16-inch Armour Piercing Shot

16-inch Armour Piercing Shot

16-inch Armour Piercing Shot
On Display at DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
From HMS Nelson    

Date 1941

By Richard Henry



The British Admiralty ordered two new Battleships for the Royal Navy in December 1922.  These were called the Nelson Class, named after Admiral Horatio Nelson. Their mass and size was restricted by the Washington Naval Treaty to a maximum dry tonnage of 35 000 tons and 16-inch guns.  They were sometimes referred to as the “Cherry Tree” class as they had been cut down by Washington. The two ships were christened HMS Nelson and Rodney.

The keels were laid down on 28 December 1922.  The firm Armstrong Whitworth & Co built the Nelson at the High Walker shipyard on the River Tyne, northern England.  She was launched in September 1925 and commissioned in August 1927. The Rodney was built by Cammel Laird at the Birkenhead shipyard on the River Mersey, launched in December 1925 and commissioned in December 1927.

Not to exceed the maximum tonnage they had a unique layout with the nine 16-inch guns in three turrets all forward of the bridge.  Armour plating was also reduced but in places over the main magazine, control positions, and waterline belt it had sloped armour up to 360 mm thick. The deck had a single plate of 159 mm thick to protect against plunging shells and aircraft bombs.  Non vulnerable areas had minimal armour plating.

Both battleships served extensively in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Indian oceans during the Second Word War. The Rodney was made famous by her role in the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941


On 25 March 1941, the Battleships HMS Nelson and Revenge as well as the light cruisers Edinburgh and Cairo and sixteen destroyers escorted twenty troopships with 528 000 troops from Britain to the Middle East.

On Wednesday 16 April 1941 at 8:45 HMS Nelson tied up alongside the Duncan Dock in Cape Town. The next day she was visited by General JC Smuts.  It is thought that as a gift the Nelson donated one of her 16-inch projectiles. On 19 April at 8:00 HMS Nelson sailed from Cape Town for Durban.  At 14:00 off Dyer Island she fired her main guns.


On Tuesday 22 April at 10:30 Nelson arrived off Durban; at 13:30 she entered the dry dock in Durban for her annual maintenance.  The maintenance was complete by 3 May 1941 and the Nelson left the Durban dry dock and berthed in Durban.  On 10 May at 14:30 the Nelson along with the aircraft carrier Eagle with Swordfish aircraft from 813 and 824 squadrons on board as well as the heavy cruiser Hawkins sailed from Durban. As the three ships passed through the harbour entrance large crowds had gathered on the breakwaters to wave goodbye. ‘The Lady in White’ Perla Gibson, sang in her soprano voice which was amplified by a ship’s megaphone while the three ships returned to Cape Town arriving on 12 May at 19:00.  The next day at 8:00 the Nelson and Eagle sailed from Cape Town for St Helena in search of the German commercial raider Atlantis.




In mid-1942 the War Museum had collected a few exhibits, but a letter dated 17 March 1943 written by the Officer Commanding the South African War Museum, Captain Bellwood to Commander Scheepers (Navy) at Defence Headquarters states “As far back as May 29, 1942, I have been trying to obtain historic and interesting objects which will help the SA War Museum show the part played by the South African Naval Service.”   Bellwood also states that the SA War Museum has no naval exhibits and requests help in obtaining naval trophies, souvenirs and equipment.


This seems to suggest that by 29 May 1942, the SA Naval Service had a selection of interesting naval equipment in their possession, most probably at Simon’s Town where they were being used for demonstration and instruction purposes.


The Royal Navy and South African Naval Service exhibited material at the Liberty Cavalcade, Green Point Common, Cape Town, from 25 March to 1 April 1944. After the Cavalcade in Cape Town, the UDF exhibition, as well as the naval exhibition travelled by train to Bloemfontein, Kimberley and then Durban. The last cavalcade, the “Speed for Victory Fair”, was held at the Witwatersrand Agricultural Showgrounds in Milner Park, Johannesburg, from 25 November to 2 December 1944. After this cavalcade, many of the exhibits became part of the fledging South African War Museum holdings. The 16-inch projectile is listed on the inventory of exhibits compiled by Captain WA Bellwood, Officer Commanding of the War Museum, in July 1945.  This list of objects was used during the handing over of the Museum to Bellwood’s successor, Maj JA de Wet.



The main armament on the Nelson and Rodney was nine Breech Loading 16-inch Mark 1 guns.  There were three guns in each of the three gun turrets. These were the only Royal Navy battleships with this configuration. The guns were of 45 calibres, meaning 45 times the bore of 16 inches, which equates to a length of 60 foot (18 m).

