Theft of South African relics riles researchers

The Thulamela archaeological site in Kruger National Park, South Africa, was occupied between the 13th and 17th centuries.

When thieves stole some centuries-old golden artefacts from a South African park in December, they did more than just spirit away archaeological treasures. The robbery has triggered an outcry among academics, who have only just heard of the theft, and raised questions about growing efforts to return culturally important materials to the region where they were found.

Archaeologists and curators from major museums worry that smaller, local facilities sometimes fall short on security and cannot preserve artefacts properly, leaving them at risk. “There is always a trade-off of security versus local relevance and tourism benefits at remote regional museums,” says Kevin MacDonald, an archaeologist at University College London. “If I were custodian of such materials, I would think twice before putting them into vulnerable situations.”

The stolen artefacts include a necklace, bracelets and beads excavated from two graves at the Thulamela archaeological site, which was inhabited between the 13th and 17th centuries. This site is located within Kruger National Park, and the artefacts were on loan to the park when they were stolen from a small museum there. The theft was first publicly reported this June in an Afrikaans-language newspaper, Die Beeld.

In South Africa, heritage legislation encourages that artefacts be stored in their province of origin. However, only universities and museums have the accreditation to store them permanently. The Thulamela relics are usually housed at the Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria.

The robbery leaves a gap in the history of the gold trade in southern Africa, says Sian Tiley-Nel, who manages the museums at the University of Pretoria. Tiley-Nel oversees a group of artefacts discovered at what was once the kingdom of Mapungubwe in the north of South Africa. Mapungubwe, a 13th and 14th century trading centre, was excavated from the 1930s; Thulamela in the 1990s. The two sites were the most significant archaeological gold discoveries in southern Africa, Tiley-Nel says. “Gold artefacts are an extreme rarity and that is why the Thulamela theft is a travesty.”

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