HARP members attended ASAPA 2024 in Lesotho

Some members from Team HARP have just returned from the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists meeting in Roma, Lesotho, held at the National University of Lesotho. The conference took place in the final week of June and around 200 archaeologists and heritage practitioners met for a fairly chilly week that was countered with rich conversations about the discipline, robust engagements between colleagues, and a broad exposé of archaeological work. It was the first in-person meeting since 2019.

Tim Forssman presented a poster on the start of a new study, linked to the work in the Mapungubwe area, about work that is being planned at and around Thulamela, a mid-second millennium AD precolonial capital. The poster summarised the importance of such a study, arguing that since relatively little had been done in the past, we in fact know very little about the capital and landscape. The aim of the study is to re-engage and ensure the preservation of Thulamela, examine Thulamela’s role in regional networks, and develop a new approach to understanding Thulamela. The poster states: “This limited set of cultural remains formed the foundation of Thulamela’s historical narrative and cultural characterisation, which is derivative of other studies such as those at Great Zimbabwe. As such, it assumes a broad commonality between sites without adequate focus on their differing historical contexts. This is a major omission.”

Justine van Heerden’s travelling museum was on show in a poster but not in person. Her results from around 100 questionnaires and interviews were presented and the benefits and limitations of such a travelling initiative were argued. The poster showed some wonderful images of the museum and how it was presented to the public. Justine is in the final throws of her Masters and will be submitting her final thesis in the coming weeks. We hope that it is well received and will go on to inform other community outreach initiatives that use travelling initiatives.

Chante Barnard presented her Masters research. Her poster, titled “Little Muck Shelter: forager participation in, and contribution to, farmer economies in central southern Africa” investigated the appearance, change, and density of ‘farmer’ material culture at Little Muck to examine exchange and trade patterns between foragers and farmers. Her work has been able to strongly associate changes in forager activities at the site with the appearance of trade wealth. At the moment, her work is being reviewed and we hope for a positive outcome.

Tim also presented a talk in the session titled “Hunter-gatherer archaeology [still] matters: a session in honour of Peter Mutchell”. His talk was titled: “Twenty years on and still at risk: reflections on Peter Mitchell’s renaissance and renewal, and why Later Stone Age archaeology still matters”. Tim’s talk summarised Peter’s 2005 paper, which was a twenty year review of Later Stone Age archaeology, and then asked ‘have we renewed?’ and appraised our attempts to push the field forward. To finish off, Tim considered ‘then, now… next?’ and suggested some worthwhile considerations, from his perspective, that included the issue of parachute science, infrastructural growth, student support, and thematic trends within the field. He ended by saying: “For now, I think it is fair to conclude that the LSA still matters, that hasn’t gone away, but neither has its risk of marginalisation, and if anything, that has worsened”.

Perhaps most special about this conference was spending time with Peter Mitchell. Peter supervised Tim and the two of them along with Chante and Justine drove from Mbombela to Roma together. The time spent, conversations had, and evening discussions were incredible and an absolute privilege. Peter’s contribution to archaeology is immense; it was an inspirational few days of spending quality time together. On our final night, in Clarens after a disastrous attempt at leaving Lesotho on time, we bumped into Brian Stewart, Charlie Arthur, and Sam Challis, all students of Peter’s, and took an academic, cross-generational photograph together.

Thank you to the LOC, the National University of Lesotho, and the nation of Lesotho for hosting us in this brilliant academic meeting. We are very pleased to end this off by announcing that the next ASAPA meeting will be hosted at the University of Mpumalanga, and we are all excited to begin organising the conference.

The travelling museum promotes archaeology in communities

Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Heritage Studies, Dr Tim Forssman, leads the Hunter-Gatherer Archaeological Research Project (HARP), which is heading the Travelling Museum used to empower communities with archaeological knowledge.

With a rich academic background from institutions such as the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand, Dr Forssman brings a wealth of experience to his role as a recipient of the National Research Foundation’s African Origins Platform Grant, his research delves into forager technologies, innovations, and indigenous knowledge systems during the rise of the Mapungubwe state.

One of the pioneering initiatives under Dr Forssman’s leadership is the Travelling Museum, an interactive and mobile display integral to the HARP Project, an interactive, mobile display that promotes archaeology, and our research into hunter-gatherers, and creates a unique engagement opportunity.

The museum accompanies us to talks, presentations, and visits, and is part of a larger study into heritage engagement and interaction.”