A total of 29 of these guns were manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth & Company at Elswick, on Tyne, Vickers at Barrow-in- Furness, William Beadmore & Company at Dalmuir and the Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich.  Eighteen of the guns were mounted on the battleships while the other 11 were repaired. The high muzzle velocity of the projectile wore out the barrels quite quickly and effected accuracy, leading to a large dispersion pattern.  After firing between 200-250 projectiles they needed re-rifling.



Calibre:                                                 16-inches (406 mm)

Mass:                                                    108 tons

Length:                                                18.85 m

Maximum elevation:                        40 degrees

Rate of fire:                                        1 round per min

Muzzle velocity:                               788 m/s

Effective firing range:                     32 000 m at a 32-degree elevation

Maximum firing range:                  36 375 m



By the 1850s it was found that high explosive shells had little effect on the thick armour plating of the enemy ships.  High explosive shells only caused some damage to light infrastructure.

A new projectile or solid shot, able to penetrate the thick armour of the enemy ship was required. If the side armour of a ship could be penetrated it could lead to the ship taking in water and after multiple strikes, it could be sunk. The Rodney fired 380 projectiles at the Bismarck before it sank.

Armour piercing projectiles were at first forged and the nose specially quenched with water to make it extremely hard.  The problem now was that the hard projectile could shatter on impact.

A softer penetrating nose cap transferred energy from the tip of the shell to the sides of the projectile, thereby helping to reduce shattering.  The penetrating cap also deformed on contact which aided the “sticking “to the target armour plate on contact, which reduced the projectile from bouncing off in glancing shots when striking at an oblique angle.

During the Second World War (1939-1945), armour piercing projectiles / shot used alloyed steels containing a mixture of nickel, chromium and molybdenum.

Later amour piercing projectiles were fitted with a small bursting charge which would explode once the projectile or shot had penetrated the enemy ship.



This shot, with a penetrating cap, had a mass of 929 kg.  Inside the projectile was 23.2 kg of TNT, which would explode after penetration.

The shot did not have a standard brass cartridge case contacting the propelling explosives. This would be too large to handle and manoeuvre and rather expensive. Rather the projectile was loaded into breech, rammed into the barrel and six charge bags, each with a mass of 37.4 kg and containing SC 280 explosives as the propellant. This total of 224 kg of propelling charge when fired built up a pressure of about 3 200 kg per cm squared in the gun breech. This pressure ensured that this 929 kg shot left the 18 m barrel as a muzzle velocity of about 788 m/s (depending on how worn the barrel was).

The trajectory of the shot and the range it would fly was dependent on the set elevation of the gun.  The higher the elevation (up to 40 degrees), the greater the range.  The effect and armour penetration of the shot, however, was dependent on the angle of the projectile strike and the strike velocity. See table below:


Elevation                             Range                   Side Armour Penetration             Deck Armour Penetration

12.5 degrees                      18 290 m             310 mm                                               72 mm

23.7 degrees                      27 420 m             224 mm                                               130 mm

38 degrees                          32 000 m             193 mm                                               165 mm

The longer the range, the longer the time of flight of the projectile. To hit a ship traveling at say 20 knots (37km/h) the gunnery officer had aim ahead of the target, how much was dependent on the range and projectile flight time. It had to be calculated how far the enemy ship would travel during the fight time. A few examples are given below.

Range                                                   Flight time                                          Strike velocity

18 290 m                                             31.4 sec                                                490 m/s

27 420 m                                             54.7 sec                                                436 m/s

32 000 m                                             76 sec                                                   420 m/s

A 15-inch Capped Ballistic Capped Armour Piercing Shell with explosive charge (in darker yellow)


When the Nelson or Rodney prepared for sea, a total of 900 armour piercing projectiles would be loaded into the hull, 100 projectiles for each gun. These were stored in an upright position on a rotating projectile handling platform below each gun turret. That is 300 projectiles per gun turret.

A further 5 400 charge bags, each weighing 37.4 kg were also loaded.  Below each gun turret, towards the bottom of the ship is the magazine. In the magazine, the 1 800 charge bags for each gun turret were stored in separate racks. Each section of rack was sealed off the other to reduce the risk and damage from a fire or explosion.

Of the full crew compliment of 1 361 men, a total of three officers and 294 men were involved in preparing and firing the nine guns.  One officer and 98 men per gun turret of three guns were required.

The majority of the 98 men required to service each gun turret worked either in the charge bag magazine and/or the projectile handling platform.

Six charge bags (37.4 kg each) were taken from the magazine and loaded into a charge bag chute which hoisted the bags up to the gun room inside the gun turret.

An operator electrically turned the outer projectile handling platform or carousel. This brought one of the upright standing projectiles closer to the projectile pusher hoist. The task was to now move the projectile from the outer ring to the inner ring. A cable was placed around the projectile and wrapped around a powered capstan. The capstan turned and at the same time pulled the projectile onto the inner turnstile and into position for the pusher hoist.

