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Photo of Sidney Miller City of Gold

Archaeologist Sidney Miller has discovered the burial site of a 16th-century king and queen of the Venda -- an extraordinary find that helps piece together South Africa's pre-colonial history. Following the premier of the Scientific American Frontiers Special Science Safari, Sidney Miller answered viewers' questions as part of an Ask the Scientists panel. Here are viewers' questions and his answers:

QCan you please give us an update on what discoveries have been made since the show was filmed?

We have many more details about the two bodies we discovered. The tall woman was in her middle 40s, right-handed, and seemed to have done a lot of walking but little hard work. She was seems to have had a good diet because her teeth are in good condition. However, her teeth do show distinctive marks, indicating she had malaria (the high fever associated with malaria can affect the body's calcium levels and leave lines on the teeth). She was found buried in a fetal position and wearing a gold bracelet on her right wrist.

We discovered that the man had been reburied -- interred somewhere else before his bones were packed into a shallow grave at this site. He was found with the long bones of his limbs placed on either side of the skeleton. He was wearing many ornaments -- double and single strand gold ornaments, as well as ostrich shell beads. He seems to have been in his mid-50s and had serious damage to his right leg, indicating he likely walked with a crippled gait. He also had three major osteoporosis growths, which may have resulted in headaches and loss of body control. Finally, we discovered cut marks on the vertebrae that suggest he was stabbed or killed with a spear. Although the skeleton is 70% complete, most of both feet are missing, perhaps because they were used for medicinal purposes or witchcraft.

Also of interest -- inside the house, we found a tomblike clay structure with several clay pots placed on top. These were perhaps offerings of items like maize. We've also discovered several interesting objects, including a very delicately worked copper and gold foil ornament found near the entrance. Also, just to the east of the body we discovered a double gong, the first found in South Africa that originated in the Zaire area, indicating a trade link. Finally, in an audience chamber next to the house we found more gold items, including a gold-foil covering for the end of a shaft of a spear.

Q The relationship between the scientists at the site and local people seem be positive and cooperative. What steps were taken to ensure that this would be the case?

The whole project has taken this direction from the start, when the sponsor for the project asked for participation from the local community. A steering committee was appointed made up four people from the Venda community, four people representing the Tsonga-Sjangaan people, four members of the National Parks Board and four scientists (I'm one of the latter). The committee members have been involved in every phase of the project -- through the planning, building and excavation stages.

In addition to the committee, anyone could have their say simply by introducing themselves and letting us know what was on their mind. When we discovered the first body, we had a special meeting and 30 people attended. We showed them the site and answered all their questions. To meet their requests, a decision was made to finish the medical reports on the bodies as quickly as possible and return the bodies to their original places where they will not be tampered with again. Markers will be placed to indicate the graves. The jewelry, ornaments and other artifacts will be displayed in a local museum.

Between the discovery of the two bodies, a conference was held in Cape Town to discuss several issues, including who is responsible for remains. It was decided that as long as people can claim family links, the descendants are responsible. I think this is the only way to handle the situation fairly. It seems to me that the days of displaying bodies in a museum or at a university are over. After all, this is an emotional issue and if the descendants aren't happy, there is no joy for anyone connected with the discovery and excavation. I think we have been able to negotiate well here, indicating that it's possible to do scientific work and still have respect for the dead.

Q What else do you know about Thulamela? How old is it? How many people lived there and how big was it? What foods did they eat? Did they grow their food? Hunt for it?

We've been able to piece together quite a bit of this information. First of all, there seem to have been three distinct periods here from the 1200s to the mid-1600s. At its most populous point, which we estimate to be between the late 1500s and early 1600s, we think approximately 1000 people lived here. We have found grinding stones and hoes, indicating that fields were cultivated and that maize was grown and consumed. Just recently we discovered some wild cotton growing in the area, and we've discovered a spindle and other items that indicate that cloth and clothing were produced on the site.

An analysis of bones indicates that there were goats, sheep, dogs and chickens at the site. We also expect there was a high utilization of the nearby river because of fish bones found here, too. Specialized spears indicate that hippo were hunted.

Regarding the size of the site, the high area is about 9 hectares, with the royal dwelling taking up about 1/2 hectare.

