Umlando in South Africa specialises in heritage impact assessments and archaeological surveys. They offer heritage management expertise in archaeology, palaeontology, history, historical archaeology and anthropology. We had a chat with Elena Mauri about the company, their archaeological excavations and the joy of experiencing the wildlife and nature of South Africa directly. Elena also explains how you can join Umlando and get your first hand experience with archaeology in South Africa.
Please tell us about Umlando South Africa. What is your expertise and what do you do?
Umlando is a private company based in South Africa specialized in archaeological surveys and heritage impact assessment. They offer heritage management expertise in archaeology, palaeontology, history, historical archaeology and anthropology. They have been conducting excavations on many different kind of sites during the last ten years and have recently decided to open their projects to the international public inside protected areas and game reserves to promote and protect the heritage in South Africa.
For them I deal with the public relation aspect of the field courses program and I follow the groups in the field as assistant. Gavin Anderson and his wife are the owners of the company, they are both archaeologists. Gavin is a specialist in Rock Art, Iron Age and Stone Age.
What does a normal working day look like with Umlando?
There is not really a normal day, as being outdoor and in touch with wildlife one can’t always predict what will happen. Normally we wake up early in the morning, get ready for the day with a nice breakfast and drive to the area we are working, once there we begin to walk and record all the sites we might find.
When the working day is over we drive back to the camp or wherever we are sleeping and each person is free to relax, shower and rest. At dinner time we cook by the fire all together and chat outdoors with a nice glass of wine in the best South African style until it is time to sleep.
Currently Umlando is working on 3 main public projects. The first one is about the Anglo-Boer war. Gavin has found various objects, features and graves related to the Battle of Vaalkrantz. Some of the burials of the soldiers fallen in the battle are lost and he thinks that one or more of the graves we recorded might belong to them.
On our last survey we have noticed that an animal dug a hole through one of the graves so we asked for the authorization to excavate it and we are getting a good response, we hope to begin the work in January 2012. We intend to undertake systematic survey of the battlefield and probably to open some excavations there as well. The engravings left by the Boer soldiers on the hill are probably unique and deserve a specific study too.
Our second project is a study of some engravings we have found in proximity of late iron age settlements. There are over 100 of them scattered on three small rocky hills. More may occur in the Umphafa Game Reserve which we need to survey. Gavin thinks there might be a relation between the images and the Late Iron Age settlements and we need to record and organize a database of the engravings.
Our last project is a systematic survey of Phinda game reserve. We need to locate and record all of the sites that occur in the reserve, which will then be studied and protected. These may be used as part of the general tourism of the area. The reserve management would like to promote the historical, paleontological and archaeological heritage within it’s border along with the wildlife and nature of the place. The sites we already have recorded have many stone tools and some pottery. We know that there are a lot more since the area used to be a trading route in ancient times.
Apart from this Umlando undertakes surveys and excavations in the sand dunes where Richard’s Bay Minerals is working. The excavations are also open to the public.
Gavin works as a consultant for several private companies.
What is the greatest archaeological finds that you have worked with?
I am not an archaeologist, I’m an artist and a graphic designer, and my link with archaeology begun several years ago, when I have collaborated with Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici in Capo di Ponte, Italy.
I worked at the illustrations of a book about the Har Karkom project which is runned in Israel, in the Negev desert, where professor Emmanuel Anati has located the biblical mount Sinai. I could follow all the research and the studies of the team directly, and I worked at the illustrations of one of the books side by side with the professor and his collaborators, this was my first impact with archaeology, and I could never leave it afterwards.
I also joined several excavations in Valcamonica lead by the department of the Centro Camuno. Valcamonica is one of the main European rock art sites and is protected by Unesco, the rock art present in the area can be as old as 8000 years, some people suggest even 10.000, and the area has been engraved up to the medieval time, so the amount and variety of engraving one can find there is amazing.