In the gun turret the gun was lowered to a five degree elevation and the breech opened.  The projectile arrived in the gun room in an upright position nose first. It stopped when it got to the cradle behind the gun. The projectile in the cradle was then hydraulically lowered to line up with the breech of the gun. A hydraulic rammer operator rammed the projectile into the breech. The rammer was then withdrawn.

The gun was now ready to receive the six charge bags. Three bags were rolled from the chute in the gun room and placed in the cradle; another three bags were removed and loaded into the cradle.  The six charge bags were rammed slowly into the breech. The breech was closed and the gun rose to the required elevation. The gunnery officer then checked all systems and the gun room officer confirmed them. The gun was fired, sending a 929 kg projectile on its way to the target. Each gun in the three-gun turret was elevated, loaded and fired separately. The same procedure was repeated for each of the nine guns.

Loading a 16–inch projectile into the turret

handling platform.


As the projectile loading in the handling rooms required 50 seconds, the maximum sustained rate of fire was one round per gun and was theoretically every 50 seconds. The actual firing rate was more likely to be every 65 seconds.


The visit of HMS Nelson to Cape Town in April 1941 and the meeting with Prime Minister, General JC Smuts was instrumental in the fledging War Museum in Johannesburg, eventually obtaining one of these 16-inch projectiles.



Archival Documents:

Bellwood, WA                    Inventory of Exhibits War Museum, dated 16 July 1945

Bellwood, WA                    South African War Museum Organisation files 1-7








http://rapidttp.co.za/waratsea/nelson.html  article by Marsh, J, HMS Battleship Nelson






Allan Sinclair
DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


Area bombing is an instrument of total war as its main target is innocent civilians. During the Second World War (1939 – 1945) 7,5 million German people were left homeless as a result of the Royal Air Force’s indiscriminate area bombing campaign. In the process 305 000 civilians were killed and 780 000 wounded. By the Spring of 1945 there were hardly any targets left to attack as the vast majority of German cities had been reduced to rubble.[1]   It has even been suggested that the bombing offensive was so powerful that the resultant shockwaves breeched and weakened the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. Consequently, the bombing also changed weather patterns and placed species of birds and insects on the endangered list.[2]

In 1945 South African war artist Geoffrey Long travelled to Europe to accompany the British force into Germany. In the process he completed a number of paintings in Berlin and other devastated cities which were, due to their great topical value, immediately placed on exhibition after his return to London.[3] This article looks at six of these works completed in 1945.

Geoffrey Long and the War Programme

The official Military Art Collection, which depicts South Africa’s involvement in the Second World War, has been under the curatorship of the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History since 1953.

Soon after South Africa’s entry into the war official war artists were appointed to travel to the battlefronts where the Union Defence Forces would be fighting. Geoffrey Long became a war artist in 1941 and his service initially took him to North Africa and Italy. He was not a war illustrator who spent time in the safety of the base painting portraits of generals and other personalities.  He also did not paint action scenes from photographs or listened to the descriptions of those who had taken part in battle.  He was daring and courageous, ready and willing to accompany the most dangerous missions to fulfil his role as an illustrator of the conflict.

Long’s productivity was noteworthy and he completed over 230 official works, the bulk of which became part of the official South African wart art collection. His style can be described as graphic and inclined towards expressionism. He worked in various mediums, but most of his work was completed in the form of drawings. These are more important for their subject matter rather than their artistic quality. [4]

The Area Bombing of German Cities

The six paintings that are the subject of this article are illustrations of Dortmund, Kiel, Essen, Bochum, Cologne and Berlin. They are selected examples of the many German cities completely destroyed as a result of the area bombing policy carried out by Bomber Command.

G Long: Bochum (Acq 15390)

A number of reasons led to the formulation of such a policy. At the outset of the war, Bomber Command was given stringent instructions to avoid hitting targets that were neither military nor industrial and could lead to civilian casualties.  There were also fears of pre-war estimates of the power of the German Luftwaffe. The initial policy was to stick to precision bombing of targets located away from the German cities.[5]

The first raids carried out in daylight were a disaster and the bombers were exposed to German fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft fire. As a result Bomber Command suffered major casualties to both its aircraft and personnel.

