Object Parents

    Natural resources that “parent” objects:
  • unknown sheep

Sheep Jaw


Length: 14cm
Breadth: 3cm
In order to access the object, the necessary channels would be to contact Professor Andrew Smith. After Professor Smith, the following point of contact would be Iziko Social History Centre, and then thereafter Louisa Hutten who is part of the UCT Archaeology Department.

Object Domicile

The sheep jaw is currently in the UCT Archaeology Department's Collections, under the care of Louisa Hutten, for further study.

Object Origin

Kasteelberg, Western Cape, South Africa 990 – 880 BP (960 – 1070 AD)

The object was excavated in one of five areas around Kasteelberg. How and why the sheep was in that specific area is unknown.

The object was found and excavated in Kasteelberg, then moved to the UCT Archaeology Department. From UCT it went to Iziko to form part of their Social History Collection. Now it is back at UCT, at the request of Louisa Hutten, for more research.


My chosen object is a sheep jaw and teeth from the Archaeology collection at the University of Cape Town. This object was excavated by UCT archaeologist Professor Andrew B. Smith in one of five different sites around the area of Kasteelberg, and can be dated back to 990 and 880 BP (960 – 1070 AD). My interest in the jaw began when I thought about the way we interact with the sheep in society. The respect and value placed on species’ remains can be quite a strong contrast to the faceless nature with which we consume the animal in our everyday lives. Perhaps confrontation with the remains evokes an empathy and sympathy which allows a commonality to be found that might not have been there before. I thought about the act of chewing – with which the jaw is commonly associated and I also considered other ways in which the jaw is implicated in, for example mental illness and its generational effects.

The small sheep skeleton was found covered in ochre, a natural clay earth pigment (Smith, 2006:43), however nothing surrounding the bones was covered in the same material suggesting that the skeleton was wrapped in something to protect it from its natural surroundings (Smith, 2006:43). The bones were also tested for their carbon and nitrogen values to determine whether the site as a whole had undergone any major changes over time (Smith, 2006:45). What Smith found was that the area where the bones were excavated had low levels of nitrogen, meaning that animal or human remains from that area, with “∂15N values higher than 10‰ – 13‰ respectively, falling into the range of a ‘marine diet’ isotopic signature, are from areas receiving less than about 400mm of rain per year” (Smith, 2006:45). These areas typically receive low rainfall each year, a significant indicator of the changing climate if one were to compare the higher rainfall in the Vredenburg Peninsula in the early occupation of Kasteelberg to that of today. These are necessary facts to be aware of, they create a clearer understanding of the sheep’s environment at the time of its life. Understanding how it might have lived allows us to understand how this might have impacted the way it grazed and roamed compared to the sheep we find in that area today.

In my own personal experience, the connection made with the jaw is linked to growing levels of anxiety and a misdiagnosis of epilepsy in my adult life. The onset of this started with a constant locked jaw accompanied by various hospital visits to relieve the pressure. The relationship between my body and my jaw became separate and a constant battle for control. My jaw became an object that I disassociated with myself and could not relate to anymore. The personal trigger for this was often linked to overstimulation caused by consuming too much content, both emotionally and socially, which would then lead to a buildup of anxiety. These included an accumulation of stresses ranging from academics, social media, personal relationships among many other things, that would manifest in a physical reaction of the jaw. I was not unaware of the impact that these stresses had in contributing to the weight of my mental illness, leading to inevitable physical harm on my body. This mental illness, and the manner with which it physically presents itself, forces a critical analysis of the ways one’s environment influences one’s growth and wellbeing. The jaw then can be seen as a body part object that transcends its primary use for eating and becomes symbolic of a personal snapshot into one individual’s own journey with mental illness.

This transcendence speaks to the value we add to different objects. In his book Theory and Cultural Value, Professor Steven Connor (1992) writes about how value, or rather the process of evaluation, is inescapable. This evaluation that Connor speaks of, is the process of estimating, ascribing, modifying, affirming and even in some cases, denying value to an object’s existence (Connor, 1992:8). The value placed on the sheep jaw, then is contingent on my evaluation of it. And because of this evaluation, the jaw is no longer just a jaw but rather transcends to be bigger than what it is in value. In later writings, Connor has also written about how objects are not docile things but are “invested with powers, associations and significances” (Connor, 2013:2). These powers can be linked to the inescapable process of evaluation that we attribute to an object. Weighting it with meaning beyond what it was initially intended, providing a different perspective for looking at an object that you might only ever have seen one dimensionally. It is important to acknowledge the value objects have and how we give them that value. As well as the power that they embody, which has the ability to make them more than what they actually are, and in a sense, anything we want them to be.

