Great Zimbabwe: The African Iron Age Capital

Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Masvingo, Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe Ruins, Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Christopher Scott / Getty Images

Great Zimbabwe is a massive African Iron Age settlement and dry-stone monument located near the town of Masvingo in central Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe is the largest of about 250 similarly dated mortarless stone structures in Africa, called collectively Zimbabwe Culture sites. During its heyday, Great Zimbabwe dominated an estimated area of between 60,000-90,000 square kilometers (23,000-35,000 square miles). In the Shona language "Zimbabwe" means "stone houses" or "venerated houses"; the residents of Great Zimbabwe are considered the ancestors of the Shona people. The country of Zimbabwe, which gained its independence from Great Britain as Rhodesia in 1980, is named for this important site.

Great Zimbabwe Timeline

The site of Great Zimbabwe covers an area of some 720 hectares (1780 acres), and it held an estimated population of some 18,000 people at its heyday in the 15th century A.D. The site likely expanded and contracted numerous times as population rose and fell. Within that area are several groups of structures built on a hilltop and in the adjacent valley. In some places, the walls are several meters thick, and many of the massive walls, stone monoliths, and conical towers are decorated with designs or motifs. Patterns are worked into the walls, such as herringbone and dentelle designs, vertical grooves, and an elaborate chevron design decorates the largest building called the Great Enclosure.

Archaeological research has identified five occupation periods at Great Zimbabwe, between the 6th and 19th centuries A.D. Each period has specific building techniques (designated P, Q, PQ, and R), as well as notable differences in artifact assemblages such as imported glass beads and pottery. Great Zimbabwe followed Mapungubwe as the capital of the region beginning about 1290 AD; Chirikure et al. 2014 have identified Mapela as the earliest Iron Age capital, predating Mapungubwe and beginning in the 11th century AD.

  • Period V: 1700-1900: reoccupation of Great Zimbabwe by 19th century Karanga peoples, un-coursed Class R style construction; poorly known
  • [hiatus] may have been the results of a water crisis beginning ca 1550
  • Period IV: 1200-1700, Great Enclosure built, the first expansion of settlement into the valleys, lavish pottery burnished with graphite, neatly coursed Class Q architecture, abandonment in the 16th century; copper, iron, gold, bronze and brass metallurgy
  • Period III: 1000-1200, first major building period, substantial clay plastered houses, coursed and shimmed architectural styles Class P and PQ; copper, gold, brass, bronze, and iron working
  • Period II: 900-1000, Late Iron Age Gumanye settlement, limited to the hill complex; bronze, iron, and copper working
  • [hiatus]
  • Period I: AD 600-900, Early Iron Age Zhizo settlement, farming, iron and copper metal working
  • Period I: AD 300-500, Early Iron Age Gokomere farming, communities, metalworking in iron and copper

Reassessing the Chronology

Recent Bayesian analysis and historically datable imported artifacts (Chirikure et al 2013) suggests that using the structural methods in the P, Q, PQ, and R sequence does not perfectly match the dates of the imported artifacts. They argue for a much longer Phase III period, dating the starts of the construction of the major building complexes as follows:

  • Camp Ruins, Valley Enclosures built between 1211-1446
  • Great Enclosure (majority Q) between AD 1226-1406
  • Hill Complex (P) began construction between 1100-1281

Most importantly, the new studies show that by the late 13th century, Great Zimbabwe was already an important place and a political and economic rival during the formative years and heyday of Mapungubwe.

Rulers at Great Zimbabwe

Archaeologists have argued about the significance of the structures. The first archaeologists on the site assumed that the rulers of Great Zimbabwe all resided in the largest and most elaborate building on the top of the hill called the Great Enclosure. Some archaeologists (such as Chirikure and Pikirayi below) suggest instead that the focus of power (that is, the ruler's residence) shifted several times during Great Zimbabwe's tenure. The earliest elite status building is in the Western Enclosure; after came the Great Enclosure, then the Upper Valley, and finally in the 16th century, the ruler's residence is in the Lower Valley.

Evidence supporting this contention is the timing of the distribution of exotic rare materials and the timing of stone wall construction. Further, political succession documented in the Shona ethnographies suggests that when a ruler died, his successor does not move into the deceased's residence, but rather rules from (and elaborated) his existing household.

Other archaeologists, such as Huffman (2010), argue that although in current Shona society successive rulers do indeed move their residence, ethnographies suggest that at the time of Great Zimbabwe, that principle of succession did not apply. Huffman comments that a residency shift was not required in Shona society until traditional marks of succession were interrupted (by the Portuguese colonization) and that during the 13th-16th centuries, class distinction and sacred leadership were what prevailed as the leading force behind succession. They didn't need to move and rebuild to prove their leadership: they were the chosen leader of the dynasty.

