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Information on the archaeological site, its history and the
© University of Pretoria: Mapungubwe Museum
LEGACY OF MAPUNGUBWE
On 8 April
1933, The Illustrated London News reported a remarkable discovery
in the Transvaal: a grave of unknown origin, containing much
gold-work, found on the summit of a natural rock stronghold
in a wild region. This site, Mapungubwe Hill, is on the farm
Greefswald where the international borders between South Africa,
Zimbabwe and Botswana meet.
site was discovered in 1933, numerous research and news reports
have told the story of Mapungubwe, a flourishing Iron Age metropolis
on the Limpopo ruled by an African king almost a thousand years
ago. Mapungubwe and K2 are a National Monument and therefore
the cultural objects from these sites have been proclaimed as
part of a specifically declared heritage collection. The Mapungubwe
Cultural Landscape became South Africa’s fifth World Heritage
site in July 2003 and in May 2004 it was officially announced
as Mapungubwe National Park.
of this ancient society, now known as the Kingdom of Mapungubwe,
lay forgotten for more than seven centuries until, in the early
1930’s, a local resident revealed their existence to the
University of Pretoria. Today, the Mapungubwe Museum at the
University of Pretoria promotes the largest archaeological gold
collection in Sub-Saharan Africa.
settlement and cultural sequence in the Limpopo River Valley
of the Stone Age roamed the river flood plains and cave sandstone
hills of the Limpopo valley from time to time and left their
stone tools there. Paintings in rock shelters and a few rock
engravings are evidence of San hunter-gatherer communities in
the Stone Age landscape. The first communities who made iron
tool and clay pots arrived in the central Limpopo valley during
the early Iron Age, possibly by AD 500. These people were the
forerunners of larger farming communities of the Iron Age who
settled in the Limpopo River valley between AD 800 and AD 1400.
Age sites at K2 and Mapungubwe were inhabited between AD 1000
and Ad 1300. Archaeologists believe that both sites were once
capitals of African kings. Unfortunately the inhabitants identity
remains a mystery since this part of history goes back before
the written record and no known oral traditions can be recorded
over a period of a thousand years, therefore the inhabitants
are merely known as the ‘Mapungubweans’.
is the site of three royal graves and was the center of a terraced
settlement. Stonewalls buttressed the slopes and homesteads
were scattered about. The king and his soldiers lived near the
top of the hill and were supported by the people on the lower
levels. The neighbouring village of K2 indicates that the inhabitants
were subsistence farmers, raising both stock and crops. A valuable
feature of K2 is the large central refuse site, from which archaeologists
have been able to glean a store of information. Human remains
from various graves indicate that these communities enjoyed
a healthy, varied diet. People were prosperous and kept domesticated
cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. The charred remains of storage
huts have also been found, showing that millet, sorghum and
cotton were cultivated.
on Greefswald are typical of the Iron Age. Smiths created objects
of iron, copper and gold for practical and decorative purposes
– both for local use and for trade. Pottery, wood, ivory,
bone, ostrich eggshells and the shells of snails and freshwater
mussels indicate that many other materials were used and traded
with cultures as far away as East Africa, Persia, Egypt, India
foreign trade was an important part of life in the area and
large quantities of glass beads were obtained in exchange for
gold and animal skins. At K2, numerous garden roller beads were
made from imported glass beads.
& WORLD HERITAGE STATUS
main sites, Mapungubwe and K2, were proclaimed National Monuments
in the early 1980’s. Boundaries are being set for the
creation of a cross-border peace Park, named Mapungubwe National
Park, this is also now a World Heritage Site.
FARMING COMMUNITIES and KINGDOMS: traditions, subsistence,
technology and trade
of African farming communities were central to their social
life, settlement patterns, animal husbandry, agriculture, technology
and trade. Many of these cultural aspects are reflected in the
remains from K2 and Mapungubwe. A traditional African village
is organized around family relationships, and creates household
activity areas and places for special social occasions such
as initiation schools and religious ceremonies. The close relationship
of the villagers with their cattle is often symbolized by the
position of the cattle kraal in the village. The domestic animals
kept by African Iron Age people included cattle, sheep, goats
and dogs. These people cultivated plants such as varieties of
sorghum, millet and beans. The Iron Age people were skilled
miners and metal workers. Some evidence of their skills are
the numerous gold mines in Zimbabwe and some tin and copper
mines in South Africa.
