When the hand that holds the trowel is black

The secret history of archaeology in Africa is the history of "native" labour. It is the story of those men (and they were almost always men) who dug, sieved, sorted, located sites and "finds", fetched and carried, pitched camp, cooked and served food, negotiated with local chiefs and suppliers, and assisted in the interpretation of artefacts and events, but who remain unsung and unremembered in official tellings of the development of the discipline. In many cases they were and are skilled practitioners: not Archaeologists, or even "archaeologists" (for such is the politics of naming in the sciences), but something else, field hands, or assistants, or more usually just "boys". In almost all cases they were and are far more directly related to the remains that they disinterred, to the hand that made the pot or the bones in the grave - whether on grounds of culture, tradition, history, lineal descent, or whatever - than the archaeologist on whose behalf they laboured. Yet, in the ironised contexts of the construction of archaeological knowledge in the colonies and former colonies (and the essential tenor of this enterprise is one of irony), they are almost never referred to, or are referred to in passing or with contempt (Shepherd 2003).

If these men - let us call them "co-workers" - are textually absent, then they are present in another, more unnerving fashion. The spread of archaeological fieldwork in Africa coincided with the popularisation of camera technologies and techniques. Cameras were taken onto archaeological sites and the photographic record became an important part of the procedure of excavation. And it is here, captured to one side of the frame, leaning on a shovel, or bent over a sieve - or more occasionally, looking boldly back at the camera - that we encounter archaeological co-workers and the question of native labour.

The South African archaeologist AJH "John" Goodwin and an unnamed assistant, Oakhurst Cave, southern Cape coast, 1932-1935. BC290/39

"When photographs come out of storage, it is as if energy is released", write Hayes, Silvester and Hartmann in the introduction to their book on Namibian photography (2001). My interest in this subject began with a single image, the image that appears in the preface to this book. Two men occupy the frame. A sieve lies between them. To the left is the archaeologist John Goodwin. To the right of the frame is an unnamed co-worker. The site is identifiable by the grid markings on the wall as Oakhurst Cave, a large site on the southern Cape coast excavated by Goodwin over six field seasons between February 1932 and February 1935.

This is what we have by way of beginning: a moment in time somewhere between 1932 and 1935, a cave on the southern Cape coast, two men seated before a sieve, an open and unwavering gaze.

In June 1940, Goodwin and Berrie Malan, accompanied by Mrs Jean Malan and an unspecified group of assistants, excavated Forest Hall shelter on the southern Cape Coast. No field notebook was kept, nor were the results of the excavation published. In 1988, nearly half a century after the event, ML Wilson published a short report on Forest Hall in the South African Archaeological Bulletin. This was based on material from the site in the archaeological and physical anthropological collections of the South African Museum, and an interview with Berrie and Jean Malan.

When the hand that holds the trowel is black, it is as though holes dig themselves, and artefacts are removed, labelled and transported without human agency.

The site of Forest Hall is on the Forest Hall estate, about 2 kilometres east of Keurboomstrand, and about 800 metres east of the better-known Matjies River shelter, at the base of some steep coastal cliffs. It faces east and is screened by dense coastal forest "that makes its present environment dank and unattractive" (Wilson 1988: 53). The excavation was carried out over a period of three weeks. The party camped in a fisherman's shack nearby, "with water for cooking and drinking being brought on donkey-back from Forest Hall [estate] every other day" (note the passive, indirect construction). The deposit consisted of an upper shell-midden capping, surmounting stratified, fine, damp black soils. In all, 19 feet 5 inches (5,9 metres) of deposit were removed, a considerable depth of deposit by any standard. Only a representative collection of stone implements and unusual items were retained from the excavation. The remains of two, and possibly three, individuals were excavated, but no record was kept of the depth at which they were found, or of any artefactual associations. A feature of the stone-artefact collection is the relative absence of diagnostic artefacts (in the sense of artefacts that could be assigned to an archaeological "culture"), leading Malan to describe the excavation as "boring" and "a waste of time". The depth of the shell midden and the relative uniformity of the deposit led the excavators to assign it, dismissively, to the "shell-midden culture" of the last 3000 years, a variation of what Sampson (1974) would call the "Strandloper" industries. A sample of Donax serra shells collected from the base of the shell-midden capping was submitted for dating by Wilson, and returned with a date in the early Holocene, 9770±80 BP, making the deposit considerably older than first imagined.

