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Archaeological fieldwork at Great Zimbabwe, July 2018

Field report by Assistant professor Federica Sulas.

Chenga Ruins: Dry stone wall enclosure with the Hill Complex in the background. Photo: Federica Sulas.
Section of midden deposit excavated during fieldwork. Photo: Federica Sulas.
Training in archaeological excavation: Innocent Pikirayi (centre) discussing excavation methods with Chief Mugabe (left), chief of one of the largest local community, and Dr Tendai Musindo (right), chair of the Archaeology Department at Great Zimbabwe University. Photo: Federica Sulas.

In July 2018, a team lead by Innocent Pikirayi (University of Pretoria) and Federica Sulas (UrbNet, Aarhus University) have conducted new archaeological investigations and student training at Great Zimbabwe.

Built in dry stone architecture, Great Zimbabwe was the capital of a vast empire, developing in southern Africa between the 13th and mid-16th century AD. Today one of Africa’s most celebrated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe’s urban landscape has captured archaeologists’ imagination and the interest of the public for over a century. In recent years, new research has shown a far greater temporal and spatial urban development as well as diversified resource management at Great Zimbabwe, calling into question long-held views about the lifespan, extension, and urban dynamics of southern Africa’s first empire. Building on research being conducted by Pikirayi and Sulas in the region over the last few years, the 2018 season of fieldwork explored the archaeology of Chenga Ruins, located barely 2 km east of the famous Great Enclosure and Hill Complex. Known for its impressive remains of Zimbabwe-period dry stone walling enclosures, Chenga had long been considered one of the peripheral sites sited on the ring of hills that surround the core Great Zimbabwe ancient settlement. Some scholars have seen these "peripheral sites" as military outposts, whereas for others these were residential areas for members of the ruling elites. Chenga, thus, provided the ideal site for exploring urban dynamics at Great Zimbabwe beyond the core monument area.

After organising equipment, the lead team set off from Pretoria to an 800 km long-drive across northern South Africa, crossing the Limpopo River and onto the Zimbabwe Plateau. Reaching our final destination, we were welcomed by the usual hospitality of the staff of the Great Zimbabwe Conservation and Research Centre, with whom we have a long-standing research collaboration. Here, we were joined by local participants to form a team of 25 people including archaeologists of the Great Zimbabwe Monument (NMMZ), and archaeology students from the University of Pretoria, Great Zimbabwe University, and Yale University.

A tight program of contextual excavation, systematic sampling, and surveying could then begin. Our first trench was laid within the main stone enclosure at Chenga, while the survey began exploring the surroundings. As digging was soon exposing domestic deposits, the survey team recorded the presence of an extensive mound with surface scatter of archaeological material just next to the site. A small test pit soon revealed decorated, graphite burnished pottery of the Zimbabwe period already in the uppermost layers. While the test pit returned rich artefact assemblages, excavation at the trench consisted of the digging of very hard, packed-daub deposits and the recovery of tens of minute, retouched quartz flakes and cores.

Meanwhile, rain was becoming frequent in the cool, wintery weather of Zimbabwe. The Great Zimbabwe NMMZ conservation staff then kindly built a sheltering cover over the trench to protect the deposits being exposed as well as to provide us with comfortable working conditions. Excavation closed having recorded new evidence for settlement in the Chenga area, while the survey mapped a spread of occupation stretching c. 1 km from the main site. The trench exposed a stratigraphy of different occupation phases associated with daub structures. Here, the recovery of lithics was particularly intriguing and, while still on site, we were toying with the idea that the minute, nicely retouched flakes would be ideal for tracing the decoration style characterising Zimbabwe period ceramics — an idea that will be tested by detailed analysis of the artefacts in the coming months. As it happens, our last day of digging exposed the top of a beautifully preserved hard, daub wall, which we recorded and left in situ for future investigations.

A significant amount of time was invested in training students in archaeological field methods, including a special focus on geoarchaeology. This aspect is of paramount importance as we are the only team who has been developing geoarchaeological research and training in the region. Amused by learning of the importance of soils and sediments, students engaged enthusiastically with recording and sampling. The fieldwork was also an opportunity for us to update local colleagues and communities on our research within the Great Zimbabwe landscape by hosting a day of lectures delivered by the project leaders at the Great Zimbabwe Conservation and Research Centre. On site, we had the pleasure of welcoming visits from colleagues and the public, to whom we offered a tour of the site and its heritage as well as giving on-site explanations of the archaeological approaches used.

We left Great Zimbabwe with new exciting findings and many samples for post-excavation analyses in the coming months. Chenga has granted us not only a new window into Great Zimbabwe’s urban past but also a wonderful opportunity for research collaboration and knowledge sharing with local communities. Now we are eager to see what the laboratory analyses will produce and we look forward to resuming fieldwork there soon.

Federica Sulas and Innocent Pikirayi.