Africa’s Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe’s Great Enclosure (photo in public domain)

By Patrick Hunt – 

The Great Zimbabwe ruins in Zimbabwe form what is probably the greatest African monument ever, impressive in the high granite walls of the Great Enclosure towering up to 36 feet high and length of walls extending over 820 feet. This site’s importance is such that the country is named after it, a rare accomplishment that an archaeological ruin can lend its name to a modern state. The Great Zimbabwe’s primary structure, the Great Enclosure is certainly the largest manmade edifice south of Saharan / Egyptian cultures.

Originally built between 1050 and 1450 CE, at the same time as Medieval cathedrals began to rise in Europe, it was once the proud capital of an African Bantu-related people who were great cattle herders, and its granite blocks took advantage of the stone’s fracturing into flat blocks that required no mortar or other internal reinforcement. The name Zimbabwe is originally a Shona name, derived mostly from the word dzimba for “house” and mabwe for “stones”.

While it took centuries for Eurocentric cultures to acknowledge it was the work of indigenous Africans – some associating the Great Zimbabwe with the likely Semitic but still legendary Queen of Sheba and King Solomon’s Mines; others with earlier Phoenician colonization – no credible source today argues against its African construction and site history. An advocate of Semitic (Phoenician or Arab) construction of the Great Zimbabwe was J. Theodore Bent, one of whose sponsors was Cecil Rhodes, and who wrote about the Great Zimbabwe in The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (1891). Karl Mauch, also late 19th century, favored the Queen of Sheba and Phoenician stone working. The Shona speaking people themselves migrated into the region several centuries prior to the Great Zimbabwe, possibly earlier. The previous country of Rhodesia severely restricted any public acknowledgments of African origins under Ian Smith and others, falsifying the archaeological record; some mid-20th century Rhodesian archaeologists – whites or not – did not toe the line on censoring what the evidence was increasingly verifying and thus lost their jobs as racist politics trumped archaeology. Between 1905-29 both Gertrude Caton-Thompson and David Randall-MacIver firmly held to Bantu-African construction, in the 1960’s onward, however, Peter Garlake, Roger Summers and Paul Sinclair were all censored or removed from archaeological and museum posts for advocating Africans as the builders of the Great Zimbabwe. Thought by many to be the primary living space of the elites who ruled the region, the Great Enclosure was only one of many granite stone structures here in this valley.

Gold mining in the area reaches back at east a thousand years and is synchronous with the rise of the Great Zimbabwe,[1]  and new research questions have clarified some of the prior studies of local gold mining and metallurgy in the immediate surrounding region. [2] Nonetheless, a natural geological phenomenon associating plutonic gold with granite batholiths, gold working and trade in this precious metal trade do not necessarily explain the construction of the Great Enclosure, although iron mining began in this same valley as early as the 4th century CE and may have contributed to the ultimate centralization of the local population here.

Great Zimbabwe Map (photo courtesy of Heilbrunn Timeline of Art, Metropolitan Museum, New York)

If gold mining in the region is synchronous with the site, some of the Great Enclosure’s purposes may also have been to smelt and protect stockpiles of royal gold, as David Koeller and others assert. Otherwise the granite walls offered almost complete protection from external forces, so they may also have functioned as defensive barriers.

The rich mineral geology of Zimbabwe includes gold and iron extracted for at least a millennium by locals, who historically had both the technology and trade network for utilizing these natural resources without any outside assistance.  In response to critics who implied that indigenous African cultures of the time lacked technology to utilize historic gold resources, notable gold artifacts found in burials at Mapungubwe south of the Great Zimbabwe long the Limpopo River (see map above) between 1000-1300 CE and similar royal activity from K2 (Bambandyanalo) (also see map above) including metallic slag finds showing local smelting and processing attest to significant mineral extraction technology.  [3]  In addition, the local Karoo System sandstones along the Limpopo adjacent to K2 and Mapungubwe suggest non-immediatley local gold sources, with optimum sources found north closer to the area of the Great Zimbabwe. [4] As found distributed worldwide, auriferous (“gold-bearing”) geological connections to contact metamorphism is abundant in Zimbabwe where the granite plutons and batholiths are adjacent to serpentine formations. Like California’s Sierra Nevada granites and foothill serpentines (e.g. serpentine is even the California state rock because of its associations with the mid-19th century Gold Rush) and elsewhere, Zimbabwe is rich in serpentine with many iron-rich varieties, also near gold mining regions. Zimbabwe’s serpentine is coveted today for modern Shona sculpture. Zimbabwe’s Great Dyke of abundant serpentine formations include those at Mvurwi, Nyanga, Chiweshi, Domboshawa and Kwekwe, among others. So the Great Zimbabwe ruins may be long connected to historical mineral extraction.

