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What Lies Beneath

Architect: Mr Craig McClenaghan. By: Mr Vedhant Maharaj

The new pathway through the archaeological excavation site of the Wonderwerk Cave shows a deep sensitivity to the wonders that surround it.
Image: Pathway by Craig McClenaghan Image: Pathway by Craig McClenaghan

Those who go looking for Wonderwerk Cave will find it between Danielskuil and Kuruman in the Northern Cape. Its formation from fructified dolomitic limestone signals its origins in a time when the Kuruman Hills formed part of an underwater landscape, when the cave was sculpted by the routing of an underground river.

A more recent addition to the landscape is a 140m-long pathway inside the archeologically active site of the Wonderwerk Cave, a National Heritage Site. The pathway stretches far beyond its physical reaches, as it connects the extraordinary discoveries of human history, development and life found here. Resisting the need to match the impressive pedigree of the extraordinary archeologically sensitive site that houses two million years of some of humankind’s most significant developments, the architecture instead is modest in the face of the site’s obvious historical significance.

The project is respectful to the surroundings, so as almost to disappear. It traverses a journey back in time to uncover prehistoric layers of human existence; making a pioneering architectural expedition into the creation of spatial gestures responsive to human histories, and an excursion navigating the significance of cultural landscapes. The pathway project is the kind that blurs the lines between building project and human endeavour.

Since the pathway creates a spatial palimpsest between architecture and archaeology, which makes the building significant only because of the site itself, the architect had to be someone bold enough to meet the challenge posed by the site’s significance, while still able to recognise that the project would be bigger than the design or the designer. The new pathway through the archaeological excavation site of the Wonderwerk Cave shows a deep sensitivity to the wonders that surround it.

The architect, Craig McClenaghan, took on the challenge, which was his first solo project after leaving Mashabane Rose Associates to embark on a path of his own.

The Cave of Miracles

The cave, as the name suggests, is a place of wonder. It is the source of archaeological findings unlocking secret passages to millions of years of human ancestry.

According to Dr David Morris, co-author of the book Pathways through the Interior and the head of archaeology at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, the cave’s ‘miracle’ lies not only in the revelation of its hidden treasures, but in the ‘quite miraculous’ discovery that one site could produce evidence of continuous human activity spanning two million years.

The greatest moment of humankind’s development was unlocking the power of fire. The Wonderwerk Cave is historically placed at the exact moment of this discovery, as charcoal and charred animal bones dating back some 800 000 years suggest. This find lifted the cloak on the origin of controlled fire, establishing Wonderwerk as the global location of the first one known to humankind.

Prehistoric signs of human progress

In excavating the secrets held by sites like Wonderwerk Cave, archaeologists unveil the earth according to a system of grids. Plotting discoveries on a horizontal grid allows them to be linked across the site, forming an axis of the specific relationships between objects, much like those plotted on an architectural plan. This plan is then extruded vertically to create a three-dimensional coordinate system. The vertical axis cuts through layers of strata as an axis of time. Excavating deeper means a journey further back in time.

Morris explains how deconstructing the journey through the earth’s layers produces a timeline of human development that plots both smaller shifts in habits and behaviour, and dramatic climatic and environmental changes. The strata contain, for example, two-million-year-old evidence of human culinary habits. The earliest strata show that humans ate hare, tortoise and big game.

Expanding this menu required an expanded set of tools and weapons, which is precisely what’s revealed in analysing the unearthed discoveries. Moving through layers of earth and time reveals the growing sophistication of tools and, with it, the implied improvement in the hominid’s cognitive skills. Plotting from the early Stone Age to the present shows the early use of cleavers, refined into axes and blades, and further into small, sharp arrowheads.

The layers of earth also contain the signs of more significant environmental and ecosystem changes. Animal remains mark dramatic changes, such as the extinction of species, and signal other shifts, such as dietary changes, when compared with the stratified remains of the same species over time. These findings reveal the patterns of climate change and allow archaeologists to plot cyclical ice ages and other extreme shifts.

