. When I decided to write this paper about the ruins of The Great Zimbabwe, I first chose it because I had never heard of it, and second, architecture interests me more than most other art history subjects. All I knew about Zimbabwe was that is was a country in Africa. That was it. I had no idea that the country had taken the name from these ruins and that this was arguably one of the most famous archaeological sites in Africa. So, needless to say, I had a lot of reading to do. I think the subject of how it was discovered and brought to the attention of the western world caught my attention first.
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The idea once thought by early Europeans that this huge stone city found in the heart of Africa couldn’t possibly be built by indigenous people was fascinating and that pride in one’s own race kept the truth from being discovered for decades. [pic] The Great Zimbabwe was discovered by a German named Carl Mauch in 1871 who was actually looking for the fabled ruins of Ophir. (NDoro, 2005) Mauch got a hot tip from a German trader about some ruins he had seen that “ would never had been built by blacks”. Tyson, 2000) This attitude about the city and the people who lived around it would come to define the type of biased archeology that studied it for years to come. The popular view of the site was that white men or a “ civilized culture” had somehow built the site around the 11th century. After decades of bad science and destruction of valuable artifacts, an Egyptologist named David Randall-MacIver (1905) discovered artifacts that belonged to the Shona people living in the area. NDoro, 2005) His findings however were not very popular and took another 20 years for his ideas to be reiterated by two other archaeologists; J. F. Schofield (1926) and Gertrude Caton-Thompson (1929). (NDoro, 2005) Even though the evidence was overwhelming, the Rhodesian government censored materials and books until the nation’s independence in 1980, when they changed their name to Zimbabwe. (Tyson, 2000) [pic] The construction of the Great Zimbabwe started around 1100 featured granite rocks shaped by the Shona people and built without the use of mortar. NDoro, 2005) In fact, it was this construction that led Europeans to believe that it couldn’t have been done by the indigenous people due to the high amount of skill that it must have taken to shape the granite to such exact specifications. The Great Zimbabwe covers close to 1800 acres and consists of three main sites; the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the Valley Ruins. The most impressive of the structures in the Great Enclosure which sits below the Hill Complex. The walls, at their highest point, rise 32 feet into the air and the wall curves in an elliptical fashion around an inner court yard.
There is also an inner wall that creates a narrow passageway that stretches 180 feet. There is a conical tower on the inside of the palace that is 30 feet high and 18 feet in diameter at its base, but the tower is solid and is thought to be purely symbolic in function. (NDoro, 2005) [pic] It is thought that Great Zimbabwe started off as a hilltop settlement sometime around the beginning of the 11th Century. The hilltop itself could have held some kind of religious significance in the same way and is quite possible that the Shona god, Mivan could have been worshipped at the site.
The site of Great Zimbabwe also had a number of political and economic advantages. The actual land around Great Zimbabwe was rich and fertile and had access to many water sources. Also it was strategically placed being situated at the beginning of the Sabi River valley which was placed halfway between the gold fields of the Western Plateau and the East African coast. Cattle were of great symbolic and economic importance and played a crucial role at the heart of the state’s power. (NDoro, 2005) [pic]
There are different archaeological interpretations of the function of the three different sites. The structuralist interpretation holds that the different complexes had different functions: the Hill Complex as a temple, the Valley complex was for the citizens, and the Great Enclosure was used by the king. Structures that were more elaborate were probably built for the kings. Other researchers suggest that the complexes represent the work of successive kings: each new ruler founded a new residence.
The focus of power moved from the Hill Complex in the twelfth century, to the Great Enclosure, the Upper Valley and finally the Lower Valley in the early sixteenth century. Some researchers claim that the ruins may have housed an astronomy observatory, although the significance of the alignments upon which these claims are based is contested. Many of these enclosure walls are built in the later style of walling, suggesting that the town layout in the valley changed with time, possibly to accommodate an increasing population. Heilbrunn, 2001) Some of the most important pieces of art were found inside the Great Enclosure and depict eight soapstone statues of birds. They reside on top of columns that are about a yard high and have anthropomorphic features, namely human lips and toes. They were excavated in the 1900’s and are not known exactly where they originally were adorned in the complex, but some scholars believe they are symbols of the royal class. The seventh Zimbabwe Bird is now being used as the national emblem. (NDoro, 2005) [pic]
Archaeological evidence suggests that Great Zimbabwe became a center for trading, with artifacts suggesting that the city formed part of a trade network linked to Kilwa and extending as far as China. This international trade, mainly in gold and ivory, was in addition to the local agricultural trade, in which cattle were especially important. The large cattle herd that supplied the city moved seasonally and was managed by the court. Chinese pottery shards, coins from Arabia, glass beads and other non-local items have been excavated at Zimbabwe.
Despite these strong international trade links, there is no evidence to suggest exchange of architectural concepts between Great Zimbabwe and centres such as Kilwa. (NDoro, 2005) I’ve studied quite a bit of western art history but never had the chance until now to study eastern art, but after a bit of reading of the Great Zimbabwe, I’ve already learned a huge amount about the difference between the two and why art history isn’t taught in the timeline of the world as a whole.
While the Great Zimbabwe was being used at the height of its civilization, Europe was still in the dark ages and was struggling to just to survive. I can even understand (a little) the early European biases. Here was a culture in a hostile land, that as far as the eye can see, were living in small structures and living close to the earth and then all of a sudden a massive castle rises out of an almost barren horizon. I think my brain probably wouldn’t know what to do with that type of information either.
References 1. Ndoro, W. (2005). Great Zimbabwe. Scientific American Special Edition, 15(1), 74. 2. Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. (October 2001) “ Great Zimbabwe (11th??? 15th century)”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved Novermber 5th 2011 from http://www. metmuseum. org/toah/hd/zimb/hd_zimb. htm 3. Tyson, P (2000) Mysteries of Great Zimbabwe. Nova. Retrieved Novermber 5th 2011 from http://www. pbs. org/wgbh/nova/ancient/mysteries-of-great-zimbabwe. html