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New book on Mapungubwe Archive contests history of South African world heritage site

New book on Mapungubwe Archive contests history of South African world heritage site
The new home of the Mapungubwe Archive. Image: University of Pretoria Museums / Mapungubwe Archive.

The Mapungubwe site offers evidence of precolonial innovation and technology.

Mapungubwe is a world heritage site and national park located on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. From about 1000 AD the settlement there developed into a major African state before being abandoned by the 1300s. Mapungubwe has been the subject of diverse scientific enquiry and archaeological research since the early 1930s. As a heritage site, however, it challenges colonial, nationalist and apartheid views of prehistory. The vast global trade that’s evidenced by masses of trade glass beads and local artisanship of metals at Mapungubwe shows that Africa was not a ‘dark continent’, devoid of technology and innovation. Mapungubwe’s prehistory was excluded during apartheid to support more Eurocentric views of South Africa’s past. Now a new book, Past Imperfect, offers a study of this archive of research and reveals gaps, silences and missing voices, some deliberately erased. The author, a curatorial specialist, historian and archaeologist, Sian Tiley-Nel, discusses her findings.


What is the Mapungubwe Archive?

For more than two decades the Mapungubwe Collection has been on public display at the University of Pretoria. The world-class collection, including a famous gold rhino and other significant materials, is a critical research collection for the precolonial era. It has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people since being made more accessible after 1999 at the University of Pretoria.

The same cannot be said for the associated Mapungubwe Archive, which for decades lay in departmental storerooms at the university in boxes, as old papers and ageing photographs.

As an academic, historian and conservator, I was responsible for the archive, which was often unfunded and unvalued as a research asset. It was only in 2018, when I submitted a grant application to the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation Grant via the US Embassy in Pretoria, that greater traction could be gained to fund the physical preservation of the archive. In the end, the Mapungubwe Archive was established as a formal repository and research site at the University of Pretoria.

It was early in my career, in 1999 that I began to realise the full extent of negligence and disregard for original archival sources. There were many antiquated views from scholars which excluded many hidden histories and suggested that other cultures or “non-Africans” were responsible for building the Mapungubwe site. So some Mapungubwe academics often came with racist theories and partial hypotheses based on circumstantial evidence, and ignored histories of oral records. Most disconcerting was the lack of proper care, conservation, preservation, access and active research. Mass excavation was more important than preserving the material and associated records derived from the Mapungubwe Collection.

What was neglected and what would the missing voices tell us?

The gaps, silences and missing voices in the Mapungubwe Archive usually indicate highly selected material that was deliberately not kept and is most probably in private possession or was simply destroyed. There were missing letters, photographs and other content. There were gaps in the archive chronology, no field reports and the like.

Some of the Mapungubwe Archive material is related to when the site was used as a military terrain on the farm Greefswald. Many military records are tied up in the Department of Defence and some still have an embargo.

Other forms of missing narratives outlined in the book refer to the neglect of oral history and indigenous knowledge of Mapungubwe Hill as a sacred site by local communities. Fortunately, the recognition of community voices has increased over the decades.

In 1969, archaeology become a fully fledged discipline at the University of Pretoria, with a focus on stratigraphy (the layering of archaeological deposits). Research reinforced what I call “pots over people”. There was a lack of consultation with local commmunities in and around the Mapungubwe region. This included a lack of acknowledgement that prior to 1933, Mapungubwe held a deep precolonial history – although not physically evidenced or written.

There are also intentional gaps and silences in the archive during the height of apartheid (white minority rule in South Africa) mainly from the 1970s until the late 1980s. But even after democracy in 1994 this was happening in archives, and in many other universities as well. It was largely as a result of departmental agendas, academic power struggles and internal institutional politics or just a lack of rigour to preserve archival material.

The understanding of Mapungubwe’s early contested history can be shaped by the archive and can reveal why some records were kept and others not. And, more importantly, what can be further extracted and learned from the many omissions, silences and absences.

Mapungubwe Archive: 'Past Imperfect' by Sian Tiley-Nel book cover. Image: Author supplied / BAR Publishing

‘Past Imperfect’ by Sian Tiley-Nel book cover. Image: Author supplied / BAR Publishing

Is this the case in many archives in South Africa?

Sadly, the destruction, reckless handling and poor conservation efforts of historical records is notable and widespread even today, globally. The book acknowledges upfront the loss of countless important South African archives over years, not just by research institutions, but by government, private and public institutions as well.

Yet the fact remains that the Mapungubwe Archive does exist. Even if with gaps and omissions, it remains one South Africa’s greatest heritage archives for the continent.

Why does this matter?

Archives matter as history matters. Lessons can be learnt from past mistakes and archives serve as human testimony and knowledge that would not have been known if they weren’t preserved. The damage by omissions in the archive from a research point of view demonstrates that the archive is not a repository of historical material only. Archives are shaped in the present and have the potential to shape the future. Much of what is known about Mapungubwe in the 21st century stems from the contents of the archive. Past Imperfect provides many fascinating details of this research.

The recentering of the Mapungubwe Archive shows that while archival material has enduring historical value it also forms part of the university’s shaped culture, trajectory of research and institutional memory. The book is not about making history but instead how history is used.

The Mapungubwe Archive at the University of Pretoria has evolved into not just a repository or depository, but a site of contestation, a space and place of memory. DM/ML 

This story was first published in The Conversation.

Sian Tiley-Nel is Head of Museums at the University of Pretoria and author of ‘Past Imperfect’.

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