– AN IRON AGE SITE: at the foot of Bambandyanalo
K2 is I
km southwest of Mapungubwe Hill in a small valley surrounded
by cliffs. G A Gardner, who excavated there during the 1930’s,
named K2. Between about AD 1030 and AD 1220, for nearly 200
years, many generations of farming people lived at K2. The main
site of about 5 hectares includes the remains of a central homestead
area, a central cattle kraal and a central midden, surrounded
by smaller homesteads.
OF DAILY LIFE AT K2: the village of a successful farming
and trading community
K2 is a
particularly large Iron Age site with vast deposits containing
a wealth of artifacts such as glass beads and pottery, often
found in the numerous graves of the villagers. Huge quantities
of bone fragments from slaughtered domestic animals and burnt
seeds of domesticated plants such as sorghum and bullrush millet
indicate that the K2 people were successful farmers. They were
generally healthy people due to their nutritious diet. They
were skilled craftsmen who produced characteristic pottery,
large glass beads, tools and body ornaments of iron, copper
bangles and figurines of humans and domesticated animals. They
hunted elephants and traded the ivory for glass beads imported
via the African East Coast by traders such as the Swahili.
stratigraphic pages of African history
Hill is a sandstone hill with vertical cliffs and a flat top
approximately 30m high and 300, long. A substantial deposit
with layers of soil covers it; remains of floors, burnt houses
and household refuse. The Southern Terrace below was inhabited
from around AD 1030 to 1290 (about 260 years). The hilltop was
inhabited for about 70 years from AD 1220 to Ad 1290.
objects from the Mapungubwe graves, such as the rhinoceros,
sceptre and bowl, were originally gold sheet or foil covering
wooden carvings. The gold sheet was folded around the wooden
core and held in place with tacks. In some cases, the gold cover
was decorated with punched indentations or incised lines.
Some of these objects, such as the sceptre and rhinoceros, were
possibly symbols associated with a person of special significance
or high status, such as a king. The person was eventually buried
with these objects in accordance with traditional customs and
social or religious beliefs. Numerous beads and bangles from
graves on Mapungubwe Hill indicate that some members of the
community adorned themselves with different types of golden
jewellery. These ornaments probably belonged to senior members
of the royal family at Mapungubwe.
were made of fired clay, or pottery. They were used for various
purposes, some still unknown. Human figurines, usually with
an elongated body and stumps for heads, arms and legs, were
common at K2. They are often decorated with incisions or rows
of dots. Some are highly simplified, like the conical figurine
found at Mapungubwe.
mostly from K2, include cattle, sheep and goats. At Mapungubwe,
a giraffe figurine was also found. The conical figurines often
found at Mapungubwe may have had symbolic significance. Some
everyday practical items include spoons, whistles, a funnel
and spindle whorls used in the production of cotton cloth. Large
pottery beads and mould were used to manufacture large cylindrical
glass beads, known as garden roller beads.
OF ANIMAL ORIGIN
Age villagers adorned themselves with numerous beads made of
ostrich eggshell, large land snails, bone and ivory.
They wore bracelets made of ivory, decorated their clothes and
hair with pins made of bone and ivory, and wore perforated cowrie
shells imported from the East Coast.
the last inhabitants of Mapungubwe made and used polished bone
arrowheads and arrow link shafts, similar to the arrows used
by the San or Bushmen.
Some bone arrowheads from Mapungubwe have flattened front ends
into which iron tips were fitted. The people used awls and flat
needles made of bone, probably to manufacture clothes from animal
BEADS: TRADITIONS AND TRADE
of glass beads have been found in the middens and graves at
K2 and Mapungubwe. Burial customs show that children and adults
wore strings of beads in a traditional African way. Large quantities
of these beads were traded through Swahili ports on the East
coast of Africa. Trade beads were imported from foreign countries
such as Egypt or India in exchange for ivory and gold from Africa.
people manufactured large beads, known as garden roller beads.
Whole and broken trade glass beads were melted and the molten
glass was wound into a prefabricated clay mould to set. The
clay mould was then broken to remove the new garden roller glass
bead. These are the oldest glass objects made in Southern Africa.
Curator Mapungubwe Museum
Tel: +27 12 420 3146
Fax: +27 12 420 2262