About 70 km west of Musina, where the Shashi River merges with the Limpopo – this being the place where the borders of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana meet at a single point. Here, close to the southern bank of the Limpopo, are the Greefswald Archeological sites. The area also known as Vhembe is the capital settlement where a mammoth rock which rises regally from the grassland, the extraordinary flat-topped sandstone hill of Mapungubwe, ‘Hill of the Jackals’, one of the country’s most exciting archaeological discoveries.
In the early 1900s a former guide of David Livingstone by the name of Wild Lotrie, made his home close to the hill. After his death in 1917 there were rumours among the local people that he had discovered treasure on the summit of Mapungubwe. However, no one dared test the truth, as the hill was a source of fear and superstition.
In 1932, Evan Graan, accompanied by his son and three friends, explored the hill where they found the ruins of dry-stone dwellings, walls, earthenware pots, iron tools, glass beads, copper wire and other artifacts – all evidence of a sophisticated settlement in the same cultural tradition as Great Zimbabwe. Their search also revealed remnants of gold. The Government stepped in to protect the hill.
With the advent of radiocarbon dating the significance of the site became known. Tests revealed Mapungubwe to have been the forerunner of Great Zimbabwe and occupied from around AD 1050 to 1200 – about two and a half centuries before Great Zimbabwe. According to the experts, this was the earliest site where gold working took place and appears to have heralded the era of gold mining and trade with the east African coast. The most famous objects found on the site – a gold rhinoceros and a gold bowl – date from around AD 1200.
Thulamela is an important heritage site that needs the highest possible conservation status. Thought to be associated with the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Thulamela is situated high on a hilltop in the northeastern corner of the Kruger National Park.
More than 600 years ago, a peaceful tribe lived on a hilltop near what is presently, the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The walled city of Thulamela is thought to be an offshoot of the Great Zimbabwe culture. Although its existence has been known for decades, it was only in 1993 that the Gold Fields Foundation initiated a joint venture with the Kruger National Park to explore and develop the site for educational purposes.
Little remained of the original city other than tumbled down walls. Archeologist Sidney Miller was commissioned to head the team of five workers who spent the next 18 months painstakingly reconstructing the fallen walls of Thulamela. From the positioning of the scattered stones, the team was able to deduce the original position, height and thickness of these walls. More than 2 000 tons of rock were manually shifted in the process of restoring the site to some of its former glory.
Originally, stonewalls were built to show the high status of the royal family, demarcate living areas and provide privacy. The vast area covered by Thulamela’s walling is evidence that in its heyday, the city housed approximately 2 000 people.
After the stonewalling had been reconstructed, the team turned their attention to the excavation of the middens (rubbish dumps). It was from these that the first gold jewelry was unearthed. Other artifacts followed. Iron-age implements, ceramic potsherds, glass beads, spinning whorls, sewing needles and even a piece of Chinese porcelain was brought to the surface. The presence of these items confirmed the hypothesis that gold, iron and other metals were smelted at Thulamela by a technologically sophisticated community who had trade links with the Far East.
In August 1996, archaeologist Sidney Miller discovered two graves within the royal enclosures. Miller, in close consultation with the local communities, opened the graves. One contained the remains of a man bedecked in gold jewelry, thought to have been the king of Thulamela ruling about 1400AD. He holds a spear, the handle of which was originally covered in gold foil affixed to the wood underneath with minute gold nails. The blade of this spear, which was found on the gravesite, was not sharpened. This suggests that it was probably a symbol of leadership. Around his neck are gold and ostrich shell beads. The other contained the remains of a particularly tall woman buried in a fetal position. On her left forearm was a plaited, golden bracelet of exceptional beauty. Radio carbon dating reveals that Losha lived at Thulamela about 200 years after the death of King lngwe.
The archeological team nicknamed the couple King lngwe and Queen Losha. In the vernacular ingwe means leopard and /osha refers to the position in which the women was found buried, one of traditional respect. Also found in the graves were a number of ceremonial objects and a set of East African gongs.
Unique in this archeological dig was the involvement of the local communities – the latter day descendants of Thulamela. The opening of the site took the form of a traditional graveside ceremony in which Venda and Shangaan groups made offerings to the ancestral spirits. At the end of May 1997, the Royals were re-buried in a solemn and moving ceremony in their original graves.
Radio carbon dating proves beyond doubt that Thulamela was a viable community long before Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape to establish a settlement for the Dutch India Company in 1652. It is not known why Thulamela was vacated. Archeologists and social anthropologists have advanced many theories about traditions surrounding the death of a ruler, an environmental disaster or war over control of land and resources. These questions may remain unanswered.
Thulamela, in keeping with archeological ethics worldwide, will be left untouched now for a hundred years. More secrets probably lie beneath the sands of the walled city. It will be the job of an archeologist from a future generation to carry on with Miller’s research.