History hidden in stone

Review: Vivien Horler

Palaces of Stone, by Mike Main & Tom Huffman (Struik Travel & Heritage)

We’ve all heard of the Zimbabwe Ruins, today known as Great Zimbabwe, but who knew there were more than 500 stone palaces across a swathe of Southern Africa, stretching from Botswana to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique?

Mike Main, born in Britain and now living in Gaborone in Botswana, has wandered around Africa for decades. Years ago, through meeting archaeologists in Botswana, notably the late Dr Alec Campbell of the National Museum and Monuments in Gaborone, Dr Catrien van Waarden, and Wits University emeritus archaeology professor Tom Huffman, he became fascinated by the ruins and was determined to find out more.

With his Swedish wife Kerstin Jackson-Main, he set off across the southern continent to record these remarkable stone palaces.

Some are well known, like Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, and some are barely recognised at all. All are fragile.

  • See also what happened to one of the eight Zimbabwe birds – apparently languishing in Cape Town (below)At what Main calls an exquisite site at Vukwe in north-eastern Botswana, he encountered a man with a bakkie. The bakkie man inquired what Main was doing there, and he explained his interest in the old stone structures. And what was the bakkie driver doing here, he asked.

Well , he was told, the tooled stones were perfect for building his new bottle store.

Main says the story begins on the floodplain of two major African rivers, the Shashe and the Limpopo, in the border region shared by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

In the introduction the authors write: “One of the inspirations for this book was the discovery of more than 110 of these stone-walled sites in north-eastern Botswana alone. ‘New’ sites are constantly being ‘discovered’ in Botswana…”

Sites in South Africa include Mapungubwe in Limpopo and Thulamela in the Kruger Park, as well as a good number in Botswana and many in Zimbabwe.

At the crux of the story is what is referred to as the Zimbabwe Culture, a succession of states based on class distinction and sacred leadership that began with Mapungubwe and included Great Zimbabwe, Torwa, Mutapa, Rozwi and Venda.

Dating back to 1200, Bantu-speaking pastoralists were active in and around the area today known as Mapungubwe, trading with Arabs and Swahili-speaking groups on the east coast of Africa, selling ivory, gold, copper, salt and skins in return for glass beads and cloth.

And for some reason, unexplained in history but possibly because of the trade interaction, a group of people, living a traditional village life, moved a single kilometre from their home to Mapungubwe, and changed the organisation of their society.

From a society based on a village which included a chief or headman with direct contact with the people, the new set-up saw a king on the top of the hill, royalty on terraces below, and the common people on the plains beyond.

Why did this happen? Was it the influence of traders from the east coast of Africa or from other groups they came into contact with?

And then, around 150 years later and for reasons which are a topic of debate, Mapungubwe collapsed and Great Zimbabwe rose up, probably not settled by Mapungubwe refugees but by people with similar cultural practices and belief systems.

Traditional villages in southern Africa seem to have little in common with Great Zimbabwe or many of the other great stone palaces. Could the same people have built them?

No, said generations of colonial experts. Well, Main and Huffman believe they are wrong. The palaces were built by local people of great skill and resources.

The authors describe the building of the palaces in detail, referring to the builders’ care in the brickwork, the decoration and the stability of the walls. The outer wall of the Great Enclosure of Great Zimbabwe, built in about 1375, was about 10m high and has been described as “the most exceptional drystone structure in southern Africa. The quality of the stonework shows stunning precision, consistency and accuracy”.

It has been calculated that there are more than 900 000 individual blocks in the Great Enclosure wall alone. “Given that possible treble that figure would have been required for the entire capital [of Great Zimbabwe] it is almost certain that a highly organised block-making industry would have existed to support the growth and expansion of Great Zimbabwe”.

The SA Archaeological Bulletin reviewed this book as covering no new ground and saying much of the information was disputed – a verdict Main describes as “fair”. But most have us have no knowledge of the subject at all.

In an interview Main’s wife Kerstin, who has spent a decade travelling across southern Africa with her husband, responded fiercely: “The point of this story is to describe what was happening in Africa 500 to 600 years ago. And it should not be diminished by academic squabbles. What was done in these stone palaces shows extraordinary discipline, foresight and initiative, and something people in southern Africa should know about and be immensely proud of.”

As the introduction to this book puts it: “There are 100s of stone-walled ruins, all following the same architectural style. Some have been brutally plundered, few have been properly excavated, and fewer still have been dated – and so the mammoth task of compiling a detailed narrative awaits future generations. For the moment, we are left with yawning gaps and tantalising evidence.

“It does seem, though, that these striking ruins exist in a public vacuum: though broadly known to archaeologists with an interest in the field, they are largely unappreciated because their story has not yet been told to a large enough audience.”

And that’s why they wrote this book. I found it fascinating.

  • Where is the missing Zimbabwe bird

Vivien Horler

In February France returned two Benin bronzes to their ancestral home more than a century after British soldiers took them from West Africa.

According to the news agency Deutsche Welle, it has been estimated that 80% to 90% of sub-Saharan cultural heritage is in Western museums.

Last year, after two British universities returned Benin bronzes to Nigeria, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, urged “other museums and institutions across the world to take this opportunity and follow suit”.

Who would have thought South Africa would be holding on to a piece of significant art rightfully belonging to Zimbabwe?

According to Mike Main & Tom Huffman in their book Palaces of Stone, the sculpture is one of the eight sandstone birds from Great Zimbabwe, and it is currently in Groote Schuur, once Cecil John Rhodes’s home in Cape Town.

As the authors write: “These eight bird carvings are unique to Great Zimbabwe, and undoubtedly played a significant role in the symbolic life of this society.” One of them has become the country’s national emblem and appears on the country’s flag and coat of arms.”

How did South Africa come to house one of these important sculptures?

According to Places of Stone, explorer William Posselt visited Great Zimbabwe in 1889, and spotted four of the birds on their plinths in the complex’s Great Enclosure.

Posselt tried to take one away with him, but it was too heavy to carry. Undaunted, he cut the bird from its pedestal and departed with only the carving, which he later sold to Rhodes.

Will – or should – South Africa return the bird to Zimbabwe? Who knows? But there is form.

When Posselt visited Great Zimbabwe, he spotted only four of the eight birds, stole one, and hid the other three.

Theodore Bent, Great Zimbabwe’s first archaeologist in 1891, found the three birds Posselt had hidden, two he hadn’t seen, and a fragment of another, all in the Great Enclosure. He then sent them to the South African Museum in Cape Town, apparently for safekeeping, where they remained until the South African government returned them to newly independent Zimbabwe in 1981.

The eighth bird was later found among the ruins and is now on display in the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. Apart from that one and the bird in Cape Town, all the rest are in the site museum at Great Zimbabwe.









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