Rock Art in the Eastern Free State
Updated: Apr 21
The question that many people ask when being introduced to rock art is, why did the artist paint these images, and what do they represent? At first glance one might think that they are general hunting scenes, but research shows a far deeper, spiritual meaning behind these artworks. Rock art represents the earliest form of creativity of the human mind, and the beginning of all the art forms in the world today.
Southern African rock art is amongst the most famous in the world. Although well known, misconceptions abound and there is a lot more to San rock art than many people realize. The San were not merely painting pictures of what they saw in everyday life, much of the art is replete with representations of San religious beliefs and practices.
For example, paintings of dances often depict blood flowing from the noses of shamans whose ecstasy has reached a climax during a dance-induced trance state. 19th century San who spoke of this phenomenon said that shamans smeared their nasal blood on people in the belief that its smell (that is, its power), would protect them from arrows-of-sickness.
A hand raised to the nose is a typical, widely-painted shamanic feature.The most important San ritual was the healing, or trance dance. These dances continue to be practiced amongst San groups living in the Kalahari today. Dancers stomp in a circle around the campfire for many hours. The women clap the rhythm of the dance and sing powerful songs. After hours of stomping, some dancers start to slip into trance or half-trance. In this altered state of consciousness many have out-of-body experiences. They describe travelling to the spirit realm.
To appreciate rock art it is important to know a little background history of the artists.
The ancestors of the modern Khoisan expanded to Southern Africa before 150,000 years ago. The Khoikhoi were originally a part of a pastoral culture that originated in the northern area of what is now Botswana.
The word sān is from the Khoekhoe language and simply refers to foragers who do not own livestock. As such it was used in reference to all hunter-gatherer populations of the Southern African region, and although the term has derogatory conotations, did not refer to ethnicity in any way. For the purpose of this article I use the encompassing terms, San or Khoisan for these ‘first people’.
The Bantu migration from Northern and Central Africa resulted in the extensive displacement of the Khoisan as the Bantu tribes, primarily Nguni, expanded southward forcing the Khoisan southward. The Khoisan resisted the Bantu migration up to the borders that today form the Cape, approximately 2,000 ago.
The Cape of Good Hope is said to have been first charted in 1488 by the Portuguese navigator Bartholomew Diaz.
The first European settlement in the region took place in 1652 when settlers under Jan van Riebeeck established their refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) en-route to its colonies in the East Indies, which became Cape Town. It is often thought that majority of these initial settlers were Dutch, but actually consisted of a wide range of nationalities, predominantly German.
As the Cape of Good Hope expanded, the Khoisan were integrated into the newly forming settlements. In the 1660’s the VOC brought in slaves from India, Ceylon, Batavia (modern Day Indonesia), and East Africa.
It was this amalgamation of cultures that made the Cape the confluence for a large diversity of people. This soon resulted in a colony characterized by people of mixed heritage. This melting-pot society symbolized true diversity and mixture of heritage, culture and language. This can even be seen in the fact that many Kaaplanders that are considered “white” can trace their genetics back to the Khoisan and slave ancestors. The colony at the Cape of Good Hope was the first true “Rainbow Nation”, and we only have to look into our past to appreciate it.
Examples of Rock Art around the Eastern free State
The examples of rock art in our area of the Free State date between 1,500 and 150 years ago and deepens our connection with the history, and the people, of our country. The earliest evidence of human habitation in the location we know today as Ladybrand, exists in about 300 San rock art sites around this area. Unfortunately many are poorly preserved, but they give important clues to the culture, lifestyle and spiritual beliefs of these ‘first people’ of South Africa.
The dating of rock paintings is an abiding problem the world over. There is very little, if any, organic material in the pigments that can be dated as they are mineral in origin: red, brown and yellow pigments are made from ochres of various forms; white is derived from silica, china clay and gypsum; black usually comes from specularite or other manganese minerals, and only very rarely from charcoal. Organic binders such as blood and egg albumin were sometimes used in the paint and current research is exploring the dating of these substances.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the rock art sites in the region, I hope to show you some of the remarkable examples that exist on our doorstep.
Hoekfontein - Clocolan / Ficksburg
There are 3 sites on the farm. Notable is a panel of 14 human figures dancing. Six of these figures show a bar drawn across the penis (infibulation) symbolising the link between hunter and prey.The site also has two very rare ‘palettes’ that Bushman used to rub to gain supernatural potency. There are also 7 steenbok and an eland depicted. The Eland is a central symbol in Khoisan culture on two levels. Firstly, it is an important rain animal. The San believe that rain is caused by a rain animal that flies across the sky, which, when captured, is brought to the land requiring rain. It is then cut so that its blood can ‘rain’ over the land.
