Palaces of Stone, Uncovering ancient Southern African kingdoms

By Mike Main and Tom Huffman

Across the face of Southern Africa are more than 566 remarkable stone palaces, once the abode of kings, paramount chiefs, senior chiefs or petty chiefs. Some are small, others rambling, but many are absolutely astonishing: all are the legacy of kingdoms past, and every one, no matter its size, speaks loudly of the authority of ruling elite whose reach embraced a region the size of France. Ranging in age and spanning more than six hundred years, the majority are unknown to the general public, yet they exhibit the most intricate and beautiful stonework at the highest levels of craftsmanship for building in stone without mortar.

The story begins with the appearance of Bantu-speaking people, who arrived in this part of Africa from the north, spreading southward, over generations, into the west, east and down through the centre of the continent, bringing with them sophisticated technologies that outcompeted those of the largely Stone Age indigenous people, the San (Bushmen) and the cattle-owning Khoe (collectively referred to as the Khoesan), whom they encountered along the way. While perhaps not a full-scale migration, as some like to imagine, it was certainly an exploration of and an expansion into lands suitable for the mixed farming that sustained them. This type of migration most likely involved the relocation of entire chiefdoms. Then, as now, choice agricultural and grazing lands were settled first.

We start this story on the fertile floodplain at the junction of two large African rivers, the Shashe and Limpopo, in the modern-day border region shared by Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. This area had long been occupied by Early Iron Age farmers, but the Limpopo-Shashe confluence itself seems to have been especially heavily populated. Here, settlements and societies evolved and adapted, leaving sufficient evidence for archaeologists to develop a good understanding of the people – what they did for a living; how they developed trade routes to the east coast of Africa; and how, in time, they formed stratified, class-based societies that led to the genesis of the Great Zimbabwe state, a powerful precolonial empire that spawned as its political successors the equally impressive states of Torwa and Mutapa.

The ruins of the capitals of these erstwhile states, such as Great Zimbabwe, Khami (the Torwa capital from about 1400 to 1640) and Danangombe (the Rozwi capital from about 1685 to 1830), are stunning exemplars of delicate but precise stonework of breath-taking beauty. We know that each capital administered a ‘state’, and it is likely that control was achieved through a series of ‘provincial’ and ‘district’ centres that were almost certainly governed by relatives or supporters of the reigning monarch, thus showing the existence of a form of institutionalised bureaucracy.

However, prior to the emergence of these states, parts of the region were, of course, occupied. The vast majority of the people in the area we know today as Zimbabwe were Bantu-speakers and, as is still the case in the modern era, they fell into six closely related but discernible groupings of the Shona linguistic family. Today, most of these people are generally referred to as Mashona (Shona) and in colonial times a part of the area they occupied became known as Mashonaland. The successive Shona states were linked by many common factors; in particular, they all built stone-walled palaces in a similar and identifiable style called Zimbabwe Pattern walling. It is precisely because stone was used so extensively that more than 566 palaces of this type are still extant in the sub region – from the Zambezi River in the north to Mozambique in the east and into the northern reaches of South Africa and the eastern parts of Botswana. The ruins speak so eloquently of the past and provide significant evidence of the size and geographical reach of these great states.

 One of the inspirations for this book was the discovery of more than 110 of these stone-walled sites in north eastern Botswana alone. ‘New’ sites are constantly being ‘discovered’ and reported in Botswana, and this may well be the case elsewhere. While local residents may know of the existence of stone ruins in their vicinity, they may not always report them to local museums or even appreciate their importance. Even so, it seems likely that many more sites remain to be discovered by the archaeological community in southern Africa.  (Excerpt from: Introduction Palaces of Stone)

Palaces of Stone brings to life the history of various early African societies, from AD 900 to approximately 1850. By exploring a selection of known and unknown sites, the authors uncover the emergence of ancient civilisations and reconstruct the meaning of the ruins they left behind. The purpose of this book is to tell and illustrate the story of some of the most amazing African kingdoms that held sway across southern Africa – some until well into the nineteenth century – and about which, apart from the iconic ruins known as Great Zimbabwe, the general public knows hardly anything.

Mike Main has spent over 40 years exploring Botswana and its neighbors. A management consultant, freelance writer and lay archaeologist, he lives in Gaborone, Botswana.

Tom Huffman is Professor Emeritus of Archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is a leading authority on precolonial farming societies in southern Africa and the author of multiple research papers and highly acclaimed books on the subject.

ISBN: 9781775846147 RRP: R240.00


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