Giving back to archaeology: The Kruger National Park
Steinaecker’s Horse research project (1997 – 2020)
The Steinaecker’s Horse research project has been running since 1997. It started during 1996 when the Northernmost or Letaba outpost of Steinaecker’s Horse was rediscovered by an expedition under the leadership of the Director of the future Archaetnos. This resulted in writing a research proposal to SanParks to excavate the site, which was subsequently approved.
During September 1997 the site was excavated for the first time by a team led by Anton van Vollenhoven. He was then employed by the National Cultural History Museum. The museum however withdrew financial support during 1998. By this time Archaetnos has been established and it was decided to proceed with the project out of own funds.
The Steinaecker’s Horse project is managed under the research leg of Archaetnos and is the company’s way of giving back to archaeology. The project is funded by Archaetnos. It also is a means to still be able to do research.
Through the project many volunteers and students in archaeology had the chance to get first-hand experience of excavations and all it entails. By giving lectures in the different camps where the excavators stayed throughout the project, public awareness about archaeology and the importance of our cultural heritage is enhanced. The project is also used by Archaetnos as a public relations venture. Every year the media is informed and kept so about the day to day developments on site.
The importance of this project lies within the fact that very little research has been done about the Anglo-Boer-War, from an archaeological perspective. Furthermore it creates the opportunity to do research on the involvement of the indigenous people during the war, an area that did not receive much attention during the past years from researchers.
Short history of Steinaecker’s Horse
(A full account of the history of the unit and the various excavations can be found in the different excavation reports under the section ‘Reports’ on this website)
Steinaecker’s Horse was a volunteer military unit that fought on the side of the British during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). It operated mainly in the Lowveld of South Africa and Swaziland. The unit was formed by an interesting man named Francis Christiaan Ludwig von Steinaecker, a former Prussian-German soldier with extensive military experience. He came to SA in 1886, working as cartographer in German South-West Africa, before settling in Natal in 1890. He became a British subject and when the war broke out in 1899, he joined the Colonial Scouts.
He came to the attention of General Buller, commander of the British Forces during the early stages of the war, and after participating in a series of successful campaigns against the Boers, he was given permission to raise his own cavalry unit, called Steinaecker’s Horse. He was also promoted to the rank of Major. The unit (close to 600 men) consisted mainly of local inhabitants of the Lowveld region, while local Black groups such as Shangane and Swazi, also assisted (or rather, were utilized by the unit) in their activities.
Although they did not encounter much military action, they were involved in a few skirmishes with the Boers (notably the Battle of Fort Mpisane on 7 August 1901). The units’ main function was to act as border guard in order to prevent the Boers from making contact with their supporters in Portuguese-East Africa (Mozambique). For this purpose a number of outposts were established along the 200km stretch of the Lebombo Mountains, specifically in the area today known as the Kruger National Park.
The unit had some successes during the war and two members received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). However, they were also notorious for their bad behaviour, raiding of property and unethical conduct.
Steinaecker’s Horse was eventually disbanded during 1903. Their most important legacy is the contribution some of their members made to the later Kruger National Park. The Adjutant of the unit, Major AA Greenhill-Gardyne, wrote a protocol for the preservation of the wild life in the area. This document was used by Major J Stevenson-Hamilton as he started working as the first warden of the Park. Some of the members of Steinaecker’s Horse became game rangers, among them the well-known Harry Wolhuter.
The Steinaecker’s Horse project so far
Archaeological excavations were done on the Letaba site during 1997, 2000 and 2002. A display of the findings of the first two years was mounted at the Mopani Rest Camp during 2003. It was moved to the Makhadzi picnic site shortly afterwards as this is the closest accessible point for tourists to the actual site.
In 1998 the archives of the Kruger Park at Skukuza was visited in order to obtain more historical information on Steinaecker’s Horse. Archival research now is a continuous process, including the South African and British National Archives as well as those of private collectors.
During 2003 and 2017 other sites associated with the unit was searched for during extensive foot surveys in the Park. Fourteen sites were identified in or close to the Park through literature and archival research. Ten of these have physically been located and the search for the other four continues.
