If rocks could talk

2010-05-10 00:00

BACK in 1976, when Patricia Vinnicombe’s ground-breaking People of the Eland was first published, most people saw San rock art as a fading record of the lives of a vanished race. Or even as decoration, Stone Age wallpaper in the rock shelters where the San had lived. Vinnicombe, who was born in Underberg and whose interest in rock art was sparked by the paintings she saw as a child, was one of the first researchers to question the old assumptions, and to move beyond mere recording of a head count — so many eland, so many people, so many horses. She realised that what she saw was much more complex than a vague illustration of daily life.

People of the Eland, of which only 1 000 copies were printed, is now a rare and valuable piece of Africana, copies selling for an eye-popping R10 000 or R11 000. So the appearance of a new, soft-cover edition, with more colour illustrations than in the original, is very welcome. And along with People of the Eland is a companion volume, The Eland’s People, edited by Peter Mitchell and Benjamin Smith, which brings the story up to date.

At the time of her sudden death in Australia in 2003, Vinnicombe was working on an updated version of her book: she was worried that the rarity of the original meant it was not easily available to students, and research had moved on. But now, after a long wait, People of the Eland is once more on the shelves, and its companion volume offers 10 essays on new perspectives of the rock art of southern Africa.

One of the contributors is Gavin Whitelaw, an archaeologist at the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg. His chapter deals with interactions between Nguni- speaking people and the San — the meeting of the Stone and Iron ages during the last 900 years. I ask Whitelaw how his work relates to Vinnicombe’s.

“Her original view was that the rock art in this period reflected actual encounters, and I’m not sure it does, at least in the way she thought. I don’t see it as a straightforward record of actual events. We have to look deeper and try to understand what was going on in people’s minds, see a reflection of the worlds they were creating. The world is out there, but the art is in our minds.”

Whitelaw shows Vinnicombe’s tracing of the art on a stone removed in 1910 from Bamboo Mountain near Underberg and now in the museum. He explains that Vinnicombe linked the painting to the aftermath of a cattle raid, possibly an actual raid that took place in 1865. But, as well as the depiction of people on horseback, cattle and what seems to be a rock shelter, there is a strange animal that Whitelaw and archaeologist and rock art expert Jeremy Hollmann describe as a rain animal.

“I think it’s more likely linked to a tactic that we know San raiders used, which was to time raids to tie in with thunderstorms. They tried to raid before a storm: the rain would delay the pursuers and wash out their spoor,” says Hollmann. “It’s using the magic of the rain animal to bring rain after a raid. A combination of narrative and Bushman beliefs about rain.”

Both Hollmann and Whitelaw see the essays in The Eland’s People, and a great deal of research in the past 30 years, as building on Vinnicombe’s work. As Whitelaw puts it: “When Pat was working, we hardly knew anything at all.” She was a true pioneer. People of the Eland is still used and read, and the method of tracing rock art that Vinnicombe developed is still considered the most accurate way of recording a site.

“You stand in front of a painting for days, in all light conditions and you get to know it. You start to see it differently than if you were there for a short time with a camera,” says Hollmann. And while there are new revolutionary photographic techniques that can recover detail not visible to the naked eye, their wide application lies in the future. In the meantime, Pat Vinnicombe’s work is the only accurate record of some sites that, in the past 30 years, have disappeared. And her interpretive work is the basis for almost everything that followed. In the two books, a number of her previously unpublished tracings are illustrated, redrawn by Justine Olofsson.

The elegant, mysterious paintings in rock shelters exert an enormous fascination. “Rock art draws crowds at public lectures,” says Whitelaw. He repeats a story, told by Professor David Lewis Williams of the Rock Art Institute at Wits, of how Vinnicombe described her research as being like looking at pebbles on a stream bed, clear and defined. But when she put her hand into the water, the pebbles could no longer be seen. Trying to establish the meaning of the art to the people who made it is tantalisingly out of reach, and each discovery means more complexities are revealed. But the work continues, and it is good to see Vinnicombe’s contribution to it once more available.

• People of the Eland by Patricia Vinnicombe and The Eland’s People, edited by Peter Mitchell and Benjamin Smith, are published by Wits University Press.

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