Melville Koppies, Johannesburg

Foto:  The Iron Age Furnace showing the tuyeres – clay pipes to which leather bellows were attached. It probably took two days of constant labour to reach and sustain the 1 400 degree Celsius temperature needed to smelt iron. Behind the furnace excavation to a depth of a metre revealed a Middle Stone living floor.

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Melville Koppies Cave

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This cave is a fissure formed between 2,9 billion-year-old quartzite rocks of what is now the Melville Koppies Ridge. For hundreds of years the cave provided a shelter for the people living around and moving across this area.   The site was excavated in 1971.  An analysis of the archaeological remains found in the cave suggests that, as early as 1 500 A.D., farming communities made use of all the resources the area had to offer. When supplies dwindled they supplemented their diet with wild plants and hunted wild animals. 

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Terugstap in tyd – eeue gelede

A serene, cinematic journey through the picturesque sights and powerful sounds of Melville Koppies, Johannesburg, South Africa. A heritage worth exploring. See what lies within the island in the city.
Melville Koppies – A silent artpiece

Melville Koppies West from the sky
Melville Koppies wes uit die lug – from air

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MELVILLE KOPPIES – JOHANNESBURG

Nature Reserve and Heritage site

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve, known locally as Melville Koppies, is a World Heritage Site of major historical significance. It is a mere 5km from Johannesburg’s city centre.   People have inhabited this area since the Stone Age. Stone tools were discovered that show that Early Stone Age people lived here some 500 000 years ago.

The ridges that the reserve conserves are estimated to be 2.9 billion years old and the vegetation is entirely indigenous. It is a well-preserved example of the richness of Highveld grasses, flowers and trees in the area – as they were before the discovery of gold in the 1880s.

The reserve is divided into three sections. The first is Melville Koppies central, covering 50ha and open to the public on Sundays. There is a further 100ha section to the west of this, known as the Westdene Ridge. Another 10 hectare section to the east is known as the Louw Geldenhuys view site. The east and west sections are public open spaces. It is advisable to contact the reserve for detailed safety information if you would like to visit them.

As well as its plants and grasses, the reserve provides sanctuary for around 200 different types of birds and a range of small animals. You can see mongooses, civets, hares, hedgehogs, shrews, and various lizards, chameleons and tortoises.

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Melville Koppies

VIDEO
An Iron Age furnace discovered in 1963 at heritage site and nature reserve Melville Koppies, in Johannesburg, required a significant amount of air and temperature control, which is an art that is difficult to be imitated by modern technology, but can be done with practice.
It was discovered in 1963

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Melville Koppies Central is the oldest part of the nature reserve. It was proclaimed in 1959. In 1963 an Iron Age smelting furnace was excavated by archaeologist Revil Mason, who as a student in the 1950s had picked up “Fauresmith” – Middle Stone Age – tools on the Koppies.

There are remains of many stone walled kraals on the northern slopes of the Central section, and there is a partially reconstructed kraal near the furnace.

These kraals belong to a tradition known as the “Central Cattle Pattern”, and thousands of ruins like these are found on the highveld. They represent the flourishing Iron Age culture of the Bantu speaking immigrants who began entering South Africa over 1 000 years ago, displacing the older hunter gatherers – the San or Bushmen.

A Late Stone Age living floor can be seen, with the characteristic tiny flaked tools used by the hunter-gatherers of the time.

The ecology of Melville Koppies Central is determined by the climate, the geology and also the 50 years of intensive conservation effort since its proclamation.

There are five different micro-environments.

On the northern slopes where the soil is deep there is climax grassland, mostly composed of Thatching Grass (Hyparrhenia hirta).

The rocky crests have thin soil and are exposed to the severe winter frosts. Here the grasses are more varied and include the Three-awn (Aristida) species, the beautiful Russet grass (Loudetia simplex), and in late summer the bronze sheen of Boat Grass (Monocymbium ceresiiforme). In the rocks on the crests the Wild Apricot (Ancylobotris capensis) and the Transvaal Milkplum (Englerophytum magalismontanum) – or in Afrikaans the Stamvrug – flourish in a hostile environment.

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The north-western part of the reserve is densely forested. This is partly because this part of the reserve is underlain by very ancient – more than three billion year old – greenstone, which decomposes to a rich deep soil, and partly because the reserve is protected from fires. The forest is dominated by Brack Thorn Acacia (Acacia robusta) and Blue Gwarrie (Euclea crispa).

The southern slopes are particularly exposed to frost, so there is little tree cover, except for the Protea caffra, which also likes the acidic soil in the the shale valleys.

Finally, the spruit (stream) which flows along the western boundary provides a special environment of its own. Here huge White Stinkwood (Celtis africana) dominate, but there are also very large River Bushwillows (Combretum erythrophyllum), Wild Olive trees (Olea europea), and Wild Peach (Kiggelaria africana).

In the stream bed there is an outcrop of igneous rock – Gabbro – which is the remains of a two billion year old intrusion into the earth’s crust.

This stream, the Westdene Spruit, is one of the many streams flowing north from the Witwatersrand watershed. Among them are the Braamfontein Spruit and the Jukskei, and they all eventually join to become tributaries of the Limpopo, so in theory at least this water is headed to Xai-Xai on the coast of Mocambique.

The gabbro intrusion in the spruit, seen from the bridge.

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ANCIENT CITY – MELVILLE KOPPIES

The circle of stones does not jump out at you as you walk on the Melville Koppies under the strengthening summer sun.   The wind carries the adventurous scent of warm long grass, and birds flit overhead or call out from nearby trees. I would have missed them entirely if Wendy Carstens, chairperson of the Melville Koppies management committee, hadn’t pointed them out. To be fair, it doesn’t look much like a circle because the recent rains have sent the grass reaching for the sky, obscuring these stone-wall remnants.

