The PEOPLE project aims at discovering new archaeological and paleontological localities in the western Free State, focusing on alluvial terraces, seasonally dry lakes, and springs. Like any other archaeological project, research starts in the field.
The western Free State is characterized by a flat landscape, interrupted by a few dolerite hills, locally called ‘koppjes’. This makes survey on foot ideal, and the search for archaeological sites straightforward, at least in theory. In practice though, even the most recent archaeological periods are buried within a thin layer of windblown sand, which makes stone tools invisible during survey. For this reason, the PEOPLE team focus their efforts only on natural exposures, such as ‘dongas’. These are deep ravines in river and lake terraces, which are caused by surface runoff of water during thunderstorms in the summer months. Dongas make Pleistocene stratigraphy easily accessible, as well as the archaeological and fossil localities that might be embedded in it. In this way it is possible to study sites within their original context, a necessary precondition in order to determine their age using absolute dating methods. Obviously, this cannot be done with surface sites. The PEOPLE team survey dongas along the Modder, Riet, Vet, and Sand rivers, and around major pans and springs. Scatters of artifacts and/or fossils at the bottom of dongas are recorded, and particularly rich assemblages are described in detail but not collected. Since almost all of the survey areas belong to private farms, survey takes place upon obtaining permission from landowners. Deep dongas, where no archaeological/fossil remains are present, are nonetheless sampled for dating and paleoenvironmental reconstructions.
Localities rich in stone tools and bones are selected for excavation. Square units (1x1 m) are placed at the top of the sequence and excavated by arbitrary spits using small tools. All finds and sediment samples are plotted with a total station and all sediments are dry-sieved. If the site is buried deep into the stratigraphic sequence, squares are cut into the slope of the donga to avoid the overburden where finds are absent. In addition, a profile is cut back to expose the entire stratigraphic sequence of the donga and thus collect fresh sediment samples for absolute dating and paleoenvironmental reconstructions. All excavations are conducted after obtaining the necessary permit from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), and written consent of the landowner. Artifacts and fossils are permanently curated at the Florisbad Research Station of the National Museum Bloemfontein, near Soutpan, where they are studied during the excavation season. In addition, preliminary analyses on sediments and fossils are conducted at a field laboratory set up at Florisbad, including an infrared spectrometer, a digital microscope, and the gear for phytolith extraction and analysis. More detailed analyses of sediments are conducted at the University of the Free State, Kiel University (Germany), and the CENIEH. Annual excavation reports are freely available on the SAHRA website