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Great Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe)

African Iron Age Site of Great Zimbabwe


Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Zimbabwe

Christopher T. Snow
Architectural Detail at Great Zimbabwe

Architectural Detail at Great Zimbabwe


Great Zimbabwe is an African Iron Age settlement and dry-stone monument located near the town of Masvingo in central Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is the largest of about 250 similarly dated mortarless stone structures in Africa, called collectively Zimbabwe Culture sites. In the Shona language "Zimbabwe" means "stone houses" or "venerated houses"; the residents of Great Zimbabwe are considered the ancestors of the Shona people. The country of Zimbabwe, which gained its independence from Great Britain as Rhodesia in 1980, is named for this important site.

Great Zimbabwe Timeline

The site of Great Zimbabwe covers an area of some 78 acres, with an estimated population of some 18,000 people at its heyday in the 15th century AD. Within that area are several groups of structures built on a hilltop and in the adjacent valley. In some places, the walls are several meters thick, and many of the massive walls are decorated with designs or motifs, including stone monoliths and conical towers, but also patterns worked into the walls, such as herringbone and dentelle designs, vertical grooves, and the elaborate chevron design of the largest building called the Great Enclosure.

Archaeological research has identified five occupation periods at Great Zimbabwe, between the 6th and 19th centuries AD. Each period has specific building techniques (designated P, Q, PQ, and R), as well as notable differences in artifact assemblages such as imported glass beads and pottery. Great Zimbabwe followed Mapungubwe as the capital for the region beginning about 1290 AD.

  • Period I: AD 400-800, early farming communities
  • [hiatus]
  • Period II: 1020-1070, Karanga people who lived primarily on the hill top
  • Period III: 1200-1250, first major building period, substantial clay plastered houses, coursed and shimmed architectural styles Class P and PQ
  • Period IV: 1250-1550, Great Enclosure built, first expansion of settlement into the valleys, lavish pottery burnished with graphite, abandonment in the 16th century, neatly coursed Class Q architecture
  • [hiatus]
  • Period V: reoccupation of Great Zimbabwe by 19th century Karanga peoples, un-coursed Class R style construction

Rulers at Great Zimbabwe

Archaeologists have argued about the significance of the structures. The first archaeologists on the site assumed that the rulers of Great Zimbabwe all resided in the largest and most elaborate building on the top of the hill called the Great Enclosure. Some archaeologists (such as Chirikure and Pikirayi below) suggest that the focus of power (that is, the ruler's residence) shifted several times during Great Zimbabwe's tenure. The earliest elite status building is in the Western Enclosure; afterwards comes the Great Enclosure, then the Upper Valley and finally in the 16th century, the ruler's residence is in the Lower Valley. Evidence supporting this is the timing of the distribution of exotic rare materials and the timing of stone wall construction. Further, political succession documented in the Shona ethnographies suggests that when a ruler dies, his successor does not move into the deceased's residence, but rather rules from (and elaborates) his existing household.

Other archaeologists, such as Huffman (2010), argue that although in current Shona society successive rulers do indeed move their residence, ethnographies suggest that at the time of Great Zimbabwe, that principle of succession did not apply. Huffman comments that a residency shift was not required in Shona society until traditional marks of succession were interrupted (by Portuguese colonization), and that during the 13th-16th centuries, class distinction and sacred leadership were what prevailed as the leading force behind succession. They didn't need to move and rebuild to prove their leadership: they were the chosen leader by the dynasty.

Living at Great Zimbabwe

Ordinary houses at Great Zimbabwe were circular pole-and-clay houses about three meters in diameter. The people raised cattle and goats or sheep, and grew sorghum, finger millet, ground beans and cowpeas. Metalworking evidence at Great Zimbabwe includes both iron smelting and gold melting furnaces, both within the Hill Complex. Iron slag, crucibles, blooms, ingots, casting spills, hammers, chisels, and wire drawing equipment have been found throughout the site. Iron used as functional tools (axes, arrowheads, chisels, knives, spearheads), and copper, bronze and gold beads, thin sheets and decorative objects were all controlled by Great Zimbabwe rulers. However, the relative lack of workshops coupled with an abundance of exotic and trade goods indicates that production of the tools did not likely take place at Great Zimbabwe.

Objects carved from soapstone include decorated and undecorated bowls; but of course most important are the famous soapstone birds. Eight carved birds, once placed on poles and set around the buildings, were recovered from Great Zimbabwe. Soapstone and pottery spindle whorls signify that weaving was an important activity at the site. Imported artifacts include glass beads, Chinese celadon, Near Eastern earthenware, and, in the Lower Valley, 16th century Ming dynasty pottery. Some evidence exists that Great Zimbabwe was tied into the extensive trade system of the Swahili coast, in the form of large numbers of imported objects, such as Persian and Chinese pottery and Near Eastern glass. A coin was recovered bearing the name of one of the rulers of Kilwa Kisiwani.

Archaeology at Great Zimbabwe

The first western inspections of Great Zimbabwe were conducted in the first decade of the 20th century, by David Randall-MacIver: Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Roger Summers, Keith Robinson and Anthony Whitty all came to Great Zimbabwe early in the century. Thomas N. Huffman excavated at Great Zimbabwe in the late 1970s, and used extensive ethnohistorical sources to interpret Great Zimbabwe's social construction. Edward Matenga published a fascinating book on soapstone bird carvings discovered at the site.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the African Iron Age and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Beach D. 1998. Cognitive archaeology and imaginary history at Great Zimbabwe. Current Anthropology 39(1).

Chirikure S, and Pikirayi I. 2008. Inside and outside the dry stone walls: revisiting the material culture of Great Zimbabwe. Antiquity 82:976–993.

Huffman TN. 2010. Revisiting Great Zimbabwe. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48(3):321-328. Open access

Huffman TN. 2009. Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: The origin and spread of social complexity in southern Africa. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28(1):37-54.

Lindahl A, and Pikirayi I. 2010. Ceramics and change: an overview of pottery production techniques in northern South Africa and eastern Zimbabwe during the first and second millennium AD. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2(3):133-149.

Matenga, Edward. 1998. The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe. African Publishing Group, Harare.

Phillipson, David W. 2005. African Archaeology, third edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Pikirayi I, and Chirikure S. 2008. AFRICA, CENTRAL : Zimbabwe Plateau and Surrounding Areas. In: Deborah MP, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 9-13.

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