“You get this incredible sense of history,” Carstens says over her shoulder as she continues to tramp through this oasis of veld in the country’s economic hub.
“This was someone’s house.”

Under our noses are the clues to the previous civilisations of Southern Africa. This collection of rocks, like many others dotted around South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, are puzzle pieces that archaeologists are trying to fit together to understand our history – now with the help of satellite technology.
“There are hundreds of thousands of stone-wall ruins scattered through Southern Africa,” says Karim Sadr, a professor in the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of geography, archaeology and environmental studies.
Once lost: A restored formation of stone walls in the Melville Koppies draws visitors and schools to the site.(Paul Botes, M&G)

The mfecane

These stone-walled kraals predate European colonisation of the region in the 1830s and the mfecane, isiZulu for scattering, which took place in the previous decades. Some academics say that the mfecane was caused by the invasion of the highveld and lowveld by the Zulu king, Shaka Zulu; others say it was the Portuguese slave trade or climate change.   Whatever the cause, the mfecane was devastating for the thousands of people – mainly Tswana and Sotho, according to Sadr – living in the region.

Although historians and archaeologists had previously focused on who these cultural groups were and what languages they spoke, Sadr is using satellite technology to investigate their political structures and economies, which he says can be seen in their locations.   Archaeologists have been interested in these ruins for more than a century, but new “technology allows us to do more”.

“It looks like originally there was a full sequence of very small and dispersed homesteads, where people farmed and had cattle,” he says, referring to satellite images where the landscape is sporadically pockmarked.

This indicates subsistence living, rather than a large community. Over time, there was “a shift in dispersed homesteads [towards] nuclear, aggregated communities”.

“From the early 1800s, you start seeing towns; there is a [social] hierarchy [indicative of] a pretty complex society … which was then wiped out by civil wars, the mfecane.”

He says that his research is “the science of human geography”.

“If the politics and economy is centralised, there is a capital, with secondary and tertiary settlements,” he explains. This can be seen in “mega-sites” where the ruins are close together – some bigger, some smaller.

“In an egalitarian society, the settlements are the same size.”

Back on the Melville Koppies, Carstens stands on a rocky outcrop against the backdrop of a cloudless blue sky, and points north to Magaliesberg: “From here to Magalies, there were thousands of people … It’s about 35km as the crow flies. The people here would trade with other settlements in Kliprivier.”

Bongoma: Traditional healing

In 1963, an iron furnace dating back to the 1400s was excavated on the Koppies, and it is believed that ironwork was a major source of trade in the area. Other archaeological treasures include stone tools that date back as far as 500 000 years ago.

The mainstream school of thought in archaeology is that these stone circles were cattle kraals and homesteads. However, as is often the case in academia, experts in the field do not agree.

Robert Thornton’s office at Wits University is what you imagine an archaeology professor’s office would look like: wooden masks on the wall, piles of papers on one of his desks and a computer on the other, large bookshelves and a colourful hand-sewn wall hanging.

His starting point and interest is bongoma, the philosophy of traditional healing in which the sangoma is the practitioner. He believes these stone-walled structures were the sites of ancient rituals.

“There’s no conceivable way they could have been for cattle. Ask a farmer. He’ll laugh at you. They have no doors [so the animals couldn’t be let in or out], and the stones are not high enough [to keep them enclosed],” Thornton says.

He loads Google Earth on his computer, bringing up the sites he is working on. The ones he shows me form a line north of Machadodorp in Mpumalanga. “They’re not random. They’re along mineral lines.”

And this is the crux of his fascination: “I think some were used as metalworking ritual sites … Southern African sangomas are the descendants of earlier guilds of technical specialists.”

They made iron, glass and gold objects using high-temperature technology, he says, and when European products – with their more advanced technology – began flooding into Africa, it destroyed the local trade, resulting in the mfecane and the destruction of people’s livelihoods.

On the Melville Koppies, there are a number of stone ruins. One of them has been restored and – adopting the conventional narrative – shows visitors and school groups what life would have been like in a traditional stone-walled kraal about 200 years ago: women cooking, men working the forge nearby and cattle in their enclosures.

In the central section of the Koppies, there are guided tours and access is limited. On the western slopes and grass-covered plains, church groups gather in circles every Sunday to sing and give praise. Thornton specifically mentions them, saying that the area still draws groups to worship.   According to Carstens, one church member’s reason for going to the Koppies rather than another site to worship is because, there, they are “close to God”.

 

The human record

The “conventional view”, according a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science last year by Karim Sadr of Wits and Xavier Rodier of the Université de Tours in France, breaks down the stone-walled ruins into three groups:

• The first: inhabited by early Sesotho-speaking immigrants. These structures have an outer perimeter wall, with smaller circles inside;

• The second: Setswana speakers who built a scalloped perimeter wall, which wasn’t always enclosed but contained clusters of smaller circles; and

• The third: descendants of the first group of Sesotho speakers who had come into contact with the Tswana. These kraals are a hodgepodge of the first two styles: “a confusion of inner enclosures within a continuous perimeter wall”, which was sometimes straight, sometimes scalloped.


An outcrop of rich diversity​

The Melville Koppies, a Johannesburg heritage site, are broken up into three separate areas: east, west and central. The central section, containing the stone ruins and an Iron Age furnace, is bounded by a palisade fence and locked. The other areas are open to the public.   Because of security problems, people are discouraged from walking on the koppies alone, and Wendy Carstens directs those interested to http://www.mk.org.za.

Although the nature reserve falls under City Parks, Carstens oversees the management of the heritage area, which contains nine different biomes and an abundance of birdlife. — Sarah Wild

 

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