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Archaeology, Palaeontology and Meteorites

Archaeology is the study of past people; their tools, rock art, structures and all the other traces they have left behind. Archaeological research uses professional methods to excavate these traces from the ground so that all the clues are recovered, and then recorded, dated and interpreted. In this way, archaeologists can reconstruct our human past.

Palaeontology is the study of the remains of plant and animal life that have been ‘turned to stone’. These remains are called fossils and are often bones of animals that died and were buried in mud or sand and fossilised or preserved in the rock.

San rock art, part of the art collection of the Constitution

San rock art, part of the art collection of the Constitution

Fossils can also form when the soft parts of animals or plants are preserved. Trace fossils – the footprints and other tracks left by animals – are also sometimes fossilised.

Meteorites are pieces of rock that have landed on earth from outer space. They hold clues about how the earth was formed and other aspects of the geological past.

Archaeological artefacts and sites, fossils and meteorites are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (No. 25 of 1999) and the SAHRA Archaeology, Palaeontology and Meteorites Unit is made up of heritage specialists tasked with protecting these heritage resources.

Artefacts, fossils and meteorites are often the only clues we have to the ‘deep history’ of our people and planet. With your help, SAHRA and the other heritage resources authorities can ensure that this legacy is conserved and protected, studied and interpreted, to give present and future generations a thorough record of South Africa’s past.

Why Should  Archaeological Sites be Protected?

Archaeological sites, if properly investigated by trained people, can give us information about the history of the earlier inhabitants of South Africa that cannot be found in written records. This evidence is fragile and is often destroyed in the process of being studied. Because it is irreplaceable and cannot be renewed, careful records must be kept during excavation or collection. It is often better to leave the archaeological material in its original place and protect it there, than to remove it to a museum.

How are Archaeological Sites Protected?

The National Heritage Resources Act allows archaeological sites to be declared as heritage sites so that they can be protected from destruction and damage. About 45 archaeological sites have been declared in the past. All other archaeological sites are also protected. No person may destroy, damage, alter, excavate, remove from its original site any archaeological material without a permit from the relevant heritage resources authority. The protection of archaeological and palaeontological sites and material and meteorites will become the responsibility of a provincial heritage resources authority (section 35(1) of the Act), when provincial heritage resources authorities are established and have the necessary competence. SAHRA will remain responsible for the export of such material.

In the interim, application forms for permits are available from SAHRA. Applications are assessed by a committee of the Council. It usually takes 3-5 days for an application to be processed. Permits are issued free of charge and under certain conditions:

  • The permit holder must be a professionally trained archaeologist, or must be supervised by such a person;
  • Proper records must be kept of the excavation or collecting programme;
  • All material recovered must be placed in a public institution where it is available to anyone for study and the application form must be signed by the Director of a museum or a university department agreeing to curate and store the material;
  • Regular annual reports must be submitted to SAHRA, as well as a final report and copies of all publications and theses relating to the study;
  • All excavations must be filled in after the work has been completed; and
  • It is the duty of the permit holder to obtain permission from the land owner for access to a site.

What Does the National Heritage Resources Act State?

The National Heritage Resources Act (Act No. 25 of 1999, section 35(4)) states that: (a) No person may, without a permit issued by the responsible heritage resources authority: (b) destroy, damage, excavate, alter, deface or otherwise disturb any archaeological or palaeontological site or any meteorite; (c) destroy, damage, excavate, remove from its original position, collect or own any archaeological or palaeontological material or object or any meteorite; (d) trade in, sell for private gain, export or attempt to export from the Republic any category of archaeological or palaeontological material or object, or any meteorite; or (e) bring onto or use at an archaeological or palaeontological site any excavation equipment or any equipment which assist in the detection or recovery of metals or archaeological and palaeontological material or objects, or use such equipment for the recovery of meteorites. Anyone found guilty of an offence in terms of the Act is liable for a fine or imprisonment, or both. In cases where material is accidentally disturbed by mining, engineering or agricultural activities, the finds must be reported to a cultural institution such as a museum or university department, or the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

Permit applications for archaeology, palaeontology and meteorites are done via the South African Heritage Resources Information System (SAHRIS), which can be accessed through the SAHRA website. Permits are generally issued for: the export of material; research excavation; mitigation excavation that form part of development applications (section 38); and for the filming of (or at) archaeological and palaeontological sites. Permits are only issued for bona fide research purposes and to suitably qualified professionals, however, any individual may apply to SAHRA for a permit.  Fees payable to process permit applications are gazetted in the Government Gazette (No. 669,July 2005).