Oakhurst Cave

The photographs from Oakhurst Cave form a coda to the images of the Tweerivieren Bushmen. As images of another encounter – this time not with the living, but with the dead – they invite us to reflect on the fate of the buried dead through the pathos of their exhumation. They also provide an opportunity to reflect on the different modalities of the archive (the public archive, the hidden archive, the official archive, the illicit archive). The photographs from Oakhurst Cave are semi-public. A carefully edited selection of photographs was published in the extensive report on the Oakhurst Cave excavation (Goodwin 1937).

The unpublished photographs attest to the more impromptu aspects of the excavation, but even in the published selection there is something unsettling, something that is in excess of its purpose. Meant to demonstrate the methodical nature of the excavation, and to give information about the disposition of the dead, the photographs also speak of other things: the intimacy of death and interment, the poignancy of the grave, care of the dead and, its corollary, grieving and loss on the part of the living. Oakhurst Cave is a large and productive site on the southern Cape coast, remarkable for the number of burials found there and the richness of the associated material culture. It was probably Goodwin's most extensive and ambitious excavation. He returned for six field seasons over the course of four years. He had made his name in his twenties as a laboratory practitioner and stone-tool analyst. Oakhurst Cave was intended to establish his reputation as a fieldwork practitioner. The extended report on Oakhurst Cave published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa is a model of timely reportage. Goodwin was its principal author, with sections by JF Schofield on the pottery, and MR Drennan on the skeletal remains (Drennan 1937a, 1937b, Schofield 1937). Mary Nicol, later Mary Leakey (described on page 244 of the report as "a European prehistorian"), visited the shelter and excavated "Grave XVII". She also commented favourably on Goodwin's field methods. The idea of method was important to Goodwin. Ten years after the publication of the Oakhurst Cave report he published Method in Prehistory (Goodwin 1945), the first manual on archaeology written for local conditions.

Goodwin's move to install method in the practice of prehistory was part of the modernisation of the discipline. He was also reacting against comparatively widespread practices of casual excavation and exhumation. These ranged from trophy hunting to more self-consciously scientific, but often no less casual, harvestings of material. Drennan confirms this in the second part of his report on Oakhurst Cave, entitled "The Children of the Cave Dwellers", when he notes that it is rare that "such a good series of infant skeletons" should be retrieved from excavation and made available for physical anthropological study. This is because of the delicate nature of the remains. The skull bones are "as thin as paper in certain regions". He writes: "As a result the casual collector usually passes them by in favour of less delicate trophies" (Drennan 1937b:281).

The skull bones are "as thin as paper in certain regions". He writes: "As a result the casual collector usually passes them by in favour of less delicate trophies".

Goodwin reports that the "greatest care" was taken in excavating "skeletons". Each took an average of twelve hours to excavate, using a small bricklayer's trowel and a rubber-mounted distemper brush. This careful practice made it possible to recover "grave furniture", including ostrich eggshells, arrow points and linkshafts, stone implements, grindstones, tortoise shells containing pigment, ochre, ostrich eggshell beads, marine shells, and bored stones. Many of the bodies are foetally flexed. Some lie on beds of sea grass (Zostera capensis), material "used as bedding, both by the living and the dead" (Goodwin 1937:238). Indeed, the dead mirror the living, whose sleeping hollows lie just above them.

The photographs from Oakhurst Cave occupy a number of folders in the Goodwin Collection. Some are mounted on card and annotated. A number are reprinted in large format, six-by-eight-inch black-and-white prints. It was Goodwin's practice with the better-preserved graves to take photographs at regular intervals during the excavation, in some cases as close as ten minutes apart. Meant to indicate order, method and control, to the contemporary eye there is something more haphazard about the progress that these photographs detail. Sections are cut roughly, rootlets emerge and spread their tendrils, a scatter of tools is left lying about, a skull is rolled out of context and lies gape-jawed on the deposit. The photographs chosen for publication are the most diagrammatic. They show more complete exposure, fewer signs of the work of exhumation. Yet even in these images, meanings threaten to overwhelm their purpose as our responses move in unintended directions (horror, curiosity, sympathy, interest). The intention was that these remains should be proudly captured for science; instead they excite our pity.

