It’s the last place I expected to catch a nap, but I did: lying in the dirt, hugging my body against the cold mountain rain on the edge of a cliff. Just behind my rocky makeshift bed was a sheer drop to the village of Quthing, 183 kilometers south of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. From below, the squawks of chickens and barks of dogs drifted up as people went about their daily lives. In many ways it was a strange place to be, on a mundane day, on the verge of an ancient art discovery.
Hunkered under a rock five meters in front of me is Justine Wintjes, archaeologist and fine arts lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, who is also lying in the dirt. Under her keen eye is a rare rock art panel of stooped over black figures frozen for hundreds of years on the stone. Every now and again, her short cropped hair, black with a stripe of dyed pink fluorescent, bobs up and down as she sketches in the damp.
“In Africa, you can’t walk two meters without finding an artefact,” she says.
It was because of a journey in the African bush to find lost rock art that Wintjes is on this cliff face in a remote part of southern Lesotho. With her is a pile of black-and-white photographs and dusty diary entries made from a long forgotten expedition 85 years ago. For generations it was buried in the archives in Frankfurt. They called it the Frobenius Expedition, after the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius. For the great grandparents of the people of Quthing the name might mean something, the last time this team climbed these hills on the hunt for rock art was in 1930.
“He only did one exploration in to southern Africa… I was working on a rock art site in northern KwaZulu-Natal [in the] Drakensberg… It was a very broken site and I knew that it had been recorded in the 1940s by people. But there was this earlier copy, which had been recorded by Frobenius. So I looked at that copy and I thought ‘well, if he made one copy, then maybe he made more than one.’”
It was a thought that took Wintjes on a six-year journey, from the hallways of academia in Johannesburg, to the archives of Frankfurt and finally the dirt roads of Lesotho.
“I went to Frankfurt and I realized that there was this whole archive of photographs, copies and field notes about the site that were really informative. There were two trips made in 1928 and 1930, with quite a large archive and in various southern African countries. It was archaeology and cultures that no one had really looked at in close detail. I realized they had recorded a lot of sites,” she says.
Wintjes brought back piles of the jumbled Frobenius material to Africa where she began to catalogue it. As part of her PhD, she follows in the footsteps of their expedition.
“For its time [Frobenius] was very accurate. Around the same time, you had a lot of people reading into the exotic readings, like the White Lady of the Brandberg. It’s a really popular example of the Europeans looking at the rock art through the European lens, sort of a racist lens, thinking that it can’t be African, that it can’t be San Bushmen, or of African origin. That it had to be Phoenician or exotic to the continent.”
Wintjes and her team may have a host of digital gadgets to help guide them, but they still had to do good old fashioned legwork in Quthing. They needed the help of the people to find the locations.
“Nowadays, because of online digital data, you can do a lot of preparatory fieldwork. Fieldwork on the internet, looking through books, through archival material you have collected digitally. You get a really good sense of where things are. But you are never entirely certain. You get errors in the archival system, or things that are slightly misleading. For example, the two sites that we visited on this trip had the same name in the catalogue, but were in two very different sites. They were not even particularly close,” says Wintjes.
On a mild Saturday morning, the expedition follows up on a lead. They make a breakthrough when 22-year-old Tlhanole Thulo, clad in Basotho blanket and beanie, and his sister Thebane, in jeans and shirt, recognize one of Frobenius’ 85-year-old photographs. It is a chance meeting no internet connection could find. They recognize a river where they played when they grew up – a 20-minute walk from their home in Qomoqomong.
The team’s excitement is palpable as they jump out the vehicle and grab their gear. They follow the siblings along a goat path deeper into the gully. There, hidden behind a giant boulder, is the site. They stand there holding the 1930 photo to see if it fits; a rocky north-east facing overhang hiding a trove of paintings; impossible to see from a distance. Everyone grabs a pile of photographs and starts looking for a match.
“This cave, we call it Halephutha, we know about it from our parents. It shows us how old people were living. Sometimes it can tell us what they ate and how they lived,” says Tlhanole.
Wintjes’ role in African archaeology was as much chance as finding the cave itself. The South African grew up in Canada, studied fine arts and archaeology in Belgium, before coming back to South Africa 10 years ago.
“To be honest I can’t remember why [I did archaeology]. It was a discipline that I was always interested in, history and pre-history. So it’s about the paintings, but also about the way they have been studied and the way they have been copied; the visual aspect to the rock painting. I just always loved old things. I was fascinated by ruins and abandoned buildings and old stuff.”
“I realized that through rock art I could combine my background in fine arts and archaeology. It was a place where they came together. At that point I felt a little bit schizophrenic. I wasn’t always very sure about what to do with these two very different worlds.”
“It’s a very exciting field particularly in Africa, given the antiquity we have on the continent. But there aren’t enough archaeologists, or art historians. There aren’t enough people interested in these fields. They really are important,” says Wintjes.
So, the team got on with their tasks; taking new photos, drawing sketches of rock art and struggling to geolocate their site under an infrequent GPS signal. So ends the discovery between a rock and a hard to place to find.