This chapter looks at how archaeology and the archaeological past have been interpreted and presented to the public. It examines the past hundred years of research carried out at the archaeological sites of Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela, and tries to understand why information about these sites is still presented to the public as a mystery, even though a significant body of knowledge exists.
What is the archaeological background in time and space?
Muslim traders dominated Indian Ocean trade from the eighth century AD. This large network facilitated the movement of goods between the Middle East, India, south-east Asia and China. By the ninth century this network extended south to Mozambique and into the interior of southern Africa. Early Arab records mention routes and trade posts at various places between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers.
By the 1500s the Portuguese had entered the picture. From their documents we know that by 1505 they had forcibly taken over Sofala and taken control of the trade network. Among other things, Sofala was known for gold and ivory that came from the interior, and were traded for glass beads, cloth and glazed ceramics.
Archaeologists excavating sites in the area around the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers have found evidence of societies participating in the east coast trade over a thousand years ago. This was part of a large intercede - intervene on behalf of another monolith - a large single upright block of stone; a pillar or monument in that shape mystical - having a spiritual or symbolic significance that goes beyond the limits of human understanding interior trade network that included Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. By 1220, control of wealth by a certain sector of that society gave rise to an elite social class. Archaeological excavations at a site called Mapungubwe show that the elite class lived on top of a hill in an elaborate stone-walled complex, while the commoners lived down below.
Archaeologists have interpreted this as the first evidence for sacred leadership. Sacred leadership most often occurs when people believe in a mystical relationship between the leader and the land. The leader's royal ancestors are believed to be very powerful and to intercede with God on behalf of the common people for things like rain or fertility. Sacred leadership is still part of the worldview or ideology of the Shona and Vhavenda today. Until recently their sacred leaders lived in ritual seclusion in a hill-top complex out of view of the commoners who lived below. Monoliths and horns of sacred cattle were often placed on walls surrounding this person's residence; these were seen as symbols of justice and defence.
Mapungubwe was occupied between 1200 and 1300. Its end coincided with the rise of Great Zimbabwe. At Great Zimbabwe, wealth from the gold and ivory trade contributed to an even greater and more elaborate power base. Massive walled structures, gold objects and the large size of the capital testify to the power of Great Zimbabwe's leaders.
In the mid 1400s Great Zimbabwe was abandoned, and power shifted to Khami near present-day Bulawayo. At about the same time, several groups moved south across the Limpopo River and established new settlements. The ruins of one such settlement can be found in the Kruger National Park and is known as Thulamela.
Thulamela was occupied during the Portuguese trade period, between 1550 and 1650. The presence of glass beads, seashells and Chinese porcelain indicates that it was part of the on-going trade with the east coast.
intercede- intervene on behalf of another
monolith- a large single upright block of stone; a pillar or monument in that shape
mystical- having a spiritual or symbolic significance that goes beyond the limits of human understanding
What were the early interpretations of Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe?
From the 1500s onwards many rumours made their way to Europe about stone cities in the interior of southern Africa. However, because Africa was considered an uncivilised continent, they were passed off as the work of outsiders like King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, or of the wealthy Christian priest, Prester John, who was thought to live somewhere in Africa. So widespread were these ideas that the first European to encounter the remarkable ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1871 was convinced that it was indeed the palace of the Queen of Sheba.
The earliest researchers who worked at Great Zimbabwe were so certain that a mysterious race built it that they interpreted everything that they saw according to this belief. Their science and archaeology were so poor in some cases that they actually damaged the sites. However, the idea that Great Zimbabwe was built by a very ancient race that lived some three to four thousand years ago suited some people for political and economic reasons. People like Cecil Rhodes, for example, actively promoted this notion, as it provided an excuse to move into the area and exploit its gold reserves. He was able to justify his actions by arguing that he and his British South Africa Company were members of a white race that had formerly ruled in the area. To his credit, Rhodes did try to stop the destruction and ransacking of the site by treasure hunters. In 1902, it was estimated that at least 2 000 ounces of ancient gold ornaments had been stolen from the ruins.
Between 1905 and 1930, however, two archaeologists who had previously worked in Egypt independently demonstrated that indigenous people built Great Zimbabwe. In a report delivered to a British Association meeting in Johannesburg in 1929, Gertrude Caton-Thompson argued that Great Zimbabwe was the product of a “native civilization” showing “national organisation of a high kind, originality and amazing industry”. She noted further that it was a “subject worthy of all the research South Africa can give it. South African students must be bred to pursue it”. 4Subsequent work demonstrated that Great Zimbabwe was probably the most important capital of a powerful Shona kingdom which controlled a vast area between the Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers during the fourteenth century - only 700 years ago.