Addressing the accessibility challenges faced by traditional museums, Dr Forssman highlights the importance of bringing heritage directly to the people.

“Museums are not generally easily accessible spaces, and so the mobile aspect of our initiative tries to remedy this by bringing heritage to people instead of the other way around.”

To underscore the need for this outreach, Dr Forssman highlighted the results of numerous museum visitor surveys indicating that, on average, frequent museum visitors belong to the upper socio-economic class. This socio-economic disparity in museum attendance, he argued, excludes a significant portion of the population from accessing cultural and heritage knowledge.

In response to this, HARP designed an interactive, mobile museum that travels with researchers, accompanying them to various community engagements and educational activities. This approach draws inspiration from the mid-twentieth century when travelling museums gained popularity, focusing on making exhibits accessible to those who couldn’t visit city-based museums.

UMPThe Travelling Museum displays examples of stone tools that were made in the last few thousand years. 

The HARP Travelling Museum is not merely a display of artefacts; it is a carefully curated journey through time. Its basic frame consists of five drawers, each containing artefacts from different periods, effectively replicating the concept of stratigraphy – the oldest layer at the bottom progressing to more recent layers.

The bottom drawer showcases the Early and Middle Stone Age, displaying examples of stone tools that were made or used in the last few thousand years. Above it, the Later Stone Age display contains typical examples of stone tools and organic materials like bones and teeth.

The subsequent drawer reveals a rock art display, a reproduction made by Ms Justine van Heerden, a student studying the museum’s impact, featuring four fat-tailed sheep from northern South Africa. This image, chosen for its multiple interpretations linked to social contact between different groups, aligns with HARP’s main study theme. UMP

The rock art display is a reproduction which features four fat-tailed sheep from northern South Africa.

Following this, the Iron Age display contains artefacts such as ceramics, beads, metal slag, and a decorated piece of an old grain storage bin. These all date to the last 2 000 years. The top drawer showcases artefacts from a modern experiment conducted by Dr Nicole Sherwood, a postdoctoral reader at UMP, illustrating different stages of stone tool production and the hafting and use of formal stone tools and arrowheads. The presentation also includes a demonstration of how bone pressure flaking was used to make stone tools.

Dr Forssman emphasizes the interactive nature of the museum, allowing people to touch and hold artefacts, providing a unique sensory experience.

“Our travelling museum makes heritage more inclusive for all and closes the gap between people and their pasts,” he states. In addition to its educational value, the Travelling Museum serves as a testament to the history of mobile museums. In the mid-twentieth century, these exhibits became popular, with a primary goal of making cultural and historical displays accessible to those who couldn’t visit museums and heritage sites in cities. These travelling museum programs often targeted rural communities, aiming to educate and create an enjoyable experience.

“In modern times, HARP’s Travelling Museum continues this legacy, aiming to make heritage more accessible to the public. It creates an opportunity for individuals who might not otherwise have access to museums due to factors like location, entrance fees, or exhibition relevance. This initiative aligns with broader efforts to address inequalities and strengthen the connection between people and their heritage in South Africa,” he adds.


The Travelling Museum fosters a deeper understanding of methods and theories used in archaeology.

The Travelling Museum not only educates people about specific periods and archaeological findings but also fosters a deeper understanding of the methods and theories used in archaeology. Dr Forssmann’s commitment to community outreach and education is evident in the museum’s design and its integration into various events, talks, and presentations.

The HARP Travelling Museum stands as a beacon of accessibility, educating and engaging communities in South Africa about their rich heritage. Ms van Heerden’s Masters examines just this with the hope of better understanding the depth of impact such a museum could have and how this can be emphasized in the future.

Dr Forssman’s leadership in this project exemplifies a commitment to making cultural and archaeological knowledge available to all, fostering a deeper connection between people and their history.

As the mobile museum continues its journey, it not only brings the past to the present but also paves the way for a more inclusive and informed future.

Story by Cleopatra Makhaga. Pictures supplied. (https://www.ump.ac.za/News-and-Events/Newsletter/February-2024.aspx)

Archaeology shows how hunter-gatherers fitted into southern Africa’s first city, 800 years ago

Where the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet, forming the modern border between Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, lies a hill that hardly stands out from the rest. One could easily pass it without realising its historical significance. It was on and around this hill that what appears to be southern Africa’s earliest state-level society and urban city, Mapungubwe, appeared around 800 years ago.

Archaeologists excavate inside and outside Little Muck Shelter, in the Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa.

