Maria Wilman: Rock art pioneer and museum curator

A South African woman, who was to become famous in botanical circles, was born in Beaufort West on April 29, 1867.  Her name was Maria Wilman and oddly enough this arid section of the Great Karoo was to prove fundamental in shaping her future as rock-art collector as well as a researcher of San and Khoi cultures. After matriculating at the Good Hope Seminary in Cape Town, Maria decided to further her studies at Cambridge University in England where she registered for a degree course at Newham College. She was the second South African woman to attend Cambridge University in England, where she was awarded a Science Degree in geology, mineralogy, and chemistry in 1888, but it could not be conferred on her; before 1930, women were not eligible to obtain degrees.  Maria Wilman’s degree was thus only formally conferred upon her by Cambridge University in 1933.


Undeterred by this curious attitude, Maria returned to Cambridge in 1893, and completed a Masters Degree in Botany during 1895. She then came back to South Africa where she took up a volunteer position in the Geology Department of the South African Museum in Cape Town. Although she technically had a degree, she still did not have her father’s approval to work, so she would not accept remuneration for what she was doing and thus remained a volunteer until 1907.


During her time at The South African Museum, Maria Wilman reported to Louis Albert Peringuey, whose interest in the San people and their culture spurred him to send her on research trips into the Northern Cape Province and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). In 1908, when she was appointed the first director of the Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum in Kimberley, she traveled by ox-wagon through Lesotho and Botswana studying the San people and their cultural products. The artifacts and implements that she acquired on these trips are considered as most important of their kind. Maria eventually compiled her research into a book, entitled Rock-engravings of Griqualand West and it was the standard text on Southern African Rock Art for almost five decades. In 1939, Miss Wilman was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Law by the University of the Witwatersrand. Maria retired in 1953. She went to live in George where she died on November 9, 1957.


Rose’s Roundup, Nov 2011 (No 214)

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