The Komatipoort site was the headquarters of Steinaecker’s Horse. This site was documented during 2004. It consists of many remains of buildings and other infrastructure built and utilised by Steinaecker’s Horse.
- Fort Mpisane
- Terrain where Bill Sanderson received his internship
- Gaz a Gray outpost
- Sardelli’s shop
- Sabie bridge
- Northern outpost
- Komatipoort headquarters
- Kilo 104
Steinaecker’s Horse sites in or close to the Kruger National Park
The Sabi Bridge (Skukuza) site was excavated during 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009. This site is quite complex as it did not only host Steinaecker’s Horse, but also the Selati railway line and recent military activities. The Selati/Oosterspoorlyn cut through a part of the area today known as the Kruger National Park. The line stopped short of the Sabi River near Skukuza (where the Bridge is today) during August 1894.
Up to and during the Anglo-Boer War no work was done on the line, although it played an important role (the Boers used the line to store and organize their rolling stock until the British took control of it).
Between 1901 and 1902 Steinaecker’s Horse used the uncompleted section near “Skukuza”/Sabi Bridge (the southern end of the line).
They built a blockhouse here, a fairly basic construction of brick and corrugated iron. After the war, and when Steinaecker’s left the scene (on 24 November 1902) Stevenson-Hamilton, the first Game Warden of the Park (between 1902 and 1946) moved into the blockhouse, using it as his Headquarters.
The Ngotso Mouth site was excavated in 2008 and 2013. This site is at the confluence between the Ngotso and Olifants River, close to the Balule rest camp. Very little evidence regarding this site is found in historical sources.
The famous game ranger and member of Steinaecker’s Horse, Harry Wolhuter, mentions that he camped alongside a river on his way to some of the outposts of Steinaecker’s Horse in the north. He named the river Ngotso after one of the indigenous people who guided them to the Olifants River. Pienaar also makes mention of an outpost close to the Olifants River.
The Gaza Gray outpost of Steinaecker’s Horse was investigated between 2010 – 2012 and 2014 – 2015. The site is named after Edward George Gray who was a captain in the Steinaecker’s Horse unit. He was nicknamed Gaza as he used to work in Portuguese East Africa before the War.
He was in command of three outposts of Steinaecker’s Horse namely this one, the nearby one at Gomondwane and the one at Crocodile Bridge. After the War he became a game ranger in the Sabi game reserve (later Kruger Park).
Apart from being a very large site it used to host the cattle of Gray and some local people before the War. During the War it was used by Steinaecker’s Horse to keep the cattle that they confiscated from local people and some of the Boer farmers such as Abel Erasmus. As a result the site has many refuse middens in which cultural material is mixed with remains of cattle kraals. During the 2010 excavation the human remains of five individuals were unearthed here. Another one was unearthed during 2011, one in 2014 and two in 2015.
The site of Sardelli’s shop at Sabiepoort was excavated in 2016. The site was used for the internment of Bill Sanderson during the war.
The Gomondwane site, also called Sadelli’s shop, was excavated in 2018. At this post Steinaecker’s Horse had a earth fortification.
The N’wamuriwa site, also called Metsi-Metsi, was excvated in 2019 and 2020. The site consists of 11 military trenches apparently used by black troops of Steinaecker’s Horse.
Sadly the Steinaecker’s Horse project has ended. A new project in the Crooks Corner region in the Kruger National Park is being planned currently.
In 2017 the research will focus on surveying and identifying some of the sites associated with Steinaecker’s Horse.
As the people who participate in the project are volunteers, Archaetnos also wants them to get more out the project than only the scientific side. Work starts at 6:00 am and ends early afternoon so that they may enjoy some game viewing. The weekend in-between (the excursion usually runs for two weeks) is also used for game viewing.
In the evenings everyone gathers around the camp fire where food is prepared and everyone gets the chance to discuss the day’s finds or just relax. Special accolades are given to those who unearthed something special or perhaps just made a fool of him/herself. A specific award, The Golden Potshard, is given to a worthy recipient. At the end of the excursion one of the excavators receive the highest honour, being The Golden Potsherd for the camp.
People interested in joining the 2016 research team can contact Prof Anton van Vollenhoven at firstname.lastname@example.org