If we had to think further, and consider the sheep as its own being that those who identify as carnivores consume, their diet would by proxy affect ours too. The isotope readings done on the sheep bones also suggest that the grass they had been grazing on would have been Themeda triandra, commonly known as red grass (Smith, 2006:65). Considering the era in which this specific specimen was born and the evolution of the farming and meat industry, those sheep living today are not all free grazing and might not be consuming the same red grass. While the grass itself is not of significance in dealing with the sheep jaw, it is a vehicle to seeing how the animals we consume have an influence on our body. The being that consumes the sheep, consumes the products that it did, which shows a ripple effect even in death.

Drawing from this idea, I juxtapose this with the idea that mental illness could be passed on generationally and has the ability to affect those who come after you. A study was done by researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and the Health Emotions Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin who found that in the rhesus monkey family (a cousin of human beings) children have the ability to inherit their anxiety from their parents (Fox et al., 2015). While the research done in this field is new and still being explored, it can be said that the various factors that impact the sheep with regards to their growth, development, and death thereafter, bears a parallel resemblance to the creation of my own anxiety. This generational influence on mental illness forces an analysis into how one lives one’s life. Are there consequences to the way we treat our mind, not to ourselves but to those who come after us? If so, what are the factors that impact these decisions? Would it be related to one’s diet, environment, or work? These factors would also affect the sheep jaw in aspects, and this remnant of the past has now become a personal metaphor for my own mental illness.

The hope in exposing this sheep jaw is to shift perspective and create a narrative that does not necessarily correlate at face value. The incorporation of an introspective exploration into one’s own mental illness allows for a broader understanding of the relation between one’s mind and body. In addition to the sheep jaw, a secondary object will be exhibited to draw connections and highlight these themes more clearly. An old pill bottle that used to be filled with anxiety medication, but is now filled with candy sweets, will be put on display as a reference to the initial start of my jaw beginning to lock and when the anxiety fits started to begin. Anxiety medication was given in an attempt to counteract this and restore my body to its “natural state” – a term that one could argue is misguided as this was my body’s new natural state. The pill bottle has a direct link to the sheep jaw exhibited, and the significance of displaying the candy sweets speaks to the act of consumption as one needs to physically ingest this medication in order to relieve pressure on the body. The candy also speaks to the commonality and accessibility of these medications and the large range with which people consume them due to mental health struggles. In the same vain, with this large range of consumption of medication there is still the stigmatization young people are faced with, with regards to their own mental health. A diminishing and belittling of value as it is not held to the same regard as that of adults.

Again, to quote Connor, “the pill keeps the secret of its operation hidden, giving no image or intimation in its physical form of the kind of work it will do or the kind of relief it may offer.” (Connor, 2013:132). There is a kind of blind trust put into this pill to return you to some sort of normalcy, but no real guarantee that it will be the right solution for you given that medications react differently in different bodies. Personally, I never responded positively to the medication I was prescribed during this time in my life. My anxiety could not be relieved with pharmaceutical intervention, as the root was a psychological one. However, the muscle relaxers, anti-anxiety medications and epitec I was prescribed, over the course of a year, were like a bandage over a bullet wound. They were successful in their immediate relief of pressure but not as a long term solution. My journey with medication however, does not reflect every individual’s relationship with it in relation to their mental illness. While it is necessary and valuable to some individuals in managing their mental illness, I critique the haste with which it was given when I initially started showing symptoms as other avenues where medication was not needed, were not, first, fully explored. In this way, the value I place on exhibiting the pill bottle with the candy sweets is not directly linked to their medical ability to heal, but rather based on their direct link to my own jaw and what it embodies as a catalyst for a big shift in my life.

Learning from a specimen that was excavated in a small part of the country like Kasteelberg at a much different time than today, has allowed an understanding of the context in which it lived and the environment it has been in. These details into the sheep’s life give way for a common connection to be found between its jaw and my own life. With specific regard to the manner in which it roamed and the way its consuming habits could influence our own life, in the same way that mental illness has the ability to be passed down generationally. Exhibiting the object in this manner, allows a space to speak about themes that are not necessarily thought about when one is initially faced with the sheep’s jaw. My hope is to show the value placed on objects and how this has the ability to change the object entirely and one’s perspective of what it could mean. In particular, narratives surrounding mental illness, which are not usually attributed to the animal kingdom, thus giving a rare opportunity to have this conversation in a context that might not usually allow for it. The sheep jaw becomes a facilitator for introspectively learning and exploring in not only the curators own struggle with mental illness but members of the public who might share similar experiences.


I would like to thank the UCT Archaeology Department, particularly Louisa Hutten for allowing me to research and spend time with this object. For the invaluable meetings and extra research given, thank you for having me. I would like to thank Nina Liebenberg, Lyndall Cain, Karen Ijumba and Professor Pippa Skotnes for their support and guidance throughout this project. I would like to extend a special thank you to my class and fellow future curators, for also providing never ending support and guidance. I loved working with you all through this project. Contribute information to this page