After nearly a century of research, we’ve learnt quite a lot about this ancient kingdom and how it arose among early farmer society and its involvement in global trade networks. However, before farmers settled the region, this terrain was the home of hunter-gatherer groups, who have hardly been acknowledged despite, as it seems, their involvement in the rise of Mapungubwe.

My team and I have been working in northern South Africa at sites that we believe will help us recognise the roles played by hunter-gatherers during the development of the Mapungubwe state in a bid to generate a more inclusive representation of the region’s past.

Two beautifully painted giraffe are at the centre of the site in orange and red. These have been traced using digital software to limit contact with the art which may lead to damage.

Our primary study site is called Little Muck Shelter. It is in the Mapungubwe National Park and about 4km south of the Limpopo River. The shelter is fairly large with a protected area under a high ceiling and a large open space in front. It also has many paintings on its walls, including elephants, kudu, felines, people, and a stunning set of giraffes. This art was produced by hunter-gatherers and it is generally considered to refer to the spirit-world and the activities of shamans therein.

The results from our research shows two things. First, hunter-gatherers lived in the area while the Mapungubwe Kingdom arose. Second, during this time they were part of the economy that assisted with the appearance of elite groups in society, and they had access to this wealth. When combined this tells us that we cannot think about Mapungubwe’s history without including hunter-gatherer societies. They were present and a part of these significant developments.

Why is this important? One of the foundational developments that took place that led to the rise of the Mapungubwe Kingdom was the accumulation of wealth. It drove the appearance of hierarchies in society and marked prestige. These trade goods were valuable items usually possessed by elite groups. And yet, hunter-gatherers, through exploiting their own skills, were able to obtain related goods at a time when these items were contributing to significant transformations in society. That they had access to wealth during this period likely shows us that their role in local society was valued and they were entrenched in the local economy in a way that we’ve not previous recognised.

Unearthing evidence of trade

We were attracted to Little Muck Shelter because of previous work at the site in the late 1990s that showed intense trade between hunter-gatherers and farmers took place from the shelter. To understand this better, we needed a larger archaeological assemblage to verify, or refine, what we thought might be taking place.

Field team member Siphesihle Kuhlase shows a broken bangle while others remove deposit in search of artefacts.

We also wanted to more closely examine the depths that dated between AD 900 and 1300, during which the processes leading to Mapungubwe began and ultimately concluded, in order to clearly show a hunter-gatherer presence during this period as well as their participation in local economic networks.

To do this, we needed to dig. Archaeological excavations are a slow and meticulous process that involve the careful removal of layers of artefact-bearing deposits with a very strict control of depth and location within an excavation trench.

Following this is a lengthy period of analysis that adheres to rigorous protocols to ensure consistency in identifying artefact types, their production techniques or methods, how they were used, and what they were made from.

A range of artefact types found at hunter-gatherer sites like Little Muck Shelter. Stone scrapers (A) and backed tools (B), which were used for producing goods and hunting, respectively, glass beads (C), traded into central Africa from the east African coastline, and larger ostrich eggshell beads (D), bone points or needles (E), broken pieces of copper jewellery (F) and pottery (G), and a grooved stone used to either sharpen metal tools, round ostrich eggshell beads, or finish and polish bone tools (H). Tim Forssman

We then piece all this evidence together in our attempt to understand past ways of living. From our results, we were able to trace a hunter-gatherer history that intertwined with the rise of Mapungubwe.

Our first and important task was to show that hunter-gatherers were still around when Mapungubwe appeared. To date, we’ve examined about 15,000 stone tools from a sample of our excavations and identified a set of finished tools that are the same as those produced by hunter-gatherers for millennia before farmer groups appeared. We believe that this consistency in cultural material over such a long span of time clearly shows that hunter-gatherers were living in the shelter when farmers were in the area.

We then wanted to look more closely at the trading economy. From the moment farmer groups appeared in the region, during the early first millennium AD, hunter-gatherers shifted their craft activities. Rather than mostly producing goods made from hide, wood and shell, they began making mostly bone implements and did so until the end of the Mapungubwe Kingdom at AD 1300. This suggests that the interactions hunter-gatherers had with farmers from when they first arrived stimulated change in their crafted wares.

Why did they change their crafting activities? At the same time that these shifts took place, we recorded the appearance of trade wealth in the form of ceramics and glass beads, initially, and then metal. These goods were never made by hunter-gatherers and are common at farmer settlements, indicating exchange between these two communities. It indicates that hunter-gatherers responded to new market opportunities through emphasising their own skill sets.