There was a belief that the bombing offensive would have to be cancelled altogether. However, after the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940, the Royal Air Force (RAF) became the only arm of service with a capacity to take the war to the enemy. According to Anthony Beever, the oppressed inhabitants of occupied Europe were crying out for retaliation against Germany. There was also strong opinion in Britain that the Germans deserved the same treatment that the Luftwaffe had meted out on the British population during the Blitz.[6]

G Long: Dortmund (DNMMH Acq 15095)

Accordingly, Bomber Command turned to night time raids. Patrick Bishop believes that the strategy of area bombing of cities was agreed to almost as a necessity. The lack of visibility, poor navigational aids and inaccurate bombsights rendered precision bombing of military and industrial targets at night useless.  Area bombing was the only way to continue the fight into Germany.  Widely dispersed attacks on residential areas would break civilian morale and the destruction of housing would leave workers homeless and impact heavily on German war-time industry. [7]

G Long: Kiel (DNMMH Acq 15379)

The area offensive began in earnest in March 1942 when 230 aircraft bombed Lubeck. The mission was primarily used as an experiment to see whether the bombing of timber framed buildings could produce a massive fire large enough to be used as an aiming point for more waves of bombers. The results spoke for themselves as 80% of Lubeck’s timber framed structures were destroyed in the raid.[8]

This mission became a pattern for Bomber Command raids for the rest of the war. A list of 43 German cities consisting of more than 100 000 inhabitants was drawn up by the British Chiefs of Staff and they were bombed one by one. The targets included Berlin, Essen, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Hamburg and the Ruhr industrial area. The method of attack was indiscriminate and terrifying for those on the ground. Once incendiary bombs had been dropped in large quantities they were followed by deadly high explosive bombs which precluded firefighters and other emergency management services from carrying out both fire suppressant and emergency medical duties.[9]

G Long: Essen (DNMMH Acq 15392)

Examples of particular bombing operations include Operation Millennium, a raid of 1 047 aircraft on Cologne on 30 May 1942. It is recorded that 868 bombers eventually dropped 1 455 tons of bombs on the city destroying 3 000 buildings in the process. Operation Gomorrah, the raid on Hamburg on 24 July 1943, saw 43 000 people lose their lives in the resultant firestorm. A further operation, the Battle of the Ruhr, formed part of a bombing campaign in 1943 and 1944. The cities of Essen, Dortmund and Bochum were regular targets throughout this period. One particular raid on Essen took place on 5 March 1944 and, even though the Krupp factory located in the city did suffer heavy damage, more than 160 acres of Essen’s residential areas were also destroyed in the process.[10]

While the RAF maintained its strategy of area bombing, the United States Army Air Force was determined to prove its own strategy. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, the US 8th Air Force was despatched to the United Kingdom to take part in the bombing campaign. The British had hoped that it would join Bomber Command in a massive area bombing operation. US planners, however, were of the firm belief that their heavy bombers which relied on speed, massed formations, high altitude and a large quantity of defensive weapons, could succeed with precision daylight raids on specific military and industrial targets.[11]

G Long: Cologne (DNMMH Acq 15393)

A mutual agreement was then reached in which the US bombers would carry out day time bombing raids on specific targets while the British would continue with their night time area bombing of the civilian population. Despite this agreement, the 8th Air Force did combine with Bomber Command during Operation Gomorrah and later raids on civilian targets.[12]

Possibly the most infamous bombing raid of the war took place on Dresden in eastern Germany on 13 February 1945. The raid formed part of Operation Thunderclap, the systematic attack on desperate German refugees moving west ahead of the advancing Soviet forces. The operation was adjusted to bomb major German cities in the east. It was believed that such attacks would place an even greater strain on the German defence of the Eastern Front.

A first wave of 244 Avro Lancaster bombers of the RAF delivered all their incendiary bombs over a period of fifteen minutes. The result was an immediate fire storm that sucked in all the oxygen. A few hours later a second wave of Lancasters arrived and, with fires raging heavily in the city, these bombers had no problem finding their targets. As day broke on the morning of 14 February, US Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bombers flew over to continue the attack. By that time Dresden was enclosed in a huge ash cloud which made it impossible for the aircraft to bomb selected targets. Many people on the ground suffocated from lack of oxygen or were cooked alive while tarred roads and people hiding in the bomb shelters melted under the massive heat which had been generated. The city continued to burn for two days and by the time the flames had dispersed 25 000 people had been killed.[13]

Debating the Effectiveness of the Aerial Bombing Campaign

This debate on the effectiveness and necessity of the bombing campaign has been raging ever since the war. On one side it is believed that the German economy was severely hindered by the campaign. Production of synthetic oil, chemicals and explosives was reduced while the railway and waterway transport systems also suffered.[14] Anthony Beever is of the opinion that the bombing created a second front against Germany which hampered the German position on the Eastern Front. A large number of 88mm anti-aircraft guns that would have played an important role against the Soviet forces had to be stationed strategically around Germany to defend against the bombing raids. The Luftwaffe was also required to relocate squadrons of aircraft that would have proved valuable on the Eastern Front.[15]

