The Rock Paintings of Williston : an interpretative study of rock art, rituals and the landscape in which they are created
AuthorHykkerud, Martin Kristoffer
The Williston district in Northern Cape, offers an exciting and new contribution to the rich world of rock art in South Africa. The paintings found here are solely geometric finger paintings, with a variety of different images and motifs. There are possible connections between these paintings and the initiation ceremonies of the Khoekhoen, once pejoratively known as the Hottentots. The main motif and link between the rock art and these rituals, is the so-called ‘apron motif’. These images show a resemblance to Khoekhoe and Bantu women’s ceremonial aprons, aprons that are known from ethnographic sources to have been worn both in daily life, and during different rituals, especially those connected to initiation into different social places and states. We know that during girls initiations, the girl was considered to be holding an extremely potent, powerful and potentially dangerous force. Because of this force, the girl was to be introduced to the so-called ‘Watersnake’, to ensure the creatures goodwill, and in a special ceremony this introduction was made. In this ritual the girl was, among other things, painted in geometric symbols. From the rock art data gathered during my fieldwork in the Karoo, the dry area in the interior South Africa in which the Williston district is located, several patterns can be drawn out. First of all, the landscape features are almost identical in all the sites. There seems be a prerequisite of closeness to water for these paintings to have been made, as almost all are made in very short distance from rivers and waterholes. As the Karoo is a very dry place, the presence of water is a vital and special element of the landscape, and our understanding of it. The sites have a very varied number of images in them, ranging from just one to over two hundred separate images. The images are varying in quality, from figures faded almost entirely, to figures that looks almost completely new. The enormous amount of imagery and the varying quality of the paintings, points to some sites as being used for a long time. In combination with what we know from ethnographic sources, exploring the rock art sites offers a good start into unmasking the secrets of the geometric rock art. With a theoretical background based on space/place theory, the paintings can be seen as a performance more than a product. Used in combination with theory surrounding rites of passage, we can utilize the notion of these sites as arenas for ritual practice as an interpretation. This is based on their landscape characteristics and the nature of the rituals conducted in relation to these characteristics. It is my belief that research conducted into the widely shared beliefs concerning the Watersnake and its connection to girls initiation ceremonies, will further enhance our understanding of these images.
PublisherUniversitetet i Tromsø
University of Tromsø
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