Layers of meaning through time

2008-08-27 00:00

The title of this remarkable archaeological travelogue is derived from the presence of deep layers of dust in the Wonderwerk cave near Kimberley, where the dust represents successive layers of human occupation dating from at least a million years ago. The author observes, “in the cave our life is just one millimetre of dust. The years of iron and steel and all of recorded history measure just a little more.” (p.182) These words reveal the huge time-span of human history in South Africa, as observed by the author and her family during a car-trip to various archaeological sites between Muizenberg in Cape Town and Kuruman in the Northern Cape.

Martin was inspired to track down the various traces of prehistoric habitation in the country and, with her husband (author Michael Cope) and her two small children, embarked on the journey described in the book.

The archaeological material is interlaced with much lyrical description of places, people and animals, and with musings on many topics from what it means to be human to the uses of fire, iron and steel, or the wonder of diamonds — and the book is thus a rich source of information, feeling and insight.

Martin (a lecturer in English at the University of the Western Cape) writes with deep and pensive emotion about everything on her journey, including the pleasures and tribulations of being a mother with often-fretting children on a long car-journey, and the personal detail adds another layer to the many strata of the book. Her descriptions of everything from stone artefacts to impala to wild flowers, and from moonlight over semi-desert to squatter shacks are vivid and evocative.

Strangely, for all its richness, there is a slightly irritating tenor to the book which is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it is the total lack of any flicker of humour in its 260-plus pages; perhaps an almost relentless over-earnestness. Nonetheless, at least the author cares; and her book is a rewarding read, from which the reader will learn a great deal about the country, its remote and more recent past, its landscapes, and the techniques and findings of archaeology.

David Pike

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