/ 31 May 2019

Class fluidity ruled in ancient Zim 

The ruins of Great Zimbabwe reveal that the people who lived there used sophisticated technologies — and were essentially classless.
The ruins of Great Zimbabwe reveal that the people who lived there used sophisticated technologies — and were essentially classless. (Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty Images)

A University of Cape Town professor has become the first African to be awarded one of the world’s most prestigious archaeology prizes for the second time.

Shadreck Chirikure won the Antiquity journal’s 2019 Antiquity prize for his paper titled Elites and Commoners at Great Zimbabwe: Archaeological and Ethnographic Insights on Social Power.

The paper challenged the idea that the site was divided between elites and commoners, instead concluding that people mixed much more freely than had been thought. It also concluded that “class was very fluid” among people who lived around Great Zimbabwe.

Chirikure, who heads the university’s archaeology department and is director of the Archaeological Materials Laboratory, said his win proves that the work done by African researchers about Africa is relevant and can compete on the world stage. This comes at a time when academia is under pressure to diversify and bring in different points of view.

He was awarded the same prize in 2008 for his submission, with co-author Innocent Pikirayi, titled Inside and Outside the Dry Stone Walls: Revisiting the Material Culture of Great Zimbabwe.

The Antiquity journal is owned by a registered charity, the Antiquity Trust, that promotes research and learning, and is based at the department of archaeology at Durham University in the United Kingdom. It is a peer-reviewed journal of archaeology that was founded in 1927.

In addition, Chirikure is one of 10 internationally recognised scholars in the humanities and social sciences who have been awarded a British Academy global professorship at Oxford University’s school of archaeology.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Chirikure said the biggest challenge faced by African researchers — when they do research that is close to where they come from, and that speaks to African value and knowledge systems — is that their work is often “dismissed as not being relevant and strong … So when one does such work and it gets an award twice in a top global journal such as Antiquity, it shows that there is so much that is good in terms of the research that people from Africa are doing.”

Chirikure said growing up in Gutu village in southern Zimbabwe was a great influence on his archaeology. Thanks to this background, he uses his local knowledge, philosophy and insight to assist him with his research, and to help him understand what his ancestors were doing.

His 2018 paper looks at class and inequality in Great Zimbabwe between the years 1000 and 1700. It said that some of the excavations in areas of Great Zimbabwe, which were said to be occupied by commoners, yielded beads and gold and bronze objects, things that are traditionally associated with the elites.

It also found that: “Kings and members of their lineages also participated in mundane and technical activities such as hunting, farming and metalworking.”

This means there were no obvious divisions of labour at the dedicated spaces for metalworkers, weavers, stone masons and priests. Instead, the research found that people mixed and shared labour and “class was therefore very fluid”.

The layout of homes outside the main parts of Great Zimbabwe — where the elites lived — were similar.

The paper states: “While Great Zimbabwe was occupied by both elites and commoners, servants most probably lived with the ruling lineages and did not have their own distinct residential quarters. More research is required to refine our understanding of class and inequality at Great Zimbabwe, but it is clear that ‘elites’ and ‘commoners’ within this centre of power should not be oversimplified; they demonstrate complex temporal, spatial and material relationships.”

Chirikure said he will continue to analyse some of the technologies used by the people who lived at Great Zimbabwe and places such as Mapungubwe, on South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Botswana, that made their civilisations sustainable, in a hope to dispel misconceptions.

“[There is this] misconception that nothing was happening in Africa before colonisation, and yet we had people at Great Zimbabwe mining gold, processing it and also using it for their own purposes and exporting it to other places.

They were also involved in other technologies in areas such as agriculture.”