The ruins of Great Zimbabwe extend over 720 hectares of rocky hill and valley in south-central Zimbabwe. The dry-stone walls, many of monumental scale, and earth houses, were built over many centuries of the African Iron Age, between c.AD 1100-1500. They divide into three main groups: the Hill Complex, the Valley Ruins, and the Great Enclosure. The latter is the most spectacular and substantial complex on the site. The outer wall, 278m long and up to 9.5m high, is the largest single prehistoric structure in sub-Saharan Africa. The interior contained earth-house platforms, stone-walled enclosures, and architectural features including a massive conical tower.
First noted by Portuguese writers in the 16th century, serious archaeological investigations did not begin until 1905.
Great Zimbabwe explained
At its peak, Great Zimbabwe probably accommodated up to 20,000 people, functioning as the capital of a major state with control over 100,000km2 between the Zambezi and the Limpopo. Its wealth was based on cattle raising, crop cultivation, and the trade in gold, copper, ivory, and slaves from the African interior to the East African coast. Artefacts that attest Great Zimbabwe’s commercial character include copper crosses used as a form of currency and Chinese artefacts of stone, glass, and ceramic. In his heyday, the great lord of Zimbabwe was one of the richest and most powerful figures in Africa. Many carved soapstone birds unique to Great Zimbabwe have b
een found on the site, possibly totemic representatives of the ruler and his clan. The people of Great Zimbabwe were the Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Shona.
Great Zimbabwe misinterpreted
European colonialists from the 16th to the 20th century denied anything as impressive as Great Zimbabwe could have been constructed by ‘inferior’ native black Africans, citing Phoenicians or Arabs as the most likely architects. Some believed King Solomon or the Queen of Sheba were responsible. Perhaps Great Zimbabwe was the gold-rich biblical land of Ophir? Only later activity on the site – ‘the filth and decadence of the Kaffir occupation’ – was attributed to native Africans. As late as the 1970s, the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith continued to deny Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans.
Great Zimbabwe interpreted
The first to propose its indigenous creation was David Randal-MacIver, whose investigations at the site in 1905-1906 had yielded mainly African artefacts. Then, more stratigraphically detailed work was carried out by Gertrude Caton Thompson, in 1929, who reported conclusively that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Bantu speakers in the Christian era. Archaeological work at the site thus destroyed a racist argument designed to justify slavery and imperialism, proving the common humanity and creative potential of all the world’s people.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 35. Click here to subscribe