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Finding Bosutswe: Archeological Encounters with the Past1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2014

James Denbow
University of Texas–Austin
Morongwa Mosothwane
University of the Witwatersrand
Nonofho Mathibidi Ndobochani
National Museum of Botswana


Bi-lingual, Bi-cultural

able to slip from “How's life”

to M'estan volviendo loca,

able to sit in a paneled office

drafting memos in smooth English,

able to order in fluent Spanish

at a Mexican restaurant,

American but hyphenated,

viewed by Anglos as perhaps exotic,

perhaps inferior, definitely different,

viewed by Mexicans as alien

(their eyes say, “You may speak

Spanish but you're not like me”)

an American to Mexicans

a Mexican to Americans

a handy token

sliding back and forth

between the fringes of both worlds

by smiling

by masking the discomfort

of being pre-judged


This paper presents a micro-scale examination of archeological field praxis and its impact on archeologists, students (foreign and indigenous), and the local communities that both host and labor for them. It is a reflexive journey that attempts to bring coherence to the multiple and changing registers of meaning, contradiction, and transformation that have taken place during excavations at Bosutswe in “post-colonial” Botswana. We discuss our interactions with one another and our encounters with “the past” as we sought to validate, transform, or escape the contemporary entanglements of multilateral “pre-judgments” that have their roots deep in the soil of colonial encounter.

Pat Mora in her short poem, Two Worlds, captures some of the contradictions inherent in a post-modern, post-colonial, transnational world, where one is sometimes offered the possibility of inhabiting multiple universes, with multiple cultural and linguistic positionalities, and sometimes even trans-ethnic or transnational identities as possible choices.

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 2008

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The authors are grateful for the graciousness of the Bosutswe people who hosted us over several field seasons of work. We are also grateful to the University of Botswana archeology students who provided many fresh, new voices as they added to our discussions of the past (and present). We are indebted to several readers who provided comments and suggestions: Maria Franklin, Denné Reed, Zacharys Gundu, Carla Klehm, Polly Strong, K. Kris Hirst, Kirsten Atwood, and Jan Vansina. Finally, we acknowledge the National Science Foundation for funding the 1990, 2001, and 2002 excavations at Bosutswe.


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22 “di-” is the prefix used to make artifacts “plural” for this noun class in Tswana.

23 For more discussion of cardinal directions, burials, and the ancestral world see Denbow, James, “Heart and Soul: Glimpses of Ideology and Cosmology in the Iconography of Tombstones from the Loango Coast of Central Africa,” Journal of American Folklore 112(1999), 404–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Denbow/Miller, “Metalworking.”

24 For the origins of this debate, see Denbow, James, “Prehistoric Herders and Foragers of the Kalahari: the Evidence for 1500 Years of Interaction” in Past and Present in Hunter Gatherer Studies, ed. Schrire, C., (Orlando, 1984), 175–93Google Scholar; Denbow, James and Wilmsen, Edwin, “The Advent and Course of Pastoralism in the Kalahari,” Science 234(1986), 1509–15CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Solway, J. and Lee, R., “Foragers, Genuine or Spurious? Situating the Kalahari San in History,” Current Anthropology 31(1990), 109–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wilmsen, Edwin and Denbow, James, “Paradigmatic History of San-Speaking Peoples and Current Attempts at Revision,” Current Anthropology 31(1990), 489524CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Following Fabian's use of this term in his Time.

26 Simpson, John, “Diamonds Are Curse of Ancient Bushmen,” Daily Telegraph (8 November 2002)Google Scholar.

27 Ibid., emphasis mine.

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30 Filmed interview of Motofela Molato at Khubu la Dintša, July 2002. Video CD on file at the National Museum of Botswana, translation by Nonofho Ndobochani.

31 Ibid.

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33 For examples of dung deposits as favored locations of burials in Botswana see Denbow, James, “The Toutswe Tradition: a Study in Socio-economic Change” in Hitchcock, Renee and Smith, Mary, eds., Settlement in Botswana (Johannesburg, 1982), 7387Google Scholar; Denbow, James, “Iron Age Economics: Herding, Wealth and Politics along the Fringes of the Kalahari Desert during the Early Iron Age” (PhD., Indiana, 1983)Google Scholar; idem., “A New Look at the Later Prehistory of the Kalahari,” JAH 27(1986), 3-28; Denbow/Miller, “Metal-working.”

34 Motofela Molato, Khubu la Dintša, July 2002.

35 Denbow/Denbow, Uncovering Botswana's Past.

36 Interview with Nurse Bakwena, Mashoro Clinic, August 2002.

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39 I am indebted to Dr. Zacharys Gundu for this point.

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