Discovery of a New (Old?) Middle Stone Age Site on Chaminade Hill, Karonga, Malawi

By Andrew Zipkin (Doctoral Candidate, The George Washington University)

 After a short hiatus, we are again reporting regularly from the MEMSAP excavations in Karonga.  The last week has seen some major developments with regard to both archaeological discoveries and public outreach on the part of MEMSAP.  Over the next few days Dispatches from the Field will be updated at daily with the stories from the past week until the blog is fully caught up.  Our first entry from last week’s events is also arguably the most significant scientific development thus far this season.

During the last week a number of minor shortages have affected Karonga.  Unlike the major fuel and foreign currency disruptions last July and August, the present issues are localized to Karonga rather than a nationwide problem.  Both fuel, and perhaps more disconcertingly, beer, have been in short supply in Karonga.  The fuel problem has since largely resolved but as of last week MEMSAP had suspended long distance survey activities that required driving more than a few kilometers outside of Karonga.  Instead, surveys were focused on filling gaps in our coverage of the Chaminade Hill area where artefact-bearing sediments are known or suspected to be present.  On the afternoon of July 12th, Dr. Alex Mackay, Sheila Nightingale, Victor de Moor, and I were surveying an area of Chitimwe Beds not far from the Chaminade Mission when Mackay identified an exceptionally dense concentration of artefacts on the surface.  The flakes were sharp and unrolled (not transported far or at all from their original place of deposition) and the technology present (convergent Levallois flakes and exceptionally thin and long flakes) was suggestive of a different variant of the Middle Stone Age than is represented at other surface scatters around Chaminade Hill.  The density of artefacts ranged between 50 and 100 per square meter on the surface; suggesting that Chitimwe sediments had deflated in this location, causing the artefacts to accumulate at the surface.

The density, condition, and technology exhibited by the artefacts at this location were sufficient to peak project leaders’ interested in the location.  However, while examining artefacts on the surface, I also noticed the presence of approximately half of a dozen pieces of dark red material.  Upon examining them, it became clear that all were small nodules of ground or incised red ochre pigment.  These pieces were the first evidence which suggested something familiar to me; specifically, the ground ochre artefacts excavated by J.D. Clark and his colleagues in 1965 and 1966 from the Chaminade 1A (CH-1A) site.  Those pieces of ochre are currently housed at the Stone Age Institute in Bloomington, Indiana where I viewed them during a visit in March 2011.  Upon recognizing the similarity between the ochre in the surface scatter and the CH-1A ochre; I stepped back, looked at our location, and saw what appeared to be a depression with unnaturally straight corners.  The densest part of the artefact scatter was situated on a gentle descending slope of red sediments that formed a right angle around the depression; these could plausibly be the slumped walls of a 47 year old archaeological site, left exposed to the elements.  The original excavation pit would have filled up with artefact bearing sediments from the walls of the site and the loose sediment would have deflated over time, causing artefacts to concentrate at the surface.  Finally, and most suggestively, an erosional channel cuts through what are presumably in situ (undisturbed) sediments adjacent to the proposed Clark CH-1A site and exposes three cobble and artefact horizons similar to the Main Floor 1, 2, and 3 artefact concentrations noted in the Clark et al. 1970 publication in Quaternaria about Chaminade 1A.

In order to verify if this location is indeed Clark’s CH-1A, several lines of inquiry will be followed.  First, photographs taken by Clark and his team of the site in 1965 will be compared to the landscape at our site.  Second, since last year, MEMSAP team members have been seeking Karonga senior citizens who may remember Clark and colleagues’ field work during the 1960s.  As of July 17th, two individuals have been identified who were in primary and secondary school when Clark’s excavations took place and who claim to have visited the digs.  Each man will be asked independently to guide MEMSAP staff to the site of the remembered excavations.  Finally, the most labor intensive attempt at determining if our surface scatter location is CH-1A will entail sinking a test trench into the proposed slumped wall of the excavation and then extending the trench away towards the nearby in situ Chitimwe sediments.  This should allow us to identify is there was in fact a man-made pit present.  Regardless of whether or not this site ultimately turns out to be Chaminade 1A, the location is still clearly of considerable importance and excavations later this season and next year will be targeted here.

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