Funny how misunderstandings can lead to insights. You say something but it’s mis-heard. Sometimes spectacularly so. That happened last week at Songwe Gorge and the mangled words have taken on a life of their own.
The excavations have finally got underway after so many delays. A three by two metre trench was laid out, the surface cleared, and we trowelled the red sands expecting very little in the way of artefacts. That expectation drew on last year’s brief investigation into the base of an existing pit left by local brick makers. They stopped digging when they hit gravel and we picked up where they left off. For the Early Stone Age people who lived here the gravels were a source of glassy raw materials suitable for making sharp stone tools. The Zambezi River deposited this resource before it had cut the gorge below and formed the first of several waterfalls. The falls we see today being the most recent point in a long process of erosion heading upstream.
Dating the sands that cap the gravels at Songwe will give us a minimum age for the start of the downcutting of the Zambezi. But there is also the issue of why these sands are here. They are extensive. From the edge of the gorge we can see them across the valley, capping the horizon in Zimbabwe. They probably blew in from the Kalahari during cooler, drier, and windier times. One such phase took place about 21,000 years ago and another just 4,000 years ago. In either period this wouldn’t have been a pleasant place to live.
Low expectations then for finding artefacts in the sands. But expect the unexpected.
Small stone tools appeared just below the surface and continued pretty much right through the sands. By the time we reached the gravels at the base we had a good collection of shaped tools and bits of broken waste created during tool making. About halfway down the range of tools changed. What had been small (microlithic) pieces typical of the Later Stone Age now included larger artefacts typical of the Middle Stone Age. One pointed form caught my eye. I hadn’t seen it before in Zambia, except in an illustration in Clark 1950 (see last blog) which is always with me on this project.
I gathered the crew around to show them the artefact and explain its significance. Back in Clark’s day there was an archaeological industry called the ‘Magosian’. It was described as a mix of Middle and Later Stone Age technologies (points and microliths) as might be expected during a time of transition. The term has long since been abandoned, but the concept of a period of technological change is very much alive.
The piece that caught my eye was shaped by blunting one edge of a blade-like flake to create an asymmetrical form. I held the delicate piece up to the group and gave a brief background on the history of the Magosian and contemporary research on transitional industries. I wasn’t expecting anything like this to be in the sands and was – and am – genuinely intrigued by what we found. Was it the result of the mixing of the sands or a real transitional industry? And how old might it be?
There was a baffled look on the face of a student. I learned later that she thought I was saying “my goat’s called Ian”. Ha! Lesson learned – speak clearly and more audibly. But it also made me think about the names we give to archaeological phases or periods of time. Our labels should reflect something tangible in terms of consistent ranges of forms, based on repeated occurrences from well-dated contexts. The Magosian failed on all accounts.
But here is an opportunity to revisit the concept and the evidence from a long-neglected region. I’m looking forward to getting this material back in the lab and studying it closely. The dating of the sands will also play a key role given the evidence we have for the timing of the Middle to Later Stone Age transition in southern and eastern Africa. There are regional differences emerging so how does the Songwe material fit, if at all?
Back at Songwe, the excavations are now almost finished. But two unusual things to share before leaving the site: first, we had an unexpected find near the bottom above the gravels – the nest of a dung beetle (think scarab). It burrowed deeply into the sands and laid its eggs in a cluster of tennis-ball sized hollows of dung.
The depth of this intrusion raises the possibility that our ‘Magosian’ is a product of mixing. Second, we found in the lower levels iron-rich concretions that give a deep red streak.
Several are disc-shaped and one is the size and shape of a Yorkshire pudding (think popover). Clark didn’t mention such objects and if you’ve come across anything like this do let me and Ian know.