Documenting Knowledge, Skills, and Practices of Dry-Stone Masonry at Great Zimbabwe

By Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya, Innocent Pikirayi, Henry Mugabe, and Federica Sulas | 10 November 2020

This project seeks to document the knowledge, skills and practices of traditional dry-stone masonry at Great Zimbabwe, southern Zimbabwe. Once the capital of an Iron Age empire, Great Zimbabwe is an ancient settlement complex with dry-stone structures covering over 720 hectares, now protected and a World Heritage Site. Around it, the communities of Nemanwa, Mugabe, Murinye and Charumbira live, maintaining ancestral connections to it. The most outstanding material remains are stone structures, built without use of mortar or any binding material. This makes Great Zimbabwe a unique expression of a built tradition in Africa and a challenging heritage to manage and conserve. 

Traditional stonemasonry persists amongst the local communities and remains invaluable for conserving Great Zimbabwe and similar sites elsewhere in Zimbabwe, but also South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana. Today, only very few traditional stonemasons are skilled in restoring/repairing ancient structures. This knowledge and these practices have never been recorded in detail. 

Engaging Great Zimbabwe’s traditional masons, the project will document their knowledge, skills and practices by combining desktop survey of written sources, participatory observations, and focus group discussions. 

 

The project’s main objective is to document and preserve the knowledge, skills and practices of traditional stonemasonry for maintaining and restoring the dry-stone built structures of Great Zimbabwe. To achieve this, the project will pursue three main aims: 

  • Production of a census of traditional stonemasons around Great Zimbabwe, mapping of their activities in space and time, and participatory assessment of their lasting impact. 
  • Documenting knowledge, traditions and practices of: stone quarrying, identification of structural problems and dismantling of walls, and restoration, re-construction and monitoring of stone-built walls. 
  • Construction of a digital archive designed as a repository resource for the conservation, transfer and dissemination of traditional stonemasonry knowledge and practices. 

The results will provide a lasting record of a traditional stonemasonry knowledge now rapidly disappearing. In addition to its direct relevance to the conservation of Zimbabwe Culture structures, this knowledge is of critical importance for approaching and understanding dry-stone architecture and traditional practices in Africa and beyond. Furthermore, the new archive, including the production of a guidebook on how to conserve and restore local ancient dry-stone structures, will provide a unique resource for the development of professional and artisanal masonry skills in  Zimbabwe and, hopefully, beyond. 

The results will form the basis to develop a digital archive of stonemasonry knowledge for EMKP and designed as a repository resource for training, study and public engagement activities. From this, the project will produce a guidebook to conserve and restore dry-stone walls at Great Zimbabwe, and an English-Shona booklet to introduce Zimbabwe traditional stonemasonry to the general public. Selected results will also be devoted to scholarly articles. 

 

PI:
Munyaradzi Elton Sagiya, Curator of Archaeology, National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe
 

Collaborators:
Innocent Pikirayi, Deputy Dean, Postgraduate Studies and Research Ethics, University of Pretoria
Henry Mugabe, 
Stonemason, Morgenster Central Primary School
Federica Sulas, 
Senior Research Associate, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge 

Location of Research:
Great Zimbabwe National Monument, Masvingo District 

 

Top Banner Image: Dry Stone Wall (Sagiya, 2016)