I’m currently cooperating with the museum of the reserve located in Nadro (BS, Italy), organising courses for their experimental primitive skills school called SASP Valcamonica, which I have created with the coordinator of the museum Maurilio Grassi.
How is it to work in South Africa and what appeals to you working there?
Coming from a country like Italy, where all is ruled by a crazy bureaucracy, I really appreciate the organization and speed with which Umlando works, and the variety of topics I can face through them.
On the technical side Umlando has a combined professional working experience of over 27 years in heritage management. Gavin is rated as a Principle Investigator by the Association of Southern African professional Archaeologists with expertise status in Stone Age, Rock Art and Iron Age. He also has a lot of Historical Archaeology experience.
Commercial archaeologists, that is Impact assessors, in southern Africa work very differently to the European counterparts, they have to be registered and be a Principle Investigator to undertake any assessment. This means they have to have a Masters degree in Archaeology, and at least 5 years field experience as a field director. All reports for any assessment are submitted to the South African Heritage Resources Agency, or KZN Heritage, and these are then sent for peer review. A development may not go ahead unless this report has been approved, this guarantees full respect and protection of the sites and also of the landscape surrounding them.
I also love nature and the outdoors. South Africa offers many amazing opportunities to be in contact with nature and experience the beauty of it directly. South Africa has some incredible places like the Drakensberg and Phinda game reserve, which I had the luck to see in a unique way, the feeling of being so close to animals and places which are totally untamed is exciting and fascinating at the same time and there are many game reserves at only 1 or 2 hours drive from any place in Kwazulu Natal. It makes me feel grounded to realize how vulnerable and yet how strong we are as human beings, and how far from nature our modern western society has driven us.
What is your favorite place in South Africa?
Without any doubt the Drakensberg, is so clean, full of energy and untouched as only few places on the planet still are, and holds a special beauty which makes it unique. The rock art and archaeology there is exciting and peculiar, it is really a powerful place and difficult to describe in words.
You offer volunteers to come and work with you. Can you tell us some stories of previous volunteers and what your programs offer?
I have been a volunteer too a good 10 years ago, and if I’m doing this today it is because of the experience I have gained then and for the people I have met. For me was the first time alone outside of Europe and the first time I was dealing with topics I never had heard about before, but is amazing how quickly and deeply one learns when the study is done directly in the field instead of in books.
The contact with nature was at times magic for things like the sunsets, the silence and darkness at night and the wildlife, and at times shocking for the climate, the insects and the snakes which are basically everywhere, but all this made the experience a stepping stone in my life cause it helped me to find myself by being so distant from all I was used to, and to discover what I really wanted and was capable to do.
One can meet all kinds of people in a group, I remember someone who was going to run alone every evening despite the warnings given about animals and other dangers, or a woman who performed a traditional Zulu healing on me while I was sleeping to chase away the nightmares, and most of all the evenings spent chatting outside by the fire in the silence. Living in towns we don’t have an idea of what silence and darkness are.
In Phinda we sleep in a tent, and in the Drakensberg the electricity in the camp goes off after 11pm and the only light left are the torches and the fireplaces - it is an amazing feeling once the lights are off. It reminded me of what I have experienced switching off the light in a cave, total darkness, and complete silence, is a bit unsettling in the beginning, but when you go outside and look at the night sky, or you start hearing the noises of the nature, you can’t help but appreciate it, in Europe is not easy to get the right conditions to experience it.
Our programs offers a good basic training to all the people joining, directed on the topics related to the project one chooses to join. We’ll teach our students how to survey, map and record sites and engravings, how to recognize stone tools and their uses and pottery, how to spot and identify the various settlements, and we’ll give everyone historical and archaeological information on the sites we’ll find and work on. Who will come with us will also have the opportunity to experience wildlife and nature in a direct way, walking through game reserves and protected areas in very small groups of maximum 6 people, escorted by rangers or local guides where needed. All our study projects are on brand new archaeological areas, all the study is in progress and the exploration aspect is interesting and exciting too.
See more about Umlando here.