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Great Zimbabwe Timeline

Great Zimbabwe Timeline

History of Great Zimbabwe

By Sam Mujakwi and Tinashe Chikoko
The name Zimbabwe is derived from the Shona “dzimba dzemabwe”, meaning houses of stone or stone buildings, today symbolised by the Great Zimbabwe Ruins near the present day town of Masvingo.
Zimbabwe has a rich history, not only of achievement, innovation, co-operation and economic prosperity, but also of conflict, trials and tribulations that reflects the dynamism of its peoples.

Many scholars, past and present, have enhanced our knowledge of the Zimbabwean past through their works. Particularly important in our understanding of the pre-colonial past have been the works of archaeologists, linguists, historians, oral traditions and records of 16th century Portuguese traders that interacted with central and southern Africa during that time.

Pre-colonial era
Pre-colonial Zimbabwe was a multi-ethnic society inhabited by the Shangani/Tsonga in the south-eastern parts of the Zimbabwe plateau, the Venda in the south, the Tonga in the north, the Kalanga and Ndebele in the south-west, the Karanga in the southern parts of the plateau, the Zezuru and Korekore in the northern and central parts, and finally, the Manyika and Ndau in the east.

Scholars have tended to lump these various groups into two huge ethnic blocs, namely ‘‘Ndebele’’ and ‘‘Shona’’ largely because of their broadly similar languages, beliefs and institutions. (The term Shona itself is however, an anachronism, it did not exist until the 19th century when it was coined by enemies as an insult it conflates linguistic, cultural and political attributes of ethnically related people).

The political, social, and economic, relations of these groups were complex, dynamic, fluid and always changing. They were characterised by both conflict and co-operation.

Kingdoms at Great Zimbabwe
Huge empires emerged in pre-colonial Zimbabwe, namely the Great Zimbabwe State, the Mutapa State, the Rozvi State, the Torwa State, and the Ndebele State. Great Zimbabwe was a majestic ancient stone city that flourished near the modern town of Masvingo from about 1290 to 1450 on the strength of a powerful and organised society.

It thrived on the foundation of favourable agricultural conditions, cattle-keeping, great mineral wealth and most significantly, both regional and long distance trade.

Trade was conducted with such far away areas as China, India, the Middle East and the Near East, East and West Africa, among other regional and inter-regional areas. Persian bowls, Chinese dishes, Near Eastern glass and other such items have been excavated at Great Zimbabwe, signifying the trade contacts with these far away places.

Other trade goods identified with Great Zimbabwe included a variety of glass beads, brass wire, seashells iron wire, axe heads and chisels.

Local goods included ivory, iron gongs, gold wire and beads, soapstone dishes and other items. The art of weaving was practised and some locals wore locally woven cloth. Some of the finest and most enduring finds at Great Zimbabwe were the seven or so soapstone bird carvings sitting on decorated monoliths. It is speculated that these were religious symbols signifying the point that Great Zimbabwe may have been a political, economic and cultural centre of great religious importance.

Exodus of kingdoms and people from Great Zimbabwe
The period of prosperity at Great Zimbabwe was, however, followed by decline and abandonment due to shortages of food, pastures and natural resources in general, not only at Great Zimbabwe, but in the city’s most immediate neighbourhood.

Shona traditions identify Mutota, a Mbire ruler, as the leader who led his people to found a new kingdom, the Mutapa, in the Dande area in the Zambezi Valley where smaller and less spectacular madzimbahwe were built. By the late 15th century, Great Zimbabwe had completely lost its wealth, trade, political and cultural importance.

Today, Great Zimbabwe is preserved as a valuable cultural centre and tourist attraction. It epitomises what has certainly been the finest and highest achievement of Shona civilisation.

By about the 14th century, the process of political centralisation had begun among the Shona-speaking people. This has largely been attributed to good economic conditions that ensured successful harvests and the accumulation of surplus grain, animals and other forms of wealth, which in turn stimulated population growth, allowing some individuals to assume positions of leadership. The decline of Great Zimbabwe thus allowed Mutota to conquer the Korekore and Tavara of the Dande and Chidema areas.

Oral traditions have it Mutota’s victims were so impressed that they nicknamed him Mwene Mutapa, “owner of conquered lands” or ‘master pillager’, hence the birth of the Mutapa dynasty. He then embarked on an expansionist policy that resulted in the creation of a vast empire the Mwene Mutapa or simply, Mutapa State, which stretched from the Zambezi Valley into the Mozambique lowlands and towards the fringes of the Kalahari Desert. The Mutapa’s control in these far away lands may, however, have been peripheral and not regular. (In fact, the vastness of the empire partly explains the breakup of the Mutapa state.)

Coming of missionaries
An important feature of the Mutapa State way of life was the close link between politics and religion. So, when the Portuguese reached Mutapa, they sought to penetrate it through religion. When Father Gonzalo da Silveira arrived in December 1560, he worked on converting the royal family to Christianity. He was largely successful in this because the vast empire had become heavily riddled with conspiracies, coup plots, succession disputes and civil wars to the extent that the reigning Mutapa probably wanted Portuguese help to hold on to power.

The King, however, soon turned around and renounced Christianity, leading to the murder of da Silveira, henceforth marking a turn in Portuguese–Mutapa relations. Punitive expeditions were sent to assist the Mutapa’s enemies, particularly Mavhura, a rival claimant to the Mutapa kingship.