Our work to identify more evidence that shows a hunter-gatherer involvement in these processes continues. We are trying to find out in what other ways they were involved and whether they themselves developed a more complex society.

This article was published in The Conversation.

Travelling heritage in mobile museum: bringing the past to people

By Justine van Heerden and Tim Forssman

Twenty-first century museums are primarily interested in two things: safeguarding cultural heritage and informing, educating and entertaining the public. However, as much knowledge that there is to gain from museums, and heritage that there is to experience at heritage sites, these are not activities that are equally available to all. Numerous museum visitor surveys have determined that the frequent museum visitor, on average, belongs to the upper socio-economic classes of society (Hood 1993). This means that a large portion of the population does not attend museums. There are many reasons to account for this, such as the cost of entrance fees, individuals being located far from museums and heritage sites, and exhibitions that do not accommodate all audiences. In South Africa, this also reinforces inequalities, and further disassociates people from their heritage.

To remedy this, the Hunter-Gatherer Archaeological Research Project, or HARP, designed an interactive, mobile museum. When we meet members of the community, give site tours, or interact with students, the museum travels with us and we use it to help teach people about the past. We are also studying the value of this approach by trying to determine how effective this type of heritage display is at improving access to heritage and how well this educates and informs the public about heritage, archaeological materials, and practices.

Previous Travelling and Mobile Museums

Travelling museums are not new. They became popular in the mid-twentieth century. One of the main goals was to make these exhibits available to people who were unable to visit museums and heritage sites. Many of these travelling museum programmes would visit rural communities as they were usually the ones with limited access to the museums located in cities. They further aimed to educate people in a range of subjects, to correct misconceptions, and to create an enjoyable experience (Diafuku 1963). The travelling exhibits were most commonly transported using a modified trailer, van or bus with the exhibits displayed on the sides of the interior.

Smaller more mobile museums have been regularly used in the past. For example, UNESCO began an initiative in 1962 to build experimental mobile museums that were to be displayed across Africa. These museums were connected to adult educational programs and discussed topics such as agriculture and health (Diafuku 1965). The Namibian Ministry of Education and Culture, along with the Museum Organisation and Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO), began a Mobile Museum Service in 1996 that would serve as an educational and developmental tool. The museum exhibitions were used in schools to improve curriculums and to aid the museums in the country to assist in formal education (Nias & Nias 1996). Botswana had a similar service at the time (the Botswana Mobile Museum and Education Service) that was consulted in order to begin this service in Namibia. This project also trained museum staff in the production of museum exhibits and showed schoolteachers how to use these exhibits in their curriculums (Nias & Nias 1996).

The HARP Travelling Museum

The aims of HARP’s travelling museum are threefold. It intends to make it easier for members of the public to access heritage and to see archaeological artefacts. It also aims to create an experience where people are allowed to interact, touch and hold the artefacts in the museum displays to get a sense of what these things feel like. The interactive component of the museum makes it possible for people who are, for example, visually impaired to experience heritage. Lastly, the museum strives to teach people about archaeology, the methods and theories used, and, more specifically, forager groups in the Mapungubwe area, a topic that has been largely neglected.

Our travelling museum consists of a basic frame with five drawers, each containing artefacts from different time periods. The order of the drawers replicates stratigraphy, which states that the oldest layer of deposit is at the bottom and those above it are young. In our museum, the lowest drawer contains the oldest artefacts and the ones above are progressively younger. The sides of the drawers have also been painted different colours to illustrate what the different strata in the walls of an excavation in an archaeological site might look like. At the bottom is the Earlier and Middle Stone Age display, which contains a few examples of stone tools that were prominent during those periods. The artefacts in the Later Stone Age display above it contains typical examples of stone tools found during this time, as well as organic material like bones and teeth. The next drawer has a rock art display, which Justine painted onto a rock slab, of four fat-tailed sheep from northern South Africa. We chose this image because it has multiple interpretations mostly linked to social contact between different groups, which is HARP’s main study theme. The Iron Age display follows and contains artefacts such as ceramics, beads, metal slag, and a decorated piece of an old grain storage bin. The artefacts in the top drawer are from a modern experiment carried out by Dr Nicole Sherwood. The display illustrates the different stages of stone tool production as well as how artefacts like formal stone tools and arrowheads were hafted and used. The presentation of this display also includes a demonstration of how bone pressure flaking was used to make stone tools.


