Bridging Policy and Practice in Conserving Archaeological Heritage Sites in Zimbabwe

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Stonemasons and the Great Zimbabwe conservation team restoring the Conical Tower in the Great Enclosure, 2016. Image by Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya.

By Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya

Zimbabwe is the only country in the world that takes its name from an archaeological site: Great Zimbabwe. The name Zimbabwe is an indigenous Shona word referring to a ‘house of stones’. The prefix Great was introduced by Europeans who arrived in the region around the 18th century, and it distinguishes this site from more than 360 similar but smaller recorded sites that are also found in Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa.

The Great Zimbabwe and other dry-stone walled sites epitomise the rise, development and collapse of complex state societies in southern Africa between the 11th and 19th centuries.  I grew up among the Nemanwa community situated about 3 km southwest of the Great Zimbabwe. The Nemanwa and Mugabe are two Shona clans and both have a long history of contestation over the custodianship of Great Zimbabwe. In the pre-colonial period, both clans settled in different parts of what is now a protected national monument, a World Heritage site and state property. In addition to the Nemanwa and Mugabe clans, the Murinye and Charumbira are the other local clans that claim ancestral connection to Great Zimbabwe and are settled within this cultural landscape. In the early 1900s, under British rule, all indigenous communities were evicted from their 720 ha ancestral land to pave the way for the transformation of Great Zimbabwe into a world-class tourism destination.

Growing up in the shadows of Great Zimbabwe’s massive stone walls, the site became a familiar viewscape for me. The dry-stone walls at Great Zimbabwe, built without any binding material, have been categorised by archaeologists and other scholars into three main areas referred to as the Hill Complex (Fig.1), the Valley Enclosures and the Great Enclosure (Fig. 2). But the elders of my clan simply call the whole site Dzimbabwe (stately residencies). I grew up listening to elders during clan meetings or other social village gatherings where oral traditions and narratives about Great Zimbabwe would evoke ancestral stories, leading to long discussions and arguments. It is largely against this background that I was influenced to study archaeology at university. My goal was to better understand Great Zimbabwe by combining indigenous and academic knowledge of the site. In 2009, a few months after completing my BA degree in archaeology, cultural heritage and museum studies, I was employed by the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ; the state agency in charge of the administration of heritage sites) as a curator of archaeology at the site of Great Zimbabwe. I have been at Great Zimbabwe since 2010, and among my key duties and responsibilities is the conservation of the dry-stone architectural heritage at Great Zimbabwe and other similar sites in southern Zimbabwe. Relying on my experience, which combines scientific conservation and personal indigenous relation to the site, this article reviews the policy and practice of conserving archaeological heritage sites in Zimbabwe with a special focus on Great Zimbabwe.

Colonial Legacy

After their abandonment as living sites and prior to the colonial period (1890-1980), most archaeological sites characterised by dry-stone walling—Great Zimbabwe and Khami (Fig.3) and Naletale (Fig. 4) being the better known cases—were cared for by the local indigenous communities. Pre-colonial societies deployed a wide array of traditional practices, belief systems and other unwritten conservation protocols related to these sites. For example, sites such as Great Zimbabwe had spirit mediums as their traditional custodians. They regulated access and use to the sites, but such indigenous conservation practices were altered when the country was colonised. Colonisation ushered in Western ‘scientific’ methods of conservation and management of archaeological sites, approaches that were legitimized through acts of parliament and state heritage agencies to the detriment of traditional preservation practices.

Indigenous communities were barred from using archaeological sites for their traditional ceremonies and other cultural practices, fences were erected and entrance fees were introduced. The official management of the site and the scientific conservation practices and policies alienated the local indigenous communities from their heritage. When Zimbabwe attained independence in 1980, the local communities had expectations that the post-colonial government would introduce radical changes in the conservation and management of archaeological sites, particularly those with cultural significance. However, this has not been the case as there has been a continuation of conservation policies and practices which stress scientific protection rather than local traditions. During the colonial period, management of archaeological sites was under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the post-colonial government maintained this status quo with the ministry being re-named to Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage.  The colonial heritage legislation (National Museums and Monuments Act of 1972, chapter 25:11) is still enacted with the addition of very limited amendments. At Great Zimbabwe the local communities continue to have very limited access to the site to conduct their rituals and ceremonies as was the case during the colonial time. Furthermore, the post-colonial heritage management practices continue to prioritise the conservation of the tangible, monumental and spectacular sites at the expense of the intangible cultural heritage associated with peripheral sites. This has resulted in heritage practitioners, academics and local communities raising their voices, calling for the decolonisation of heritage policies and conservation practices. 