One part of the series of photographs from Forest Hall deals with technical shots of the excavation. We see a deep trench running along the back of the rock shelter, essentially a means of finding human skeletal remains. The shell-midden capping is clearly visible. Berrie Malan brushes loose deposit from partially excavated human remains. Another part of the Forest Hall series deals with images of camp life. In the framing of the scene black co-workers carry out their tasks on the margins of the camera's interest. Another image: four figures face us across a campfire. A fifth figure lifts a kettle from the flames. A pencilled note on the back of the photograph reads, "Forest Hall; Goodwin, Jean and Berrie Malan". The caption is not in Goodwin's hand, and was added by Ione Rudner, a keen amateur archaeologist with a long history of involvement in the discipline, who went through the collection in 1979. Goodwin has his arms folded on his knees. To his right, sitting close to him but caught in the shadow where Goodwin is bathed in light, is the unnamed assistant from the Oakhurst Cave excavation.

He appears in two other images. In the first, which is taken shortly before or after the previous photograph, he can be seen in the background, working in the excavation. Using a high-definition, digital version of the original photograph it becomes possible to zoom in on background details. We encounter something of the uncanny strangeness of work on site. The unnamed assistant is up to his waist in the trench. He is surrounded by a clutter of sieves, a sorting tray, a small pile of bones (human rib bones?), a marine shell. A human skull is mounted on a stick. At the base of the stick is a hat. In a second image he appears with another co-worker, bringing to three the number of "native" labourers employed on the site. As in the previous photographs, his poise is notable. My attention is drawn to his bare feet. Who was he? Thus began an investigation within an investigation.


As vignettes of life on site, the Forest Hall photographs are fascinating, but their lack of annotation, other than long after the fact, makes them appear ghostly, stray remembrances. In them the contradiction emerges sharply. While the white excavators live on, in their own words (in Wilson's report), in the memory of others (Ione Rudner), and in official accounts of the discipline's coming into being (Deacon 1990, Goodwin 1935, Goodwin 1958, Malan 1956, Malan 1970), their black co-workers have been lost in time. I carried out a systematic search of material covering the period of Goodwin's fieldwork in the southern Cape. Working from a list of published site reports, field notebooks and personal and professional correspondence, it proved impossible to identify with any certainty even a single black co-worker in these images. What becomes remarkable is the near-total absence of reference to black excavators, assistants and camp followers. When the hand that holds the trowel is black, it is as though holes dig themselves, and artefacts are removed, labelled and transported without human agency. An account book belonging to Goodwin records the following entries:

Water carrier 1/0
To boy for 2 days 2/6
These come between "Paraffin - 3/6", "Sardines - 9d", and "Hotel lunch 22 Jan. - 6/0".

The land on which Oakhurst Cave is situated belonged to a farmer called Dumbleton. He had shown an interest in the excavation, and had assisted Goodwin with various practical matters. In a letter to Goodwin dated April 1934, during the period of the Oakhurst excavation, he wrote: "You asked about Adam's services while working for you but really I have done so precious little to help you with the excavations so far that I feel it is the least I can do to supply his services free". In one of Goodwin's side notebooks from the excavation at Glentyre Shelter (close to Oakhurst Cave) we find: "Work stopped on 21 July, Thursday. (Adam Windwaai came to help on the last day)". Glentyre Shelter was excavated in July 1938, so that chronologically it falls between the excavations at Oakhurst Cave and Forest Hall, and it is from the same immediate geographical area. If, as seems likely, the unnamed co-worker in the photographs with John Goodwin was the man Adam Windwaai, then theirs was a professional relationship that spanned at least seven years and three sites. We see Adam Windwaai excavating, sieving and sorting, as well as engaged in the various activities of life on site. The name Adam Windwaai needs some explaining. Adam is easy enough: Adam, the first man. "Windwaai" is an Afrikaans name meaning "the blowing wind", or "blowing in the wind". Adam, the first man, blowing in the wind.