Q What method is used to date the skeletons and how long does this process take?

We use carbon 14 dating, which takes about two and a half months to complete. It's quite a difficult process and we must send sample material from the site to a science lab in Pretoria. To do the carbon 14 dating, the lab needs just a small sampling of material - approximately the amount that fit into a matchbox. A simple explanation of how carbon 14 dating works is that all animals take carbon 14 into their bodies and after death there is a slow fall back from carbon 14 to carbon 12. The carbon 14 dating measures this process and can date material up to about 50,000 years.

Q About how long does it take to uncover a full skeleton?

The answer to this question depends on how the skeleton was buried and the degree of preservation of the skeleton. At our site at Thulamela it takes three days for a full team to uncover a skeleton. Our team consists of five people who each have a specific responsibility as the work progresses. Much of the work is done with instruments similar to those used for dental work.

Q How much longer do you estimate you'll be working at the Thulamela site?

This will depend on how much longer the sponsor of the project wants to support the work. We already have enough information to tell much of the story of Thulamela, but it would be interesting to know even more about the structures at the site, the period, the culture -- who these people were and how they lived.

Q Will you be writing a book about this excavation when your work is complete?

My first priority will be writing my dissertation -- a full scientific paper about the work at Thulamela. In fact, I will begin that very soon as the rainy season is about to being here in South Africa (in December) and we will be unable to continue the excavation until next spring. Another, much longer report will be issued by National Parks Board with all the data from the site collated into an official report. If time allows, I would certainly like to work on a more popular book that will explain our findings in layman's terms to people interested in learning more about Thulamela.

Q Are there any opportunities for students interested in archaeology to work at this or other sites in South Africa?

Yes, there is a program available through the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Through this program students from England have been able to work at an excavation at the Limpopo River basin. Anyone interested in finding out more about these opportunities can contact Professor Thomas Hufmann at the University of Witwatersrand. From the US, this number is 011-27-11-716-4099.

QWhat kind of training do you need to do this work? And what do you like best -- and least -- about your work?

If you're focused primarily on being an archaeologist, then you will need to study archaeology. But the interesting thing about this field is that many disciplines are involved. For example, the metal work found at the Thulamela site is sent for analysis to a metallurgical engineer. This is person you might ordinarily expect to be involved in designing of cars or something similar, but here he is in the midst of archeology. The bones found around the site are sent to a biologist who can identify the kinds of animals from the bones. There's never just one person involved -- it's always a group of individuals, each of whom bring their own training and talents to the project.

My background was in civil engineering, and archeology was a hobby. I decided to make a change in my life and took a job at a museum where I was involved in preparing the technical development of a site. I then studied for a master's degree in the conservation of architecture. When the Thulamela excavation came along, they needed someone who could look at the physical development of the site, the aesthetic development, as well as the archeology of the site. Now, I will use my experience at Thulamela to write a dissertation for a degree in archeology.

What I like best about my work is that there's never a boring day. It is very challenging for your mind and it's challenging physically too. The place you work can be anywhere - from the very challenging environment where the Iceman was discovered in Italy, for example, to the depths of the ocean where marine archaeologists dive to explore shipwrecks. The environment is always something special, and this job takes you to many place you wouldn't ordinarily go.

The part of my job I find most difficult is the writing - putting my mind to paper. It's important to make the effort to write objectively and tell the true story. If you like writing, this part of the job is easier. The point is that for me writing is a challenging task.

Q How long ago were those stone walls made? What was their original purpose? And why did you spend so much time rebuilding them?

The earliest walls were constructed in the middle 1300s; the most recent were built between the late 1500s and early 1600s. The purpose of the walls is directly related to the settlement of the people and their culture. The leaders in this culture were very elevated and were not supposed to be seen. The higher their status, the more secluded they were. These royal people were considered to be individuals who communicated between the people and the afterlife. So the walls had several purposes -- they protected the leaders' privacy, demarcated their site and indicated their social standing. I think the walls were also a comment on the permanency of these people. If they'd constructed something like stockades out of wood, these structures would have decayed within a decade or two. Building with stone was way to make to make a statement that said "we are here to stay for a long time."