Decolonising Policy and Practice

I have observed that increasingly the past and what to do with its material remains is becoming a central topic not only in Zimbabwe but across the whole African continent. In fact, in 2013, the African Union (AU) issued a long-term continental masterplan to transform Africa into the global powerhouse of the future. This blueprint is dubbed Agenda 2063 – The Africa We Want. One of the aspirations of the Agenda 2063 is of an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics. In light of this, the AU has declared 2021 as the Year of the Arts, Culture and Heritage. Zimbabwe, as an AU member state, has been seized with the reconfiguration of heritage into the national developmental agenda. As part of this effort, the government has reviewed the education system at all levels to be heritage based.  Even Zimbabwe’s Constitution legislated the preservation and protection of heritage by stipulating that: “the state and all institutions and agencies of government at every level, and all Zimbabwean citizens must endeavour to preserve and protect Zimbabwe’s heritage” (Amendment No.20, of 2013, section 16[2]).

Despite these trajectories, in reality there is a disjuncture between conservation and heritage policies and practice. The heritage policy is still haunted by its colonial legacy, and it is difficult for heritage practitioners to strictly abide by the heritage legislation. For example, the current national law is silent on intangible cultural heritage associated with archaeological heritage. It does not refer to issues of community engagement and empowerment that have become so vital in the conservation of archaeological sites such as Great Zimbabwe. Consequently, my colleagues and I have found ourselves engaging communities, working towards the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, among other responsibilities not enshrined in the heritage conservation statutory instrument.

As we carry on our duties, it has become apparent that the use of Western-informed policies in the conservation of cultural heritage is problematic. Current heritage laws disenfranchise not only communities but also other actors with a stake in the conservation and management of heritage sites. In addition, they fail to consider the spirituality of archaeological sites, an important attribute that should inform conservation approaches, particularly in post-colonial states. It is against this background that, since 2012, heritage practitioners working with other key stakeholders in Zimbabwe have been reviewing the heritage legislation. In 2017, NMMZ submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage a draft act deeply rooted in African worldviews and cosmology, which is long overdue and eagerly awaited by those in the heritage sector.

Concluding Remarks

For the years that I have been working as a heritage practitioner in Zimbabwe, I have learnt that dismantling the legacies of colonisation in the conservation of archaeological heritage resources is a process that is entangled with national, regional and continental developmental agendas. Policy-wise, the country is still using outdated heritage legislation adopted from the British colonial government, which freezes archaeological sites in time and space. Communities who can claim ownership of the heritage sites are not legally recognised within the current existing heritage legal framework. However, heritage practitioners and academics have been working on numerous progressive conservation projects that incorporate indigenous knowledge and conservation tools to protect our heritage resources. I argue that there is a need to bridge the gap between official policy and practice in the conservation of archaeological heritage sites. Zimbabwe can, in that sense, borrow from the neighbouring South Africa that has developed progressive policies and practices to preserve its cultural heritage.

Last month I embarked on a year-long documentation project focusing on capturing the traditional stone-masonry knowledge, skills and practices in the conservation of Great Zimbabwe. The results will form the basis to develop a digital archive of stonemasonry knowledge for the British Museum's Endangered Material Knowledge Programme and will be a repository resource for training, study and public engagement activities. From this, the project will produce a guidebook to conserve and restore dry-stone walls at Great Zimbabwe as well as an English-Shona booklet to introduce Zimbabwe traditional stonemasonry to the general public. Thus this project will result in a unique resource for the development of professional and artisanal masonry skills in Zimbabwe and, hopefully, beyond. This work is funded by the British Museum's Endangered Material Knowledge Programme, supported by Arcadia - a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

Learn more about the project here:

Author Byline

Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya is a curator of archaeology with the NMMZ and a PhD candidate at the University of Zimbabwe. He has been involved with the Great Zimbabwe World Heritage Site since 2010, and in 2019 was a visiting research fellow at the University of Cologne, Germany and the University College of London, Qatar.   In 2020 he won the Young Professionals Forum Award, Emerging Skills for Cultural Heritage. 

(Read the article and see all the images in the April-May 2021 "News in Conservation" Issue 83, p. 12-17)



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I grew up listening to elders during clan meetings or other social village gatherings where oral traditions and narratives about Great Zimbabwe would evoke ancestral stories, leading to long discussions and arguments. It is largely against this background that I was influenced to study archaeology at university.
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