Inside and outside the Dry Stone Walls: Revisiting the Material Culture of Great Zimbabwe

Article excerpt


Great Zimbabwe (Figure 1) is one of more than 200 sites in southern Africa (Garlake 1970; Beach 1998) which display the architectural tradition of those monumental but mortarless walls that have continued to attract archaeologists and the public alike (Ndoro 2001; Fontein 2006). With that attraction have arisen speculations and debates about the identity of the site's builders and the function of the walled enclosures (see Hall, R.N. 1905; Garlake 1982; Hall, M. 1995; Huffman 1996). Since the late nineteenth century several research issues have dominated the archaeology of Great Zimbabwe, including its origins and dating (Bent 1892; Hall 1905; 1910; MacIver 1906; Caton-Thompson 1931; Summers et al. 1961; Collett et al 1992; Chipunza 1997) and its purpose and significance (Garlake 1973; 1982; Huffman 1986; 1996; Beach 1998; Thorp 1998).

Architectural studies by Schofield (1926), Summers and Whitty (1961) and Whitty (1961) proposed a relative sequence in which the walls were constructed over time. Other studies have deduced the economic basis of the state based at Great Zimbabwe and the broader landscape setting and settlement hierarchy around stone built monuments ofthe Zimbabwe type in general (Sinclair 1987; Pwiti 1996). And yet others, particularly the more recent ones, have focused on the politics of the past and the conservation and management of the site (Ndoro 2001; Fontein 2006; Chirikure & Pwiti 2008). More recently the site has been interpreted from symbolic, structuralist and cognitive standpoints (Huffman 1981; 1982; 1985; 1986; 1996; 2007).


Research at Great Zimbabwe has, right from the onset, been highly politicised. Between 1870 and the 1930s, the site attracted considerable controversy, much of it based on antiquarian speculative beliefs and European colonial attitudes (Bent 1892; Hall & Neal 1902; Douslin 1922; Caton-Thompson 1931; Burke 1969; Hall 1987; 1995; Pikirayi 2001). The Rhodesian settler community did not accept an African authorship of the monuments. Even the highly scientific investigations by Robinson et al. (1961) were overshadowed by partisan claims (Wainwright 1949; Jeffreys 1954; Dart 1955). The radical white Rhodesian Front exiled professional archaeologists and hired non-archaeologists to re-write and popularise the antiquarian version on the origins and identity ofthe builders ofthe site (Bruwer 1965; Gayre 1972; Garlake 1982; Pikirayi 2001). Thus between the 1960s and 1980, when Zimbabwe attained independence, research on Great Zimbabwe remained far from impartial.

Fairly recent work from Collett et al (1992) and Chipunza (1994) has continued the study ofthe architectural development, bur post-1980 research has suffered from a moratorium on excavations placed by the cultural management authorities, in favour of the conservation of dry stone walls and earthen structures. Whilst conservation is a laudable development albeit with its own problems (Ndoro 1994; Fontein 2006), it is worrying that no new generation of scholars seems to be taking an active interest in the archaeology of the site (Chirikure 2007a). This creates the false impression that we have exhausted all possible avenues of investigating the monument. Yet there are huge gaps in our knowledge. Since 1980, there has never been an integrated archaeological research programme on Great Zimbabwe, only isolated and often fragmented approaches (see for example Chipunza (1994) on stone architecture, Matenga (1998) on soapstone birds and Chirikure (2007b) on metalwork). This fragmented approach somewhat frustrates attempts to develop a coherent history of the different activities carried out at the site as revealed through artefact studies.

Using archival and published data, we seek here to review the archaeology of Great Zimbabwe, integrating assemblages with stratigraphic and architectural sequences. …