MK West

Melville Koppies Nature Reserve

Johannesburg, South Africa

Friends of Melville Koppies:              Phone: +27 11 482 4797                      Email:

Melville Koppies: Ancient History

In 1989 Professor R J Mason published a "Guide to Archaeology Sites: Johannesburg" (Occasional Paper 23. Archaeological Research Unit, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

In it he dealt with Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, Linksfield Ridge and Bruma, Lonehill, Northcliff, Witkoppen, and the Melville Koppies.

The purpose of the paper was as much to inform and educate the public as to make a plea for greater awareness of the heritage we are losing. He gives a certain pride of place to Melville Koppies: "Early in the 1960s I discovered the Melville Koppies iron smelting furnaces, and the way was open for systematic development of Johannesburg archaeology for education." (p. 24)

He also remarks on public indifference: "This would not happen in England or America."

We hope that we are making good on his desire to open the way for education.

Revil Mason's Work on Melville Koppies

Mason believed that "archaeology is not limited to the distant past but recorded wherever human action leaves its mark on the landscape..." (p. 24) He identified seven archaeological sites on what we call Melville Koppies Central:

  1. Stone Age camps 250 000 and 100 000 years old. Ancestral Tswana Iron Furnace 500 years old.
  2. African Iron Furnace Models.
  3. A second Tswana Iron Furnace.
  4. Tswana hut floor and pottery - 300 years old.
  5. 1880s gold prospecting.
  6. 1900s gun emplacement.
  7. Early 1900s quarries.

The Stone Age camps were revealed in the same excavation, in 1963, which uncovered the 100 year old furnace. The furnace is on a living floor about 50cm below the present ground-level. The 100 000 year old camp is about a metre below that, and the 250 000 year old floor another metre below that.

Part of the excavation was filled in on completion. The furnace and small parts of the older living floors are preserved under glass in a shelter near the lecture hut.

The artefacts discovered are housed at the University of the Witwatersrand. We have Stone Age artefacts on display but they are part of a collection donated to us over the years.

Mason's 250 000BP date places these remains in the Middle Stone Age. He himself uses the term "Fauresmith", which is not common parlance today. The tools would have been made by people called "Archaic Homo Sapiens", meaning that they were anatomically similar to modern humans, but that the remains they have left do not make it clear whether they were like us in mind and consciousness or not. Their way of life would have been that of hunter-gatherers and scavengers.

The 100 000 year old evidence is that of fully modern humans. The commonly accepted "out of Africa" theory today proposes that humans left Africa perhaps 80 000 years ago, equipped with the full human "toolkit" - tools, language, art, control of fire, song, and sociability.

The Iron Age evidence is that of a culture which reached the Witwatersrand possibly 500 years ago. The people were the ancestors of the present Tswana population. The knowledge of iron working came from far north in Africa. People with these skills were also part of a culture which combined pastoralism - goats, sheep, and the precious cattle - with agriculture. They farmed sorghum, millet, and legumes.

The earliest evidence of this culture is found in Mpumalanga, and also at a site at Broederstroom which Mason excavated, and dated to about 500BCE. It seems that these people were very vulnerable to climate change, and there is a break between the Broederstroom settlement and the 15th century when wetter conditions brought them back.

The community on Melville Koppies probably survived until the turmoil of the 1820s.

Mason proposes that during these years the Melville Koppies settlement was part of a trading network which included communities at Klipriviersberg, Lonehill, Melville Koppies, and the Magaliesberg area.

More agriculturally prosperous, the south (Klipriviersberg) would have traded cattle and grain for iron from the northern Witwatersrand, copper from the Magaliesberg, and specularite from the Boons and Tarlton area. Specularite, Iron Sulphite Fe2O3, is a glittering mineral of no value except for body decoration. It also seems that copper was used only as jewellery. Mason describes a burial of a teenage girl at Klipriviersberg who was adorned with copper earrings and iron beads and anklets. The ability to trade for cosmetics and jewellery as far as Melville Koppies and the Magaliesberg tells us that these communities - or at least some of them - were not living in desperate poverty.

Not only the smelting furnace at Melville Koppies, but also the kloof - through which Beyers Naudé Drive now runs - means that it lay on a major trading route. The British regarded the kloof as an important enough access through the Witwatersrand to maintain a gun emplacement on the Koppies during the South African War.

A less noticed heritage on the Melville Koppies is that of the last "Stone Age" peoples. These of course are the San or Bushmen (it seems impossible to be politically correct in naming them, both "Bushman" and "San" are vaguely derogatory in different languages.) Mason does not mention the San living floor on Melville Koppies Central. But he does write about the "cave" on Melville Koppies West.

The "cave" is more like a small rock overhang than a cave in the way speleologists think of one. But it was excavated, and in it were found a grooved stone used by the San to shape arrows and to grind ostrich shell beads.

Also found were bones of hunted animals, and a Zebra tooth. The San had a complicated relationship with the iron using pastoralists. There is evidence at Broederstroom that they may have cooperated with the settlement as hunters - for hunting and gathering, not pastoralism and agriculture, was their way of life. But they were possibly also enslaved or killed.

The Melville Koppies committee has a collection of San artefacts which we take out for educational tours. They are not from the Koppies - they were donated by the late Bert Woodhouse, an expert in San culture, particularly painting and rock art. We keep this collection very safe indeed.

Mason refers to the cave as a "refuge". This is because it is likely that the settlement in the 1820s fled the invasion by Mzilikatsi and some may have used the cave as a temporary hiding place.

The cave on Melville Koppies West is also a heritage site. We have the blue plaque, but have not yet put it up - fixing it high on the hard quartzite rocks will be difficult.