Sadly, many of the archaeological features at the Great Zimbabwe that would have clarified mineral resource extraction and mining technology and other cultural history have been disturbed  and confused by earlier looting and destruction during the first half of the 20th century while the ethnocentric debates and suppression of evidence were in full swing. [5]  Although some earlier archaeological work was scientifically conducted and untainted by racial prejudice, e.g., see Peter Garlake’s work below [6] along with Huffman’s published work [7], it wasn’t until independence from colonialism after 1980 that the Great Zimbabwe was listed on the World Heritage List (1986) and the body of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) as a service became “more professional as a modern heritage organization”,  [8] fostering such needed diachronic and conservation studies as those by Chipunza [9], Ndoro [10] and Matenga [11],  among others, although the current politicizing of the Great Zimbabwe for pro-ZANU-PF and Mugabe propaganda has undermined some of the gains made in the 1980’s. Thus many questions remain, including a fuller view of the more economically-driven and technical purposes of the Great Zimbabwe.

Some soapstone and serpentine sculptures also functioned at the Great Zimbabwe in strategic wall placements that possibly had totemic value. For example, the most notable stone sculptures from the site are the “Eight Zimbabwe Birds” carved from local micaceous schist.

Bird’s Eye Overhead View of the Great Enclosure (Photo courtesy of David Koeller)

The elliptical structure of the Great Enclosure has a rough diameter of almost 300 feet at its widest, its walls being almost 20 feet thick in places, tapering gently upwards for stability. There are technically two walls and the Great Enclosure also has a conical tower reaching 30 feet high and 18 feet in diameter. Internally the structure may have also had more temporary construction such as wood and mud, and the area around the ruins could have sustained up to 18,000 to 20,000 people with additional animal grazing land and streams surrounding the stone ruins. The other two primary groups of ruins of the Great Zimbabwe site are simply called the Valley Ruins Complex and the Hill Complex, stretching almost 20 acres across the landscape. The great size and complexity of the engineering of quarrying, moving and placing the stone staggered the imaginations of European visitors, at first mostly Portuguese explorers, since the 16th century. Unable to credit Africans for the monumentality of the Great Zimbabwe, many Europeans limited its technology and superb architectural accomplishments for political reasons, much in the same way that Spanish conquistadors denigrated Mesoamericans as being barbarians and even without souls – as the Spanish apologist Sepulveda wrote in the 16th century – so their economic and mineral exploitation could be more easily accomplished without accountability.

Although many Zimbabweans are not connected to the Great Zimbabwe, recalling Ndoro’s summary of Garlake that ” Great Zimbabwe…remains to the mass of the population ‘a remote and meaningless abstraction alienated from all that is significant in their culture’ “, many indigenous archeologists like Ndoro are attempting to rectify ignorance and indifference. [12] Nonetheless, modern Zimbabwe, having symbolically adopted iconic images of the site and even the Zimbabwe stone birds seen on the national flag, is rightly proud of the Great Zimbabwe and its extensive ruins that show indigenous African architecture and a complex society capable of a dynamic technology and trade reaching great distances across Africa as early as a millennium ago.


[1]  Lorraine Swan. Early Gold Mining on the Zimbabwean Plateau. Studies in African Archaeology 9, Societas Archeologica Upsaliensis, Uppsala, 1994.

[2]  S. Terry Childs. “Review of L. Swan’s Early Gold Mining…Stud. Afric. Archaeol. 9.” African Archaeological Review 13.3 (Springer) (1996) 215-19.

[3]  Andrie Meyer. “K2 and Mapungubwe”. South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series 8 (2000) 4-13, esp. 4-5.

[4]  ibid.

[5]  Joost Fontein. “Silence, Destruction and Closure at Great Zimbabwe: Local Narratives of Desecration and Alienation”. Journal of Southern African Studies 32.4 (2006) 771-94, esp. 772 ff.

[6]  Peter S. Garlake. Great Zimbabwe. London: Thames & Hudson, 1973.

[7]  T.N. Huffman. “Zimbabwe, Souther Africa’s First Town.” Rhodesian Prehistory 7 [15] (1977) 1-14.

[8]  Fontein, 773.

[9]   K. Chipunza. A diachronic analysis of the Hill Complex at Great Zimbabwe. Studies in African Archaeology 8  Societas Archeologica Upsaliensis, Uppsala (1994).

[10]  W. Ndoro. “The evolution of a management policy at Great Zimbabwe” in G. Pwiti, ed. Caves, Monuments and Texts. Studies in African Archaeology 9  Societas Archeologica Upsaliensis, Uppsala  (1997); Webber Ndoro. The Preservation of Great Zimbabwe: Your Monument, Our Shrine. ICCROM Conservation Studies 4. Rome: ICCROM (International Centre for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome), 2005, esp. 44-8, e.g., note restored western entrance to the Great Enclosure (Plate 5.2) 47.

[11]  E. Matenga. “Conservation History of the Great Enclosure, Great Zimbabwe, with Reference to the Proposed Restoration of a Lintel Entrance” in G. Pwiti and R. Soper, eds.  Aspects of African Archaeology. Harare: University of Zimbabwe Publications, 1996.

[12]  quoted in Ndoro, 2005, 83.