This Iron Age site, the symbol and namesake of modern Zimbabwe, lies 17 miles south-east of Masvingo and is the remains of an extensive town built between 1200 and 1450 AD. The word 'zimbabwe' (plural madzimbabwe) is derived from the Shona words dzimba dza mabwe and means 'houses of stone'.

Archaeologists and historians believe that from the 13th to 15th centuries Great Zimbabwe was the capital for a large area in southern Africa. Throughout this region there are smaller but similar madzimbabwe. The site Great Zimbabwe covers over 1779 acres and comprises mainly stone wall enclosures and areas of hut remains.

The two main geographical areas of stone wall enclosures are: the Hill Complex, on the long, steep-sided granite hill that rises 262 feet above the surrounding ground; and the land below this hill where the Valley Enclosures and the Great Enclosure are situated. The stone walls, up to 19.7 feet thick and 36 feet high, are built of granite blocks without the use of mortar.

Natural granite boulders are often incorporated into a wall which usually follows a curved line. The purpose of the walls was primarily to enclose areas within which dhaka (clay) structures and smaller partition walls were constructed. Two main wall styles have been identified from the major building period at Great Zimbabwe (see Zimbabwe Tradition).

The building stone was obtained locally from the numerous large granite hills in the area. The weathering of the rock causes it to exfoliate in layers usually between 2.4 inches and 7.9 inches thick, which subsequently break down into parallel-sided slabs.

The earliest 'undressed' masonry, dated to the 13th century, is built from these slabs; the 14th century masonry is composed of 'dressed' blocks deliberately chipped to the required shape and size. The junctions of the walls are not bonded together; instead, each wall leans slightly against another.

Inside the enclosures there is evidence that some of the walls and ground surfaces were originally plastered with dhaka (mud).

Hill Complex

This roughly oval area, about 328 by 148 feet, includes rocky outcrops and large granite boulders. There is a series of enclosures connected by narrow stone-built passages. Many of the walls date to the earliest building style and it has been suggested that the Hill Complex was probably always the main spiritual and religious centre of Great Zimbabwe.

The hill was approached from the west side by at least three routes, one of which is a steep and narrow ascent via a rock passage with the original entrance through the south wall above a 98.4 feet vertical cliff face. The largest hill enclosure is the Western Enclosure, with a main perimeter wall 26 feet high and 16.4 feet thick.

Originally, there were alternating turrets and monoliths equally spaced along the top of this wall. Within the enclosure valuable archaeological data was destroyed in the early 20th century during uncontrolled excavation and widespread general clearance. Small-scale excavations in 1958 in the peripheral area revealed that there was continuous occupation in the enclosure for about 300 years.

The accumulated stratigraphy showed that when old huts were destroyed the remains were levelled off and new huts built on top. Ceremonial spearheads, large soapstone bowls and gold objects were amongst the items found in here and it has been suggested that this was the home of the spirit medium or chief.

The eastern end of the hill, probably the main ceremonial area, comprises an enclosure 66 feet by 66 feet in which there is a series of man-made stone platforms that were originally encased in dhaka; overlooking the enclosure and the surrounding country is a natural 'balcony'.

At least 30 granite and soapstone monoliths were found in this enclosure, some of which were decorated with geometric designs and six of which were carved in the stylised shape of birds now known as the Zimbabwe Birds.

Great Enclosure

This is the largest single ancient structure south of the Sahara. The perimeter wall is 820 feet in circumference and 36 feet high, and it is estimated that nearly a million granite blocks were used in its construction. The roughly oval-shaped structure encloses an area 262 feet by 180 feet and contains a number of stone features, including the Conical Tower.

The Great Enclosure evolved to its final state over the period of time during which Great Zimbabwe was a large town. Two high walls form the narrow parallel passage, 180 feet long, that allows direct access from the north entrance of the enclosure to the Conical Tower.

The inner wall of this passage was originally built as the perimeter wall; the massive outer wall was constructed later, surmounted by monoliths and decorated with two courses of chevron pattern high up on the external face in the area of the Conical Tower.

The Conical Tower, one of the last structures to be built in the Great Enclosure, is 33 feet high and 16 feet in diameter at the base, tapering to 6.5 feet at the top where, originally, there were an additional three courses of 'dentelle' decoration. It is solid, built of granite blocks throughout, and rests directly on the ground with no underlying chamber.

Its large size and seclusion behind an equally massive enclosure wall, together with the narrow passageway leading to it, indicate that it was an important structure. Next to it is a smaller tower, and similar examples are also found in other Valley Enclosures.