Living at Great Zimbabwe

Ordinary houses at Great Zimbabwe were circular pole-and-clay houses about three meters in diameter. The people raised cattle and goats or sheep, and grew sorghum, finger millet, ground beans and cowpeas. Metalworking evidence at Great Zimbabwe includes both iron smelting and gold melting furnaces, both within the Hill Complex. Iron slag, crucibles, blooms, ingots, casting spills, hammers, chisels, and wire drawing equipment have been found throughout the site. Iron used as functional tools (axes, arrowheads, chisels, knives, spearheads), and copper, bronze and gold beads, thin sheets and decorative objects were all controlled by Great Zimbabwe rulers. However, the relative lack of workshops coupled with an abundance of exotic and trade goods indicates that production of the tools did not likely take place at Great Zimbabwe.

Objects carved from soapstone include decorated and undecorated bowls; but of course most important are the famous soapstone birds. Eight carved birds, once placed on poles and set around the buildings, were recovered from Great Zimbabwe. Soapstone and pottery spindle whorls signify that weaving was an important activity at the site. Imported artifacts include glass beads, Chinese celadon, Near Eastern earthenware, and, in the Lower Valley, 16th century Ming dynasty pottery. Some evidence exists that Great Zimbabwe was tied into the extensive trade system of the Swahili coast, in the form of large numbers of imported objects, such as Persian and Chinese pottery and Near Eastern glass. A coin was recovered bearing the name of one of the rulers of Kilwa Kisiwani.

Archaeology at Great Zimbabwe

The earliest western reports of Great Zimbabwe include racist descriptions from the late nineteenth century explorers Karl Mauch, J. T. Bent and M. Hall: none of them believed that Great Zimbabwe could possibly have been built by the people who lived in the neighborhood. The first western scholar to approximate the age and local origin of Great Zimbabwe was David Randall-MacIver, in the first decade of the 20th century: Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Roger Summers, Keith Robinson and Anthony Whitty all came to Great Zimbabwe early in the century. Thomas N. Huffman excavated at Great Zimbabwe in the late 1970s, and used extensive ethnohistorical sources to interpret Great Zimbabwe's social construction. Edward Matenga published a fascinating book on soapstone bird carvings discovered at the site.


This glossary entry is a part of the Guide to the African Iron Age and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bandama F, Moffett AJ, Thondhlana TP, and Chirikure S. 2016. The Production, Distribution and Consumption of Metals and Alloys at Great Zimbabwe. Archaeometry: in press.

Chirikure, Shadreck. "Seen but Not Told: Re-mapping Great Zimbabwe Using Archival Data, Satellite Imagery and Geographical Information Systems." Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Foreman BandamaKundishora Chipunza, et al., Volume 24, Issue 2, SpringerLink, June 2017.

Chirikure S, Pollard M, Manyanga M, and Bandama F. 2013. A Bayesian chronology for Great Zimbabwe: re-threading the sequence of a vandalised monument. Antiquity 87(337):854-872.

Chirikure S, Manyanga M, Pollard AM, Bandama F, Mahachi G, and Pikirayi I. 2014. Zimbabwe Culture before Mapungubwe: New Evidence from Mapela Hill, South-Western Zimbabwe. PLoS ONE 9(10):e111224.

Hannaford MJ, Bigg GR, Jones JM, Phimister I, and Staub M. 2014. Climate Variability and Societal Dynamics in Pre-Colonial Southern African History (AD 900-1840): A Synthesis and Critique. Environment and History 20(3):411-445. doi: 10.3197/096734014x14031694156484

Huffman TN. 2010. Revisiting Great Zimbabwe. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48(3):321-328. doi: 10.1080/0067270X.2010.521679

Huffman TN. 2009. Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe: The origin and spread of social complexity in southern Africa. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28(1):37-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jaa.2008.10.004

Lindahl A, and Pikirayi I. 2010. Ceramics and change: an overview of pottery production techniques in northern South Africa and eastern Zimbabwe during the first and second millennium AD. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 2(3):133-149. doi: 10.1007/s12520-010-0031-2

Matenga, Edward. 1998. The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe. African Publishing Group, Harare.

Pikirayi I, Sulas F, Musindo TT, Chimwanda A, Chikumbirike J, Mtetwa E, Nxumalo B, and Sagiya ME. 2016. Great Zimbabwe's water. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 3(2):195-210.

Pikirayi I, and Chirikure S. 2008. AFRICA, CENTRAL : Zimbabwe Plateau and Surrounding Areas. In: Pearsall, DM, editor. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 9-13. doi: 10.1016/b978-012373962-9.00326-5

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Great Zimbabwe: The African Iron Age Capital." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Great Zimbabwe: The African Iron Age Capital. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Great Zimbabwe: The African Iron Age Capital." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).