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 continuity of artifacts suggested to Randall-MacIver that the site had been built by people whose culture was similar. He also demonstrated that the Arab and Persian beads were no older than 14th or 15th century and thus did not date back to biblical times and King Solomon. And he argued that the stonework was not at all Arabic, because it was curved and not arranged in geometric or symmetric patterns. Randall-MacIver concluded that native Africans had built Great Zimbabwe.

Two subsequent researchers held the same opinion. In 1926 J. F. Schofield reiterated Randall-MacIvers conclusions, and in 1929 Gertrude Caton-Thompson did the same. Her excavations of the undisturbed Maund Ruin--which lies at the opposite end of the valley from the Great Enclosure--again supported the theory of indigenous construction. Caton-Thompsons detailed drawings and careful stratigraphy have been crucial in piecing together what little is known about Great Zimbabwe.

Despite the mounting evidence and archaeological testimony, most European settlers in Rhodesia rejected the record. From 1965 until independence in 1980, the Rhodesian Front censored all books and other materials available on Great Zimbabwe. This party, established by then prime minister Ian Smith to prevent Africans from gaining power, was based on a system of apartheid. Archaeologists, such as the noted Peter S. Garlake, who were vocal about the native origin of Great Zimbabwe were imprisoned and eventually deported. Africans who took the same view lost their jobs. Displays at the site itself were censored as well, although it hardly mattered because they were in English, and locals were not allowed to use the premises for any ceremonies.

Reclaiming the Past
TODAY GREAT ZIMBABWE is a symbol of African cultural development. Popular books have made the monument somewhat more accessible to the people of Zimbabwe. Yet, at the same time, Great Zimbabwe remains largely inaccessible. Because of past archaeological mistakes, much of the history of the site is elusive. Given the condition of contemporary archaeology in southern Africa, there is little chance this will change soon.

The two archaeologists who are currently stationed at the site are responsible not only for the preservation of the decaying monument but for dealing with visitors and maintenance--and the 5,000 other sites that are under their jurisdiction as well (out of a total of 35,000 recorded sites in Zimbabwe). Although the ruins are protected by the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe and were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, only two conservators and fewer than 10 archaeologists are available in Zimbabwe to study and look after all the archaeological sites, including Great Zimbabwe.

The situation in other sub-Saharan countries is no better. According to Pierre de Maret of the Free University of Brussels, less than $150,000 is spent annually on archaeology in 10 sub-Saharan countries--and there are a mere 20 professional archaeologists among them. The sale of African objects abroad, however, reaches into the millions of dollars every year.

It is clear that cultural legacies are being lost as monuments decay and artifacts are taken out of the various countries. If contemporary cultures, fragmented and ruptured by centuries of colonialism, are going to be able to piece together and to reconnect with their severed past, archaeology will need to assume a more important place in African society. Great Zimbabwe is so important not simply because of its masterful masonry but because it is a cultural clue that survived and has been reclaimed. Now it needs to be fully interpreted and placed within the larger context of sub-Saharan history, a context that still lies hidden.

WEBBER NDORO is currently at ICCROM (the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), where he is project manager for the Africa 2009 Program. He taught heritage management at the University of Zimbabwe. Ndoro holds degrees in archaeology from the University of Cambridge, architectural conservation from the York University in England and a Ph.D. in heritage management from Uppsala University in Sweden. He was conservator for the Great Zimbabwe World heritage site and coordinator of the Monuments Program from 1988 to 1994.

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