The indigenous San hunter-gatherers of South Africa, are well known as makers of the beautiful rock art still found in the mountain regions of the country. Although sophisticated artists, the historical San have often been portrayed as poor and, for some reason, naked people.
"Dressed in stone" aims to reunite two domains of archaeological research that for a long time have been separate - the symbolic images of rock art, with the material culture of the body. A recent study of historical dress items and oral narratives has shown that dress practices among the historical San were complex, highly sophisticated, and directly associated with perceptions of social relations; between people, animals and other beings of the world. Important social relations, necessary to uphold in order to survive, were engaged through the bodily practice of dress. For example, the Water would disappear if the Maiden who came to fetch it did not smell nice. Or, the prey would not submit to the hunter if the hunter did not approach it respectfully by identifying himself with the animal through tattoos and scarifications, all the while dressing his family in the skins of earlier kills.
With this new understanding of dress, as a social and relational practice, "Dressed in stone" seeks to answer questions such as; How, and in what contexts, are dress and personal ornamentation represented and depicted in the art? How can we understand dressed bodies as opposed to, or in relation to clothing in the absence of bodies in the imagery? In essence, how might our understanding of the rock art change if we forefront perspectives of the bodily practice of dress in our interpretations?
What do we actually see on the rock face, in those complex and often ambiguous images? What does the figure of half man, half animal represent? Is it the shaman in an altered state of consciousness, or is it the hunter in his day-to-day experience of identifying with his prey?
The indigenous hunter-gatherers of South Africa, the San (Bushmen), are well known as makers of the beautiful rock art that is still found in the mountain regions of the country. Although sophisticated artists, the San themselves have more often than not been portrayed as poor and, for some reason, naked people.
"Dressed in stone" pose the question; what happens with our understanding of the San rock art if we open up the field of interpretations to include a perspective of the bodily practice of dress? The project will reunite two domains of archaeological research that for a long time have been separate - the symbolic images of rock art, with the material culture of the body. The aim of the study is twofold: to show how the painted representations of dress and dressed bodies might contribute to enlighten our understanding of dress as a significant cultural practice among past San communities and; to point out how keeping a perspective of dress and bodily practices in focus of rock art analyses might change or increase our understanding of the complex and often ambiguous images.
An apparent opposition in the rock art between dressed bodies, and clothing in the absence of bodies, will be investigated through representations of cloaks, bags, and head and body ornaments. The empirical analysis will serve as the point of departure for ethnographically, and theoretically informed questions related to the negotiations of personhood and ontological flux that are associated with the dressing of the body. Issues around the production and manifestation of identity, rites of passage, and subsistence strategies are all expected to contribute to a revision and alternative interpretation of the rock art that for the last decades have been considered 'essentially shamanistic'. Consequently, the study will have transferable values to the larger archaeological discourse of rock art studies across the world.