Engraved ostrich eggshell is a feature of archaeological sites throughout South Africa but is more commonly found in the arid western parts. Engraving was used to mark water containers and the greater frequency of engraving in the west is thus quite likely to be because water containers were more commonly used and stored (in buried caches) in the more arid parts of the country. The Northern Cape has yielded the majority of known water container caches. The decoration tends to only cover a very small area, often forming a stripe of varying length, but many water containers are undecorated. Namaqualand data suggest that complex engravings, like that shown here, tend to have been made more than 1000 years ago, while during the last millennium engraved patterns were usually very much simpler.
We do not and probably never will know the full meaning of these designs, but, interestingly, within the last 2000 years, the patterns do not seem to match those made on pottery.
When decorated, precolonial pottery tends to have either incised lines, circular impressions, teardrop impressions or lines, or some combination of these. Decoration is usually just below the rim of the pot (see below).