However, the Rhodesian government under Ian Smith purposely kept the “exotic origin” interpretation of Great Zimbabwe alive. This was done for political reasons. The usurping of Zimbabwean heritage served to strip local Zimbabweans of a past, devalue their abilities and justify white rule. It is not surprising that Great Zimbabwe became a symbol during the struggle for liberation and majority rule.
Mapungubwe [link to History classroom lesson]
The Mapungubwe hill site, situated on a farm called Greefswald, was discovered in 1932. The first archaeologist to excavate the site, a farmer and prospector named Van Graan, became interested in rumours about a “wild” white man who in the late 1800s had lived off the land near Mapungubwe. This character had climbed Mapungubwe hill and, according to an elderly informant, returned with beautifully crafted pottery from the hilltop. Van Graan persuaded the informant's son to show them the “secret stairway” to the top of the hill.
Once on top, the trespassers discovered many potsherds, rusted iron tools, pieces of copper wire and some glass beads. Then, in an area where the soil had eroded away, Van Graan's son found some gold. When the rest of the party began scouring the area, they soon came across gold beads, bangles and pieces of gold plating. The next day they returned to continue their search, this time digging into the soil. They revealed the remains of little,
potsherds- pieces of broken pottery gold-plated rhinoceroses and, with further digging, a human skeleton. They were digging into a grave, the grave of a person who had been buried with a wealth of gold objects and adorned in finery
Masses of gold bangles were found round the arms and legs of the skeleton. Heavy coils of iron bangles round one leg had rusted to a solid mass, in which gold and glass spacing beads could be distinguished. The arms and neck had been surrounded by great numbers of gold wire bangles”¦ . Where the skull had lain were found pieces of curiously shaped gold plate, the convolutions of which suggest they had adorned the wooden headrest of the corpse. A bowl of gold plate ”¦ was found, together with a gold plate bangle and a gold circlet and sheath or point, which probably ornamented a staff of office.
Source: Leo Fouche, Mapungubwe: Ancient Bantu Civilization on the Limpopo. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1937, p.2.
After ransacking the site, the group of five decided to divide the wealth equally between themselves. Fortunately for South Africa, Van Graan's son had been a student of archaeology at the University of Pretoria. Something about the objects they found at the site reminded him of Great Zimbabwe, so he consulted one of his professors. The university took immediate action. It tracked down the members of the party, retrieved the various gold pieces and secured permission to excavate the site properly.
Excavations revealed that there was indeed a link between Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe. The Zimbabwe people may have been the same as the Mapungubwe people, because their culture was identical.
Despite the fact that many South Africans understood the significance of the site, and that it clearly bore similarities to Great Zimbabwe, the discovery of the golden rhino at Mapungubwe in 1933 was presented as a “mystery” when it was announced in the press. The people who lived at Mapungubwe were referred to as the “forgotten people”. The magazine, Huisgenoot, ran an extended article that year debunking what they believed to be Caton-Thompson's false interpretation that Great Zimbabwe was built by local Southern Africans in favour of the more exotic biblical-city-of-Ophir interpretation.
The South African government, like its Rhodesian counterpart, deliberately chose to ignore the evidence of early complex African culture, and promoted a version of history that presented Africans as being technically and ideologically primitive. Information on ancient trade and complexity at Mapungubwe was kept out of school history textbooks, which focused on the arrival, conquests and discoveries made by Europeans in South Africa. Black South Africans were effectively denied their heritage. Only after the change in government in 1994 was the importance of Mapungubwe fully realised. Today, Mapungubwe is a World Heritage Site.
debunk- to expose the falseness of an idea or belief
How was Thulamela interpreted?
What is Thulamela?
In 1983, a ranger in the Kruger National Park found stone walls on a hilltop known as Thulamela. Eight years later a team documenting archaeological sites in the park excavated a small area. Slowly but surely, as artefacts were uncovered, it became clear that Thulamela was at least 400 years old and an offshoot of Great Zimbabwe.
In 1993 an architect-archaeologist was contracted by the Kruger National Park to reconstruct the walls and to do further excavations. The walls were rebuilt by local masons in the same style as the sections of wall that were still standing. The height of the wall was determined by the amount of collapsed stone - no extra stone was added. Over a period of 14 months, five stone masons rebuilt approximately 350 metres of dry stone walling, comprising some 2 000 metric tons of rock. Excavations took place in 1995 and 1996. Tests carried out on charcoal and bone showed that the walled site had been occupied between 1550 and 1650.
