packed in acid-free paper. I print a label for each box with all the information found and paste it on the box. At the end of each day, the final step is to capture all the information on my database which I have created.

Thank you

Wilhelmina Seconna: Assistant Collections Manager: Accessioning Historic Cape Town Artefacts and returning display items to store

Wilhelmina Seconna in the main store at the education table

I am an Assistant Collections Manager in the Archaeology Unit which consists of a team of six individuals. Together with the Curator, my main function is to see that operations run smoothly. A typical work day in my life is never the same; however, I try to maintain a disciplined and systematic schedule to my days, with Mondays being administrative days when I see to leave queries, registers, post, and emails. Fridays – like today are spent doing intense cleaning and maintenance of our collections stores and exhibitions. My job also requires that I work closely with researchers, assisting them with queries; such as where their material is situated within a space containing over 10 000 boxes. This month we have two long-term researchers in our Unit (this can rise to more than a dozen).

For Archaeology Day, I am busy returning artefacts that were on the Made in Translation exhibition of historic rock art copies; to their proper places. Yesterday we received two boxes of artefacts from 18th and 19th century Cape Town from a CRM project and Fosche, Sven and I will this afternoon discuss how best to accession these items. In-between these two tasks is the usual running around printing (printer not working again today!), emails and so on.

Before working here, my idea of Archaeology resembled something out of the movies such as Indiana Jones and his quest for discovering lost relics…often made out of gold! Was I in for a surprise when I was introduced to my first “relic” and it was made entirely out of stone; literally, thousands of them, each having their own story to tell. Well, I have come to develop a new-found respect and love for these stones as I am now able to relay their “stories” to others. This, for me is key to being a good collections manager; it’s not just about maintaining good housekeeping standards but also about finding out every “relics” story, making them come “alive” and passing their story on to others, thereby ensuring that they will be cared for appropriately, long after our generation is gone.

The happiest of people don’t necessarily have the best of everything; they make the most of everything that comes along their way.

Fosche Munzhedzi: Department of Science & Technology Intern: Khoekhoe pottery, store mapping

Fosche Muzhedzi preparing record photographs of Khoekhoe lugged pot

I am a Limpopo Province-born (South Africa) young man who matriculated in 2005 at Tshiwangamatembele Secondary School, near Thohoyandou. I obtained a Bachelor of Heritage and Cultural Studies degree in 2009 through University of Pretoria, majoring in Archaeology and Heritage & Cultural Tourism. With the aid of Department of Arts & Culture, Heritage Bursary Programme I enrolled for BA: Archaeology (Hons) at the University of Venda in 2011, expecting to finish late 2012. In early 2012, I was selected for the DST-NRF 2012/13 Internship Programme in archaeology under mentorship of Dr. Sven Ouzman and Wilhelmina Seconna of Iziko South African Museum. Since the Pre-colonial archaeology collection is yet to move pending a major building expansion my main duties today (and most days this month) are:

(a) mapping the archaeology store rooms. I make sketch maps of the store rooms. The idea is to enable us to know where exactly to find particular box of material in the store rooms, and also to group them together according to their provenance rather than just alphabetically by site name. That will also help us to locate some collections that were placed randomly not considering confusion and delays in times of research purpose.
(b) I am also working with pottery (Khoekhoe pots). Basically what I do here is describing, photographing, cataloguing and repacking the pots. This is good and it makes things easier for researchers who want to access and study the pots.

I am also entitled to work with rock art recordings in our collection stores whereby all rock art copies and tracings will be recorded in a database system.

Sven Ouzman (the one on the right)

Sven Ouzman: Curator: Funding proposal, an irate octogenarian and Historic Cape Town artefacts

This morning I drove to work in the early morning rain. I try get to work early to get a chunk of work done but today the weather made me make a cup of tea and contemplate the day ahead. So far, three teas later and multiple gazings upon the stormy weather outside, I have worked up another draft at a funding proposal to digitally enhance the ~300 pieces of rock art in the collection, subject them to XRF to determine paint recipes and sources; to date wherever organic material occurs and then to digitally repatriate the pieces where possible. This was interrupter by a 13 minute telephone call from a concerned octogenarian who felt I should “fight for the Bushmen” (this brought on both by the decade-long closure of the (in)famous ‘Bushman diorama here and tomorrow’s state funeral for Dawid Kruiper, noted San leader). I then took a break – WAB-ing (Work Avoidance Behaviour) and checked on the rock art and ethnography galleries (they are still there, I checked). Now I am collating the day in Archaeology submission and thereafter Fosche, Wilhelmina (who is the de fact Collections manager) will go through some clay pipes, bones, ceramics etc from a CRM excavation onBree Street, uncomfortably close toPrestwich Street– of the controversial slave and labourer burial site. A person from Noordhoek has just brought in a bovid bone to identify (and by bringing it in, breaking our heritage legislation), and I am negotiating with the museum to fly flags at half mast for Dawid Kruiper’s funeral tomorrow. And Rotary want a tour for rural youth next Wednesday on the ‘origins of man’ (and presumably ‘woman’).

In absentia

Mark in the 3rd floor store

Mark de Benedictus: Collections Assistant

Mark de Benedictus has been at Iziko for over 27 years and remembers where everything is, and who has worked on what – our institutional memory machine.

Paul Isaacs: Volunteer

Paul Isaacs with rock engravings packed and ready to be moved

Paul Isaacs volunteers on Fridays on everything from erecting shelving in the cast room, exhibition maintenance, and whatever needs doing. Paul, a boilermaker, is considering a change in career and has enrolled for archaeological distance studies. Volunteering gives him the hands-on aspects distance education lacks.

Jaco Boshoff
Curator: Maritime Archaeology

Jaco and Mark are on leave – government rule that all leave for the last financial year must be used up by end June! But Jaco manages all the Maritime and Historic material at Iziko. The museum is an accredited repository, so material from most archaeological work in western parts of the country ends up here. AndCape Townis a great place for underwater archaeology.

Some Objects and Activities

Lithics from 2 mya-historic times

Khoekhoe lugged pot

Shell ornaments from Later Stone Age

Historic midden at Sutherland

Peers’ Cave, Cape Peninsula

2 thoughts on “Museological Multi-tasking on a Rainy Day at Iziko South African Museum’s Archaeology Unit

  1. The spirit of archaeology is in our hands. Great decision to have this event. I like this. Thanks to my colleagues, Sven, Wilhelmina, Erica, Mark, Jaco, and Paul for taking part in this and of course for being instrumental in having me recognized internationally.

  2. Chrissie says:

    Great to read about the excellent work being done at Iziko, and especially to see the pictures. But I am unsure about one picture: is Sven definitely on the right?

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