Rare artefacts have been discovered in the Polihali Dam basin during the archaeological excavations underway as part of implementing the Cultural Heritage Management Plan under the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase II.
On 17 November 2021, an intact pot (moritšoana) dating back to the nineteenth century was discovered, in an upside-down position, during an ongoing excavation of a site locally known as Langalibalele’s (sunny day) Shelter, at Ha Rafolatsane, along the Sehonghong river in the Mokhotlong district.
This is the first whole pot discovered in the mitigation of 27 archaeological sites to date.
The excavations extend three metres below the surface to bedrock and is the deepest later Stone Age shelter site excavated in Lesotho to date.
Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) Young Professional, placed with the cultural heritage management programme headed by PGS Heritage, Jordan Scholfield, said that preliminary indications are that the rare discovery dates back to the late 1800s.
“Throughout our excavations of archaeological sites in the study area, we have found pieces of pottery associated with hearths in the deposits. Owing to trampling of the shelters over the years by both humans and livestock, we did not anticipate finding an intact pot.”
According to Scholfield, preliminary assessments suggest that the pot is of Basotho origin; however, it is not yet evident whether the Bushmen obtained it from Basotho groups living in the lowlands or whether this was brought in by Basotho herders in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
“Historically, Basotho groups arrived and settled in the Mokhotlong district in growing numbers between 1873 and 1880 when Bushman groups were still present in the area. Pending radio-carbon dating of the site will assist us in giving the pot context.”
Further, 240 stone arrowheads have been excavated from Langalibalele’s Shelter, the largest recorded amount from any known Later Stone Age context in the Southern African interior.
Oxford University Professor Peter Mitchell records 29 such points/discoveries for all archaeological endeavours in Lesotho since the 1960s, while a recent Master’s thesis submitted to the University of the Witwatersrand tallied only 60 such points from their known distribution on the Highveld in South Africa.
“What is becoming apparent from the excavations conducted under the heritage management plan for the Polihali Dam basin is that the Lesotho basaltic highlands were indeed not, as is conventionally perceived, considered refugee areas by the hunter-gatherers, but instead they were considered as living space in a landscape these people considered home,” said PGS Heritage in-country cultural team leader Len van Schalkwyk.
“These arrow points and other artefacts, such as stone tools, pottery, metal items, jewellery, wild and domestic animal remains, charcoal, wood, leather, ostrich egg-shell beads, fish remains and bone tools retrieved from the different sites continue to support assertions that the basaltic highlands were home to hunter-gatherer Bushman groups for thousands of years.”
Historically, Basotho, too, have used these shelters for temporary shelter and in the shepherding and herding of livestock. However, Langalibalele’s Shelter is proving to be “the jewel in the crown”.
“Our aim with the ongoing studies is to conserve the cultural heritage finds for future generations. We are proud to confirm that in achieving its mandate, the programme has entailed not only excavation and field recordings of the highest standards, but highly exact post-field cataloguing, preliminary analysis and curation of the excavated material.
“Mitigating these sites is providing considerable insights into how hunter-gatherers used the Polihali mountainous areas over a period of possibly 4 000 years and insights into the hunter-gatherer/farmer interactions in more recent historical times,” said LHDA Polihali operations branch manager Gerard Mokone.
While heritage conservation initiatives across the world too often focus on tangible aspects of heritage, the LHWP heritage programme has also recorded the intangible aspects of heritage such as cultural landscapes and sites of spiritual, cultural and historical significance, including sacred pools (likoetsa), initiation lodges (mephato) and battlefields.
Besides the Archaeological Baseline Study commissioned by the LHDA in 2013 and the subsequent Cultural Heritage Plan currently being developed and implemented by PGS Heritage, the Polihali area has seen very little previous archaeological research.
Thus, the project contributes significantly to protecting the cultural heritage resources for future generations and provides a basis for exciting future research, both within Lesotho and internationally.