For their help, the Portuguese demanded that Mavhura sign treaties of vassalage to Portugal, thus tying the Mutapa State to the Portuguese crown.

The Portuguese took this opportunity to advance their imperial interests by using slave labour to work on the land they acquired under these treaties. This resulted in many armed conflicts in the area, causing many Shona to flee to the south where Changamire’s rule was being established.

This era of puppet Mutapas, however, came to an end due to the rise of reformists within the Mutapa royal family, led by Mutapa Mukombwe in 1663, eventuality giving rise to a class of rulers known as the VaRozvi.

Between 1663 and 1704, Mukombwe and his successors successfully drove the Portuguese off their prazos with the support of the Tonga in the Zambezi Valley and the Chikanga of Manyika. Mukombwe achieved the important feat of resettling Mutapa families in the lands he had freed.

However, Mutapa Mukombwe faced rebellion, a development that gave rise to the Rozvi State. Changamire Dombo defeated a punitive Mutapa army after rebelling in 1684. He established and consolidated his control in the western Butwa/Butua area once dominated by the Kalanga as well as in the lands of the Manyika and in the trading centres of mainland Mutapa. Dombo and his successors established the Changamire dynasty and ruled over the territory that includes most parts of what is now Zimbabwe.

Possible Exam questions about Great Zimbabwe.
1. List and describe the Great Zimbabwe kingdoms?
– How to answer:- you give a list of these ancient kingdoms at Great Zimbabwe, you give a brief summary of their leadership, hierarchy, their religious, political and socio-economic activities.

2. Explain the rise and fall of the Great Zimbabwe kingdoms?
– How to answer:- You describe how States like Rozvi, Mutapa were founded at Great Zimbabwe and how the Ndebele State got involved at Great Zimbabwe. You then list and explain factors that led to the rise and fall of the Great Zimbabwe ie shortages might have contributed to the fall and abandonment of Great Zimbabwe.

3. Discuss how the use of slavery and forced labour contributed in the building of Great Zimbabwe?
– How to answer:- You need to explain methods used by powerful leaders like Chirisamhuru of the Rozvi state in forcing captives and subjects in building the House of Stone.


Zimbabwe is the Shona name of the ruins, first recorded in 1531 by Vicente Pegado, captain of the Portuguese garrison of Sofala. Pegado noted that "The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies 'court'". [10]

The name contains dzimba, the Shona term for "houses". There are two theories for the etymology of the name. The first proposes that the word is derived from Dzimba-dza-mabwe, translated from the Karanga dialect of Shona as "large houses of stone" (dzimba = plural of imba, "house" mabwe = plural of bwe, "stone"). [11] A second suggests that Zimbabwe is a contracted form of dzimba-hwe, which means "venerated houses" in the Zezuru dialect of Shona, as usually applied to the houses or graves of chiefs. [12]

Settlement Edit

The majority of scholars believe that it was built by members of the Gokomere culture, who were the ancestors of the modern Shona in Zimbabwe.

The Great Zimbabwe area was settled by the fourth century AD. Between the fourth and the seventh centuries, communities of the Gokomere or Ziwa cultures farmed the valley, and mined and worked iron, but built no stone structures. [9] [13] These are the earliest Iron Age settlements in the area identified from archaeological diggings. [14]

Construction and growth Edit

Construction of the stone buildings started in the 11th century and continued for over 300 years. [3] The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are some of the oldest and largest structures located in Southern Africa, and are the second oldest after nearby Mapungubwe in South Africa. Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 11 m (36 ft) extending approximately 250 m (820 ft), making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. David Beach believes that the city and its state, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, flourished from 1200 to 1500, [2] although a somewhat earlier date for its demise is implied by a description transmitted in the early 1500s to João de Barros. [15] Its growth has been linked to the decline of Mapungubwe from around 1300, due to climatic change [16] or the greater availability of gold in the hinterland of Great Zimbabwe. [17]

Traditional estimates are that Great Zimbabwe had as many as 18,000 inhabitants at its peak. [18] However, a more recent survey concluded that the population likely never exceeded 10,000. [19] The ruins that survive are built entirely of stone they span 730 ha (1,800 acres).

Features of the ruins Edit

In 1531, Vicente Pegado, Captain of the Portuguese Garrison of Sofala, described Zimbabwe thus: [10]

Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.

The ruins form three distinct architectural groups. They are known as the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is the oldest, and was occupied from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. The Great Enclosure was occupied from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, and the Valley Complex from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. [9] Notable features of the Hill Complex include the Eastern Enclosure, in which it is thought the Zimbabwe Birds stood, a high balcony enclosure overlooking the Eastern Enclosure, and a huge boulder in a shape similar to that of the Zimbabwe Bird. [20] The Great Enclosure is composed of an inner wall, encircling a series of structures and a younger outer wall. The Conical Tower, 5.5 m (18 ft) in diameter and 9 m (30 ft) high, was constructed between the two walls. [21] The Valley Complex is divided into the Upper and Lower Valley Ruins, with different periods of occupation. [9]