Art on the internal walls of the cave provides a different perspective on the humans who inhabited It. It shows the growth from early engraved geometric patterns to finger paintings in the likeness of animals.

More recent cave-dwellers

The most recent, and last, inhabitants of the cave lived there as recently as 1911. From 1909, the cave was inhabited by a farmer named PE Bosman. He was accompanied by his wife and their 11 sons and three daughters, who used the cave as a temporary home while building their farmhouse. Later, Bosman used the cave as a storeroom for his wagons and oxen. This is perhaps why the cave had been described as ‘being big enough to turn an oxwagon in’.

Even more ignominious, however, for a cave later described in terms of miracle and wonder, was the period during the 1940s, when the cave was the site for the mining of bat guano and ash to sell as fertiliser. Sadly, this process destroyed many artefacts. But when some exceptional objects were found on the site, it prompted an archaeological investigation that has continued for 70 years.

The McGregor Museum is the current servitudeholder for the site. Professor Michael Chazan (University of Toronto), Dr Liora Kolska Horwitz (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Dr Francesco Berna (Simon Fraser University, Burnaby) are the current codirectors of current research there.

The architect

Before going solo, Craig McClenaghan worked for Mashabane Rose Architects (MRA) for 14 years. After joining the firm as a graduate, he became not only the trusted right-hand man to the late Jeremy Rose, but also one of South Africa’s leading architects. McClenaghan’s career has been bookended by the two phases of the construction of the Wits Origins Centre. In the intervening period, he developed an ability to be creative about seeking work. During his career at MRA, there were many instances where the firm actively initiated projects.

The second phase of the Origins Centre, the WITS Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), was initiated in this way. McClenaghan was originally asked to make a storage facility to house RARI’s exhibit, which had been in the Rembrandt Gallery at the Faculty of Law and Commerce. However, when visiting the exhibition, McClenaghan felt that the rocks were of such historical significance, warehousing them in a storeroom would be a waste of an opportunity to adequately showcase something of the collection’s importance. He approached Emmanuel Prinsloo, the head of WITS procurement, with a design and presented a costed plan to make what is now the WITS Rock Art Research Institute.

This project also signalled the transition of McClenaghan’s career from MRA towards operating solo. During this time, McClenaghan constructed the pathway that traverses through the archaeological excavation site of the Wonderwerk Cave.

The project’s origins

The origins go back to the beginning of the first phase of the WITS Origins Centre, when McClenaghan met Helene Smuts, who’d later played a pivotal role in McClenaghan’s involvement in the pathway project. Smuts, a writer of catalogues for museums and exhibitions, was central to developing the museum narratives for both the Origins Centre and RARI. Smuts is also the director of Africa meets Africa, a non-profit company she founded in 2000.

In focusing on indigenous knowledge systems, Smuts finds relationships between cultural intelligence and contemporary forms of learning, and links rural and urban education systems. These linkages broaden the discourse as to what culture and heritage is here, and about who participates in these discussions.

After the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, during the post-1990s museum-building frenzy – a process to which MRA made a significant contribution − Smuts worked closely with McClenaghan on the Origins Centre. They collaborated on a number of other projects over the next 15 years. Over time, they developed a fruitful partnership between architect and narrator.

In 2009, Morris approached Smuts with the idea of developing a visitor pathway in the Wonderwerk Cave. The site had been open to the public since 1993, when the cave was declared a National Monument. The existing public path was at the same level as the archaeological excavations, which put the excavations and cave walls at risk of damage. A contained space was needed to accommodate public access to the cave, and also protect it. Smuts knew McClenaghan was perfect for the job.

The project had no funding, brief or framework. McClenaghan approached the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), and persuaded them to fund the preliminary work necessary. A team of geotechnical, structural and electrical engineers brought together to study the conditions compiled a report for SAHRA, which formed the basis of the project tender. McClenaghan was later appointed to oversee the construction of the pathway.