On the other side, historians such as Richard Overy argue that the bombing offensive never achieved its aims. Overy believes that the campaign did not create the desired negative effect on the German war economy or the morale of the local population. This is much in the same manner that the German Blitz of 1940 and 1941 failed to halt the British war effort or the determination of the British people. He claims that the RAF should rather have made a more substantial contribution to assist in halting the German U-boat offensive in the Atlantic Ocean.[16]

It is also believed by people such as Fuller and Liddel-Hart that nothing was gained by the killing of so many civilians for a cost of 55 000 aircrew. The German workers endured the bombing on an increasing scale and continued to work in the factories, many of which had been constructed away from the city centres where the bombing was concentrated. In addition, public support for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Government did not diminish in the manner that had been expected.[17]

The argument also highlights a fact that the bombs delivered on the United Kingdom during the Blitz were a mere five per cent of the tonnage dropped on Germany by Bomber Command. In reality more bombs were dropped on Berlin in 1944 and 1945 than all those that fell on the United Kingdom during the entire period of the war.[18]

G Long: Astcomfischer Platz, Berlin (DNMMH Acq 25354)
Illustrating the Effects of Area Bombing

The series of paintings under discussion was Long’s last assignment of the war and was the first comprehensive exposure of the devastation wrought by the Allies on Germany. The depiction of buildings and infrastructure in total ruin is clearly tangible and the scenes are captured in energetic, fascinating strokes.

In most case the buildings illustrated, a proportion of which would have been designed in previous centuries, are depicted as mere gaunt skeletons. In the sketch of Cologne (acq No 15393), the cathedral appears to stand alone, defiant over the desolation that surrounds it.

The subject matter also includes local citizens passing by the debris, all attempting to go about their daily lives despite the circumstances. Two of the paintings illustrate people searching through the wreckage. Some were probably trying to locate items that had belonged to them while others were searching for anything they could use to help rebuild their lives.[19]

It is reasonable to say that Long was moved by what he experienced in Germany. Previously during the war when he was stationed in the Mediterranean, Long registered 27 operational hours in bombing missions with both the RAF and USAAF over targets which included Benghazi, Sicily and Greece. His thoughts on those bombing missions after experiencing the effects of the destruction in Germany at first hand would probably have been interesting to read.[20]


The area bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War was a case of total war in its extremity and the effectiveness and moral issues are still disputed today. West Germany was able to recover swiftly and re-build its cities in the years following the war as a result of loans received through the European Recovery Programme or Marshal Plan. However, until recently, it is doubtful whether people have fully understood the horror that German civilians were forced to endure. Many of the grim images and explicit accounts of people on the ground had been classified until the advent of the internet forced such information into the public domain. Geoffrey Long’s works of art produced during his visit to Germany in 1945 are an important record as the series represents a first serious attempt to document the consequences of area bombing.











Sources Consulted

Archival Sources

Document Ref AG (1) (L) p.1/2050Document Ref AG (1) (L) p.1/20504/1 in File 920. Long Geoffrey Kellet (Archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History)

Document produced by Maj R N Lindsay, SA Public relations, Central Mediterranean, 1944 in File 920. Long Geoffrey Kellet (Archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History)

Published Sources

Frankland, N “The Bombing of Germany” in History of the 20th Century (Chapter 71)

Frankland, N “Bombing, The RAF Case” in Purnell’s History of the Second World War Vol 6

Huntingford, N P C, The Official World War II works of Geoffrey Long (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1986)


Academic Sources


Rahder, K H The RAF Bombing Campaign in German: Ethical and Strategic Considerations (Master’s Thesis, Committee on International Relations, University of Chicago) November 1988

Rigole, J The Strategic Bombing Campaign against Germany in World War II (LSU Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College) 2002


Video Sources


Netflix series, Greatest Events of World War II in Colour, 2019, Episode 8 “Dresden Firestorm”

You Tube Video, The Allied Bombing of German Cities in World War II was Unjustifiable, Intelligence Squared, 25 October 2012.

You Tube Video, The World at War, (Thames Television, 1973), Episode 12 “Whirlwind, Bombing of Germany”,


The above videos were accessed on 14 August 2020.


Internet Sources










The above internet sources were accessed on 22 May 2020.


[1] . J Rigole, The Strategic Bombing Campaign in World War II, p 78.

[2] . Internet source, www.history.com/news/world-war-ii-allied-bombings-shockwaves-space.

[3] . Document Ref AG (1) (L) p.1/20504/1.

[4] . N P C Huntingford, The Official World War II works of Geoffrey Long, Introduction.

[5] . K F Rahder, The RAF bombing campaign: Ethical and strategic considerations, p 8.

[6] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities in World War II was unjustifiable.

