Material remains tell the story

“By reading documents you get one image of the past. But archaeology can uncover so many more details of what it was really like to live there then.” South African archaeologist Natalie Swanepoel is a guest researcher at NAI during fall 2015. Her current project focuses on the Botshabelo Mission Station in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.

She leads the excavations there and points out how much has been learnt by digging the ground that one would never glean from only reading the documents relating to the site. The process of converting to Christianity among local people brought many changes to their daily lives. Examining the material record can tell us about how people experienced these changes, as well as about those things that didn’t change.

“We have found evidence a lot of European-made ceramics, rather than local pottery. This suggests that foreign items were normal and that the people there were part of the global economy. Ongoing analysis of the ceramics and food remains will inform us of whether what they were eating changed.”

“Similarly, this year we dug up the rubbish heap created by the school hostels in the 20th century. The bottles of skin-bleaching products say something about when and to what degree skin lightening became popular among the women living at the station,” Swanepoel observes. 

“Missionaries were authorized to issue passes for travelling to towns on the coast, so the locals saw them as a beneficial resource. Thus, it was not only the religious content that attracted people to mission stations,” Swanepoel remarks.

Her research shows that people coming to live at the station occupied different localities depending on their ethnicity. This was probably because people wanted to live among others they already knew, under the chief who had come with them from their original home areas.

From the beginning, education was an important aspect of life at Botshabelo Mission Station. One purpose was educating Black pastors, who were believed to have greater success in converting members of their own community.

“Another reason was that in order to keep the growing community self-supporting, people of various trades were needed. Therefore masons, carpenters, blacksmiths and wagon-makers were trained at Botshabelo.”

Everything changed in 1948 when the National Party came to power and adopted laws that eventually led to the apartheid system in South Africa. Botshabelo was put under pressure to sell its land because mission stations were viewed as “black spots” in white areas. Also, the South African education department now wanted to assume sole responsibility for education in the country.  In the end, the land was sold to the municipality of Middelburg and the station became a teachers’ training college. In 1973, the last black families at Botshabelo and their possessions were loaded on to trucks and forcibly removed to the Black Homelands.

“The community has since received the land back as part of South Africa’s land restitution programme. The goal of the project is to use the landscape and archaeological record at Botshabelo to illuminate how the lives of ordinary South Africans changed over the 150 year period that had such an big impact in shaping modern-day South Africa,” Swanepoel concludes.

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