For archaeologists, it’s in the blood: Morris Sutton

  • February 17, 2011 | Sally Shaw

University of Witwatersrand doctoral researcher Morris Sutton loves the thrill of finding old things – they must be at least 1 or 2 million years old.


Morris Sutton, University of Witwatersrand doctoral researcher

Sutton, who is American, decided at the height of a successful business career to pursue his dream of becoming an archaeologist.

“I have loved searching for artefacts ever since I was a teenager,” says Sutton, who grew up in the American southeast, where the ancient Native American cultures provide rich pickings.

So, at the age of 36, he started his undergraduate degree in archaeology at the University of Memphis, in Tennessee. During this time he had an opportunity to visit South Africa to attend a field school with Wits Professor Lyn Wadley in KwaZulu-Natal. Sibudu Cave is a sandstone cliff site rich in Middle Stone Age artefacts (roughly 300, 000 to 30, 000 years old), including bone arrows and a compound type of glue which required heating.

Sutton was enchanted and decided to return to South Africa to pursue a graduate degree at Wits. While studying towards his MSc, he worked with Dr Kathleen Kuman, also a lecturer at Wits, conducting field surveys in the Limpopo River Valley, searching for artefact accumulations that could indicate an area was worth undertaking full archaeological excavation. 

“We were looking for Middle Stone Age sites in the Limpopo River valley,” says Sutton. “There was a great deal of evidence in the area, mostly artefacts, but these particular surveys did not turn up anything to warrant a full dig.”

Sutton’s area of specialty is the Earlier and Middle Stone Ages and he has been working at Swartkrans, part of the Cradle of Humankind, for the past five years, conducting research for his PhD.  The archaeological record here includes hominid remains, stone and bone tools and – importantly – charred bones which provide evidence of early use of controlled fire. These incredible finds are the stars of the show, but Sutton’s work involves the impeccable background research so important in archaeology. 

“The work involves aspects of geology and geomorphology in terms of understanding and documenting the process by which material entered the cave system” says Sutton. “There are complicated infills at Swartkrans and we have to interpret the formation processes and understand the relationship between different deposits.”
The good news is that Sutton’s work on his doctoral dissertation is complete and he is planning to publish the results in archaeological journals in March 2011. “I am pleased and relieved,” he says. “It’s been a lot of hard work.”

Maropeng curator Lindsay Marshall says of Sutton: “He is a reserved and quiet person, but when he begins to talk about his work, he is enthralling. Morris is very passionate about archaeology. The first time he took me around Swartkrans, I was mesmerised. He clearly loves what he does and his presentation is infectious.”

Erica Jago, the general manager at Maropeng, echoes these sentiments. “Morris comes to life with his subject matter and he loves to share his knowledge. He is a serious scientist, yet he is able to convert that knowledge into information a layman can understand.”

Sutton, who is married to a South African, plans to continue to conduct field work at the Cradle of Humankind as a post-doctoral researcher, with either a South African or American-based academic institution.

“South Africa has such a rich cultural heritage, going back some 3-million years, and much of it is right on the doorstep of metro areas,” says Sutton, who also leads local school groups on archaeological tours, an aspect of his work which is particularly rewarding. “I would encourage young people to take advantage of the incredible opportunities available to them.”

Maropeng has organised exclusive walking tours for a limited number of people with Morris Sutton at Swartkrans, which is normally not open to the public, at a cost of R350 per adult and includes a delicious buffet lunch.

Click here to book for the following dates:

March 19, 2011
April 16, 2011
May 14, 2011
June 18, 2011
August 20, 2011
September 17, 2011
October 15, 2011
November 19, 2011
December 10, 2011

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