There are different archaeological interpretations of these groupings. It has been suggested that the complexes represent the work of successive kings: some of the new rulers founded a new residence. [2] The focus of power moved from the Hill Complex in the twelfth century, to the Great Enclosure, the Upper Valley and finally the Lower Valley in the early sixteenth century. [9] The alternative "structuralist" interpretation holds that the different complexes had different functions: the Hill Complex as a temple, the Valley complex was for the citizens, and the Great Enclosure was used by the king. Structures that were more elaborate were probably built for the kings, although it has been argued that the dating of finds in the complexes does not support this interpretation. [22]

Notable artefacts Edit

The most important artefacts recovered from the Monument are the eight Zimbabwe Birds. These were carved from a micaceous schist (soapstone) on the tops of monoliths the height of a person. [23] Slots in a platform in the Eastern Enclosure of the Hill Complex appear designed to hold the monoliths with the Zimbabwe birds, but as they were not found in situ it cannot be determined which monolith and bird were where. [24] Other artefacts include soapstone figurines (one of which is in the British Museum [25] ), pottery, iron gongs, elaborately worked ivory, iron and copper wire, iron hoes, bronze spearheads, copper ingots and crucibles, and gold beads, bracelets, pendants and sheaths. [26] [27] Glass beads and porcelain from China and Persia [28] among other foreign artefacts were also found, attesting the international trade linkages of the Kingdom. In the extensive stone ruins of the great city, which still remain today, include eight, monolithic birds carved in soapstone. It is thought that they represent the bateleur eagle – a good omen, protective spirit and messenger of the gods in Shona culture. [29]

Trade Edit

Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a centre for trading, with artefacts [30] suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa [31] and extending as far as China. Copper coins found at Kilwa Kisiwani appear to be of the same pure ore found on the Swahili coast. [32] This international trade was mainly in gold and ivory some estimates indicate that more than 20 million ounces of gold were extracted from the ground. [33] That international commerce was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. [17] The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. [23] Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads and other non-local items have been excavated at Zimbabwe. Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and centres such as Kilwa. [34]

Decline Edit

Causes for the decline and ultimate abandonment of the site around 1450 have been suggested as due to a decline in trade compared to sites further north, the exhaustion of the gold mines, political instability and famine and water shortages induced by climatic change. [17] [35] The Mutapa state arose in the fifteenth century from the northward expansion of the Great Zimbabwe tradition, [36] having been founded by Nyatsimba Mutota from Great Zimbabwe after he was sent to find new sources of salt in the north [37] (this supports the belief that Great Zimbabwe's decline was due to a shortage of resources). Great Zimbabwe also predates the Khami and Nyanga cultures. [38]

From Portuguese traders to Karl Mauch Edit

The first European visit may have been made by the Portuguese traveler António Fernandes in 1513-1515, who crossed twice and reported in detail the region of present-day Zimbabwe (including the Shona kingdoms) and also fortified centers in stone without mortar. However, passing en route a few kilometres north and about 56 km (35 mi) south of the site, he did not make a reference to Great Zimbabwe. [39] [40] Portuguese traders heard about the remains of the ancient city in the early 16th century, and records survive of interviews and notes made by some of them, linking Great Zimbabwe to gold production and long-distance trade. [41] Two of those accounts mention an inscription above the entrance to Great Zimbabwe, written in characters not known to the Arab merchants who had seen it. [15] [42]

In 1506, the explorer Diogo de Alcáçova described the edifices in a letter to the then King of Portugal, writing that they were part of the larger kingdom of Ucalanga (presumably Karanga, a dialect of the Shona people spoken mainly in Masvingo and Midlands provinces of Zimbabwe). [43] João de Barros left another such description of Great Zimbabwe in 1538, as recounted to him by Moorish traders who had visited the area and possessed knowledge of the hinterland. He indicates that the edifices were locally known as Symbaoe, which meant "royal court" in the vernacular. [44] As to the actual identity of the builders of Great Zimbabwe, de Barros writes: [45]

When and by whom, these edifices were raised, as the people of the land are ignorant of the art of writing, there is no record, but they say they are the work of the devil, [46] for in comparison with their power and knowledge it does not seem possible to them that they should be the work of man.

Additionally, with regard to the purpose of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, de Barros asserted that: "in the opinion of the Moors who saw it [Great Zimbabwe] it is very ancient and was built to keep possessions of the mines, which are very old, and no gold has been extracted from them for years, because of the wars. it would seem that some prince who has possession of these mines ordered it to be built as a sign thereof, which he afterwards lost in the course of time and through their being so remote from his kingdom. ". [44]

De Barros further remarked that Symbaoe "is guarded by a nobleman, who has charge of it, after the manner of a chief alcaide, and they call this officer Symbacayo . . . and there are always some of Benomotapa's wives therein of whom Symbacayo takes care." Thus, Great Zimbabwe appears to have still been inhabited as recently as the early 16th century. [44]

Karl Mauch and the Queen of Sheba Edit

The ruins were rediscovered during a hunting trip in 1867 by Adam Render, a German-American hunter, prospector and trader in southern Africa, [47] who in 1871 showed the ruins to Karl Mauch, a German explorer and geographer of Africa. Karl Mauch recorded the ruins 3 September 1871, and immediately speculated about a possible Biblical association with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, an explanation which had been suggested by earlier writers such as the Portuguese João dos Santos. Mauch went so far as to favour a legend that the structures were built to replicate the palace of the Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem, [48] and claimed a wooden lintel at the site must be Lebanese cedar, brought by Phoenicians. [49] The Sheba legend, as promoted by Mauch, became so pervasive in the white settler community as to cause the later scholar James Theodore Bent to say,

