What’s in a name? Not a lot in the case of ‘Messenger Compound’, certainly no whiff of roses and star-crossed lovers. The place existed early in the colonial history of Livingstone, Zambia and it came to my awareness in 2017 during the first season of the Deep Roots project.
We were excavating on a terrace of the Maramba River, a tributary of the Zambezi, that flows along the southern edge of Livingstone. It’s a nondescript river at this point, with a few crocodiles and the occasional elephant following its green banks and straying too close to town.
In that first season we were searching for Early Stone Age (Acheulean) sites located in the 1940s by archaeologist Desmond Clark. A box of artefacts in the Livingstone Museum storeroom, labelled ‘Maramba’, caught my eye for it contained skillfully made Acheulean handaxes. These beauties were made on a flint-like material called silcrete which is found locally.
After a few days of field-walking with colleagues from the Livingstone Museum and the National Heritage Conservation Commission we found a good place to excavate. Pieces of large tools were on the surface, and the farmer gave permission to dig on the condition we back-filled the trenches.
And we found what we were looking for in gravel deposits not more than one metre deep before hitting bedrock. A few handaxes and Acheulean cleavers turned up, but not the beauties Clark had recovered. Ours were of a different material called basalt, a heavy igneous rock that becomes rounded as it weathers. Thick basalt deposits underlie this part of the Zambia, with Victoria Falls the most recent cataract spilling into the basalt gorges cut by the Zambezi River.
I asked my colleagues from the Livingstone Museum what we should call this site and they replied “Messenger Compound” after its colonial history. I didn’t think any more about the place, and ‘MC’ was inked on each artefact along with the excavation level and square.
Fast forward to January 2022 and I’m sharing a podcast with two well-known artists, David Blandy and Larry Achiampong. We’re talking about their latest video installation ‘Dust to Data’ on display at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), Liverpool, as part of the exhibition ‘Future Ages will Wonder’ curated by Annie Jael Kwan (https://www.fact.co.uk/artist/larry-achiampong-and-david-blandy).
A year earlier I had been invited by FACT to collaborate with David and Larry. They have a track record of using their art to raise awareness of the lasting impact of racist ideologies and colonial legacies on how we interpret the past. Decolonising the past is a theme central to my teaching of African archaeology and involves understanding the historical contexts in which scholarly knowledge is created. So I accepted the invitation.
Over the course of several online meetings online (during the Covid-19 lock-down) we had wide-ranging conversations that featured the role of labelling – people and objects – and the implicit biases in biological nomenclature as in Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) which assumes superior abilities when compared with other early humans. The victor tells the tale, and the Victorian version of the tale led to eugenics and genocide in the 20th century, among other legacies (see Stephen Jay Gould’s the Mismeasure of Man,1981).
On a much smaller scale I see echoes of bias in the labeling of artefacts such as ‘handaxe’ and ‘cleaver’ as applied to Acheulean technologies. These terms obscure a variety of tool forms, some of which may have been designed for specific uses. Our labels shape our theories, and in the case of these tools they oversimplify the cognitive capacities of their makers, reinforcing assumptions of a ‘primitive’ past. But primitive also means first and original and that change of perspective places these early tool-makers in a different light.
As the framework for the content of the video took shape, David and Larry asked if I could help visualise the installation with 3D images of artefacts and skulls. As you’ll know from the last blog post (‘Re-emergence’) we have at Liverpool an enthusiastic photography team. They made several 3D models of handaxes and cleavers from the Deep Roots project excavations at Victoria Falls and Kalambo Falls. They also modelled some of the casts of fossil human skulls in our teaching collection.
The resulting video caught me by surprise. David and Larry chose the weathered basalt handaxe from Messenger Compound, the least visually appealing artefact on offer! But in doing so they’ve brought me back to Zambia’s colonial past.
I’ve learned recently that those messengers were employed by the British South Africa Company as runners to carry mailbags to other administrative outposts before the establishment of a rail network*, and that the compound was built in 1902. (Northern Rhodesia did not became a British government protectorate until 1924, and gained independence in 1964 as Zambia).
Desmond Clark arrived in 1938 as the first professional archaeologist, and the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (now the Livingstone Museum) was established in the same year. Archaeological research and museums were colonial imports, there’s no denying this. In the spirit of decolonising my own past, I owe much of my career to Clark’s pioneering research in the service of a colonial administration.
Later in his career, Clark applied his great knowledge of Africa’s past to right a pernicious wrong by challenging assumptions about Africa as a backwater in human prehistory. In his Huxley Memorial Lecture given in I974 and published in 1975 (‘Africa in Prehistory: Peripheral or Paramount?’ Man 10 (2): 175-198) Clark brought the scientific evidence to bear on this deep-seated prejudice:
“I have chosen to speak of Africa firstly because this is where my own research interests have long been centred, but also because of the increasing amount of tremendously important evidence it is yielding that bears directly upon our own biological and cultural origins and because of the way in which prehistoric studies are extending, enlightening and dignifying the history of Africa’s peoples.”
I’m grateful to David and Larry for those conversations. You’ve led me on an unexpected journey of self-reflection.
*Thank you, Peter Roberts and Clare Mateke, Acting Director of the Livingstone Museum, for your historical input.
**Roberts, P. (2021) Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls (1898-1905). Third Edition. Zambezi Book Company / CreateSpace Independent Publishing (First published 2018).