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.

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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)

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).

The HARP research colloquium: presenting and celebrating the past

Excavators sprawled across Little Muck Shelter busy removing deposit and looking for artefacts.
Members of the field team inspecting a shell coming out of the ground.

The Hunter-Gatherer Archaeological Project (HARP), led by Dr Tim Forssman from the University of Mpumalanga, hosted a research colloquium while conducting fieldwork in July, 2022. The colloquium’s purpose was in part to provide an update of the work completed thus far but to also celebrate archaeological heritage in the Mapungubwe region.

Mapungubwe is a globally renowned archaeological site. It was here that southern Africa’s first state-level society appeared around AD 1220. Preceding the Mapungubwe Kingdom were several changes that took place over the course of about 300 years. These included the accumulation of wealth, growth in cattle numbers, craft specialisation, and the appearance of royal and elite groups. While this prehistory is well known, and has been studied for nearly a decade, considerably less is known of local hunter-gatherer societies. To produce a more inclusive rendering of the Mapungubwe landscape’s past, the HARP team aims through archaeological research to recognise and acknowledge the contributions made by past hunter-gatherers to these important socio-political and economic developments.

While conducting fieldwork in the Mapungubwe National Park the HARP team invited local stakeholders to attend a research colloquium to share their study’s findings. In attendance were members of the Mapungubwe National Park, Polokwane Museum and Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, as well as students from the Universities of Mpumalanga, Pretoria and Oxford.

Justine van Heerden excavates while Siphesihle Kuhlase maps an excavation wall.

Dr Forssman opened the colloquium by providing the context and motivation for the study and an overview of progress to date, which involves excavating a prominent hunter-gatherer site, Little Muck Shelter, and exploring the local rock art sequence. Miss Chanté Barnard, an archaeological laboratory technician at the University of Mpumalanga and masters student enrolled at the University of Pretoria, presented archaeological trade wealth found at Little Muck demonstrating that hunter-gatherers participated in the local market economy during state formation. Mr Siphesihle Kuhlase, also a masters student, took this one step further and presented evidence supporting a hunter-gatherer presence at the site into the Mapungubwe period. These studies are significant because they show that hunter-gatherers were living in the area when Mapungubwe arose, but also that they were involved in trade at a time when this wealth was assisting groups rise to royal or elite status.

Students viewing artefacts from one of the travelling museum’s displays.

Two honours students on the project, Miss Sylvia Ubisse and Miss Courtney Knell, provided an outline of their research; to examine landscape settlement histories and stone arrowhead technologies, respectively. Their studies are on-going and will be completed by the end of the year. Also on-going is the work of Miss Angelinah Masolo, a doctoral candidate, discussed here study on place-making and settlement histories among hunter-gatherer groups and particularly how they organised their social landscape over the last 8000 years.

The final speaker was masters student Miss Justine van Heerden. Her study examines engagement between the public and heritage resources and promotes a more inclusive narrative for the region. Her study uses a unique, custom-built travelling museum to display heritage items, such as stone tools, pottery or glass beads, during community engagement initiatives, talks, seminars, or stakeholder meetings. The travelling museum is an important aspect of HARP’s engagement programme and will accompany the team on field trips and to all manner of meetings within, and beyond, the study area.

On one of the student engagements, Miss Justine van Heerden presented the travelling museum at a local research centre.
The seven presenters: (from the left) Tim Forssman, Chanté Barnard, Sihpesihle Kuhlase, Angelina Masolo, Justine van Heerden, Courtney Knell and Sylvia Ubisse.

You can watch a recording of the colloquium below:

Back to the field!

On Saturday the HARPees head back to the field, and we couldn’t be more excited!

Our first excavation season for 2022 begins on Saturday. A group of 12 trek north, trowels in hand, to continue work at Little Muck Shelter. Our goals are to continue excavating in our internal trench (top-centre in the accompanying image) as well as in two areas outside; one of which appears to be a midden. If all goes well, we should complete some ongoing squares inside the shelter, be able to establish whether or not we have a midden in the open, and further explore an area near to the koppie edge that we opened in October but could not complete. We will still be excavating Little Muck in the June-July trip so whatever we do not complete will be backfilled carefully – using sandbags – and covered until our return.

We look forward to sharing our work with you, so please follow us on Instagram or join our WhatsApp community. If you have any ideas about our #badalbumcover team photo, let us know (for reference, here is last year’s).

Our second album named after the most popular choice of snacks on this trip, Salty Cracks, and in no way a reference to anything else.