Dorothy Tongue: Exploring The World Of The San

At the turn of the last century, a Cradock school teacher made a breakthrough in techniques used to record San rock art.  She was Helen Tongue and she taught at Rockland Girls’ High School in Cradock, from the late 1890s to early 1900s. It was there that she met Dorothea Bleek, daughter of famous San linguist and ethnographer, Wilhelm Bleek. Helen and Dorothea travelled widely visiting rock art sites in the Karoo and it was during this time that Helen developed a direct contact tracing technique to record painted and engraved images in their true proportions and relationship to other images appearing on the rock surface, states an article on the South African Rock Art Digital Archive. In this way, she took an important step beyond the pioneering work of George Stow.  Helen made her first copy on a farm in the Molteno district and was delighted with the result. Other copies were made in the Eastern Cape Karoo area where she almost always worked alone, however, the bulk of her work was done during three fieldtrips with Dorothea Bleek. At the beginning of 1906, Helen and Dorothea made a train trip to the Free State to visit sites in Bloemfontein and Ladybrand. A later expedition at the end of that year took them to the Eastern Cape and Lesotho and on their third and last expedition they travelled by train to Fauresmith and to Luckoff by ox wagon.


In 1908, selected copies of Helen Tongue’s work were exhibited at the South African Public Library in Cape Town and later at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. They were highly acclaimed. The following year, a handsome book including many of these illustrations was published. Helen wrote descriptions for each site and plate, Dorothea Bleek contributed “Notes on the Bushmen” and Henry Balfour wrote the preface.  The book, entitled Bushman Paintings, was Helen’s first and only rock art publication. Part of the Tongue Collection, including the drawings that were exhibited and published, is stored at the Iziko Museums of Cape Town.  Helen’s original tracings and line drawings are housed at the Rock Art Research Institute. Many of these had originally been donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 1921, but these were returned to the Rock Art Research Institute in South Africa in 1990s.


© Rose’s Roundup, October 2011 (No 213)

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