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Seen but Not Told: Re-mapping Great Zimbabwe Using Archival Data, Satellite Imagery and Geographical Information Systems


The world renowned site of Great Zimbabwe is one of the most globally significant archaeological sites in Africa. Ironically, this importance is not matched by the little amount of information that is known about such an iconic site. The heritage of this regrettable situation was birthed by the destructive activities of late nineteenth and early twentieth century antiquarians who vandalised tons of evidence without record. Throughout the twentieth century, however, professional archaeologists made interventions that rescued information from various parts of the site but most of which was never published. A moratorium imposed on archaeological excavations at the site in the early 1990s failed to stimulate an active engagement with material that was archived since the first professional excavations began. Motivated by the need to understand the site in new ways, research was initiated to revisit the site’s patchy and scattered archives and to supplement them with field surveys. This paper discusses the re-mapping of the site which, for the first time, comprehensively produced themed layers of spatial, chronological and material culture distribution. The main outcome is that most existing maps ignored a large number of terraces on the hill and omitted evidence of occupation in key areas. When combined with excavation profiles that expose the massive rebuilding of the site by original residents, it becomes clear that settlement ebbed and flowed during the more than six centuries of occupation at the site.

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This research was funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grants 91340 and 90524), the University of Cape Town Faculty of Science Awards and the University of Cape Town Research Office. We thank Robert Morrell, Marilet Sinaert, Anton Le Roex, Simon Hall and Judith Sealy for constant support. The paper immensely benefited from robust comments from the editors and four anonymous reviewers

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Correspondence to Shadreck Chirikure.


Appendix 1

Table 2 Names used by different scholars to describe Great Zimbabwe and its major components

Appendix 2

Table 3 The history of archaeological work at Great Zimbabwe modified after Summers (1963: 113; 1971: 227). The data for the post-1980 period is based on information from the Great Zimbabwe Conservation Centre Archives and interviews with archaeologists who participated in the work

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Chirikure, S., Bandama, F., Chipunza, K. et al. Seen but Not Told: Re-mapping Great Zimbabwe Using Archival Data, Satellite Imagery and Geographical Information Systems. J Archaeol Method Theory 24, 489–513 (2017).

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  • Great Zimbabwe
  • Archival research
  • Re-mapping
  • Material culture
  • Chronology
  • Ebb and flow