Rebuilding the stone walls has a number of benefits. If someone without any archaeological knowledge visits a site where the stones have collapsed, it's likely that the site will have very little meaning for them. Putting it back together makes it much easier for visitors to understand the general layout of the site and how it was used. Reconstruction also helps stop further deterioration -- similar to the way historic buildings like the White House are preserved by repairing the plaster and paint, for example. Preservation helps keep what is there so people in the future can come and learn from the site.

An interesting side note here is that the stone reconstruction we're doing is a topic for discussion among archaeologists. In mid-December, 1996, a group of archaeologists who have done site reconstruction in Zimbabwe are coming here to Thulamela. We plan to sit down and share experiences with the goal of working out an ethic and some ground rules to help guide us in further reconstructions at other ruins. At the Zimbabwe site, for example, the archaeologists have constructed a model of the site to guide reconstruction, and they've also rebuilt entrances to the great enclosure. Their plan is to test their work there by gauging reaction about this reconstruction from visitors to the site.

Q Who does the gold you discovered legally belong to? Can you estimate how valuable it is in today's dollars? Did you have to take measures to protest the site from people who might steal the gold?

The actual monetary value of the gold is not very high. The gold we discovered amounts to approximately 180 grams, worth about 10,000 rand or approximately $2,500. Of course, it is impossible to place any value at all on these ancient artifacts -- they're priceless.

Legally, the gold we've found belongs to the landowner, which in is this case is the National Parks Board of South Africa. But discoveries like this are controlled under South Africa's National Monuments Act, and the gold actually belongs to the country as a whole. As I mentioned in another answer, the gold items and other artifacts found at the site will be displayed in a local museum.

Security at the site has not been a problem. Before the gold was removed from the excavation local rangers stayed at the site during the night, and by day we were here working. The site is in the middle of the Kruger Park, which has gates at all entrances so there was also some control over who was allowed into the park. It was also generally known that the value of the gold was not high, so with all these factors taken into account, security hasn't been a large concern.

Q What were the clues that led you to first start digging at this site?

For several years a group of archaeologists have been at work in the Kruger Park doing routine research on a site-by-site basis. It was during one of these routine visits that we did a small excavation and discovered three very small gold beads. That's basically what initiated this current excavation.

Generally speaking, archaeologists use their knowledge of past cultures to gives them the "clues" they need. They know that different people have had different settlement patterns and have made use of different types of shelters and relied on different plants and animals. Stone age people, for example, preferred rock shelters, while people in the third to eighth centuries preferred to settle on low-lying land next to rivers. People of the Zimbabwe culture preferred higher land that was usually hilly and often mountainous. This was partly due to their social organization -- their leaders lived in places that were physically elevated to indicate their social status (You can read more about this in my answer to another question about the rock walls.) So in most cases archaeologists have a good idea what we're looking for before we actually begin excavation.

Q Why are artifacts so important to our future? Why are we spending money on searching for information on our past, when we should be spending the money on bettering our future? With this money we spend we could be feeding homeless and abolishing world hunger. We could spend the money on almost anything else and it would be more beneficial to us than artifacts.

This seems to me to be a philosophical question that has to do with humanity and how easy you feel in the space that you're in. For hundreds of years, the people of South Africa have not had a real history. Since 1652 their history has been the history of white people. Finding out about the past empowers people with a sense of pride in what they've been. I don't believe you can go forward unless you have an understanding of your past. This excavation has received quite a bit of attention in the press and, all of a sudden, more than a thousand years of history has opened up to people who didn't have a past until now. I think when you know where you come from, you gain a clearer view of yourself and where you're going.

Q Frontiers asked Sidney Miller if he'd like to add anything to his answers about "City of Gold."

There's been a lot of attention paid to Thulamela and the gold discovered here, and I think it's important to point out that this attention is focused on a small part of a much bigger story. There are literally hundreds of sites being explored, or remaining to be explored, and the story they tell has actually been going on for some time now. Archaeologists have been working in Zimbabwe since 1905. They wrote up their findings, but many of these reports ended up on a shelf gathering dust somewhere. I think people who are interested in this story may find it rewarding to go and dig out some of this information. Thulamela is really just a small potato in a much larger pan. It is the collective story told by all these sites that will, I think, reveal something to help the South African people into their future.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.