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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
Treasuring South Africa's history
The Lydenburg Heads
The Lydenburg Heads date back to about 700 AD
On International Museum Day, the BBC's Mohammed Allie reports on how a museum in Cape Town is helping preserve valuable South Africa's past.

Panels of rock with 500-year-old paintings depicting wild animals, painted by the indigenous San people, are among the many artefacts to be found at Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, illustrating South Africa's rich and diverse history.

Even more significant and of major international historical importance is the display of the seven Lydenburg Heads, which are 2,700 years old.

The Lydenburg Heads, two big and five small ones, were discovered in the 1960s. They are hollow clay pots in the shape of heads and were named after the town where they were found in Mpumalanga province.

Complex

According to Dr Patricia Davison, Director for Social History Collections at the museum, the Lydenburg Heads represent the earliest known examples of sculpture in Southern Africa.

The heads are extremely important because they provide evidence of a complex aesthetic sensibility among early agricultural communities in southern Africa, a millennium before the advent of European colonisation.

One must consider where these objects can be best viewed by the maximum number of people
Dave Jones, UK

Dr Davison says while every precaution is taken to safeguard these valuable artefacts, their safety cannot be absolutely guaranteed.

"As archaeological artefacts they're protected by law. They came to the museum so that they would be properly looked after and conserved," she said.

Natural environment

But other national treasures are to be found in their natural environment at various sites around the country.

The rock art of the San people
The rock art of the San people is some 500 years old
Centuries-old San rock paintings that remain in their natural environment provide a vivid illustration of animals that inhabited the region at the time, including elephants, antelope and tortoises.

Fortunately, most of the estimated 15,000 rock art sites are located in remote parts of the country and are beyond the reach of potential desecration.

While there are no known national treasures residing outside South Africa there are many less glamorous but still important artefacts like bags, baskets, pots and other items that have made their way from this country to Europe.

Souvenirs

"We know that some of the earliest ethnographic and historical material went to England in the 19th century and were sold," Dr Davison said.

Xhosa necklace
The 19th Century necklace worn by Xhosa chiefs includes carnivore teeth

"It wasn't necessarily done illegally, but our collections found their way into European collections. Things were taken as trophies and as souvenirs. There were many travellers, botanists, natural historians who collected those things - they went to Europe, where they have remained. Those things we would we would very much like to have here to show the continuity of tradition."

South Africa, for its part, returned the historic bird sculptures belonging to the great Zimbabwe collection in the 1980s.

However, the country still has artefacts which originate from other African countries. According to Iziko Museum's Chief Executive Officer, Professor Jattie Bredenkamp, the issue is receiving attention.

"We are at the moment trying to develop a policy around the return of certain artefacts but that is very much a political issue that has to be dealt with between the South African government and other governments.

"We would definitely support such measures as long as they are properly arrangement around this so that it will not in any way be lost to the future generations of Africa," he said.

With global communications improving the links between museums all the time, an increasing number of African artefacts are being found in various parts of the world. Fortunately there also seems to be a spirit of co-operation that could see these artefacts being returned to their rightful owners.




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