University of Pretoria researcher and curator sheds new light on Mapungubwe in a book published by UK’s top academic publisher

Posted on July 05, 2022

Mention Mapungubwe and many think of the iconic national treasures such as the gold rhino from the 1000-year-old Iron Age site in Limpopo. But Mapungubwe has another history that lies beyond the archaeological finds excavated in the 1930s.

It is the one which Dr Sian Tiley-Nel of the University of Pretoria (UP) has explored in her book published in May as part of the International African Series by British Archaeological Reports (BAR), the Oxford-based company named the United Kingdom’s 2022 PLS Academic & Professional Publisher of the Year.

“Everybody focused on the 3D Mapungubwe collection but ignored the 2D historical documents about Mapungubwe,’’ said Dr Tiley-Nel,” and there’s a whole other history in those primary documents”.

That history, a contested one with multiple narratives, ignored indigenous perspectives and gaps – even down to pages and photos being neatly cut out, others torn out – was the subject of her 2018 PhD thesis, supervised by Professor Karen Harris, Head of UP’s Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, and Director of the UP Archives, whom she calls her “muse”.

That thesis has now been published as Past Imperfect - The contested early history of the Mapungubwe Archive, South Africa. She added the name of the country to the subtitle, changed all mentions of “thesis” to “book”, corrected a few typos, updated the acknowledgments, and included never-before-seen photographs, a visual history BAR felt would add to the book’s international appeal. Otherwise the content is word for word the same, essentially a monograph.

And even though the publication is still so recent that she has yet to hold the book in her hands or even receive an electronic copy, it is generating interest. Dr Russell Kapumha, of the University of Oxford, hailed Dr Tiley-Nel. He said she is ‘’clearly an experienced researcher in this area and has comprehensive knowledge of the Mapungubwe archive at the University of Pretoria. There is no doubt that this study is valuable and contributes to new knowledge’’.

Dr Andrew Cohen of the University of Kent in the UK, the external examiner of her thesis, praised the study as “a first-rate piece of scholarship”. In light of the fact that she had ‘’made a contribution to the wider South African and archival historiography”, he recommended further publication. “It would be worthwhile if the research findings contained in this doctoral thesis be made available to a wider audience,” he said.


On the cover of the book is the Old Arts Building on UP’s Hatfield campus, declared a national monument in 1968.  Today the building houses the UP Museums and, in its entrance, the Mapungubwe Archive.


Dr Tiley-Nel is equally enthusiastic about the book, primarily because she loved every step of the experience. “I've produced more than 10 books in 20 years on Mapungubwe,” said Dr Tiley-Nel, who serves as UP’s curatorial specialist on the Mapungubwe Collection under the University’s stewardship. Being curator of the Mapungubwe Collection and head of the Mapungubwe Archive was her first professional job at the age of 23, after graduating from UP with a degree in applied anthropology and archaeology. She regards the position as a privilege, having held it for more than 22 years. She is now also head of the University of Pretoria Museums with its 56 collections, which have attracted more than 6 000 visitors so far this year already.

“I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of writing Past Imperfect because I felt so passionate about each and every topic. How it threaded all together was more difficult,” she said of the 132-page book, which includes a chapter introducing multiple discoveries of Mapungubwe prior to the primary discovery of gold there in 1932, and which “uncovers many of the controversies and irregularities of the ‘discovery’ and provides clarity of what was shared in the public domain, what was published and what was chosen not to be shared”.

It took mere months in the job as a young curator before Dr Tiley-Nel first became aware of the imperfections of the Mapungubwe Collection. It was “quite solid”, she said, from 1933 to the 1940s. There were some documents from the 1950s and then “major gaps throughout the apartheid era of the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. It’s been used and abused. Seeing all these gaps and these faults and these silences – what was not in it – is what really pushed me to put this together,” she said.

In 2017, when a colleague, Nikki Haw from special collections in the library, found stacks of old 1930s folio-size folders tied up in pink ribbon and marked Greefswald, (Greefswald No 615, later becoming Greefswald No 37 MS, being the farm on which Mapungubwe Hill is situated), she was spurred on even more.  

“I jumped with joy. I remember saying to my supervisor, ’You won't believe that I have just found probably the best discovery of Mapungubwe since the gold rhino and the gold collection in 1933!  Eight hundred archival documents, a new narrative on Mapungubwe that's been in the library for close to 85 years.

“I started to query what else is out there, which led me to the former Transvaal Museum archives, now the Ditsong Museum of Natural History. They had three boxes on Mapungubwe never seen before, never researched,” she said.

The focus of her research, as she explained in the book’s introduction, is on UP’s involvement in Mapungubwe, much of it when it was still known as the Transvaal University College (TUC).

“This book examines the contested early history of the ‘Mapungubwe Archive’ held at the University of Pretoria and how as a manifestation of the institution, it can also be argued that the archive has become a site of contestation in the present,” she wrote.

“By unpacking and ‘peeling back the layers’ of the Mapungubwe Archive, a wealth of untapped historical sources can illuminate the origins of some controversies of Mapungubwe’s colonial, Afrikaner nationalist and apartheid past.”

She points out that the University was criticised for being a “gate-keeper”, rather than a custodian, and accused of deliberately “hiding” Mapungubwe. This gives the archive “immense potential to reveal a great deal about changing notions of the institution’s sense of justice, ethics, power, status and control”.

With this focus on the University, she chose a photo of the Old Arts Building on UP’s Hatfield campus, declared a national monument in 1968, as the cover of the book.  Today it houses the UP Museums and, in its entrance, the Mapungubwe Archive which, despite the University having housed its contents for 90 years, was only finalised recently – thanks to a significant grant from the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation.

The archive was officially launched by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tawana Kupe, in partnership with the US Embassy, in February 2022.


Past Imperfect is available from BAR Publishing and Amazon.

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