A central fact of this account is how hard one has to work to turn over the traces not only of archaeological co-workers, but of work in general. These habits of elision are well established, and not only in colonial archaeology. What else is a site report but the presentation of a fait accompli, an exercise in the removal of agency? Sections are cut precisely, squares numbered, finds bagged and labelled, in the unfolding of a process as inexorable as it is invisible. The implication is that actual human agents are irrelevant. Hodder (1989) notes a shift in the style and rhetoric of the archaeological site report. Early examples of the genre give actor-oriented accounts and make use of personal pronouns. In the late nineteenth century "[a] transformation occurs towards more distant, abstract, decontextualized accounts" (271), and towards the use of passive voice (a sandstone block "was found"). Underlying these shifts are changes in modes of authority in the discipline, and the nature of its institutional insertions. For the archaeological agent to appear omnipotent in her or his authorship of the site, the excavation is presented in the indirect, passive voice.

Adam is easy enough: Adam, the first man. "Windwaai" is an Afrikaans name meaning "the blowing wind", or "blowing in the wind". Adam, the first man, blowing in the wind.

In a colonial context such habits of elision were compounded by a specific anxiety operating in relation to the issue of "native" labour. This takes us to the heart of colonial political-economy and to the centre, the very deepest wellings, of settler imaginaries. A concern with native labour – its tractability, its cost, its continued supply – runs like a thread through colonial and apartheid histories, from attempts to indenture the Khoisan, to practices of racial slavery at the Cape, to the growth of the trade union movement and its challenge to the apartheid state in the 1970s and 1980s (Elphick 1977, Elphick & Giliomee 1989, O'Meara 1983, Seekings 2000). In a justly famous essay, JM Coetzee uncovers the history not of work, but of its opposite: "Idleness in South Africa" (1988). He writes of an enduring tradition in the "discourse of the Cape" in terms of which indigenous people are represented as idle and indolent (and thus anti-modern, anti-progressive). In an ironic inversion, with the advent of the British at the Cape this charge of idleness was transposed onto the Boers themselves.

"Illustrating the excavation carried out by Messrs. Tweedy and Barnard. The engraved rock surface is in the inmost recess where the line of demarcation between the covered and uncovered engravings is visible. Chifubwa Stream (sic) near Solwezi, Northern Rhodesia". In 1961 J Desmond Clark made a complete record of the engravings at the Kifubwa Stream site and carried out further excavations.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the fusion of racist thought and ideas about "native" labour was well underway. Patrick Brantlinger (1998) notes that the Victorians viewed Africans as "a natural labouring class, suited only for the dirty work of civilization" (183). Imperialism expressed a turning outwards, a nostalgia for a lost authority "and for a pliable, completely subordinate proletariat" that had been lost at home. In this context, "racism functions as a displaced or surrogate class system, growing more extreme as the domestic class alignments it reflects are threatened or erode" (184). In 1945 Goodwin published what was, until recently, the only locally produced text on archaeological methodology, Method in Prehistory. In a section on "Excavation" he reflects on the question of "native" labour. He writes:

In Europe the "season" generally coincides with part of the Long Vacation. There a return is made again and again over a period of years to the same site. Work is done by European workmen under supervision, or by partly trained students – again under supervision. It has been found that two or three workmen and a casual hand are all that can be adequately controlled, while half-a-dozen students are the maximum that can be organized for supervision. In Africa two labourers (who should be employed for cleaning and camp-work only, unless particularly dependable and trustworthy), a student and the trained supervising excavator are generally the most that can be used in one trench or section, digging and sieving alternately. (1945:90)

In those two words, "dependable" and "trustworthy", might be read all of the hopes and fears of colonial labour policy. Interestingly, of course, Goodwin's own practice belies this statement, just as on a broader stage "native" labour was to play a far greater role in building settler society than is generally admitted, doing not just its heavy-lifting but a good deal else besides.


There is a coda to the story of Adam Windwaai. Some time after I had published a first account of this brief history in the Journal of Social Archaeology (Shepherd 2003), I opened one of the unpublished photographs from Forest Hall on my screen. This is an ordinary enough picture of a part of the excavation, showing the different strata or layers making up the stratigraphy. A measuring tape shows the original ground level. I zoomed to the top left-hand corner, and saw something that I had missed before. A figure lies on the ground, partially concealed by vegetation. He looks boldly back in the direction of the camera. Adam Windwaai.