The silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage

Joost Fontein

Research output: Book/ReportBook

Abstract / Description of output

This book examines the politics of landscape and heritage by focusing on the example of Great Zimbabwe National Monument in southern Zimbabwe. The controversy that surrounded the site in the early part of the 20th century, between colonial antiquarians and professional archaeologists, is well reported in the published literature. Based on long term ethnographic field work around Great Zimbabwe, as well as archival research in NMMZ, in the National Archives of Zimbabwe, and several months of research at the World Heritage Centre in Paris, this new book represents an important step beyond that controversy over origins, to focus on the site's position in local contests between, and among individuals within, the Nemanwa, Charumbira and Mugabe clans over land, power and authority. To justify their claims, chiefs, spirit mediums and elders of each clan make appeals to different, but related, constructions of the past.

Emphasising the disappearance of the 'Voice' that used to speak there, these narratives also describe the destruction, alienation and desecration of Great Zimbabwe that occurred, and continues, through the international and national, archaeological and heritage processes and practices by which Great Zimbabwe has become a national and world heritage site today. These processes include the destruction of the site through both antiquarian diggings and archaeological excavations; the 'closure' and appropriation of the site through its fencing and the charging of entrance fees; and most importantly of all, the prevention, or at least, strict control of ceremonies there. "The Silence of Great Zimbabwe" refers, therefore, both to the silence of unrepresented pasts of local clans, but also to the silence of anger of the spirits and the Voice, who once spoke there during ceremonies that are now no longer permitted.

Although Great Zimbabwe is now a World Heritage Site, and world heritage discourses increasingly invoke languages of 'local community participation', on the ground appeals to the site's 'world value' have been used to cement NMMZ's authority, and therefore perpetuate local communities' sense of marginalisation and alienation from the site. This book also examines the different ways in which Great Zimbabwe has featured in various nationalist imaginations, from before independence to the recent emergence of 'patriotic history' (Ranger 2004). In particular, the argument suggests that there has been a tension between an idea of Great Zimbabwe as national heritage, put forward by the nationalist elite, and realised in practice by NMMZ archaeologists on the ground, and ideas that emerged from the 'religious practices' of guerrillas and spirit mediums during the war, and brought forward more recently by war veterans, spirit mediums and other traditionalists calling for national ceremonies to be carried out at Great Zimbabwe, to appease the spirits of Zimbabwe's Liberation War dead.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherLeft Coast Press
Number of pages264
ISBN (Print)1598742205, 978-1598742206, 184472123X, 978-1844721238, 1844721221, 978-1844721221
Publication statusPublished - 2006


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