Landscape archaeology and surveying in Karonga District

by Victor de Moor

So far this blog has featured some (hopefully!) interesting stories about the sites in Karonga which are being excavated, but actually the whole landscape of Karonga District has many thousands of prehistoric artefacts scattered across an area of about 70 by 20 km. Many of these artefacts are stone tools, mainly made of quartz and quartzite material, from the Middle Stone Age period. Over the course of the MEMSAP project we have explored methods to investigate archaeological patterns on a landscape-scale. My main goal during this year’s fieldwork is surveying this vast archaeologically rich landscape.

The landscape consists of several large and small river catchments. The eastern part of Malawi is completely occupied by Lake Malawi (formerly known as Lake Nyasa). Immediately west of the lake, northern Malawi is made of low lying plains covered in relatively recently deposited sediments. Further inland, hills appear and then higher mountains as one moves towards the Zambian border. From these highlands, several meandering rivers drain into Lake Malawi and transport raw materials, such as cobbles, which were used by prehistoric humans for producing stone tools. During a survey we systematically explore the landscape with a GPS on which we can log the tracks we are surveying and mark every spot where artefacts are encountered. We analyse the artefacts on their find spots in the field to obtain information about decisions in stone tool production and in the selection of raw materials by prehistoric hunter-gatherers. The analysed categories vary from the number of flakes removed from the core to the quality and type of the stone they used. The degree of weathering the artefacts exhibit as a result of transportation by natural processes after they were discarded by their users is an important factor, too, particularly in relation to the geomorphology of the landscape. To speed up data collection, the survey and analysis focus on the single most informative class of surface artefacts: cores (the remaining part of the cobble of which sharp stone flakes were struck from). Furthermore, unmodified cobbles from the same survey areas are characterised according to resource type, quality, size, and distribution within the river catchment areas. The goal of the research is, firstly, to examine in what ways prehistoric hunter-gatherers responded to raw material constraints in their approaches to tool production, particularly when they were foraging in areas away from raw material sources. And secondly, to ascertain whether it is possible at all to use differences in catchment geology and raw material patterns to identify patterns of land use and mobility by prehistoric humans.

Last year, I did a test survey for a week together with Andrew Zipkin. This was a very useful experience, since trying to walk straight transect lines through the hilly Malawian landscape, where every bush or tree grows hostile thorns, appeared to be a terribly difficult task, even when Andrew was chopping away fiercely with his machete. This year I am surveying specific parts of the landscape, such as hill tops, slopes, and ancient or recent floodplains. Luckily, this field season I’ve got the help of the Malawian archaeologist Davie Simengwa, who is invaluable for his keen sense of direction and for assuring the inhabitants that the strange Mzungu (white person) who is walking through their fields and is looking down to the earth all the time is completely harmless. Sometimes we want to survey on ploughed fields, because these can be good spots to find artefacts, but of course we first have to ask the owners of the field for permission to walk there. Explaining the owners what I’m doing and why, would be impossible without Davie.

Essential background information for the archaeological survey is provided by geomorphological research of the catchment areas in which we find the artefacts. Fortunately, PhD geology students Scott Robinson and Marina Bravo Foster from Arizona State University are performing highly detailed geomorphological studies in the same river catchments. It’s great fun working with Scott and Marina (communicating and joking around via our walkie-talkies). I learned so much from them about the evolution of landscapes over time and the processes that shaped mountains and hills.

Surveying in Malawi – crossing hills, mountains, rivers, and small villages – is both a strenuous and a relaxing experience. Slowly walking through the changing landscapes, talking to the inhabitants, and receiving their friendly and interested response, has become my daily routine. A few days ago a man came over waving and calling: ‘Hello, how are you? Where is your friend Andrew?’ At first I was surprised, but then I recognised farmer Jonathan, whom Andrew and I met last year during our survey. Although most people are still very surprised to see me passing there houses, I can say now that I’m not surprised anymore when I see someone cycling around with a huge live pig on the back of his bicycle. Nor, when eight people plus a baby in a small car pass by, and still are very happy to give you a ride home; although the last time this happened Andrew had to hover over the gear shift and I was more outside of the car than inside. Meeting and working with so many enthusiastic students, specialists, and local residents is a great experience I would never have wanted to miss.

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