Obstacles along the way

After two failed tender attempts, the design team put together an invited tender based on a heritage management and information with painstaking care. Due to the nature of the site, the sensitivity with which the builder approached constructing the pathway was essential.

The constraints on construction were considerable. No welding, painting or sanding could be done on site. As the air at the back of the cave doesn’t circulate, any such work would result in fumes being trapped in those cavities for centuries, so the pathway had to be premanufactured off-site. Finding a builder with the right skills to operate within the constraints, and in the middle of the Northern Cape, was a challenge. What was required was both high-level technological ability to construct off-site, and a skilful sensitivity to the context and requirements of the site.

McClenaghan mentions some of the peculiarities of a design process stretching over several years. A cross-section of the project would show, much like the collection of human histories it seeks to protect, the process of advancement in technology, skill and endeavour that took place from the origin of the project to its completion. The original project was drawn in AutoCAD, but this had been overtaken by more advanced technology when the project was about to be built.

McClenaghan commissioned a team to conduct a digital investigation of the cave. A laser scan of the cave was done by the University of Cape Town’s Zamani Project. Their work is focused on spatially capturing three-dimensional, digital versions of heritage landscapes and buildings in Africa. This opened a new world of information about the inner workings of the cave. Using this information, McClenaghan used the site as a drawing board on which he mapped out the points of construction. In this way, he met the need to ensure that no part of the precious archaeological site would be damaged by responding in an instinctual architectural way.

Deciding on the form of the pathway was difficult. How does one create a non-invasive architectural gesture and stay true to the already contradictory demands of accommodating people, and protecting the site? After toiling with a number of options, the decision was made to use the path of least resistance. By tweaking the existing path for public use, the team installed an object that would gently touch the ground.

The success of the project would not depend on the use of expensive material or technological glitz, but on a sensitive, considered architectural approach. The path was never meant to be precious, but to fit into a robust space where archaeologists were working, while still having the sophistication of an exhibit showcasing millions of years of unearthed human history.

Unveiling the pathway

The built pathway remained true to its design philosophy. The materiality is raw and untreated. The elements are simple. The composition is impeccable, and the construction required using only basic skills well. Elevating and containing the path above the ground alters the visitor’s engagement with and experience of the site, allowing the archaeological site to be viewed but not physically accessed. The raised platform is created through detailing that is considerate to the sensitive site. Concrete sleepers on the ground beneath the pathway were designed by considering the weight that the compacted powder sediment of the cave could withstand.

Steel supports are fixed into the sleepers to carry the pathway, so nothing is fixed to the cave itself. The path changes with the gradient of the cave, so it bows and dips with the landscape. Where this causes a kink, small pause spaces were created. Steel balustrades are hidden behind the unfinished mesh steel screen while timber handrails slide themselves in one uninterrupted, seamless line along the length of the pathway. The floorboards follow the path of the handrails running lengthwise instead of across the path. This drags your eye along the path.

This pathway unravels an intricate relationship where architecture and archaeology are the antithesis of one another, with one seeking to cover the earth and the other to remove it.

Path into the future

McClenaghan and the McGregor Museum team have put together a proposal for SAHRA to build an exhibition centre and a visitor’s centre, and create a formalised landscape and parking area. Wonderwerk Cave is on the cusp of becoming a World Heritage Site and an initiative such as this one should give it the exposure it needs. McClenaghan is part of a new breed of architects, who don’t just receive a brief, they create their own. The lessons he has learnt have given him the opportunity to create his own innovative space – one that explores the hidden cultural narratives within the South African context.

Perhaps in navigating the demands of this precious, ancient site, McClenaghan has uncovered other secrets about our humanness, such as an understanding of the ultimate fragility of human experience. And through the absence of grandiosity and a respect for context that preserves wonder, a humility that holds those who wonder so that they can coexist in a complicated, beautiful space without destroying the treasures it holds.

Projects that grow in these innovative spaces, like the Wonderwerk Cave and the Origins Centre, provide essential bridges between cultural narratives that aim not only to protect and preserve heritage sites, but to expose the hidden histories of our country.

 

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