Guns of the Armada
Editor Simon Denison
Ming pottery in an African sun
Gwilym Hughes recalls finding a broken Chinese platter at Great Zimbabwe
My favourite discovery was a piece of Ming china from Great Zimbabwe in southern Africa, when I was the resident archaeologist there in 1986.
I'd got the job the previous year. I was just three years out of university when I went on holiday for three months to Africa. Travelling down to Zimbabwe, I paid a visit to Great Zimbabwe, and introduced myself to the archaeologist in charge. It turned out that he was just about to leave the country and he suggested I apply for the job. So I hitched up to Harare, and they more or less offered me the job on the spot. I was stunned.
It was fabulous working at Great Zimbabwe. The site is about 20 miles from the nearest settlement of any size, so is very much out in the bush. I stayed in a small thatched cottage with three rooms; and there was also a hotel attached to the site, and a small village nearby. When I arrived I was the only white person there, among about 40 or 50 employees - although Dave Collett, another British archaeologist, was later appointed to join me. Dave and I established a programme of conservation for the site, and we were also keen to dispel the myth of the colonial period that the site could not have been built by indigenous people but only by outsiders such as Phoenicians or Arabs.
There has also been a mythology that Great Zimbabwe was all about stone walling, whereas the ordinary living accommodation was in circular clay houses with thatched roofs. These are no longer visible so the myths are maintained. We thought it would be appropriate to expose one of these houses and began the dig in July/August 1986, which is the dry season in Zimbabwe, and winter, but it is still quite warm with clear blue skies and always an African sun.
We excavated through a layer of ash, presumably burnt thatch and timbers from the roof, and exposed a raised clay platform - a kind of display area - containing a posthole. As we excavated this area we found tiny pieces of twisted gold wire, gold foil, and little gold tacks, presumably used to tack the foil onto a wooden object sitting on a post. Then on the outside of the building, on the other side of the wall, was another platform and posthole, and a little stone-lined tunnel between the two. I assume the tunnel was used to make offerings from the exterior to the interior. This was clearly some kind of religious building where access to the inside was limited to a chosen few.
Jammed inside this tunnel was a broken piece of Ming china. It was the most staggering thing I have ever come across. Imported items - probably traded down-the-line from Arab ports on the East Coast - had been found in Great Zimbabwe before but only rarely, and nothing of this size. This was about a third of a shallow dish or platter.
Presumably it was jammed into the tunnel as an offering, at the time the building went out of use. It was obviously imbued with enormous significance, perhaps the possession of some very senior person. It was dated to the very end of the 15th/early 16th century, showing that the site survived at least 50 years longer than was previously thought.
A couple of months later a reporter came from the Zimbabwe Herald, interviewing us on our conservation programme, and we referred to this find in passing. We had no idea it would arouse such interest, but the story was splashed across the front page: 'Major new discovery at Great Zimbabwe'.
The next day there was a cartoon of two very European-looking archaeologists wearing pith helmets, one holding a trowel, the other holding this piece of pottery and one saying to the other: 'Perhaps it was the Chinese that built Great Zimbabwe!' We just put our heads in our hands. That was not the message we were trying to get across at all.
Gwilym Hughes is the Director of Cambria Archaeology (the Dyfed Archaeological Trust)
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005