The names of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were on everybody's lips, and have become so distasteful to us that we never expect to hear them again without an involuntary shudder. [50]

Carl Peters and Theodore Bent Edit

Carl Peters collected a ceramic ushabti in 1905. Flinders Petrie examined it and identified a cartouche on its chest as belonging to the 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and suggested that it was a statuette of the king and cited it as proof of commercial ties between rulers in the area and the ancient Egyptians during the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC–1077 BC), if not a relic of an old Egyptian station near the local gold mines. [51] Johann Heinrich Schäfer later appraised the statuette, and argued that it belonged to a well-known group of forgeries. After having received the ushabti, Felix von Luschan suggested that it was of more recent origin than the New Kingdom. He asserted that the figurine instead appeared to date to the subsequent Ptolemaic era (c. 323 BC–30 BC), when Alexandria-based Greek merchants would export Egyptian antiquities and pseudo-antiquities to southern Africa. [52]

J. Theodore Bent undertook a season at Zimbabwe with Cecil Rhodes's patronage and funding from the Royal Geographical Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This, and other excavations undertaken for Rhodes, resulted in a book publication that introduced the ruins to English readers. Bent had no formal archaeological training, but had travelled very widely in Arabia, Greece and Asia Minor. He was aided by the expert cartographer and surveyor Robert M.W. Swan (1858-1904), who also visited and surveyed a host of related stone ruins nearby. Bent stated in the first edition of his book The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1892) that the ruins revealed either the Phoenicians or the Arabs as builders, and he favoured the possibility of great antiquity for the fortress. By the third edition of his book (1902) he was more specific, with his primary theory being "a Semitic race and of Arabian origin" of "strongly commercial" traders living within a client African city.

The Lemba Edit

The construction of Great Zimbabwe is also claimed by the Lemba. Members of this ethnic group speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam, which they claim were transmitted by oral tradition. [53] They have a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line. [54] [55] Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population. [56] [57] More recent research argues that DNA studies do not support claims for a specifically Jewish genetic heritage. [58] [59]

The Lemba claim was also reported by a William Bolts (in 1777, to the Austrian Habsburg authorities), and by an A.A. Anderson (writing about his travels north of the Limpopo River in the 19th century). Both explorers were told that the stone edifices and the gold mines were constructed by a people known as the BaLemba. [60]

However, archaeological evidence and recent scholarship support the construction of Great Zimbabwe (and the origin of its culture) by the Shona and Venda peoples. [61] [62] [63] [64]

David Randall-MacIver and medieval origin Edit

The first scientific archaeological excavations at the site were undertaken by David Randall-MacIver for the British Association in 1905–1906. In Medieval Rhodesia, he wrote of the existence in the site of objects that were of Bantu origin. [65] [66] More importantly he suggested a wholly medieval date for the walled fortifications and temple. This claim was not immediately accepted, partly due to the relatively short and undermanned period of excavation he was able to undertake.

Gertrude Caton-Thompson Edit

In mid 1929 Gertrude Caton-Thompson concluded, after a twelve-day visit of a three-person team and the digging of several trenches, that the site was indeed created by Bantu. She had first sunk three test pits into what had been refuse heaps on the upper terraces of the hill complex, producing a mix of unremarkable pottery and ironwork. She then moved to the Conical Tower, and tried to dig under the tower, arguing that the ground there would be undisturbed, but nothing was revealed. Some further test trenches were then put down outside the lower Great Enclosure and in the Valley Ruins, which unearthed domestic ironwork, glass beads, and a gold bracelet. Caton-Thompson immediately announced her Bantu origin theory to a meeting of the British Association in Johannesburg. [67]

Examination of all the existing evidence, gathered from every quarter, still can produce not one single item that is not in accordance with the claim of Bantu origin and medieval date [50]

Caton-Thompson's claim was not immediately favoured, although it had strong support among some scientific archaeologists due to her modern methods. Her most important contribution was in helping to confirm the theory of a medieval origin for the masonry work of circa the 14th-15th century. By 1931, she had modified her Bantu theory somewhat, allowing for a possible Arabian influence for the towers through the imitation of buildings or art seen at the coastal Arabian trading cities.

Post-1945 research Edit

Since the 1950s, there has been consensus among archaeologists as to the African origins of Great Zimbabwe. [68] [69] Artefacts and radiocarbon dating indicate settlement in at least the fifth century, with continuous settlement of Great Zimbabwe between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries [70] and the bulk of the finds from the fifteenth century. [71] The radiocarbon evidence is a suite of 28 measurements, for which all but the first four, from the early days of the use of that method and now viewed as inaccurate, support the twelfth to fifteenth centuries chronology. [70] [63] In the 1970s, a beam that produced some of the anomalous dates in 1952 was reanalysed and gave a fourteenth-century date. [72] Dated finds such as Chinese, Persian and Syrian artefacts also support the twelfth and fifteenth century dates. [73]

