Great Zimbabwe's Trading Past

The grandest African ruins south of the Sahara and the enigmatic discovery of Ming China there.

Great Zimbabwe – the grandest African ruins south of the Sahara – retains its enigma, but recent excavations have produced more pieces in the giant puzzle. Fragments of blue and white Chinese porcelain have been dug out, along with local pottery. Glued together, the delicate pieces form about a third of a Ming dish dating from the sixteenth century.

The dish was apparently deliberately stuffed into a tunnel in a mud hut wall built circa 1250 to 1350, with abutting stone walls. Excavated last year, the hut turned out to be large (just over nine yards in diameter), with a dividing wall and two entrances. 'We found spears and arrowheads on one side, and four hoes on the other. The findings suggest the hut was used by spirit mediums and had secular and ritual space. Impressions from a bark and fibre mat remain in the clay and charcoal is in the post holes: the hut burnt down' says Dr David Collett, a British archaeologist based at the site, 150 miles south of Harare, on a three-year Zimbabwe Government contract.

Prior to this find, the consensus was that the site was abandoned around 1450. Now the date of abandonment is put later, but raises the unanswered question as to why a Portuguese document from the 1530s refers to the settlement as a ruin.

What is evident is that Great Zimbabwe has tremendous significance for black Africa. Its origins are undeniably African, and cannot be co-opted into a racist mythology as past historians have tried to do. On the contrary, the artefacts – Chinese celadon, Arabian glass, Persian faience, gold and ornaments demonstrate that a society with trading links lived here generations before Europeans exercised colonial domination.

Pottery has been found identical in shape and pattern to pieces from Tanzania. Clearly travel within Africa was extensive. Recent excavations elsewhere in Zimbabwe have shed light on about twenty previously under-estimated sites, including the ruins of Khami near Bulawayo, which are now an UNESCO World Heritage site, and a picture is being built up of a series of settlements during our Middle Ages when the Crusades were in full swing.

At Great Zimbabwe, the dense scale of building show that the valley and hillside – covering up to 1,800 acres – were crammed with up to 20,000 people around 700 years ago. Half way up the footpath which winds up the hill, there's a hut ex- posed with entrance and shelf where pots were displayed. In this packed steeply sloping terrain, far above water sources, the inhabitants lived cheek by jowl, with mud huts pushed against each other. The midden, on the hillside, which may have been used for 300 years, is thick with pottery and bones.

The short, steep paths to the peak squeeze through gaps in the dramatic sculptural rocks – wide enough for one person at a time – before reaching viewpoints and sheltered upper terraces where the rulers probably presided. Even near the top there are remains of further huts: one has been newly opened up, and protected with a thatched roof. In the evening the sun sets behind a monolith between the walls.

A tour round the site reveals the problems of preservation, and in particular the preservation of the dry stone walls, which dominated the city between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. Rubble is forcing the retaining walls to give way. Each unstable stone has to be documented using coded painted dots. The plan is to computerise the precise locations of these stones, but action on the ground is urgent if the crumbling remains are to be conserved.

In some areas sections of hill have to be cut back and sealed with bricks and facing to reduce the pressure on the ancient walls. Elsewhere the movement of facades can be shown from old photographs. 'Using glass wires we measure the continuing shift – in some cases one to two centimetres in the past year', explains Collett, who is seeking help from Zimbabwe University's engineering department. Tourists add to the damage, and, at the beginning of this century careless excavations also took their toll.

Without Western cash, the experts have to devise local solutions, such as a pair of wooden boards held up by jacks and crow bars with screw fitting legs to stop collapse. Even simple equipment like pressure balloons are unobtainable. So is qualified manpower.

'Great Zimbabwe would take 50 archaeologists 200 years to survey; we've six professionals in the whole country', adds Collett, who with his wife has also been looking at Shona domestic space in the past century. Features of communal life remain recognisable in compounds around the countryside where families live with a minimum of basic possessions.

Their ancestors at Great Zimbabwe were Shona tribesmen who grew sorghum, millett and cow peas and kept stock – cattle, sheep and goats – outside their compounds. Within the Great Enclosure, the famous solid conical tower is thought to be a symbolic grain bin, but there are still no explanations for the mini-tower in its shadow.

The magic of Great Zimbabwe has intrigued visitors for a century or more. In 1894 Alice Balfour, sister of the British Prime Minister, painted the ruins and described them during her extensive travels. Since then much evidence has been destroyed. The hope now is to reduce the speed of decay, and bring to light artefacts to add to the collection in the site museum, which is due for renovation, updating previous interpretations. The archaeologists have produced a new trail guide, and plan to publish a general review through the Institute of African Studies in Upsala, Sweden.