The ruins of this complex of massive stone walls undulate across almost 1,800 acres of present-day southeastern Zimbabwe. Begun during the eleventh century A.D. by Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Shona, Great Zimbabwe was constructed and expanded for more than 300 years in a local style that eschewed rectilinearity for flowing curves. Neither the first nor the last of some 300 similar complexes located on the Zimbabwean plateau, Great Zimbabwe is set apart by the terrific scale of its structure. Its most formidable edifice, commonly referred to as the Great Enclosure, has walls as high as 36 feet extending approximately 820 feet, making it the largest ancient structure south of the Sahara Desert. In the 1800s, European travelers and English colonizers, stunned by Great Zimbabwe’s grandeur and its cunning workmanship, attributed the architecture to foreign powers. Such attributions were dismissed when archaeological investigations conducted during the first decades of the twentieth century confirmed both the antiquity of the site and its African origins.
Great Zimbabwe’s most enduring and impressive remains are its stone walls. These walls were constructed from granite blocks gathered from the exposed rock of the surrounding hills. Since this rock naturally splits into even slabs and can be broken into portable sizes, it provided a convenient and readily available building resource. All of Great Zimbabwe’s walls were fitted without the use of mortar by laying stones one on top of the other, each layer slightly more recessed than the last to produce a stabilizing inward slope. Early examples were coarsely fitted using rough blocks and incorporated features of the landscape such as boulders into the walls. Over the years the technique was refined, and later walls were fitted together closely and evenly over long, serpentine courses to produce remarkably finished surfaces.
Great Zimbabwe’s Inhabitants
Little is known about the Bantu-speaking people who built Great Zimbabwe or how their society was organized. The ruling elite appears to have controlled wealth through the management of cattle, which were the staple diet at Great Zimbabwe. At its height, Great Zimbabwe is estimated to have had a population greater than 10,000, although the majority lived at some distance from the large stone buildings. Only 200 to 300 members of the elite classes are thought to have lived within Great Zimbabwe’s massive edifices.
The enormous walls are the best-preserved testaments of Great Zimbabwe’s past and the largest example of an architectural type seen in archaeological sites throughout the region. The function of these stone walls, however, has often been misinterpreted. At first glance, these massive nonsupportive walls appear purely defensive. But scholars doubt they ever served a martial purpose and have argued instead that cattle and people were valued above land, which was in any event too abundant to be hoarded. The walls are thought to have been a symbolic show of authority, designed to preserve the privacy of royal families and set them apart from and above commoners. It is also important to note that the walls surrounded and later adjoined huts made of daga (mud and thatch), linked with them to form a series of courtyards. Daga was also used to form raised seats in particularly significant courtyards, and was painted to enrich its artistic effect. Since Great Zimbabwe’s daga elements have long since eroded, the remaining stone walls provide only partial evidence of the architecture’s original appearance.
In addition to architecture, Great Zimbabwe’s most famous works of art are the eight birds carved of soapstone that were found in its ruins. The birds surmount columns more than a yard tall and are themselves on average sixteen inches tall. The sculptures combine both human and avian elements, substituting human features like lips for a beak and five-toed feet for claws. Excavated at the turn of the century, it is known that six of the sculptures came from the Eastern Enclosure of the Hill complex, but unfortunately their precise arrangement can only be surmised. Scholars have suggested that the birds served as emblems of royal authority, perhaps representing the ancestors of Great Zimbabwe’s rulers. Although their precise significance is still unknown, these sculptures remain powerful symbols of rule in the modern era, adorning the flag of Zimbabwe as national emblems.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Great Zimbabwe (Eleventh–Fifteenth Centuries).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zimb/hd_zimb.htm (October 2001)
Huffman, Thomas N. "The Soapstone Birds from Great Zimbabwe." African Arts 18, no. 3 (May 1985), pp. 68–73, 99–100.
McIntosh, Roderick J. "Riddle of Great Zimbabwe." Archaeology 51 (July–August 1998), pp. 44–49.