The aim of the museum is to enhance and invigorate our project’s community outreach work and improve people’s relationship with heritage and our national past. Museums are not spaces that are easily accessed by all, and so the mobile aspect of our initiative tries to remedy this by bringing heritage to people instead of the other way around. The museum also lifts the glass from the traditional museum display cases to allows people to experience the past in a way they may not have done previously. This type of museum makes heritage more inclusive for all and it closes the gap between people and their pasts.

You can find the article in the March issue of Pretoria Historia.


Daifuku, H. 1963. Exhibitions in the Technically Underdeveloped Countries. Museums and Monuments X. Temporary and travelling exhibitions. Dusseldorf: UNESCO.

Daifuku, H. 1965. An experimental mobile museum for Tropical Africa. Museum International 18: 126-129.

Hood, M. 1993. After 70 Years of Audience Research, What Have We Learned? Who Comes to Museums, Who Does Not, and Why?. In: Thompson, D. et al. (eds) Visitor Studies: Theory, Research, and Practice: 16-27. Jacksonville: Visitors Studies Association.

Nias, C. & Nias, P. 1996. Nambia’s Mobile Museum Service. Museum International 48: 45-48.

Savanna Science Network Meeting

Some of HARP’s team members attended the Savanna Science Network Meeting in Skukuza from 5 to 10 March. The meeting brings together a range of different scientists, park managers, and other interested groups and offers them a platform to present their work over the course of the meeting. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase our incredible archaeology to an audience that often works around our heritage but not with it directly.

Tim and Justine each presented papers. Tim spoke about forager technologies and innovations at Little Muck during the period leading up to Mapungubwe and Justine presented the travelling museum.

Nicci and Tim also presented a poster and so did Chante. The HARP members were very busy!

HARP’s work in Horizons

During our field trip in early 2022, Ramy and Estelle, two filmographers, joined us in the field for a few days to film us digging and working at Little Muck Shelter. They wanted to understand the region’s past and talk about hunter-gatherers for their series called ‘Horizons’. Their aim is to bring forward stories from around the world that present histories, ways of living, traditions, and cultural stories that are not often featured in contemporary narratives. See the trailer for their documentary below:

HARP’s travelling museum

Our travelling museum has been a massive success so far. We setup this simple, mobile museum with the aim of using it to teach people about the archaeological process and southern African heritage. Importantly, we wanted this to be a way to represent indigenous hunter-gatherers from the Mapungubwe area, a group of people who have seen considerably less attention than others in our study area. The museum is a practical solution to the challenges that many people face, such as not being able to travel to museums, afford them, or just not being interested in them. We bring heritage to people, introduce them to the past, remove the display’s glass (so to speak) and let them touch history, feel it, experience it, and hopefully learn something, not least of which we hope is that, actually, our history is pretty amazing and worth learning more about. Justine van Heerden is busy with a study examining how effective our museum initiative is and whether it has the impact that we intend for it to have. Time will tell. Keep following for details!

If you want to see the museum, or wouldn’t mind us paying your society, museum, or school a visit, drop us a message and we’ll see what we can arrange.

Photos by Justine van Heerden

Teaching school kids about HARP’s work

Justin Pentz, a student who is about to complete his Masters study on stone tools from Little Muck Shelter, recently introduced school children in Pretoria aged six to thirteen and staff to his research.

Justin hosted a brief chat and introductory session discussing aspects of the study we are carrying out and his own research. He began with a show and tell for the students and followed that up with a slide show filled with interesting pictures of fieldwork and the stone tools he has examined. He also spoke more broadly of the region’s archaeology and showed the onlookers some of the wonderful rock art that can be found in the middle Limpopo Valley.

The children were given a chance to ask questions about archaeology, which they had a few. Most were about the armed ranger in the images and the dangerous wild animals that may have been encountered during fieldwork.

Justin then asked the students to produce their own ‘rock art’ on pages or the outside chalkboard. He asked that they think about what they would like to be left behind for future generations and how this should be interpreted.

We are a very passionate group and hearing about Justin presenting archaeology to young scholars and getting them to engage in such an interesting and interactive way is fantastic. Thanks, Justin for doing such a great job!

Giraffe in production
A wonderfully drawn giraffe, which is a common rock painting in northern South Africa.
Handprints are not uncommon in many parts of southern Africa and we quite like them (check out our logo).