The purpose of the towers is unknown but as they seem to have had no functional use they were probably symbolic. Traditionally, the Conical Tower is said to represent a grain bin, symbolising good harvests and prosperity. The remains of stepped platforms and hut floors are found inside the Great Enclosure but most of the archaeological stratigraphy which would help explain its function and history was removed between 1890 and 1910.

It has been suggested that it was the chief's residence or a court for the chief's wives or a premarital initiation school.

Valley Enclosures

It has been estimated that there were about 50 households within these stone wall enclosures.

The archaeological evidence suggests that these were the homes of the more important people, while most of the population lived in huts set close together on the periphery of the enclosures. The population for the whole of Great Zimbabwe during its heyday is estimated at between 10 000 and 18 000. Within the Valley Enclosures are the remains of dhaka huts, platforms and small towers.

The seventh Zimbabwe Bird, now used as the National Emblem, was found in one of these Enclosures; in another enclosure a large hoard of iron and copper objects, beads and pottery was found. Many of these enclosure walls are built in the later style of walling, suggesting that the town layout in the valley changed with time, possibly to accommodate an increasing population.

Dating and origins

Despite several attempts by people to argue for an early external origin for Great Zimbabwe, no professional archaeologist has ever suggested anything except a local Shona origin for this site. In 1906 the archaeologist Randall MacIver suggested that it was of a relatively recent date and not of foreign origin.

This opinion was unpopular with most of the local white community and gave rise to heated debate, whereupon Gertrude Caton-Thompson was requested to investigate the site. By 1932, after detailed excavation, she showed conclusively that Great Zimbabwe was of African origin and less than 1 000 years old.

Her archaeological evidence was obtained from different areas within the site and was based on two criteria. Firstly, most artifacts were unquestionably of local production, while the few imported objects could be easily dated. Celedon pottery from early in the period of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1384-1644) is one of the most frequent imports found at Great Zimbabwe.

Secondly, she excavated to natural soil or bedrock in all her areas and was thus able to obtain a complete stratigraphic sequence of material. At every level she found the remains of what had been an African way of life. These conclusions have been confirmed by the work of subsequent archaeologists.

Since the 1960s radiocarbon analysis has also provided several dates for Great Zimbabwe, ranging from the late 13th century to the early 15th century. Detailed study of the architecture of Great Zimbabwe shows that it is unique to this part of Africa.

At the end of the 19th century a Karanga settlement existed on the north side of the Hill Complex; at that time the Great Enclosure was called Imba Huru (Great House) and the Hill Complex alone was referred to as 'Zimbabwe' and considered a religious centre.

Recent research

This has been directed towards answering social, economic and political questions not only about life at Great Zimbabwe but also throughout the large area of southern Africa over which Great Zimbabwe exerted such an influence.

Some smaller Zimbabwe Tradition ruins in this area are thought to have been the bases for local chiefs who would have paid tribute to the supreme chief at Great Zimbabwe. The economy of this state was undoubtedly strong but so far there is no evidence that it was founded on any one dominant factor.

Cattle may have played an important role in the economy. Large herds reared and maintained throughout the state would have been an important source of wealth. At Great Zimbabwe most of the animal bones from the rubbish heaps of the stone enclosures are those of young adult cattle, suggesting that this was an important source of meat for the inhabitants.

It has been suggested that the economy of Great Zimbabwe was founded on the gold trade but the archaeological evidence does not support this theory. Most gold from Great Zimbabwe has been recovered from the upper levels of archaeological deposits, indicating that gold was most prevalent well after the establishment of the town.

Although gold and ivory were being exchanged for cloth, beads and ceramics with East Coast traders, this was probably, in the main, after the establishment of the Great Zimbabwe state rather than a contributing factor to its initial development.

Great Zimbabwe was fully occupied for only about 300 years. The rise of the neighbouring states of Torwa and Mutapa coincides with the decline of Great Zimbabwe. The reasons for this decline are not clear but it has been suggested that the large population living here may have exerted ecological pressure on the immediate environment, leading to social, economic and political instability.

Further reading: Caton-Thompson, G. The Zimbabwe Culture, Ruins and Reactions Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1931; Garlake, P. S. Great Zimbabwe Thames and Hudson, London, 1973; Garlake, P. S. Great Zimbabwe Described and Explained Zimbabwe Publishing House, Harare, 1982; Hall, R. N. Great Zimbabwe Methuen, London, 1902; Hall, R. N. & Neal, W. G. The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia Methuen, London, 1906; Mu-fuka, K. Dzimbahwe Life and Politics in the Golden Age 1100-1500 AD Harare Publishing House, Harare, 1983; Summers, R., Rob-inson, K. R. & Whitty, A. Zimbabwe excavations, 1958' in Occasional Papers of the National Museums of Rhodesia (vol 3, no 23A, 1961)

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