Gokomere Edit

Archaeologists generally agree that the builders probably spoke one of the Shona languages, [74] [75] based upon evidence of pottery, [76] [77] oral traditions [71] [78] and anthropology [2] and were probably descended from the Gokomere culture. [63] The Gokomere culture, an eastern Bantu subgroup, existed in the area from around 200 AD and flourished from 500 AD to about 800 AD. Archaeological evidence indicates that it constitutes an early phase of the Great Zimbabwe culture. [9] [71] [79] [80] The Gokomere culture likely gave rise to both the modern Mashona people, [81] an ethnic cluster comprising distinct sub-ethnic groups such as the local Karanga clan [ citation needed ] and the Rozwi culture, which originated as several Shona states. [82] Gokomere peoples were probably also related to certain nearby early Bantu groups like the Mapungubwe civilisation of neighbouring North eastern South Africa, which is believed to have been an early Venda-speaking culture, and to the nearby Sotho.

Recent research Edit

More recent archaeological work has been carried out by Peter Garlake, who has produced the comprehensive descriptions of the site, [83] [84] [85] David Beach [2] [86] [87] and Thomas Huffman, [71] [88] who have worked on the chronology and development of Great Zimbabwe and Gilbert Pwiti, who has published extensively on trade links. [17] [36] [89] Today, the most recent consensus appears to attribute the construction of Great Zimbabwe to the Shona people. [90] [91] Some evidence also suggests an early influence from the probably Venda-speaking peoples of the Mapungubwe civilization. [63]

Damage to the ruins Edit

Damage to the ruins has taken place throughout the last century. The removal of gold and artefacts in amateurist diggings by early colonial antiquarians caused widespread damage, [41] notably diggings by Richard Nicklin Hall. [50] More extensive damage was caused by the mining of some of the ruins for gold. [41] Reconstruction attempts since 1980 caused further damage, leading to alienation of the local communities from the site. [92] [93] Another source of damage to the ruins has been due to the site being open to visitors with many cases of people climbing the walls, walking over archaeological deposits, and the over-use of certain paths all have had major impacts on the structures at the site. [92] These are in conjunction with damages due to the natural weathering that occurs over time due to vegetation growth, the foundations settling, and erosion from the weather. [92]

Martin Hall writes that the history of Iron Age research south of the Zambezi shows the prevalent influence of colonial ideologies, both in the earliest speculations about the nature of the African past and in the adaptations that have been made to contemporary archaeological methodologies. [94] Preben Kaarsholm writes that both colonial and black nationalist groups invoked Great Zimbabwe's past to support their vision of the country's present, through the media of popular history and of fiction. Examples of such popular history include Alexander Wilmot's Monomotapa (Rhodesia) and Ken Mufuka's Dzimbahwe: Life and Politics in the Golden Age examples from fiction include Wilbur Smith's The Sunbird and Stanlake Samkange's Year of the Uprising. [41]

When white colonialists like Cecil Rhodes first saw the ruins, they saw them as a sign of the great riches that the area would yield to its new masters. [41] Pikirayi and Kaarsholm suggest that this presentation of Great Zimbabwe was partly intended to encourage settlement and investment in the area. [41] [95] Gertrude Caton-Thompson recognised that the builders were indigenous Africans, but she characterised the site as the "product of an infantile mind" built by a subjugated society. [96] [97] [98] The official line in Rhodesia during the 1960s and 1970s was that the structures were built by non-blacks. Archaeologists who disputed the official statement were censored by the government. [99] According to Paul Sinclair, interviewed for None But Ourselves: [7]

I was the archaeologist stationed at Great Zimbabwe. I was told by the then-director of the Museums and Monuments organisation to be extremely careful about talking to the press about the origins of the [Great] Zimbabwe state. I was told that the museum service was in a difficult situation, that the government was pressurising them to withhold the correct information. Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programmes, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Zimbabwe. He said it was okay to say the yellow people had built it, but I wasn't allowed to mention radio carbon dates. It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.

This suppression of archaeology culminated in the departure from the country of prominent archaeologists of Great Zimbabwe, including Peter Garlake, Senior Inspector of Monuments for Rhodesia, and Roger Summers of the National Museum. [100]

To black nationalist groups, Great Zimbabwe became an important symbol of achievement by Africans: reclaiming its history was a major aim for those seeking majority rule. In 1980 the new internationally recognised independent country was renamed for the site, and its famous soapstone bird carvings were retained from the Rhodesian flag and Coat of Arms as a national symbol and depicted in the new Zimbabwean flag. After the creation of the modern state of Zimbabwe in 1980, Great Zimbabwe has been employed to mirror and legitimise shifting policies of the ruling regime. At first it was argued that it represented a form of pre-colonial "African socialism" and later the focus shifted to stressing the natural evolution of an accumulation of wealth and power within a ruling elite. [101] An example of the former is Ken Mufuka's booklet, [102] although the work has been heavily criticised. [41] [103] A tower of the Great Zimbabwe is also depicted on the coat of arms of Zimbabwe.

Some of the carvings had been taken from Great Zimbabwe around 1890 and sold to Cecil Rhodes, who was intrigued and had copies made which he gave to friends. Most of the carvings have now been returned to Zimbabwe, but one remains at Rhodes' old home, Groote Schuur, in Cape Town.

