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Title: The silence of Great Zimbabwe : contested landscapes and the power of heritage
Author: Fontein, Joost
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2003
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This thesis focuses on the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, in southern Zimbabwe, which is often described as the largest prehistoric building in sub-Saharan Africa. Great Zimbabwe's historiography has been dominated by a contest over its past which became known as the 'Zimbabwe Controversy'. Cited as evidence of an ancient, foreign civilisation by Rhodesian apologists, Great Zimbabwe was used to provide historical legitimacy for the colonisation. Such claims to legitimacy were seriously undermined by archaeologists who demonstrated the African origin of the site. This thesis begins by reviewing this controversy, arguing that apart from the overt political contest it embodied, it was also a contest over authority to represent the past. Through claims to objectivity and scientific methodology archaeologists were ultimately able to establish the authority of their narratives. This professionalisation of the representation of the past not only prevailed over colonialist interpretations but also the narratives, perspectives and claims over Great Zimbabwe made by various competing local clans, for whom Great Zimbabwe was, and is, a sacred place of considerable significance. Based on long term ethnographic field work, this study considers Great Zimbabwe's position in local contests between, and within, the Nemanwa, Charumbira and Mugabe clans over land, power and authority. These contests pre-date colonisation and continue today, having become intricately ingrained in the 'history-scapes' and identities of each clan. To justify their claims, elders of each clan make appeals to different, but related, constructions of the past. Despite their differences, local narratives about Great Zimbabwe's role as a sacred (or desecrated) site are remarkably similar. Emphasising the disappearance of the ' Voice' of Mwari that used to speak there, they describe the destruction and desecration of Great Zimbabwe that occurred, and continues, through the archaeological and heritage processes by which Great Zimbabwe has become a national and international heritage site today. For local 'traditionalists' it is the refusal to respect the wishes of the ancestors, the 'true owners of the soil', that continues to cause the desecration of Great Zimbabwe and the silence of the ancestors. This thesis also considers the political use of Great Zimbabwe by the Zimbabwean nationalist movement. This was done in two complementary ways corresponding to Chatterjee's argument (1993) that anti-colonial nationalisms have both an 'authentic spiritual domain' and a 'derived material domain'. While for the nationalist elite Great Zimbabwe was as an example of past African achievement, for 'traditionalists' and guerrillas the site became associated with the ancestral legitimacy of the struggle. Here Great Zimbabwe was elevated to the status of 'national sacred site', which has resulted in numerous and continuing calls for national ceremonies to be held at Great Zimbabwe to thank the ancestors for their assistance during the war. The failure of the authorities (NMMZ) to effectively respond to these calls illustrates Chatterjee's argument that it is in the movement from colonial to postcolonial state that there has been 'a surrender to the old forms of the modern state' (1993:11). In 1986 Great Zimbabwe became a World Heritage Site; this study looks at how the adoption of international heritage requirements by NMMZ have led to the increasing professionalisation of Great Zimbabwe's management. Appeals to international heritage standards have been used by NMMZ to solidity its authority at Great Zimbabwe. Local communities have therefore continued to be marginalised through appeals not only to its 'national status' but also its 'World Heritage' status. Finally the thesis describes recent attempts by NMMZ to involve local communities in their conservation efforts and considers how these efforts relate to the concerns of wider heritage discourses about the role of local communities in the management of sites. The thesis examines the extent to which increasing local participation may amount to the cooptation of locals to 'new' international objectives on 'living' and 'spiritual' heritage, rather than genuine consultation.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available