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Reviewed by:
  • Vols de Vaches à Christol Cave: histoire critique d'une image rupestre d'Afrique du Sud
  • Peter Mitchell
Jean-Löic Le Quellec, François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar and François Bon, Vols de Vaches à Christol Cave: histoire critique d'une image rupestre d'Afrique du Sud. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne (pb €30–978 2 85944 633 8). 2009, 176 pp.

The last decade has seen renewed interest in the early history of Southern African rock art research. The book under review takes this trajectory a [End Page 664] stage further by considering paintings from one particular site on the farm Ventershoek in the south-eastern corner of South Africa's Free State Province. It is all the more welcome in marking the growing participation in such research by French scholars. The book's focus is a tight one, the history of a scene depicting a fight between two groups of people, one traditionally interpreted as Bushmen (San), shown driving away a herd of cattle, the other Black warriors depicted in their pursuit. As the authors emphasize more than once, this 'battle' has gained an almost iconic status in evoking a regional 'clash of civilizations', a clash historically understood in terms of the 'inevitable' displacement and disappearance of the San from most of Southern Africa and, more generally, of hunter-gatherers by farmers worldwide. Having 'been seen a lot, but not looked at enough' (p. 19), how is the scene in question offered a more nuanced understanding here?

As a starting point, Le Quellec and his co-authors are undoubtedly right to insist upon the scene's historical and geographical context and its location on the interface of multiple frontiers (Sotho/San; Sotho/Afrikaner; African/colonial; Christianity/traditional religions). They thus provide an informative and detailed account of the site's history and of the history of the representation of its art, from the initial records by George Stow (before 1882, but published only posthumously by Dorothea Bleek in 1930) and Frédéric Christol (in 1882 and after whom it is named) through successive copyings by Helen Tongue, the Abbé Breuil, Leo Frobenius and other major figures of early twentieth century rock art research. They detail too Christol's removal of parts of the scene and his donation of the fragments concerned to the Musée de l'Homme in Paris and the Musée de Neuchâtel, Switzerland; two further fragments are now lost. Importantly, careful comparisons between the surviving in situ paintings and these and other records show how individual copyists captured, or failed to capture, particular details of the overall scene. In Chapter 8 these comparisons are developed to establish the sequence of image creation at the site (using style, spatial arrangement and rare instances of superpositioning), as well as the damage that they have subsequently endured (from removal, tracing, rain wash and deliberate wetting of paintings). This done, Chapter 9 attempts a reconstitution of the original panel that also draws on computeraided manipulation of the surviving images to bring out details otherwise faint in the extreme (cf. Figs 87 and 88). Both chapters are, like the rest of the book, beautifully illustrated with a wealth of photographs (mostly in colour).

Early on, the authors stress the need to develop more interpretations of individual rock art sites as a complement to the current focus on broad comparative studies of particular themes or of sites within regions. What, then, do they offer in respect of Christol Cave? In one way, the answer is a satisfying, even provocative one, since they take issue with the conventional, indeed almost universal, reading of the scene as the response by a group of Black warriors to a cattle raid effected by the San. While this fits comfortably with stereotyped versions of South African history, there is nothing in the paintings themselves to require it. Their more straightforward reading sees San cattle-keepers being pursued by others intent on robbing them of their livestock, and sits well with the growing evidence from archaeological excavations and historical records that, at some times and in some places, San communities acquired, kept and maintained livestock of their own. It is thus a pity...


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