In the early 21st century, the government of Zimbabwe endorsed the creation of a university in the vicinity of the ruins. This university is an arts and culture based university which draws from the rich history of the monuments. It was created to preserve the rich history of this country which was facing a dark future due to globalisation. The university main site is near the monuments with other campuses in the City centre and Mashava. The campuses include Herbet Chitepo Law School, Robert Mugabe School of Education, Gary Magadzire School of Agriculture and Natural Science, Simon Muzenda School of Arts, and Munhumutapa School of Commerce.

Great Zimbabwe (ca. 1000-1550 AD)

The city of Great Zimbabwe existed in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa from the 11th century to the mid-16th century. The city grew from a community of farmers and cattle herders to a major economic center, deriving power and wealth from its proximity to resources of gold and the trading routes along the Indian Ocean. Great Zimbabwe reached its peak with 18,000 residents by the mid-14th century.

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe, some 300 structures, cover more than sixty acres and includes three main areas: the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins. The Hill Complex is the oldest part of the city with pottery and burials dating to the 6th century. A monumental wall composed of local granite, 37 feet in height and 328 feet in length, surrounded the complex and testifies to the military and political importance of the city.

The Great Enclosure, also known as the Mumbahuru (“the house of the great woman”) housed the wives of the rulers and was a ceremonial site with a monumental wall composed of about one million blocks. Most people of Zimbabwe however lived in daga huts of mud and gravel surrounding the complex.

Among the Zimbabwe ruins, archaeologists discovered local and imported pottery including Chinese celadon wares, glass beads from India, Persian faience, and birds and bowls of soapstone. Flecks of discarded soapstone suggest that the soapstone works reflect the work of local craftsmen. The Chinese and Persian artifacts indicate that Great Zimbabwe was part of an Indian Ocean trading network even though the complex itself is 300 miles from that ocean.

At its peak in the 13th and 14th century, Great Zimbabwe thrived on cattle herding, gold mining and commerce with the Swahili port city of Sofala on the Indian Ocean. It produced cotton and pottery. Because of its strategic location near these resources and trade opportunities, Great Zimbabwe grew larger than any surrounding town and became the capital city of the Karanga (Shona) nation.

Great Zimbabwe declined in power in the early 15th Century. The nearby tributaries of the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers no longer produced gold flakes and nuggets, which had fueled the economy. The exhausted farmland surrounding the city could no longer support the number of residents. Eventually the trade routes in the interior between the Zambezi valley and the ports on the Indian Ocean changed, costing Great Zimbabwe its control over regional commerce. Great Zimbabwe was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe has been described as “one of the most dramatic architectural landscapes in sub-Saharan Africa.” 1 It is the largest stone complex in Africa built before the modern era, aside from the monumental architecture of ancient Egypt. The ruins that survive are a four-hour drive south of Zimbabwe’s present-day capital of Harare. It was constructed between the 11th and 15th centuries and was continuously inhabited by the Shona peoples until about 1450 (the Shona are the largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe). But Great Zimbabwe was by no means a singular complex—at the site’s cultural zenith, it is estimated that seven comparable states existed in this region.

The word zimbabwe translates from the Bantu language of the Shona to either “judicial center” or “ruler’s court or house.” A few individual zimbabwes (houses) have survived exposure to the elements over the centuries. Within these clay structures, excavations have revealed interior furnishings such as pot-stands, elevated surfaces for sleeping and sitting, as well as hearths. Taken together, the settlement encompasses a cluster of approximately 250 royal houses built of clay, which in addition to other multi-story clay and thatch homes would have supported as many as 20,000 inhabitants—a exceptional scale for a sub-Saharan settlement at this time.

The stone constructions of Great Zimbabwe can be categorized into roughly three areas: the Hill Ruin (on a rocky hilltop), the Great Enclosure, and the Valley Ruins (map below). The Hill Ruin dates to approximately 1250, and incorporates a cave that remains a sacred site for the Shona peoples today. The cave once accommodated the residence of the ruler and his immediate family. The Hill Ruin also held a structure surrounded by 30-foot high walls and flanked by cylindrical towers and monoliths carved with elaborate geometric patterns.

Site plan of Great Zimbabwe (modified from an original plan by National Museums and Monuments ofZimbabwe) from Shadreck Chirikure and Innocent Pikirayi, “Inside and outside the dry stone walls: Revisiting the material culture of Great Zimbabwe,” Antiquity 82 (December 2015), pp. 976-993. The letters refer to the types of stone construction (see figure 4).

Between two walls, Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe (photo: Mandy, CC BY 2.0)

The Great Enclosure was completed in approximately 1450, and it too is a walled structure punctuated with turrets and monoliths, emulating the form of the earlier Hill Ruin. The massive outer wall is 32 feet high in some places. Inside the Great Enclosure, a smaller wall parallels the exterior wall creating a tight passageway leading to large towers. Because the Great Enclosure shares many structural similarities with the Hill Ruin, one interpretation suggests that the Great Enclosure was built to accommodate a surplus population and its religious and administrative activities. Another theory posits that the Great Enclosure may have functioned as a site for religious rituals.