[7] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities…..

[8] . Internet source, www.revisionist.net/bombing-germany.html.

[9] . K F Rahder, pp 24, 27.

[10] . N Frankland, “Bombing the RAF Case”in Purnell’s History of the Second World War Vol 5, p 2272.

[11] . J Rigole, p 24.

[12] . Internet source, www.revisionist.net/bombing-germany.html.

[13] . Netflix Series, Greatest Events of World War II: Episode 8 “Dresden Firestorm”.

[14] . J Rigole, p 59.

[15] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities…..

[16] . You tube documentary, The Allied bombing of German cities…..

[17] . K F Rahder, p 68; Internet source, www.history.co.uk/history-of-ww2/the-bombing-offensive.

[18] . Internet source, www.revisionist.net/bombing-germany.html.

[19] . N P C Huntingford, Nos 107 – 115.

[20] . Document produced by Maj R N Lindsay, SA Public relations, Central Mediterranean, 1944.



Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator Palaeontology, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

Evolution became part of the national school curricula in 2008, taught at grade 12 level. Although it would have been a new topic to grade 12s, some aspects of evolution have been part of the grade 7-9 Natural Sciences/Social Sciences curricula since 2004. Although evolution is not an entirely new topic in South African high schools, it did not seem to generate much concerns or controversy among teachers or parents until such a time that it became externally examinable. It was only in 2008 when it was included as part of an externally examinable curriculum, where it made up 25% of the final matriculation examination, that concerns about lack of knowledge and beliefs started to emerge.

The following are some of the quotes that indicate the depth of concerns regarding evolution as a subject matter in South African schools. “I cannot see why it should be introduced at school. It will cause confusion”; “because it is not suitable for people who believe in God”; “evolution is a racist theory”; “it terribly undermines black people, everything bad gets a black colour. It means that we are apes” (Mail and Guardian, 2007).

Irrespective of whether teachers are creationists or not, they might not teach evolution effectively. This could be because they do not want to undermine the values and beliefs of the learners and parents.

In addition to these concerns from the public, teachers and scholars face challenges relating to the subject, such as  teachers’ inadequate background knowledge, inadequacy of teacher training by the Department of Education, and teachers with strong religious beliefs.

  1. Teachers’ inadequate background knowledge

Teachers often lack extensive knowledge regarding evolution. They face their own concerns regarding the subject. Teachers grapple with concerns such as:

  1. a) What to teach learners;
  2. b) At what depth to teach it;
  3. c) What would be assessed; and
  4. d) Where to start.

These concerns usually contribute to teachers to be less confident in teaching the subject. Most teachers have never studied evolution themselves, and do not understand the subject. One teacher was quoted saying “I am scared to teach something I am not sure of. I have never done evolution at school even in college training” (Ngxola, 2012).

  1. Inadequacy of teacher training by the Department of Education

Lack of resources such as textbooks and teaching aids for both teachers and scholars, as well as the misconceptions surrounding the subject, add to the challenges of the subject being accepted in schools. Teacher training regarding evolution seems hardly co-ordinated or sustained over time. Long term in-service training is required, as compared to once-off training events. Too much information is usually provided as hands-outs for self-study. This means that teachers are left on their own to study these materials, and try to grasp it on their own. For a complex subject like evolution, more extensive training is required for teachers to guarantee their understanding of the concept.

  1. Teachers with strong religious beliefs

Teachers’ personal views on a topic or subject matter will heavily influence or determine how the topic is treated in the classroom. Scott (1999:8) indicates that a “teacher who does not accept evolution is unlikely to teach it, or will mislead students”. Presenting evolution workshops in Taung in 2016, I realised how teachers are conflicted between executing their duties as teachers, teaching evolution and observing their religious beliefs and practices.

Current status of affairs

Many teachers have started to admit their limitations and request help, although the training of teachers still needs to be prioritised by the Department of Basic Education. Subjects such as Palaeontology, Archaeology and Anthropology are still not presented extensively as career opportunities to scholars in South Africa. These subjects, especially Palaeontology and Anthropology are evolution oriented, and have the potential to change the current status of affairs regarding evolution in the country. There are still misconceptions at schools and the general public regarding evolution. These are mostly fuelled by lack of knowledge about the subject. Addressing these requires a joint effort from all stakeholders involved; these being museums curating natural sciences collections, institutions of higher learning, the Department of Basic Education and the general public at large.

Figure 1: Depiction of a possible scenario in the South African education system.

The picture in Figure 1 could easily be compared to the South African educational system in a way that there is no adequate distribution of resources to schools across the country. The question is, how do we assist all learners to climb the tree? In the case of evolution, how do we do away with misunderstandings and misconceptions, and introduce it to learners as a science concept, with scientific evidence to support it? Figures 2-7 depict some of the ways in which museums and higher education institutions can play a role in educating and demonstrating scientific evidence to support evolution teachings in South African schools.

