Trust in me 2

Returning from the site with local helpers

Day two at Kalambo Falls…

…and we are sharing the beauty of this landscape with a Zambian Army survival training class.  Jack and Boyd, the instructors, have our full attention as they take us through the biology and behaviour of venomous snakes. “Don’t run, just stand still,” when encountering a black mamba; adders give a warning hiss. And to prove the point we are introduced to a male and female adder hissing madly through chicken wire in a wooden crate.  Oh, and they were caught locally.

An unwilling participant collected from the cage in the snake awareness training session run by the Zambian Army

Boyd picks one up by the tail to demonstrate a point that passes me by as I am transfixed by the creature, a Jungle Book moment.

We leave reassured: our neighbours have stocks of universal antivenom as well as an ambulance, and they informed us that baboons are partial to killing snakes (baboons sauntered through camp the next day, on cue).

And chances are that we are less likely to encounter snakes in the morning cool when we set off to work.  It’s the late afternoon heat and early evening warmth that’s the time of greatest risk. That’s  when we plan to head back to camp, except it’s been too hot to work a full day so far.

The crew is mostly from the northern hemisphere and not used to the full-on sun at 1600 m above sea level. Our Zambian colleagues are bemused.

Heading north

It was a long, long trip from the capital Lusaka to reach the site.

Along the way we stopped at Nachikufu Cave, just off the Great North Road, a place visited a few years back as part of a project in the nearby area.  The magic remains –  towering white folded rock, dark holes for eyes, nose and mouth and its body holding ancestral spirits of the Bisa.  Oh, and a long record of Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers who left enigmatic red and yellow geometric paintings. This diversion meant a late arrival at our next resting place and a tense drive in the dark through peripheral blurs of people and cyclists without lights.

Next morning in the town of Kasama we passed through government offices to inform or confirm our plans, a necessary protocol.  At the market we bought traditional chitenge cloth for this season’s artefact bags, and as temporary wrap-around clothing for the female crew should we meet Chief Zombe who’s authority extends to the Kalambo area.

That afternoon in Mbala, the town nearest Kalambo Falls, we made courtesy calls to the District Commissioner and Director of the Moto Moto Museum.  We had just enough time for a quick peek at the museum’s display on the archaeological record at the Falls.  A replica hafted handaxe instantly caught the eye. Did the curator know something we didn’t?

The invention of hafting, the combining of multiple parts to make a tool, is thought to have happened in the Middle Stone Age, roughly 300,000 years ago.  Handaxes are tools of the preceding Early Stone Age and to date no one has found evidence they were hafted, but then few have considered this possibility. The questions of “why” and “when” hafting emerged are at the heart of the Deep Roots project, hence our research at Kalambo Falls.  Its Early Stone Age record features handaxes and core axes – tools that might have been hafted, and we can date the bracketing deposits.  There is also the promise of wooden tools preserved at river level in Site B (Clark and colleagues labelled the main localities A,B,C and D).

Re-fuelled and equipped with a new phone (giving access to the only network that reaches into the Kalambo valley) we arrived at sunset.


A spade full of worries

I didn’t sleep that night.  Too many uncertainties, those known unknowns.  Did the Stone Age deposits at Kalambo survive after all these years?  Floods in the summer months of late 1959 and early 1960 (we are in the southern hemisphere) removed many metres of deposit across key sites, including Site B. And there have been floods since.  This year the rains have been heavy and two sections of the Great North Road have been washed away.  As we approached Mbala the omens were not good.  The usually dry Uningi pan on the edge of the town was full. If the Kalambo River was high we’d struggle to get down to the Early Stone Age levels.

Other worries popped into my head.  Did I budget enough time for the dig?  Would this crew work well together?

The list grew through the early hours.