The third section of Great Zimbabwe, the Valley Ruins, include a number of structures that offer evidence that the site served as a hub for commercial exchange and long distance trade. Archaeologists have found porcelain fragments originating from China, beads crafted in southeast Asia, and copper ingots from trading centers along the Zambezi River and from Central African kingdoms. 2

A monolithic soapstone sculpture of a seated bird resting on atop a register of zigzags was unearthed here. The pronounced muscularity of the bird’s breast and its defined talons suggest that this represents a bird of prey, and scholars have conjectured it could have been emblematic of the power of Shona kings as benefactors to their people and intercessors with their ancestors.

Conical Tower, Great Zimbabwe (photo: Mandy, CC BY 2.0)

Conical tower

All of the walls at Great Zimbabwe were constructed from granite hewn locally. While some theories suggest that the granite enclosures were built for defense, these walls likely had no military function. Many segments within the walls have gaps, interrupted arcs or elements that seem to run counter to needs of protection. The fact that the structures were built without the use of mortar to bind the stones together supports speculation that the site was not, in fact, intended for defense. Nevertheless, these enclosures symbolize the power and prestige of the rulers of Great Zimbabwe.

The conical tower (above) of Great Zimbabwe is thought to have functioned as a granary. According to tradition, a Shona ruler shows his largess towards his subjects through his granary, often distributing grain as a symbol of his protection. Indeed, advancements in agricultural cultivation among Bantu-speaking peoples in sub-Saharan Africa transformed the pattern of life for many, including the Shona communities of present-day Zimbabwe.

Great Enclosure entrance (restored), Great Zimbabwe (photo: Mandy, CC BY 2.0)

Wealth and trade

Archaeological debris indicate that the economy of Great Zimbabwe relied on the management of livestock. In fact, cattle may have allowed the Shona peoples to move from subsistence agriculture to mining and trade. Iron tools have been found on site, along with copper, and gold wire jewelry and ornaments. Great Zimbabwe is thought to have prospered, perhaps indirectly, from gold that was mined 25 miles from the city and that was transported to the Indian Ocean port at Sofala (below) where it made its way by dhow (sailing vessels), up the coast, and by way of Kilwa Kisiwani, to the markets of Cairo.

By about 1500, however, Great Zimbabwe’s political and economic influence waned. Speculations as to why this occurred point to the frequency of droughts and environmental fragility, though other theories stress that Great Zimbabwe might have experienced political skirmishes over political succession that interrupted trade, still other theories hypothesize disease that may have afflicted livestock. 3

Great Zimbabwe stands as one of the most extensively developed centers in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa and stands as a testament to the organization, autonomy, and economic power of the Shona peoples. The site remains a potent symbol not only to the Shona, but for Zimbabweans more broadly. After gaining independence from the British, the nation formerly named after the British industrialist and imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, was renamed Zimbabwe.

Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) banknote featuring the conical tower at Great Zimbabwe, 1955 (The British Museum)

2. Peter Garlake, Early Art and Architecture of Africa (Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 153.

Farm seizures

2000 February - President Mugabe suffers defeat in referendum on draft constitution.

Squatters seize hundreds of white-owned farms in a violent campaign supported by the government.

2000 June - Zanu-PF narrowly fights off a challenge from the opposition MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai at parliamentary elections, but loses its power to change the constitution.

2001 July - Finance Minister Simba Makoni acknowledges economic crisis, saying foreign reserves have run out and warning of serious food shortages. Most western donors, including the World Bank and the IMF, cut aid because of President Mugabe's land seizure programme.

2002 February - Parliament passes a law limiting media freedom. The European Union imposes sanctions on Zimbabwe and pulls out its election observers after the EU team leader is expelled.

2002 March - President Mugabe re-elected in elections condemned as seriously flawed by the opposition and foreign observers. Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe for a year.

Great Zimbabwe

A little less than 30 kilometres beyond the south-eastern town of Masvingo are to be found some of the most extraordinary manmade remains in Africa.

Formed of regular, rectangular granite stones, carefully placed one upon the other, they are the ruins of an amazing complex. The structures were built by indigenous African people between AD 1250 and AD 1450 believed to be the ancestors of modern Zimbabweans.

The ruins at Great Zimbabwe are remarkable lofty, majestic, awe-inspiring, timeless. The quality of the building in places is outstanding. It was built by craftsmen who took a pride in their work. There is nothing to compare with it in southern Africa.

The two main areas of stone wall enclosures are the Hill Complex, on the long, steep-sided granite hill and the land below this hill where the Valley Enclosures and the Great Enclosure are situated.

The stone walls, up to 6meter thick and 12 meter high, are built of granite blocks without the use of mortar. Two high walls form the narrow parallel passage, 60 meter long, that allows direct access to the Conical Tower.

The Great Enclosure is the largest single ancient structure south of the Sahara.

The legacy of Great Zimbabwe is widespread throughout the region. The art of building with stone persisted in following centuries so that dzimbabwe (a Shona word possibly derived from dzimba woye, literally 'venerated houses') are numerous.

There are at least 150 in Zimbabwe itself, probably as many as a hundered in Botswana, and an undetermined number, yet to be found in Mozambique.

Aspirant sculptors today use the same soapstone to carve copies of the same birds and this has helped launch a stone carving craft characteristically Zimbabwean.

Grade 6 - Term 1: Kingdoms of southern Africa: Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Great Zimbabwe

This topic describes the history of the southern African kingdoms of Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Great Zimbabwe with a special look at how they were organised and the role played by cattle, gold and ivory in these societies.

