Prologue: a gaze that pierces

This begins with a single image. Two men are seated in an archaeological site. A sieve, or screen, lies between them. To the left of the frame is the archaeologist AJH "John" Goodwin (1900-1959), a formative figure in the making of South African archaeology. To the right is an unnamed co-worker. Goodwin has left us a substantial archive relating to his life and work, comprising over a hundred boxes of notes, correspondence, and photographs. Of his co-worker we know next to nothing. The grid markings on the cave wall identify this as Oakhurst Cave, a large site on the southern Cape coast excavated between 1932 and 1935, remarkable for its many human burials.

Like many photographs of a documentary nature, this image seems pregnant with meaning. At the same time, it is haunted by a certain unknowability. What has passed between the two men? Are they at ease in each other's company? Goodwin's face is averted as he looks into the sieve. In his left hand he holds a cigarette. For Goodwin, no longer in his first youth, this is an important excavation, career-wise, even a kind of tipping point. However, it is his co-worker that draws the eye. One registers a composed presence, a neatly assembled set of clothes. Roland Barthes writes of the punctum, the point in any image that pierces, that holds the attention (Barthes 2000, Edwards 2001, Sontag 1973). In this case, the punctum is the directness of the gaze of Goodwin's co-worker. He returns the camera's gaze, which is at the same time our gaze, the gaze of the viewer, with something in his expression: challenge? reproach? an unexpected candour?

As with many of the photographs in the Goodwin Collection, the photograph is uncaptioned. It comes to us as a scrap or sliver (Harris 2002) from the archive, wafted into the present on a current of sympathy and interest. At the same time, it brings its own busy networks of signification. As a piece of social history it reminds us of the social and political contexts of South Africa in the 1930s: of the colonial past, the advent of Afrikaner nationalism as a political force around this time, and the imminence of apartheid. In this context it certainly matters that Goodwin is white, that his co-worker is black, and that the force of the archive and of the discipline all lie with Goodwin.

As an artefact from the past of the discipline, the photograph invites us to think about the meaning of archaeology in different local contexts, and about the ways in which the discipline is shaped by particular histories of practice. As a fragment from the archive, a single image chosen by me from hundreds of similar images, it reminds us of my own role in shaping this account. Finally, what we remember about the two men is not their connectedness, but the distance between them. Two figures grouped around a sieve, engaged in their common task, together but apart, divided in fact and by history, a leitmotif for the work that follows.