During excavations the archaeologist discovered two graves beneath hut floors. The first skeleton uncovered was that of a female. An oval grave had been dug through a hut floor in the wives’ area; the floor had been replaced once the burial was completed. Not many objects were found in the grave, but the person was buried with a great deal of jewellery. She wore a triple woven gold wire bracelet on her right wrist, and 291 golden beads were found near her left wrist.
By studying the bones, archaeologists were able to show that the woman had lived around 1600. She had died between the ages of 45 and 60, and she had enjoyed a healthy diet. Both her size and health indicated that she had access to good food, probably due to her elite status.
The second burial was found under a floor in what is thought to be the enclosure of sacred leaders. The skeleton was male, and the way that the bones were positioned in the grave showed that this was a secondary burial. This is consistent with the burial practices of Vhavenda and Mashona royalty. What was more interesting was the fact that the skeleton dated to around 1450, suggesting that this person probably had never lived at Thulamela, or at the same time as the female found in the first burial. The archaeologists found many gold beads and hundreds of ostrich eggshell beads in the grave.
secondary burial- The body was buried and had decomposed elsewhere; the bones were then dug up and reburied at Thulamela
How was the Thulamela project different from apartheid archaeological digs?
The Thulamela project, officially launched in 1993, was in many ways a first of its kind. From the start, project meetings were held as open forums, so that people with different interests could participate in discussions and decisions. The project committee included archaeologists, museum personnel and South African National Parks officials, as well as members of neighbouring Vhavenda and Mashangaan/Vatsonga communities. Their interest stemmed from the fact that many of the elders in these communities had at one time lived in the Pafuri area of Kruger National Park, the location of Thulamela, and one Vhavenda clan claims an ancestral link to the site.
When the graves were discovered, excavation was stopped until the committee decided what was to be done. After some negotiation, it wasdecided that the graves should be excavated, the bones studied and then reburied. The local communities took responsibility for the reburials to ensure the ancestors were treated with dignity and respect.
Shortly before the official opening of Thulamela, local community leaders conducted various traditional rituals at the site to seek ancestral blessing. Ten days later, on 24 September 1996, the skeletons were reburied, and the site was officially opened by Dr Pallo Jordan, then Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.
How was Thulamela presented in the press?
The site of Thulamela received considerable media coverage. Both for the archaeologist and the media, it had proved to be an ideal site. It produced gold and skeletons. Negotiations between local communities, South African National Parks and archaeologists about the excavation and reburial of the skeletons were praised as precedent-setting.
Thulamela gave the press the opportunity not only to capture the spirit of the African Renaissance, but also to use the opportunity to “debunk the myth of the dark uncivilised continent that existed prior to white colonisation”, as Pallo Jordan said in his speech at the opening ceremony.
Some writers presented Thulamela as being “magical” with air that has a special quality. They characterised it as a citadel that had been occupied by kings and noblemen. The archaeologist was characterised as a seer who had been drawn to the site on the day that the first skeleton had been exposed; he was said to have seen various animal portents on the days that both skeletons were discovered. The spirituality of both the archaeologist and the site was also referred to in various television documentaries shown at the time.
Variations on this theme appeared in many other newspaper articles. One told how leopards made a daytime appearance just at the time that the archaeologist found gold at Thulamela. After the archaeologist exhumed the remains of the so-called king, said the article, he called the man “Ingwe” after the leopards. The female skeleton became known as “Queen Losha”, named after the traditional Venda pose the skeleton assumed (the skeleton was lying on its side). She automatically became Ingwe’s “wife”. They remained a royal couple even after carbon-14 dates set them 150 years apart in time.
Even rigorous reporters who presented thorough explanations of Thulamela's position in South Africa's past every now and then used terms such as “mystery”, “myth” and “lost city”.
Perhaps all this sensationalism was because gold had been discovered at the site.
Whatever the reason for sensationalising the site and related finds, one has to question whether the express intention of setting the historical record straight - to allow black South Africans in particular to rediscover their proud heritage - was achieved by the press.
When newspapers write about archaeological heritage they use words and descriptions, and make comparisons, that can make us react positively or negatively towards that which they are describing. For example, when gold was discovered at Mapungubwe by the Van Graan group, the men were described in the newspapers as “explorers”, giving them a positive image. They could easily have been described as “grave robbers”, which would have put a negative spin on their activities.
