Rare Khoi pots found in Prince Albert

Two clay pots, typical of those used by early Khoekhoe or Khoi (Hottentot) people, were recently found  in the Prince Albert area after a heavy rainstorm.  They had been washed out of a natural drainage channel at Waterkop smallholdings, on the outskirts of the village, and were discovered by Gareth Williams and his friend Willem Mathee, a student at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. One pot was intact and contained a dark glistening substance; the other had been broken into a number of large and small fire-blackened shards. The find greatly excited the archaeological world. Dr Judy Maguire, local palaeontologist, told the Prince Albert Friend  that the intact pot was rare and  immensely important, particularly because it still contained remnants of its contents.  “I am sure that these pots date back to a century or two immediately preceding local European settlement,” she said.  Judy added that in her 45 year association with caves, deposits, archaeology, archaeologists, digs and museums, she had never before come across an intact pot, let alone one with contents. The Iziko Museum in Cape Town has 34 pots, with a history spanning almost 200 years, and only four of these were intact, said Judy.   The contents were analysed by Judy’s husband, John Begg, a geologist, and found to be magnetite. He said this naturally occurring iron ore might have been used for body ornamentation, trading or for ritualistic purposes.


John Begg explained: “The long crystals of magnetite were floated on water and used in olden times as compasses. It is, however, highly unlikely that the Khoi used the naturally occurring iron ore in this way.  This then poses the extremely interesting question: What is a cache of magnetite doing in Prince Albert, what was it used for and where did they get it from?” Judy added that early travelers recorded the Khoekhoe custom of besmearing themselves with glistening mineral substances mixed with animal fat and of sprinkling it into their hair to make it shine. “For this they mostly used specularite, an even shinier form of iron, known to the Tswana as ‘sebilo’.  In 1778, Wikar noted that the Brique traded up and down the Gariep with various groups of Khoi who wanted ‘shiny material’ for body adornment purposes.” Somerville noted this practice and so did Burchell. Magnetite has been found buried in clay pots in Namibia and along the southern Cape coast, but not previously in the Karoo.  One of the Iziko museum pots, found in the Fraserburg area, contained specularite,” said Judy. Specularite and magnetite filled pots had been found at pre-Christian cairn-marked Khoi sites, where bodies were buried in crouching, squatting and upright positions. Such pots formed part of the grave goods and this attested to their importance, she added.


© Rose’s Roundup, April, 2013 (No. 231)

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