Email us


Mapungubwe Collection- The Collection


The Mapungubwe Archaeological Collection is a dynamic collection, its main purpose being to serve as a conservation, research, education and public information resource which is essential to the interpretation and dissemination of knowledge on Mapungubwe in all its diversity. The main body of the museum collection consists mainly of the cultural objects or artefacts associated with Mapungubwe, which includes a small portion of specifically declared national heritage objects. The Mapungubwe National Heritage Collection includes 174 declared heritage objects associated with most of the Iron Age settlements known as Mapungubwe Hill, the Southern Terrace, K2 and Bambandyanalo. It was gazetted on 10 October 1997 on account of its archaeological and historical importance under the auspices of the former National Monuments Council, now known as the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). The museum collection is protected as an official repository of heritage objects complying with national and international museum policy and professional standards of the South African Museums Association and the International Council of Museums. The Mapungubwe collection, both on exhibition and in storage, comprises mainly original archaeological objects or artefacts made available for exhibition, conservation and research purposes. The collection consists of metal objects and fragments of gold, copper and iron, ivory, bone tools, animal bones, trade glass beads, marine and terrestrial shells, organic materials such as fragile fibres, seeds, charred sorghum and millet, clay figurines, a few dinosaur fossil remains, Chinese celadon fragments, low-fired ceramics and thousands upon thousands of potsherds and animal bone fragments. This collection does not exist in isolation; its management and conservation is influenced by several cultural, academic, heritage and educational trends, specialisation by other tertiary institutions, government, public and private organisations with similar interests in this unique collection, and the care of the archaeological site itself as a National and World Heritage Site.

The ceramic collection

The Mapungubwe ceramic collection comprises almost 75% of the entire museum collection. These ceramics are manufactured from fine or course clay; some are burnished to a gloss and are considered to be low-fired ware or pottery. Whether the ceramic vessels are complete, partially complete or mere potsherds, they are the most abundant of all the archaeological material in the Museum. This familiarity with the broken potsherd has in the past led to the ceramics’ neglect, and their research meaning and interpretation varied. Many of the ceramics which are complete are aesthetically and symmetrically hand-crafted. Being almost indestructible and available in vast quantities, they are preserved in ash middens, burials or lie scattered about on the surface. Some ceramics remain perfectly intact from a deep excavation deposit as if left there as they were over a thousand years ago. The ceramic vessels can be typologically classified into two main groups, i.e. those found at Mapungubwe Hill dating AD 1220 - 1290, and from K2 dating AD 1030 - 1220. These two collections, of which there are over 500 complete or partially complete vessels, are rather distinct and differ in shape and decoration. The K2 ceramics consist of spherical vessels with short necks, mostly with incised decorative motifs; sub-spherical open bowls; spherical vessels without necks often combined with spouts; deep beaker bowls; beakers with incised decoration combined with lugs, and a small number of spherical vessels with necks and comb-stamped decoration. Most of the ceramics are distinguished according to size, colour, shape, type of clay used, the ingredients added, method of manufacture, even reconstruction and distribution. The Mapungubwe ceramics consist of round-bellied pots with necks and mostly incised decoration; wide-bellied pots; deep bowls with restricted openings. Shallow bowls in particular are a unique and distinctive characteristic of Mapungubwe Hill vessels. The ceramic vessels served a number of purposes and each individual ceramic vessel could have its own interpretation. Some were used for cooking purposes, as drinking cups, food containers or sacred burial items and were hand-made in a variety of sizes from pint-size to huge containers which can barely be lifted by hand. The only imported ceramics from the collection are a few fragments of Chinese celadon found on Mapungubwe Hill. Celadon shards are rare and valuable clues to international trade, and are also known from Great Zimbabwe and the many ancient trading ports along the east coast of Africa. Some of the oldest Iron Age objects from Mapungubwe are Early Iron Age potsherds from the lower levels of occupation at Mapungubwe Hill, possibly from AD 300 - 500. Figurines, hand-moulded and low-fired from clay, also form part of the ceramic collection. These consist of over 400 fragments and a handful of complete clay figurines depicting domestic animals such as sheep, cattle and goats, with rare exceptions of wild animals such as a giraffe and a springhare. The rarest figurine in the collection found at K2 is that of a stylised hippopotamus with a human torso with green trade bead eyes pushed into the clay. Many of the figurines are symbolic in style and decoration, usually conical in shape, and the collection contains rare human forms. Some practical everyday ceramic items also include miniature bowls, spoons, whistles, clay stoppers and clay earplugs. Clay spindle whorls, decorated and undecorated, used in the spinning of indigenous cotton are also unique Iron Age finds.

