By Frank Teichert, Curator Archaeology and Human Remains, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History
When sitting around the campfire after a hard day’s work in the field, interesting stories and adventures are shared. These stories and adventures do not always involve the discoveries that have been made but rather some of the amazing things we have seen or done. A part of the research done by archaeologists, is undertaken outside in the field. Many of the places where we do our research are off the beaten track and even places where people have not set foot in many, many years. Talk to any archaeologist about the adventures they have had and they will always have some interesting adventures to share with you. I have decided to share some of the most interesting adventures in the field that I have experienced.
As a student of archaeology back in the early 1990s, I studied at the University of Pretoria. During that time the famous archaeological site of Mapungubwe fell under the University of Pretoria, so once a year for two weeks we would travel to Mapungubwe to learn about excavating and how to conduct archaeological research in the field. During that time the South African Defence Force was still quite active in these parts. The army would patrol the border of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, as these three countries meet at the Shashe River, a tributary of the Limpopo River. The army boys would visit us after we had finished working and we would have one good drinking session with them, chatting, and as usual they would try flirting with some of the girls. Saturdays and Sundays would be rest days and as one would expect from young army boys they wanted to impress the girls that were on the trip. On a specific Sunday they organised a trip in one of their Ratels, an infantry combat vehicle that can hold 11 people including the driver, gunner and commander. About three girls decided to join them, but did not want to go alone, so they asked me to join them. The ride was fun and the army boys took us all around the area, mainly showing off to the girls. One of the roads that we went on was close to the Limpopo River and about a week before we arrived the river had flooded, so many of the roads close to the river were still very wet. As we went through one of these wet spots the Ratel got stuck and slowly turned onto its side in the mud. It was quite a strange feeling when it started turning on its side, the actual action of the vehicle turning on its side was in super slow motion but we on the inside were moving at normal speed. It was quite comical, although some of the girls did not find it funny at all. The girls and I managed to get out unscathed and walked back to the camp where we were staying. One must remember that a Ratel is not a small vehicle and weighs about 18 tons. The next day on the way to our site we passed close by to the area where the Ratel had slid on its side and the army was trying to get it out, but with little success. We were told later that it took them nearly 48 hours non-stop to get it out of the mud. I don’t know what happened to those army boys but we never saw them again, and none of them visited us again during the rest of our trip.
The most amazing thing about being an archaeologist out in the field is the beautiful natural areas that we get to explore and visit. During the visits to these amazing areas, some of them nature reserves or remote farm areas, the possibility of coming across our vast wildlife is a huge probability.
I have done quite a bit of work in the Kruger National Park, and was part of a project that excavated or surveyed in the Park looking at Anglo Boer War history. We would work in the Park for two weeks a year for about 10 years. Working in the Kruger National Park is always special because we are able to visit areas that are not always accessible to visitors. On these trips we have had some scary experiences with wildlife, as one can imagine. One of the first trips we excavated, was a site close to the Letaba River, near the Letaba Rest Camp. The site we were excavating was about 10 km from the camp but it took us about an hour or so to get there. One of the roads that we had to take was one that only the rangers were aloud to drive on and it had not been used for a long time, so it was difficult to see where we were going. This was also hampered by the fact that the Park had experienced some good rain and in one section we had to go through a small stream that had seen elephants walking through it and leaving these huge dips in the mud. We all joked that this was the elephant parachute landing strip. Once we arrived close to the site we had to walk about 700 to 800 meters to get to where we were excavating. The site itself had tall grass and medium to small Mopani trees. On one of these days, we were about eight people excavating and one ranger guarding us. This ranger learnt very quickly that trying to look after archaeologists is not easy as everybody goes off in their own direction with heads down looking for artefacts or signs of human activity. So trying to keep everybody together is not easy and once we started excavating the excavations were spread out over the site. The ranger then started doing patrols around the edge of the site and making sure he knew where all of us were and where the animals were. On this particular day it was drizzling, so the noises in the bush were drowned out by the rain on the Mopani leaves. All of a sudden a male elephant burst through the bush right in front of one of the excavations, trumpeting and ears flapping. The next moment the ranger popped out of nowhere in front of the huge elephant. Telling the excavators to be quiet and not move, I don’t think any of them could from sheer fright anyway. So to give a picture: elephant, ranger, excavation, and archaeologists, within about a 60 meters of each other. The ranger started clapping his hands telling the elephant to “voetsek”, after which the elephant gave two more trumpets, turned around and disappeared into the bush. The ranger then turned around and told us that it’s just an older male elephant in musth, and it has moved on. An elephant in musth is more aggressive and agitated than at any time so one should be extremely careful but this ranger just shooed it off. I must admit we were all damn scared that day but the rangers in the Park do know their specialist field and understand animals.
The next story happened at the same site only a few seasons later. Some mornings on the way to the site, we would see two male lions not far from where we were excavating. was. The ranger explained that these were two brothers who held the territory that we were excavating on. One day we had some high ranking officials from the Kruger National Park visiting us to see what we were doing. That morning we could hear one of the lions roaring in the distance and also heavy breathing. We were assured that the lion was at least 4 km away. About half an hour later the roaring from the lion started getting closer and closer. It became so loud that the ranger and other officials told us all to stand in a group behind the excavation. The next minute the lion burst through the bush, stopped dead and just looked at us. It was at least 50 meters from us and trust me that lion was not small. The ranger started to shout and shoo the lion away; the lion then started to growl and show its teeth to the ranger. The ranger then cocked his rifle, as did the other officials and at these sounds the lion turned and took off back the way it came. Now we were all huddled together, terrified at the sight of this huge lion, and I was amazed that no one fainted or soiled themselves. The ranger then followed the lion’s tracks to make sure it would not return. After this ordeal and once the adrenalin wore off, we started joking about what happened, laughing that we only had a handful of towels, shovels and hand pick axes to protect ourselves. Now remember I mentioned that there were two lions we kept seeing, the two brothers, so where was the second one? Well we never thought about the second lion until the ranger came back and explained that he had found the second lion’s tracks, stalking us from behind. This was one of a few scary encounters I have had.
To end off this first part of my stories, I will give a funny story again from my trips to the Kruger National Park. Whenever we are in the Park excavating we normally camp in tents in the camping areas or we stay in the research camps that some of the Rest Camps have. In Letaba Rest Camp we stayed in tents, normally sharing a tent with one or two people. One year I was sharing a tent with two of my colleagues but caught flu and decided to sleep in a Volkswagen kombi that we brought with on the trip. As I’m not the tallest person in the world I fit quite nicely in the back of a kombi once the back seats are down. The tent was then occupied by two of my colleagues with one of them having the notion to talk in his sleep. One night my colleague had a dream about a snake attacking him, sat up in bed and started screaming, “snake, snake, snake”, so loud that he woke up most of the campers in Letaba. He then dropped back on his bed fast asleep. The colleague sharing the tent with him was wide awake, and scared to hell, as he thought that there was indeed a snake in his tent. The next day my colleague who had the dream could not remember what happened.
I hope that you enjoyed these stories and please look out for the next Around the Campfire with Archaeology stories in future issues.