Remnants of a time and people past
It was on an afternoon game drive that an unexpected sight was revealed…
Tracker Norman pointed out an exposed clay pot – partially embedded in a termite mound –to Field Guide Jordan. Due to erosion and animal motion friction (such as an aardvark digging a hole, and countless other animals using the space as a den and a shelter), the pot had become almost completely dislodged from the surrounding (protective) earth.
This pot had no patterns, which leads us to believe that it originated in the Iron Age due to its reddish colour. Patterned pottery in this area has been carbon dated as far back as 700+ years ago. The massive – and in some cases ancient – termite mounds are natural safe houses for all sorts of historical treasures; namely ivory caches, pottery, old weaponry (such as spears and hand axes), burial sites of chieftains and even gold! Who knows what else could potentially lie undiscovered in this mound?
By how does pottery come to be found in the wilderness, you may ask?
During the Iron Age, the nomadic people in the area would use termite mounds for a number of reasons. We’ve listed a few below.
1. Termites as a food source
Macrotermes (species of termites found in this area) were popular as a food source due to their nutritional value. Civilisations back then would create a hole in a termite mound (or use an existing hole made by an aardvark) and bury a pot with water to attract termites.
Termites often construct their termite mounds above the water table, which means that they bring soil up from below the ground (this is why we see mounds) – only 1/3 of the termitaria is the mound which is actually visible to us. Right at the bottom, below the queen’s chambers, termites draw water from the water table below. If they could get water from another source, they would – such as a pot strategically placed within the mound. Termites attracted to the pots would end up falling into the water. Other termites would come to their aid, and eventually that pot would fill up. In so doing, gatherers would catch prey without doing much damage to the termite mound itself.
2. Natural safe houses
As people were nomadic, they moved around a lot, following animals as well as rains. Having to carry many different things – such as hand axes, lighting stones, herbs and wood etc – hindered progress, so as they would store un-necessary pottery and materials in places like termite mounds. These would essentially serve the purpose of a pantry (for grain, millet, beer or water), a cabinet, or even a safe.
Along with these pots we often find pieces of mineral – namely chert and flint – used to make arrow heads, to start fire, and as lighting stones.
3. Burial sites
Chieftans were buried with their personal possessions (often contained in pottery) in termite mounds. It was believed that termite mounds would protect both bodies (and rightly so, as termites will create a solid dome around the form as they continue building), and spirits.
So coming on safari isn’t just about seeing the wildlife. It is also about learning the history of the area and the people that lived in tandem with the natural kingdom over thousands of years.
The clay pot in question is safely preserved and protected at Arathusa Safari Lodge, so don’t forget to ask our team to take a glimpse of this treasure reminiscent of a time long past.