The Shaman is often depicted ‘dying’ during his dance-induced trance in the same way that an eland dies, with legs crossed. Secondly, eland fat is associated with girls, who are appreciated in that culture as fat and, in turn, symbolises a good thing.
Hoekfontein offers accommodation in genuine ox wagons and is situated on the R 26 between Ficksburg and Clocolan in the Gumtree area. Turn onto the S444 gravel road, drive on and go over railway line, travel 14 km.
Tel: 071 657 4307 Local Cell: 082 397 8055 - www.oxwagon.co.za
Modderpoort - Ladybrand / Clocolan
Modderpoort is one of South Africa’s 12 Rock Art National Monuments, and a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
In these beautiful surroundings you will find rock paintings of a cattle raid, eland and human figures. There is also a depiction of birds. Bird symbolism is particularly interesting in San rock art as the bird is also a part of the trance state. The San describe their experiences of out-of-body travel as flying and the bird is often seen connected to a dying animal by a supernatural cord.
Modderpoort is also known as Lekhalong la Bo Tau, or ‘The Pass of the Lions’, and is the site where the Anglican Missionary Brotherhood, the Brotherhood of St Augustine of Hippo, was established in the late 1860s.
Locally it is associated with the BaSotho prophetess Mantsopa, and home to her grave. It is also the site of the Zionist Christian Church’s Cave Church.
Modderpoort is located 10km out of Ladybrand toward Clocolan on the R26. Turn left at the ‘Modderpoort’ sign and travel 4 km. Cross over the railway line at Modderpoort. Travel 200 m on dirt road and turn off left at ‘St Augustine’s’ sign. Report to reception for the start of a self-guided trail.
Contact Number: Tel: 051 924 3318/ 076 522 4687
Tandjesberg - Ladybrand / Clocolan
Tandjesberg is one of South Africa’s 12 Rock Art National Monuments. It is a private game reserve and it is essential to phone prior to visiting.
The small, spectacular shelter has over 500 Bushman rock paintings. See bees, birds, cattle, exotic elephant, a frenetic medicine dance, animated human figures, rain-animals and the enigmatic ‘weird white’ tradition. Archaeological excavations establish that Bushmen lived here for at least 1 000 years. It is an important pilgrimage site located among the impressive tandjes or ‘teeth’ of sandstone.
Travel from Ladybrand toward direction Clocolan on the R26 for 10 km. At the ‘Modderpoort’ sign turn right onto a dirt road. Travel until you get to a T-junction. Turn left and cross over the bridge. Just after you pass a road going off to the left, there is a ‘Tripolitania’ sign on the left. Turn in to the farmhouse for directions and key to the site and game reserve.
Contact: 051 924 2036 or 051 924 2475
Orange Springs - Ladybrand area
Orange Springs was excavated by Carolyn Thorp in 1990 as a contribution to her research on the interaction between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists in the Caledon River Valley. An artificial cliff was installed in order to prevent bird droppings from further damaging the images. Orange Springs is a registered Free State heritage site. GPS: S: -29°07’07”; E: 27°23’02”
Oldenberg - Ladybrand area
Oldenberg is a lodge and game farm offering numerous activities and amenities to guests. It has some excellent examples of rock art on the property.
GPS -29 05 33.5 S / 27 23 36.4 E
Moolmanshork - Rosendal district
Moolmanshoek, near Rosendal features a large painted cave with an unusual 3 m deep tunnel at the northern end and a spectacular view. There are 47 Bushman rock paintings. These include 2 felines, eland (the important rain-animal), a shaman transforming into their source of animal potency (Therianthropes) , 7 women with weighted digging sticks, and some enigmatic parallel red lines.
The meaning of these lines, and geometric shapes in general, that regularly appear in rock art is a topic of debate. General consensus is that the shaman saw these shapes while in the trance state and depicted them as important to the process.
Theireanthrope images, those that show the transformation of shamans into their animal form, are found in rock art throughout the world, and are entwined in the root mythology of shape-shifting that stems from this ritual.
During the trance, shamans (medicine men) harness supernatural potency to enter the spirit world. In the spirit world they believed that they performed various important tasks. These included healing the sick, controlling the weather, visiting far-off places and controlling the movements of game.
These depictions combine human and non-human features, showing the transition of the shaman into his ‘totem’ animal.
Travelling from Bethlehem, Ficksburg or Senekal, take the R70 to Rosendal. Take the S385 for 8.7 km to the farm and lodge. Moolmanshoek offers accommodation, walks, 4x4 trails, fly-fishing, hunting, conference facilities and is a Natural Heritage Site
Contact: 051 993 2220 / 082 788 6623 - www.moolmanshoek.co.za
GPS: -28° 37’ 298” S 27° 59’ 592” E
Wyndford Holiday Farm - Fouriesburg
Wyndford Holiday Farm is located on at the Caledenspoort border post 8km from Fouriesburg.
