Archaeological Research in the Klein Karoo

Jul 21, 2023 | General News

Dr Elizabeth Velliky is a passionate archaeologist who works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen with the SapienCE project under Prof. Christopher Henshilwood (the GCBR’s ambassador of archaeology). Earlier this year, she and two other archaeologists, Dr Brandi MacDonald and Cuan Hahndiek, embarked on a journey to the Klein Karoo region outside of Oudtshoorn in search of ochre sources. Ochre, an iron-rich rock, clay or sediment appearing in a range of reddish hues, has a remarkable history. It has served as a medium for artistic expression, such as in the fantastic cave paintings in Europe and also throughout Africa and Australia, and practical activities, such as for hide tanning and sunscreen, for our species (and likely beyond) over the past hundreds of thousands of years. Ochre is widely considered to be the first medium for symbol making, and some of the most spectacular finds of this material come from cave sites along the southern Cape, including Blombos Cave and Klipdrift rockshelter[i]. Today, ochre continues to hold significance in both indigenous and commercial fields, taking on various roles in different cultures.

In collaboration with Louis Jordaan (GCBR Extension Officer), a local naturalist and guide, Elizabeth and her team commenced their geological survey to search for spots with deposits of ochre scattered throughout the region. Louis’ intimate knowledge of the region was invaluable, leading them to the discovery of numerous diverse ochre sources throughout the Klein Karoo. Elizabeth and her team also gained a wealth of knowledge from Louis about the local flora and fauna, and how the geology, archaeology, and environment are intertwined and tell a story in the Klein Karoo.

In addition, Louis also guided Elizabeth and her team to rock art shelters where they conducted state-of-the-art non-destructive analyses on the paintings. The goal of this work was to see if any of the ochre they collected could have been used to create the intricate animals and images seen on the rock walls. Overall, their objective is to establish connections between geological samples, archaeological materials from prominent sites like Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter, and the captivating rock art images found throughout the region.

The significance of Elizabeth’s work is further emphasized by the generous funding provided by the SapienCE project and the Leakey Research Foundation[ii]. These organizations recognize the importance of multidisciplinary research in unraveling the complexities surrounding ancient ochre use and its profound cultural relevance, and bring us one step closer to understanding the significance of ochre in our past and present.

Elizabeth’s journey is far from over. The field of ochre research is an ever-expanding endeavor, continuously discovering new archaeological materials, ochre sources, and rock art sites. If you possess any information regarding ochre sources or have encountered this remarkable material, Elizabeth eagerly awaits your message. Your contribution could potentially unlock new insights and even lead to future field visits to these intriguing sites. Elizabeth’s work in the Klein Karoo serves as a testament to the profound impact of ochre on human history, as well as the importance of collaborative efforts in fieldwork. Stay tuned as this journey unfolds, revealing the secrets of the past held within the ochre-rich landscapes of the Klein Karoo.

For more information on Elizabeth’s project, visit:

How iron rich rocks shaped us modern humans

UIB Elizabeth Catherine Velliky

Anthropology Brandi Macdonald


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