In the case of Thulamela, the language used to describe the site was loaded with English terminology that conjures up images of a European past. “Citadels” are normally found in the work of Keats, Shakespeare, Byron and Hopkins where they operate both literally and figuratively to create images in the minds of Europeans familiar with such structures. They exist in a landscape that kings, queens and noblemen fit into comfortably. Why use these terms to describe a place in Africa? It could be argued that the South African press intentionally used this terminology when describing Thulamela in order to place the African past on a par with the European past. Or perhaps they felt that these images were consistent with a “Renaissance”.
But do these images exist in the imagination of all South Africans? Are these writers not guilty of making the past a foreign place by describing it in terms of a foreign place? Do they not alienate the African past from the very people to whom it matters?
If this is the case, the process of alienation is developed further through the “mystification” of the site and its associated past. Although various archaeologists and community leaders repeatedly pointed out that observations made at the site confirmed what has long been known from sites such as Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami, the tendency was to present the place and the past as being shrouded in mystery, the science of archaeology as a spiritual enterprise, and the archaeologist as a medium through whom the past was discovered.
precedent- an event or action or decision that serves as an example or guide in similar cases
citadel- a fortress overlooking and protecting a city
seer- a prophet; a person of supposed supernatural insight who sees visions of the future
portent- a sign or warning that something unusual or dangerous is likely to happen
exhume- to dig out something, usually a corpse, that has been buried in the ground
rigorous- extremely thorough and accurate
alienate- to cause to feel isolated; lose or destroy support or sympathy
What did the people who knew about Thulamela have to say?
It was clear that the Mapungubwe informant understood the significance of the hill. Similarly, the people who had formally occupied the area around Thulamela, the Vhavenda and Mashangaan/Vatsonga, recognised the site as being part of their past. The site, the use of space and the way in which the skeletons were buried fit their belief system. This is not to say that these people can explain the archaeological remains or that their traditions have remained unchanged; movement of people and repeated conflict in the area would make that impossible. Rather, Thulamela is a familiar place because it stimulates memories of other similar places and stories about more recent leaders who occupied similar sites. Whether it comes from the more recent past or not, they identify with the site and claim it as that of their ancestors.
When elderly people of the Mashangaan/Vatsonga and Vhavenda were asked about the site, they were clear on who had occupied it - the Nyai division of the Shona-speaking Lembethu (a Vhavenda group). These elderly people understood why Thulamela was built in the way that it was; to them it was a familiar place. They could describe in elaborate detail how and why secondary and tertiary burials occur, pointing out the similarities between the walled hilltop settlements of Thulamela and the modern Vhavenda elite. When members of the Makahane (Vhavenda) clan were asked how they felt
precedent - an event or action or decision that serves as an example or guide in similar cases citadel - a fortress overlooking and protecting a city seer - a prophet; a person of supposed supernatural insight who sees visions of the future portent - a sign or warning that something unusual or dangerous is likely to happen exhume - to dig out something, usually a corpse, that has been buried in the ground rigorous - extremely thorough and accurate alienate - to cause to feel isolated; lose or destroy support or sympathy
about the media's interpretation of Thulamela, of kings and queens, they patiently explained that this was something whites did not seem to comprehend. A khosi is the hightest person, a ritual leader. They were fully aware of how the “English” ranked terms, placing kings above chiefs, and how they were apt to use these terms interchangeably depending on whether they felt the Vhavenda should have a king or a chief. Not only did they have a detailed and rich understanding of their past, they were also fully aware of how their past was and continues to be misrepresented and manipulated by some South Africans.
Sadly, it would seem that decades later, many South Africans are still incapable of engaging with and thinking in terms of an African past.
Can a new heritage be created?
Today, South Africans are able to learn more about the past than they could before. They are able to celebrate the rich and long history that is unique to South Africa. Archaeological sites dating back two million years, that once were only talked about internationally, are now part of local school syllabi. Our histories are being rewritten and we now have reason to be proud of our heritage.
With hindsight, we need to be alert to the fact that heritage or the past can be manipulated to suit some purpose in the present. We also need to begin to think about the language we use to describe our past, and the message that it conveys. It would be good to be able to present South Africa's heritage in South African terms - to talk to elders and learn how they look at their past and present. The more we learn from these oral historians, the easier it will become to explain a history that is not mysterious ... just South African.
Lastly, it is time to bring archaeology back from the realm of myth and legend. We have to begin to understand, criticise and question how arguments and interpretations have been made.
South Africa has a wealth of archaeological evidence, documented history and a strong oral tradition. When woven together, they could provide an interesting piece of history and a heritage of substance.