The rock art site has unfortunately been vandalised in recent years, but has an excellent example of a dolphin, not regularly seen in this area.
Take the Caledenspoort road from Fouriesburg until you reach Wyndford Holiday Farm on the right hand side. Report at reception to collect a hiking map. There is a small fee.
Contact: 058 223 0274 - www.wyndford.co.za - GPS: S -28° 41,602 E 28° 13,992
Schaapplaats - Clarens R711
Schaapplaats is on the border of Clarens and is a working farm and one of South Africa’s 12 Rock Art National Monuments. As with all sites on private land, please phone first to arrange your visit.
Schaapplaats has a large painted cave with 35 rock paintings. These include 8 paintings of therianthropes, or part-human, part-animal beings that represent Bushman shamans utilising the potency of certain powerful animals whilst in an altered state of consciousness. There are also nice depictions of an eland and a rhebuck hunt. Look out for the fossil footprint at the site.
Travelling from Fouriesburg toward Clarens on the R711, pass the first Clarens (Kgubetswana) turn-off on the left and take the next turn to the right. The farm is situated at the end of the road.
Contact: 058 256 1176
Kiara Lodge - Clarens / Golden Gate
Kiara Lodge is en-route between Clarens and the Golden Gate National Park. A short walk will bring you to a small rock shelter with 47 Bushman rock paintings including eland, rhebuck and human figures. This site is truly unique in that it has South Africa’s only unequivocal example of a dassie or rock hyrax.
Kiara Lodge is a popular resort offering accommodation and a host of activities for families and groups. Their restaurant, Trout & Mallard, is a popular venue.
Travel out of Clarens on the R711 toward Golden Gate National Park on the R711 for for approximately 15km. Turn right into the complex and report at reception for directions to the site. Contact: 058 255 0140 - www.kiaralodgeresort.co.za
Basotho Cultural Village: Golden Gate / Phuthaditjhaba (QwaQwa)
The Basotho Cultural Village is a living museum located on the road between Golden Gate National Park and Phuthaditjhaba/Harrismith.
It offers visitors an interesting insight into the Basotho culture. Here you can book a trail with a traditional healer who will introduce you to the medicinal herbs and plants along the route to the caves to see the rock art. There are some unique depictions of crab, and animal spoor with arrows. You can also see beautifully shaded eland and human figures. Tel: 058 721 0300 / 058 255 1000
Etiquette when visiting rock art sites:
Rock art is a non-renewable resource. Once destroyed it is gone forever. Each site is unique and important. Rock paintings and engravings were of deep importance to the people who made them: please treat them with care and respect. The law protects all rock art in South Africa, and visitors to rock art sites must observe certain rules and procedures. Following is a list of the do’s and don’ts at sites:
Get permission from the landowner or relevant authorities before visiting a rock art site
If you find a site that is not open to the public, do not give the location to anyone else. Contact the nearest rock art institution or heritage authority.
Treat the art as you would a picture in your house or in a gallery. Never throw water or any liquid on the images or chalk the outlines of engravings to highlight them.
Never place graffiti on a rock art site; it is often impossible to remove. These illegal practices obscure and damage the art.
Look closely at the art so you can see fine details, but do not touch or lean on painted or engraved images. Fats and oils from the hands lead to the decay of the art and contaminate it for any future dating or chemical analysis.
Never remove stone tools or other archaeological artifacts from rock art sites. Even a single artifact can jeopardize further research and lead to the destruction of the site.
Avoid stirring up dust from the floors at rock art sites. Dust settles on the art and, in time, hardens to form a dark crust over the paintings.
Never attempt any tracing or rubbing of the art since it is easily damaged. Take only photographs (Flash photography will not damage the art).
Follow the wilderness motto: Leave nothing but your footprints behind . Litter spoils the experience for the next visitor.
Intervene if you see anybody damaging or vandalizing the art. If they persist, inform the police and/or contact the South African Heritage Resource Agency.
References and credits:
South African Archaeological Society
Lewis-Williams & Dowson - 1981/99
Maarten Van Hoek - Still images from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCDWznmd1Jw
Woodhouse Rock Art Collection of the Department of Library Services at the University of Pretoria.
Bloemfontein National Museum
Shiona Moodley - Rock Art Department National Museum
Article compiled by Andrew Knapp - The Design Train for inclusion into the Autumn 2019 Clarens & Surrounds, the ULTIMATE Guide newsletter. Copyright: Andrew Knapp 2019
Permission will be granted tor reproduction of this article with credit to the author and links to the original article. Contact the author on email@example.com