Figure 2: A local school attending the announcement of Homo naledi at Maropeng a Afrika.

Figure 3: Evolution lecture presented in the Broom room at DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

Figure 4: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 5: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 6: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.

Figure 7: Evolution workshop presented at a school in Taung, North West Province.


Ngxola, N. 2012. Teaching evolution in a new curriculum: Life Sciences teachers’ concerns and needs. A research report submitted to the Faculty of Science in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science.

Scott, E.C. (1999) Problem concepts in evolution: cause, purpose, design, and chance. The evolution–creation controversy II: perspectives on science, religion, and geological education. Paleontological Society   Papers. 5, 169–181.

Mohlala. T. Religious backlash expected as evolution forms part of curriculum. Mail and Guardian. 26 October 2007.




Lazarus Kgasi: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.

A strip of dolomitic limestone caves containing the fossilized remains of ancient types of animals, plants and, most notably, hominids, covers the Cradle of Humankind Site. Approximately 2.3 billion years ago, the dolomite in which the caves were formed began as coral reefs developing in a worm-shallow sea. The discovery of these fossils has helped in the understanding of human evolution, geology, and how the past environments shaped what we see today.

Shallow inland seas were formed on our continent crust 3 billion years ago and the Cradle of Humankind was part of a large inland sea that stretched as far as the equator.  Ocean and seawater are rich in calcium carbonate and these are the chemicals that form dolomite. It was formed when carbonates of calcium and magnesium precipitated out of seawater as chemical sediments in the shallow ocean that covered much of South Africa at the time. As water chemistry changed periodically, layers of chert (silicon dioxide) were formed within dolomite. Chert (rock) is important because it is insoluble in slightly acidic ground water or rain water.  When present as a thick layer, it tends to form a roof over caves; the collapse of such roofs creates vertical openings.

Exposed dolomite in the Cradle of Humankind has captured and preserved some of the elements of inland sea; ripple marks of ancient sea waves’ movement can be seen. These phenomenal geological processes assist us in understanding how caves are formed and what caused mountain ranges to rise to great heights, continents to drift apart, volcanoes to erupt and inland sea to dry up.  There are two types of dolomites in the Cradle of Humankind; there are 2.3-2.5 billion years old Eccles formation and 2.6-2.8 billion Monte Cristo formation.

Figure 1. Photo showing dolomite from one of the sites around the Cradle.

One of the ways researchers have identified areas in the dolomites where there may be caves or sink holes is to look for the occurrence of lime-loving trees such as the Wild Olive (Olea capensis) and White Stinkwood (Celtis africana).  Most of the time they mark the top of an underground cavity into which their roots grow. Most White Stinkwood trees were used in the 20th century as fuel for lime furnaces, so only their stumps remain as clues to where potentially fossil rich caves are.



Lazarus Kgasi: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

South Africa is famous for its richness in hominid discoveries and we find these fossils preserved deep inside caves arising from the fact that bones and teeth are fairly resistant biological material. Certain geological conditions are required for them to be preserved in the process called fossilization. They have to be buried deeply in a sediment(soil) that may become cemented by calcite over time and this calcified material is referred to as breccia.

Before the phenomenon of fossilization occurs, the bones have to be transported into a cave. To do so, there are several potential biological and non-biological factors contributing to these bone accumulations. Carnivores bring their prey into their dens; porcupines carry bones into the caves to gnaw on; owls and eagles roost at the entrance of caves and regurgitate pellets full of hair, feathers, bones and dental remains and animals can also fall into the cave opening and die. Bones left lying at the entrance of a cave, carcasses brought by predators or animals having died a natural death can fall into the cave either by gravity or washed into the cave by flowing water adding to these bone accumulations. Some animals use caves as a shelter to protect themselves from the climate and predators.

 Figure 1.  Map of Bolt’s Farm cave deposits indicating the location of Cobra Cave.

Bolt’s Farm Cave System is one of the fossil bearing sites located in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Bolt’s Farm is a complex site composed of over 20 sites, each with a specific name to differentiate them from each other. Today, Bolt’s Farm spreads over three properties, namely: Main Quarry, Klinkert’s property and Greensleeves property. Cobra Cave is one of the sites forming part of the Bolt’s Farm Cave System.

Various people have excavated at Bolt’s Farm since its discovery in the 1930s. Of interest to this paper is the 1947-1948 expedition, known as the California African Expedition. This expedition was led by Charles M. Camp, who mapped and undertook the first systematic sampling of the numerous fossiliferous sites at Bolt’s Farm. Most of the specimens that were collected were exported to the University of California-Berkeley in the United States where they still reside. Cobra Cave was one of the caves that was mapped by this team and it was initially given a derogatory name that does not have a place in the new South Africa, and thus need not be mentioned here. For now, this site will be referred to as site X.