The metal collection

Although fragmentary due to the corrosive nature of iron and copper, the Museum’s metal collection, unlike the gold, is also extremely vast. This collection contains a few finished objects which have survived over time, such as bangles, anklets, beads, arrowheads, spears, rings, wire, plate, links, pins and pendants. Despite the fragmentary state of most of the metal collection it also includes metallurgical material resulting from the smelting and smithing process, such as slag, bloom, ingots, droplets, crucible shards and fragments of tuyère or clay pipe remaining from the smelting process. However, it is the Museum’s gold which is among the finest archaeological collections in Southern Africa. All the gold was recovered from three royal burials excavated between 1933 and 1940. The gold collection can broadly be classified into three distinct categories: gold beads, gold wire bracelets and gold foil. Most of the three-dimensional gold sculptures were made by folding, pleating and creasing the foil into a desired shape. Apart from fragmentary gold foil animals, other foil objects include a sceptre, bowl or headdress, and numerous moon and circular-shaped ornaments. In some cases the gold was decorated with punched and inscribed lines. The size of the foil fragments ranges from a few square millimetres to several square centimetres. The metal collection contains a handful of representations of wild animals such as the gold rhinoceros and fragments of a gold buffalo, but gold human forms are non-existent. Geometric shapes were also used frequently and some shapes are combined with that of an animal as in the case of the decorated crocodile head. In most other cases the representations in gold are abstract and do not seem to take a specific form, and much of the gold foil remains torn and fragmentary. No finished gold objects were actually cast. Two kinds of gold beads were made, i.e. punched and wrapped. The punched beads were made from nearly spherical gold droplets, probably formed by pouring molten gold into water. These were flattened slightly with light blows from a small iron hammer and then punched from both sides to create the central hole using a four-sided tapered punch. This produced solid gold beads without a join but often with the telltale marks of the punch preserved around the hole and worn to a round shape by stringing. Some of these punched beads were decorated by regularly spaced indentations along the outer margins and hammered into the cold beads. Wrapped beads were made from gold strips or short lengths of wire which were hammered rather than drawn. There was no evidence of wire drawing, and all the wire appeared to have been hammered.

Gold was hammered into sheets of about 0.3 to 0.5 mm thick. These must have been produced on a rough sandstone anvil whose texture is evident from the pitted texture on the inside. The gold sheets were attached to presumably wooden forms using square section tacks (nails) cut from the tapered rod and hammered in cold, forming a flattened head. Both the sheets and tack heads were burnished to create a reflective sheen on their exposed surfaces. Wound bangles were made from hammered gold wire or gold sheet which was cut into long, narrow strips. These were wound around a plant fibre core, now disintegrated, to make a flexible bangle or anklet. There is no evidence of soldering or using heat treatments other than for annealing the gold. Metalworking generally seems to have involved cycles of hot and cold work with no other systematic heat treatment. Most of the tools used to produce the gold artefacts have not survived, although small iron hammers are present in the archaeological collections from these sites. Nevertheless, the tool kit must have been quite simple. All of the gold insignia and jewellery could have been produced with a tool kit consisting of bellows, melting crucibles, stone anvils, stone or iron hammers, iron wire, knife blades, and iron punches and chisels to create diverse texture finishes on the metal. Despite the simple techniques used, producing uniform thin sheet and strips, fine wire and the tiny beads must have taken great skill. Working in gold and following the techniques used for copper led to innovation in design and technology, such as the use of gold foil or sheet to decorate sculptured wooden forms like the gold rhino.

The bead collection

The second largest collection in the Museum apart from the ceramics is undoubtedly the beads, particularly trade glass beads among a handful of iron and copper beads, calcite stone beads, pottery, ostrich eggshell and land snail shell beads. Most of the trade glass beads may be divided into two categories according to the method of manufacture, i.e. wound beads and cane beads. The imported glass beads that originate from India, South East Asia, Arabia and North Africa are the earliest and most abundant of all artefacts at Mapungubwe and attest to international trade. The many hundreds of thousands of archaeological beads in the collection indicate an important role in the development of Iron Age communities to create wealth and status by controlling the Indian Ocean trade networks together with exports of ivory and gold. The colours of the trade glass beads are not consistent and include many shades of blue, green, yellow, pink, orange, red, violet, turquoise, black, white and grey, yet the most striking beads are the small Red Indian trade beads which are one of the chief features of the Mapungubwe beads. The Mapungubwe Museum bead collection is a vital aspect for object-based research as they may be used to ascertain as closely as possible the site’s chronology. They also provide evidence of trade between local communities and the world beyond, beginning in at least the 10th century.

There are other numerous minor collections from Mapungubwe consisting of terrestrial, freshwater and seawater shells which include complete cowries, ostrich eggshell and tortoiseshell fragments. Animal bone was finished and fashioned into tools such as awls, needles, bone points, links, shafts, pins and other decorative items like pendants which also make up a small part of the collection. The ivory collection of bangles, armbands and raw ivory, although small, is significant as it represents some of the oldest ivory found in the Iron Age record, making it a unique museum collection. Organic materials, once again fragmentary and very fragile, consist of fibres, rope, cordage, wood, charred sorghum, beans, millet and other floral material.

Share this page
Last edited by Alexandros AndreouEdit