In May 2021 I was a volunteer in the first scoping survey of archaeological assets in the Komati Gorge and the Mgwayiza Valley (in the Malolotja Nature Reserve in the Kingdom of Eswatini). Our small multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, anthropologists, researchers, artists and outdoor enthusiasts spent ten days looking for ancient stone tool-making sites and geological rock samples to correlate with existing Middle Stone Age artifacts and research findings at the Eswatini National Museum. The survey itself was a real success, paving the way for a full excavation in early 2022.

The project’s Completion Report stated that, “The Komati Gorge survey area proved to be extremely rich in archaeological assets. The entire Mgwayiza Valley should be considered an important archaeological site because of the density and time range of the remains. These extend from the earliest humans, through the evolution of modern humans to the iron age and up to the recent past. Because of its archaeological richness the Mgwayiza Valley is worthy of special protection. Archaeological excavations in Mgwayiza will provide further details of the country’s rich past.

Though archaeology provided the overall justification for the trip, campfire discussions during the expedition kept coming back to the incredible depth and variety of “time-perspectives” at work in the area. There was unanimous agreement that the area is a goldmine of facts and stories waiting (and deserving) to be uncovered.

The Makhonjwa Mountains, and its ancient rocks, are the oldest on the planet – they are a literal unchanged timepiece from the planet’s formation to the present day. The area was inhabited by humans (and pre-humans) for millions of years, all the way up to the contemporary era. It is also an incredibly diverse conservation area with wonderful flora and fauna, thousand-year-old cycads and a plethora of so-called ecosystem services.

The recent survey has, ultimately, helped frame the importance of the space and the findings – but other approaches are also required to better understand the variety of stories that comprise the multifaceted totality of the area.

I am interested in how art, imagination and storytelling can assist in portraying the depth of wonder that exists in the Mgwayiza Valley to a wider public audience. How can I weave the interconnected threads of geology, archaeology, ecology, anthropology, culture, spirituality and history into one narrative tapestry that both piques human interest whilst contributing data that strengthens the overall call for “recognition and protection”? What role can creativity play alongside historically utilitarian academic disciplines? Ultimately, how can existing archaeological endeavours become more interdisciplinary through creative arts research methods and storytelling, and how can these results be recognised, accessed and consumed by the general public – both globally and locally?

I am aiming to link my creative passions and professional experience with the mountains of my home – mountains that I have fallen in love with over the course of many adventures and explorations during my life. The area in question is at constant threat of industrial mining, biodiversity loss, poaching and general public indifference. It is my hope that the results of this process contribute in some meaningful way to existing archaeological efforts whilst increasing the awareness and overall protection of the greater Malolotja Nature Reserve.

The final product will be a piece of creative writing fully informed by facts obtained from research, fieldtrips and interviews with local experts and knowledge-custodians (jazzed up with a bit of creative license here and there). The piece will have visual accompaniments (photography and/or illustration) with the aim of enticing viewership from as wide a variety of people as possible. The final product may take both digital and physical form as a standalone booklet, potentially also translated into siSwati, and there is significant potential to embed the work within the archaeological academic efforts that are simultaneously underway. Adapted versions of work may also contribute as content to longer-term plans for the establishment of a museum in the park – though this remains to be seen.

Dane Armstrong