Great Zimbabwe [Preview]

For centuries, this ancient Shona city stood at the hub of a vast trade network. The site has also been at the center of a bitter debate about African history and heritage

The area may have become devegetated as huge herds of cattle grazed it or as it was extensively farmed; recent environmental data suggest that a succession of severe droughts caused people to disperse. Or there may have been some other impetus, such as war, although there is no evidence besides minimal weaponry to support this argument. More archaeological clues, further digs at Great Zimbabwe and excavations at other Iron Age sites are needed to resolve the question of decline.

Plunder and Misappropriation
LARGELY ABANDONED for 200 years or so, Great Zimbabwe was probably used only irregularly for religious ceremonies--as it is again today--until the late 1800s. It was then that Europeans arrived, lured by visions of gold from King Solomon's mines, and it was then that the archaeological record became so damaged as to become largely indecipherable.

A German explorer, Karl Mauch, was first to arrive, in 1871. He befriended another German, Adam Render, who was living in the tribe of Chief Pika, a Karanga leader, and who led him to Great Zimbabwe. (Had he known the outcome, Render, who was married to two tribeswomen and well integrated, might have steered Mauch into the Zambezi River.) On seeing the ruins, Mauch concluded very quickly that Great Zimbabwe, whether or not it was Ophir, was most certainly not the handiwork of Africans. The stonework was too sophisticated, the culture too advanced. It looked to Mauch to be the result of Phoenician or Israelite settlers. A sample of wood from a lintel bolstered Mauch's rapid assessment: it smelled like his pencil; therefore, it was cedar and must have come from Lebanon.

Mauch's visit was followed by one from Willi Posselt, a looter, who lugged off a carved soapstone bird and hid others so he could return for them later. Posselt was followed by a series of visitors, some of whom worked for W. G. Neal of the Ancient Ruins Company, which had been created in 1895. Cecil Rhodes, founder of the British South Africa Company, gave Neal a commission to exploit all Rhodesian ruins. Neal and his rogues pillaged Great Zimbabwe and other Iron Age sites, taking gold and everything of value, tearing down structures and throwing away whatever was not valuable to them (pottery shards, pots, clay figurines).

The first official archaeologist to visit the site, James Theodore Bent from Britain, had added to the confusion in 1891 by digging around the conical tower in the Great Enclosure--thereby completely destroying the stratigraphy and making it impossible for later archaeologists to make sense of its age. Bent also threw away clay and metal artifacts, including Persian and Arab trade beads, as insignificant. The archaeologist concluded that Great Zimbabwe had been built by a local bastard race--bastards because their fathers must have been white invaders from the north--because, as Rhodes and most European settlers maintained, native Africans could never have constructed Great Zimbabwe themselves.

A 1902 report written by Neal and a journalist named Richard N. Hall reiterated Bents conclusions: the architecture was clearly Phoenician or Arabian. This attitude was pervasive in colonialist Africa: the continent had no history, no sophistication; its people and tribes were unchanging, unable to develop, culturally barren.

Archaeologists who suggested otherwise were not well received. In 1905 David Randall-MacIver, an Egyptologist who had studied under the famous William Matthew Flinders Petrie, excavated at the site and uncovered artifacts very similar to the ones being used by Shona, or Karanga, people living in the vicinity. By turning to indigenous people for cultural clues and interpretation rather than just for labor, Randall-MacIver was indeed doing something unprecedented. Had any other investigators of the time drawn on the lore or knowledge of the local people, many of the questions about Great Zimbabwe might well have been answered.

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