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City of Gold

Centuries before the Dutch ever landed near Cape Town, what is now South Africa was a bustling trading center. Archaeologists in the new South Africa are only just beginning to uncover the history of this ancient land. Viewers accompany Alan Alda and the Frontiers crew to a site where a 16th-century king and queen were buried inside the walled citadel of Thulamela. Clues buried in the earth may help today's descendants of the people who once lived here understand and connect to their past.

Curriculum Links
Activity: To Dig or Not to Dig
Timeline of Fossil Finds and Paleolithic Art
For Further Thought





musculoskeletal system


geological time scale





In centuries past, a victorious conquering army frequently claimed antiquities and artifacts as prizes of war and hauled them back to their own country. Sometimes the artifacts were restored to their native land many years later. Similarly, fossil finds were often taken from the site where they were found and no records were kept of the finds, thus depriving future scientists of important historical information. Artifacts and fossilized bones might even be sold on the black market. Such activities are now considered highly unprofessional and are usually illegal.

In recent times, archaeologists, paleontologists and other scientists on digs or at excavations have been much more sensitive to both science and the rights of native peoples. As you see on Frontiers, a committee of local people is overseeing the excavation of a site that may tell them more about their own culture and ancestors at Thulamela.

Not everyone is convinced of the need to respect the rights of property. In fact, these issues raise questions for discussion among scientists and others concerned. Just who owns an artifact or a fossil found buried in the earth? And what is the best way to remain sensitive to the past yet mindful of the need to share information?

Sometimes historic preservation takes an extreme point of view, and old buildings are maintained simply because they are old. Other times there is a rush to develop and build on land where artifacts are found.

In such situations, who decides what is right? And under the circumstances, what is the right course of action? What would you do, for example, if artifacts were found on your property?


Apply critical thinking to current issues. Present arguments in an organized, coherent fashion.


Below are several scenarios that raise pertinent issues for discussion. Discuss, debate or role-play the situation. Or, write a position paper defending your perspective. Some roles to play might include:

  • The archaeologist or paleontologist who made the discovery.
  • A representative from a scientific association.
  • A person with commercial interests, such as a developer or antique dealer.
  • A museum official.
  • A descendant of the native people who lived on the site in earlier times.
  • A person who owns the property on which the artifacts are found.

In the process of razing a house and surrounding buildings for a new development, builders find some artifacts buried beneath the hearth of what was once a kitchen. Local archaeologists determine that the artifacts - pieces of bone, coins, buttons - may have belonged to former slaves. Developers are impatient and want to proceed with the new development, but a local museum wants to continue to look for other items. What should happen?


A woman digging in woods near her house finds pottery shards and other bits and pieces - probably from what was once a kitchen midden where people dumped their trash. She takes all the finds into her house to clean them, then sells them at flea markets. When members of a local archaeology association find out, they are horrified and demand she stop digging in public woods. They claim the artifacts should be retrieved for study or placement in a museum. Who owns the artifacts? Should they be given to a museum?


A controversy is raging right now over who owns some bones found in Washington State. Samples indicate that the skeleton might be more than 9,000 years old. Leaders of the Umatilla Indian tribe claim the remains belong to them because they are those of an ancestor. They plan to rebury the bones without allowing further analysis. Anthropologists say the bones might be Caucasian and want more opportunity to study them. Who owns the remains and what should happen to them?

1652: Dutch found Cape Town
c. 1300: Great Zimbabwe is major trading center
c. 1250 to 1700: Walled city of Thulamela flourished
c. 600: Bantu people move into southern Africa; Africa's Iron Age begins
c. 5000: Farming introduced into northern Africa
c. 10,000: Last Ice Age ends
c. 17,000: Cave paintings created at Lescaux (France), Altamira (Spain) and other sites in Europe
c. 26,000: Earliest surviving examples of rock art created by Bushmen (San people)
c. 75,000: Last European Ice Age begins; Earliest Australian rock art created
c. 100,000 to 120,000: Evidence of early humans at Klasies River in South Africa
c. 120,000: Modern Homo sapiens emerge
c. 300,000: Archaic Homo sapiens live at Saldanha
c. 200,000 to 500,000: Archaic Homo sapiens emerge


  • Local residents who may be descendants of Thulamela's people are participating in the excavation of the Thulamela site. They have requested that the site be reconstructed as it was in the 16th century, when the walled city thrived. Not all archaeologists favor this approach. Why do you think there might be disagreement?
  • Do you think rock art indicates that "modern humans" occupied a site? How much credence should be given to the symbolism and modern interpretations of work created thousands of years ago?
  • What would your artifacts say about your culture? For more on the subject, read Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay. This book imagines what future archaeologists might interpret about our civilization.


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