In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Great Zimbabwe and its Legacy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

Art History Great Zimbabwe and its Legacy
William J. Dewey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0145


Great Zimbabwe is arguably one of the largest (area-wise), and most impressive archaeological sites in southern Africa. While not the first southern African site to use stone walls in its architectural plan (the slightly earlier site of Mapungubwe holds that distinction), this World Heritage site is without doubt the most often visited, photographed, and studied archeological site in southern Africa. The dressed granite blocks were assembled without mortar into structures of impressive dimensions. The walls in the Great Enclosure are eleven meters high, six meters thick at their base, four meters at the top, and the circumference of the structure is 255 meters. Great Zimbabwe was the largest of many other smaller zimbabwes (or houses of stone) from the same period. All are located on the edge of the plateau, so as to be at the center of the annual seasonal movement of cattle between the highlands and lowlands (to avoid tsetse fly and sleeping sickness problems). Gold (and probably iron) was mined, worked, and traded internally and externally, but the real wealth of Great Zimbabwe was in the huge herds of cattle they controlled. From radiocarbon dates we know that the area around Great Zimbabwe was settled by the 5th century of the Christian era. Early walls were built in the 13th century, and people continued to inhabit the site till the 1500s, and perhaps longer. Most agree that the peak of economic prosperity, and when the majority of the building was done, was the period between 1300 and 1450. Great Zimbabwe’s decline was probably gradual, as power moved to states in the southwest (Butua and Khami) and northeast (Mutapa). Interpretation of Great Zimbabwe has undergone considerable change over the years from the early insistence on foreign construction, to the current accepted understanding of it being the result of local African development. Names of structures at the site have also changed with time (e.g., Circular Ruins, Elliptical Ruins, Elliptical Temple, Imba Huru [Great House] and Great Enclosure for the same structure), so it is imperative that researchers be cognizant of the historical context (colonial, white settler, post-independent times, etc.) of when they were written. The most famous material finds from Great Zimbabwe are the carved soapstone (or steatite, a type of talc-schist rock) birds. Because of the popularity of the topic of Great Zimbabwe and the long history of coverage, there are many thousands of citations relating to Great Zimbabwe. Much of the research has been dominated by historians and archaeologists. Art historians seeking to understand the material culture, especially architecture and sculptural objects, will not find much in Art Historical literature and instead will need to be more interdisciplinary and explore the research of these and other disciplines

General Overviews

Because there are so many sources of information on Great Zimbabwe, this article has been organized according their primary foci. The following general overviews offer a broader sweep of the historical and archaeological background on Great Zimbabwe and/or are from multidisciplinary perspectives.

  • Dewey, William J., and Els De Palmenaer, eds. Legacies of Stone, Zimbabwe: Past and Present. Vol 1. Tervuren, Belgium: Musée Royal de L’Afrique Centrale, 1997.

    Volume accompanying a large exhibition of the same title. Pwiti writes on the stone-building cultures, Matenga, on iron age figurines. Beach writes on aspects of history starting from Great Zimbabwe, and Bourdillon writes on the anthropology of the Shona peoples. Dewey and Mvenge review the Art of the Shona peoples and note continuities from Great Zimbabwe times.

  • Pikirayi, Innocent, ed. The World of Great Zimbabwe. New York: Routledge, 2019.

    This much-anticipated volume with forty unique chapters promises to bring together a diverse selection of expertise from various scholarly perspectives, to provide syntheses and analyses of the many dimensions of Great Zimbabwe. Multiple archaeological, historical, cultural, ecological and other approaches and perspectives are represented.

  • Pikirayi, Innocent. The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States. Walnut Grove, CA: Altamira Press, 2001.

    Combining archaeology, history, and a thorough knowledge of the physical and cultural landscapes, this is probably the single most cited recent volume on the development of Great Zimbabwe. It traces not only the early racist misinterpretations of the site but also contextualizes Great Zimbabwe by examining precursors and later developments in the area.

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