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Baden-Baden is located about 75 km northwest of Bloemfontein on the edge of a large pan known as Annaspan. The site, which is situated on private property, has been named after the presence of a corrugated iron – constructed bath house, now abandoned, dating back to the late Victorian era (Figure 1).

Figure 2. The indoor pool situated on an active mineral spring eye.

The bath house was constructed over an active mineral spring eye located next to a large a spring mound which has been shaped over thousands of years to form a large sandy knoll (Figure 2 & 3).

Figure 3. Panoramic view of Baden Baden with the spring mound visible in the background. The old bath house is situated right of center.

The palaeo-environmental and archaeological potential of this site was first recognized in 1987 by Prof Louis Scott from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State.

Subsequent, joint archaeological and palaeo-environmental investigations by researchers from the National Museum Bloemfontein, the University of the Free State, Texas State University, the University of Georgia and the University of Wollongong, have dated the spring mound and identified a small number of localized Middle Stone Age surface sites in the vicinity of the spring (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Taking auger samples for Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating analysis.

Additional archaeological excavations have yielded the animal remains of black wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok, and impala, while Later Stone Age artefacts (stone implements) preserved within several Holocene human occupation layers provide evidence of occasional visitations by prehistoric inhabitants (Holocene = time period spanning last 12 000 years) (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Meticulous test pit excavation within spring mound sediments.

Plant microfossils, including pollen and phytoliths, that were extracted from buried organic layers capped by wind-blown sand accumulations in the spring mound, suggests cooler, moist conditions during the late Pleistocene around 30 000 – 40 000 years ago, followed by drier and warmer conditions during the Holocene (Figure 6 & 7).

Figure 6. Detailed soil sampling for plant microfossil analysis.

The visual impact of the remote, late 19th century bath house at Baden Baden is striking, and together with its archaeological richness, the site offers one more piece of the puzzle in unraveling prehistoric human adaptation and long-term climate change in the central interior of South Africa.

Figure 7. Photomicrograph of microscopic plant silica identified as grass phytoliths, extracted from the archaeological soils. Scale in micron (1 micron = 1/1000 mm)

Further reading

van Aardt, A., Bousman, C., Brink, J.,  Brook, G,.  Jacobs, Z.  du Preez, P.,  Rossouw, L.  and Scott, L. 2015. First chronological, palaeoenvironmental, and archaeological data from the Baden-Baden fossil spring complex in the western Free State, South Africa. (pp. 117–152). https://doi.org/10.1201/b19410-9.

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