Figure 2. Skull of the extinct African pig Metridiochoerus modestus from Cobra Cave.

In 1996 a collaborative programme between South Africa and France was established. During this time, team members undertook fieldwork at Bolt’s Farm, which resulted in the discovery of a new site, Waypoint 160, which is currently the oldest site so far discovered in the Cradle of Humankind (dated between 4.5 and 4 million years).

From 2006-2010 the survey of Bolt’s Farm Cave System intensified and additional new sites were discovered. Systematic sampling was done on each site and the collection of breccia blocks greatly increased. Lingering in our minds was the existence of site X with the derogatory name and we could not until then come up with a suitable new name. It was in the middle of October and we were excavating outside the cave, as we were sweating from the heat of the sun we decided to go inside the cave to prospect the inner part of the cave. As we were walking in a single file towards deeper parts of the cave, my eyes were drawn towards the wall of the cave and I saw a long greyish thing on the side of the cave entrance. When I pointed my light towards it, it appeared like a snake and I screamed “COBRA”, and ran towards the exit. Two colleagues were in front of me and one of them, had a snake as a pet, so she was naturally curious and pointed her light towards the so-called snake. It was then discovered that it was not a snake, it was a weathered orange sage bag. That is how we decided to name the site Cobra Cave and removed the derogatory name it once carried that was not representative of the team in the new South Africa.

Excavating at Cobra cave will always bring memories of what happened on that day and hopefully we will discover fossilized cobra to complement the name!



The Shona Mbira

The Shona Mbira

By Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Mbira, attached to a gourd resonator (Photograph by author)

The mbira, also known as mbila sansa, kilembe, likembe, dipela or thumb piano is an ancient musical instrument closely associated with the natural landscape in which the Shona people traditionally dwelled. The mbira was apparently bestowed upon the Shona by the Great Rainmaker and its sound reminds the Shona of this watery heritage by closely imitating rain or running water. The mbira is also made from elements in nature, from a block of wood with a number of metal keys attached to the surface and played within a gourd resonator or on its own. The metal keys were often recycled agricultural metals initially smelted from the specific mineral. Thus, each component of this object links it to natural resources of the land. Because of its organic nature, the gourd too, connects the instrument with nature and the close ties to traditional practices in a Shona household, such as cooking, carrying water and storage. Before colonisation, the mbira was regarded as a sacred instrument, especially among the Zezuru people of central Mashonaland region surrounding the capital Harare (Zimbabwe). The advent of Christianity resulted in the indigenous people demonising the mbira instrument as it was associated with profane music.

Mbira and gourd resonator (Photograph by author)

The mbira is a type of lamellaphone (any of a family of musical instruments) unique to Africa and is widely played across the continent. However, the Shona mbira is regarded as highly developed in the class of lamellaphones and the music richly complex and important in indigenous religious life in Zimbabwe. It is so because the mbira type of instrument has been played for over 600 years.

There are at least five distinct types of mbira played by the Shona people. Each type consists of one or more rows of different sized metal tongues (or keys) mounted on a wooden soundboard. The keys are struck with the thumbs and forefingers, and the instrument is propped inside a gourd calabash resonator to amplify the sound. Nowadays the resonator is often made with fibreglass. The instrument is played by lightly striking the loose ends of the rods with the thumbs’ nails, which the players allow to grow long for that purpose. When the iron rods are shaken and the blows resounding above the hollow of the bowl, a gentle harmony of accordant sounds is produced.

Apart from differences in the number and layout of keys, the Shona mbira also differs in their repertoires and performance contexts as well as their regional distribution. By the 1960s, the mbira had drawn attention both in and outside Zimbabwe. Musicians such as Beauler Dyoko, Ephat Mujuru, Thomas Mapfumo and Stella Chiweshe are renowned for being instrumental in popularising and developing the range of mbira music on international stages.

Chidanyika, T. 2008.  Zimbabwean mbira music on an international stage: Chartwell Dutiro’s life in Music. 5(1): 91.
Hancock-Barnett, C. 2012. Colonial resettlement and cultural resistance: the mbira music of Zimbabwe. Social & Cultural Geography. 13(10): 12.
Jones, C. 2008. Shona Women Mbira Players: Gender, Tradition and Nation in Zimbabwe. Ethnomusicology Forum. 17(1): 125-129.
Muranda, R. 2010. The Nhare Mbira Music Trends in Zimbabwe since 1980. Muziki. 7(1): 77-78.