During the early days of the last millennium several great Iron Age kingdoms existed in southern Africa. Thulamela, Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe were all established as centres of agriculture, but developed into trading nations, exchanging goods with Arab and Portuguese merchants through East African harbours. Cattle, ivory and gold were important trading goods and key to the survival of these kingdoms.

We are first going to examine what an ‘Iron Age Kingdom’ is. We will then look at each of the three Kingdoms (Thulamela, Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe) individually.

Note: Some grade 6 sections are under construction and still link to old content. Also note, there may be minor changes to the curriculum from year to year, teachers always check with your Curriculum Advisor and students, check with your teacher.

Timeline of Key Events in Zimbabwe

1889: Britain's Cecil Rhodes is granted mining rights by King Lobengula of the Ndebele people and he establishes the British South Africa Company with a mandate to colonize the area.

1895: The BSAC adopts the name Rhodesia, in honor of Cecil Rhodes.

1898: The region south of the Zambezi River becomes Southern Rhodesia and while the region to the north becomes Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

1922: The white minority in Southern Rhodesia votes to end BSAC rule and becomes a self-governing British colony.

1953: With opposition growing within the black population, Britain creates a Central African Federation consisting of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi).

1963: Zambia and Malawi gain independence from Britain and exit the federation.

1965: Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Ian Smith, unilaterally declares independence under a white-minority rule, sparking international outrage and United Nations economic sanctions.

1972: Guerrilla war breaks out against the Smith regime. Rival parties Zanu and Zapu orchestrate the fight for black rule from Zambia and Mozambique.

1979: Britain brokers a peace agreement and a constitution for an independent Zimbabwe.

1980: Robert Mugabe and his Zanu party win elections and Mugabe is sworn in as prime minister on April 18. Rival Zapu party leader Joshua Nkomo gets a Cabinet post.

1982: Nkomo is fired and the North-Korea trained Fifth Brigade is sent to crush a Zapu rebellion. Mugabe's forces are accused of killing thousands of civilians.

1987: Mugabe and Nkomo sigh a unity agreement and merge their two parties into Zanu-PF. Mugabe changes the constitution, abolishes the post of prime minister and names himself executive president.

1998-99: An economic crisis marked by high interest rates and inflation leads to strikes and riots. Morgan Tsvangirai emerges as an opposition leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

2000: Thousands of squatters, backed by the Mugabe regime, seize white-owned farms in a violent campaign.

2001: Finance Minister Simba Makoni warns of serious food shortages after the World Bank and the IMF cut aid because of the land seizures.

2002: Mugabe defeats Tsvangirai in presidential elections, called flawed and unfair by opposition and international observers.

2003: Tsvangirai is arrested and charged with trying to assassinate Mugabe and seize power.

2004: High court acquits Tsvangirai. The ruling is condemned by the government.

2005: The U.S. labels Zimbabwe one the world's six "outposts of tyranny." ZANU-PF wins parliamentary elections and the majority needed to change the constitution. The U.N. estimates some 700,000 people are made homeless when the government launches a "clean-up" program and destroys shanty towns.

?2008: Tsvangirai's MDC claims victory in presidential elections. But the electoral body says he didn't win a simple majority and must face Mugabe in a run-off. Tsvangirai pulls out of the run-off due to alleged intimidation and Mugabe wins the presidency. Tsvangirai and Mugabe sign a power sharing agreement but it stalls.

2009: Tsvangirai is sworn in as prime minister.

2013: Mugabe again wins the presidential elections, rejected as fraudulent by the MDC. Mugabe names Emmerson Mnangagwa vice president.

2014: Mugabe celebrates his 90th birthday. First lady, Grace Mugabe, is made leader of Zanu-PF's Women's League. Vice President Joice Mujuru dismissed from post.

2017: Mugabe fires Mnangagwa, accusing him of disloyalty and plotting to seize power. He flees the country. Top military commander Constantino Chiwenga warns he will "step in" unless Mugabe stops trying to purge ZANU-PF of Mnangagwa supporters. Military takes over the state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. Mugabe reportedly under house arrest.

3 thoughts on &ldquo Context and Great ZImbabwe &rdquo

As you mentioned, context is crucial in archaeology to understand the past. The Shona population is a awesome example of conducting ethnographic study and discovering a greater cultural connection to Zimbabwe, its ancient capital and history. Without context for artifacts or abandoned sites like Great Zimbabwe, it would be remarkably easy for archaeologists to determine and write the history of other groups of people. Therefore, it is imperative to explore the context of which archaeological sites are found because without it, archaeologists are left to grapple with their own interpretations and theories of their discoveries which is dangerous.
Solving the mystery as to what happened to the capital of the Zimbabwean empire can fill in the timeline documenting the rise and fall of the civilization and answer questions about societal development, external influences and cultural practices. If you were an archaeologist excavating Great Zimbabwe, what measures would you take to make sure you fully understood the context or bigger picture?

This is just one of many cultural sites that should speak to the far reaches of culture change rather than stand as monuments to missing peoples. The descendants are there. The change may have been forced upon them or it may have been their choice. Either way, change is inevitable.

Watch the video: Zimbabwe - Matopos National Park (January 2022).