The Mirror in the Ground


Shepherd, Nick. 2015. The Mirror in the Ground: Archaeology, photography and the making of a disciplinary archive. Cape Town: Centre for Curating the Archive and Jonathan Ball Publishers. ISBN 9781868426874.


“Human archaeology in southern Africa has since its beginnings been implicated in the projects of evolutionism and biological racism. Nick Shepherd’s delvings into the underground of the discipline are part of an honourable effort to save archaeology from its past, an effort that starts with recognizing dig sites for what they have always been: the sacred ground of the dispossessed. The Mirror in the Ground offers us a fresh way of looking at the photographic archive, with a commentary as moving and compassionate as it is unsettling.” – JM Coetzee.



The Mirror in the Ground is a curated book of twelve visual essays, drawing on photographs from the collection of the South African archaeologist A.J.H. “John” Goodwin (1900-1959). Based at UCT, Goodwin was a formative figure in the development of South African, and African, archaeology. The collection of material relating to his life and work is housed in the Manuscripts and Archives division of the University of Cape Town Library, and consists of manuscripts and typescripts, field notebooks, and a voluminous correspondence, as well as thousands of photographic prints, negatives and glass plates. The photographs from the Goodwin collection speak of a number of significant themes in the founding and disciplining of archaeology as a knowledge project in the first half of the twentieth century. These include the role of fieldwork and the emergence of a conception of the archaeological field, the unacknowledged role of black co-workers in the development of the discipline, the status and meaning of settler science in South Africa in the first half of the twentieth century, and a developing notion of archaeological aesthetics and the role of the visual imagination. They also speak of hidden histories of racial science, epistemic violence and the contested appropriation of human remains.


Situated at the intersection between archaeology, Visual Studies and African Studies, The Mirror in the Ground is theoretically innovative in opening a set of questions around the deep inscription of colonial ideas and ways of working in disciplines like archaeology. It does this not in an abstract or polemic fashion, but through a set of closely focused case studies. This makes The Mirror in the Ground intensely relevant to a set of unfolding debates at UCT around the coloniality of disciplinary knowledges and institutional frameworks. It is fitting that a pioneering scholarly contribution to these debates should be grounded in a critical appraisal of the work of John Goodwin, one of the founders of African Studies at this university.


The Mirror in the Ground was designed and published as a joint project involving the Centre for Curating the Archive at UCT, and Jonathan Ball Publishers. As well as being published in hard copy and as an eBook, an online version of the book designed by Niek de Greef is currently available as partial content, and will be open-sourced in April 2016. An exhibition, The Mirror in the Ground, was opened in the Centre for African Studies Gallery in May 2015, to coincide with the launch of the book, and ran until June. The exhibition was curated by Siona O’Connell and Nick Shepherd, with assistance from student curators Michelle Mlati, Ticha Muvhuti and Amber Knox.


Jonathan Ball Publishers: (hard copy and eBook)


Centre for Curating the Archive: (book launch and exhibition opening)


The Mirror in the Ground: (online version)



“Theoretically innovative and empirically grounded, this fascinating book interrogates the visual constitution of archaeological practice and dissects two powerful collateral devices of colonial modernity, the photographic and the archaeological, demonstrating their mutual becomings. It also makes a profound commentary on the archival impulse, urging us to reflect on the archive fever of disciplinary fields such as archaeology. It is free of jargon, and written in a highly evocative, almost poetic style, which makes it immensely readable. The short chapters have a thematic coherence and autonomy but are at the same time held together by a tight, compelling argument. The visual material is stunning and the layout superb, making this an aesthetically and sensorially gripping artefact. A great book, bound to become an important intervention.” – Yannis Hamilakis, author of Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect (OUP, 2013).


“The appeal of this superb book is its immediacy, its intimacy… The beautifully written texts that accompany the photographs (not just mere glosses but powerful invocations to see them otherwise) provoke the violence of looking and knowing [that] modernity deployed worldwide as neutral cognitive devices. This book is not about past events […] but about the world as we now know it.” – Cristobal Gnecco, editor of Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress.



When the hand that holds the trowel is black

The secret history of archaeology in Africa is the history of ‘native’ labour. It is the story of those men (and they were almost always men) who dug, sieved, sorted, located sites and ‘finds’, fetched and carried, pitched camp, cooked and served food, negotiated with local chiefs and suppliers, and assisted in the interpretation of… Read more…

In a cave near Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape

In 1927 the archaeologist John Goodwin took his Cambridge mentor, Myles Burkitt, on a  grand tour of southern Africa to look at archeological sites. In the Eastern Cape they stopped at a cave not far from the site of what history books call the Bulhoek Massacre. Read more here.