Like the ambiguous encounter with the Tweerivieren Bushmen, the riskiness of the act of exhumation and its attendant documentary project is impressed upon us by these images. The nature of the revealed material is profuse, threatens to outrun attempts to impose order and meaning. In contrast, what emerges in the written report is thin, attenuated, a mixture of empiricism and what might be called "bare description". Here is a description of Grave III: "Buried beneath a horizontal white sealing layer at a depth of 48 inches. Fully flexed, lying on right side, facing south, head to east. The entire skeleton was intact and undisturbed… Smithfield B or C" (248). Of the opening of Grave VII, Goodwin writes: "The skeleton proved to be that of a child of about seven years. Most of the skull was broken. The body was flexed and lay on its right side, facing east, head to the south. A number of shells of Donax serra lay along the spinal column. A girdle consisting of a single strand of ostrich eggshell beads was strung round the waist. Red ochre was present on the skull and the neighbouring bones" (Goodwin 1937:252). The most dramatic find at Oakhurst was "a large broken crystal, roughly an inch in diameter, and with a diamond facet as large as an eye" found in the left orbit of Skeleton IX, one of a pair of children buried together. Goodwin writes: "This may be due to chance, or may have been placed in position at the burial. No other crystals were found, nor beads or ornaments" (253). (…)

Our inescapable impression is of the sanctity and intimacy of the grave site, and the violence of this act of exposure.

Drennan's reports consist of diagrams of the skulls and tables of measurements. Much of the discussion is taken up with the vexed question of assigning the remains to a "tribe" or "race". Although they resemble "modern Hottentots", he decides that they are better described as part of a "Wilton race" or "pre-Bushman type" (in his tables he describes them as an "Oakhurst tribe").

As a set of representative objects, the photographs from Oakhurst Cave – these images of the remains of the newly exhumed dead, bodies bared for bare description – textualise the experience of exhumation in ways that allow for a more complex response. Our inescapable impression is of the sanctity and intimacy of the grave site, and of the violence of this act of exposure. Can we talk of pornographies of death and desire? Is there an erotics of exhumation and display at work here, in these tales of living and dead Bushmen (as in a set of practices articulated by a logic of desire)?

The archive, the photograph, and the grave; each is threaded through by a thematics of death and desire. They are also the characteristic sites for the set of encounters that I have described here. They become sites of emergence of particular kinds of knowledge; as such, they double and repeat one another. The resurfacing of the photograph from the intimate depths of the archive mirrors the act of exhumation. The ghostliness of the grave is repeated in the archive, a site replete with traces, where we simultaneously confront the presence of the past and its irreducible absence. Haunted sites, sites of objectification, intimacy, and violence, they deliver up the disappearing past as bone/light/text. The different modalities of these traces speak to the inner workings of the discipline: the archive, home of the declarative voice of text, site of emergence of a particular kind of knowledge; the grave, sign of an assertive presence, site of fugitive knowledges; the photograph, brimming over with meanings, as intimate as a voice whispered in the ear, as enigmatic as the bone in the grave.

Bared by excavation, the bodies are subject to a different regime of care, and to the logic of the archive. They are numbered, accessioned, boxed, shelved, catalogued. Their re-animation takes place within the strict limits of this logic.

Archaeological imaginaries track between these exemplary sites, just as they track between the living body and the body in the grave. This becomes the basis for an alternative dream topography that imagines the South African landscape as a network of graves, a landscape of sacred sites and sites of interment. A landscape of depths, it also has a surface aspect, as a landscape of traces. The hermeneutic eye of the archaeologist scans this landscape for signs of habitation and past life, is able to interpret the traces left in stone and bone.

Tenderly interred in life, the bodies of the buried dead are exhumed "with the greatest care" by the archaeologist. The sweeping actions of the rubber-mounted distemper brush mirrors, in reverse, the actions of the hand that patted the soil home. Bared by excavation, the bodies are subject to a different regime of care, and to the logic of the archive. They are numbered, accessioned, boxed, shelved, catalogued. Their re-animation takes place within the strict limits of this logic.

Ultimately, we are confronted with the surprising nature of the exhumed dead. The grave is a place to which the dead of Oakhurst Cave have been assigned to place them beyond the reach of the living, yet here they are among us: partial, decayed, fossilised, articulated, scattered. In the world of their re-emergence, their death figures as a double death. They are individually dead (dead to themselves and others), but they also represent a way of life that is dead and in the past: fossil bones and fossil people. This image of death-in-life haunts the Bushmen of these various accounts. It amounts to a status, a way of being, so that we might talk of an ontology of death-in-life. This is true of "Bain's Bushmen", explicitly framed as "living fossils", who had constantly to confront their being as death-in-life (in the encounter with the ghostly "life casts", and in the way in which parts of their bodies were externalised as momento mori, not least in the act of photography itself). This status of death-in-life continues into the present, in a chain of literal and figurative deaths. Gordon writes of his first visit to Tsumkwe, the capital of the apartheid-inspired Bushman "homeland": "What I saw there on my brief three-day visit was profoundly disturbing. I had never been in a place where one could literally smell death and decay…" (Gordon 1992:3).