As for that first big uncertainty, I gambled on an observation made by Clark about his last visit in 1988 to Kalambo Falls. He noted that trees had grown in the deep trenches of Site B.  If that was still the case, then we might be lucky.  Just follow the river, look for the trees and the prize would be in reach.  It would take the form of dark clays containing well-preserved wood, leaves, twigs, and – just maybe – shaped tools of wood. Beneath the darkness would be pale sands on which we’d find a spread of large Early Stone Age tools including handaxes, cleavers, picks and more shaped pieces of wood.

Fantasy land.

Clark had teams of 30 people working up to four months; we have 11 over four weeks.

There is the niggling issue too that the wood ‘tools’ are just naturally shaped by the power of the river, and not by the hands of artisans.  Nature can be a cruel trickster.

Looking at a Google Earth image saved from 2006, I could see what looked like a ragged patch of green in roughly the area of Site B. Could these be Clark’s trees?  That patch is also there in the more recent Google 2018 images.  There’s hope.

Two days ago, part of me didn’t want to make that walk along the river. What if I was wrong?   I had raised expectations months ago when briefing the students on the project plans.  Back-pedalling kicked in on arrival, the chances of Site B surviving were low I told the crew.  “Go on, you know you have to find out”; that niggling inner voice cajoled.

I delayed.

Another briefing session before viewing the falls in the morning.  No more delays now. The tension rose.

As we took the path down to the Kalambo river, passing dry cassava fields and around the bend in the river toward the green patch on my mental Google map, the moment arrived. Trees. Tall trees. Just where they should be. And then a short dusty path led to the edge of a cliff overlooking the river.  Down we slid and stumbled, 5m to the sands below and the river’s edge.

Maggie Katongo of the Livingstone Museum was the first to find a handaxe near the water.

 Maggie Katongo (and Pascale Thobois) with a handaxe found within seconds of our arrival

Then core-axes, picks, large flakes were found by the crew as we spread along the river edge.

“Hey, Larry, over here!” Chris Scott pointed to a ragged dark object embedded in dark clay – wood.  Ancient wood.

An unforgettable moment.

Chris Scott holding wood fragment found just below water level. Pascale and Priscilla Banda look on

The sun, heat and altitude took its toll on our excitement that afternoon.  But that initial thrill remains and grows.  We’ve found more wood and the dark chocolate clays preserve delicate leaves, stems and charcoal. Just as Clark had described.

Collecting clay samples for flotation to assess the organic content


Closeup of delicate leaves preserved in black clay from above the water’s edge

Breaking up the clay before straining through a fine mesh sieve (Rebecca Sowerby and Katie Brown)

And Early Stone Age artefacts are coming up from below the clays, as predicted. But the river is high. The anticipated spread of artefacts lies below water. The river is dropping slowly, too slowly given our schedule. But I’m still pinching myself. The uncertainties are now manageable thanks in part to Clark’s published legacy and to an excellent team.

We’re  off to Mbala now for supplies: sandbags and more buckets.

[Ed note: the post is not quite complete, a picture is missing and it looks like a few words might have vanished. Glad to see Larry’s optimistic note about the phone, but they have no internet access at Kalambo. They do have a satphone, for emergencies, don’t worry friends and family. Thanks to Moto Moto Museum in Mbala for letting Larry use their facilities to upload images to WordPress and email the content back to the UK for posting. It may be a while before the next instalment. Please don’t be offended if there is no reply to your comments for while – and don’t let that stop you!]

5 thoughts on “Trust in me 2

  1. What a great blog – thanks! I’m part of the ‘interested family & friends’ camp so news of how it’s all going and a picture of what it’s like is much appreciated. I’m enjoying the insights into the professional side of how the project is going, as well as your day to day life experiences. Reassuring that my daughter will return with skills to deal with venomous snakes – all good for the cv I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alison, ‘Ed’ here, back in the UK, not Larry. Will try and keep you updated here as often as becomes possible. Communication very difficult. Glad you enjoyed it.


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About Larry Barham

My name is Larry (Lawrence if I’m feeling formal) Barham and I'm a Professor of African Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, England, teaching evolutionary anthropology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.