Thulamela: The Legend and the Legacy

About This Project

From an article in Setempe (SA Stamp News), July/August 1997
by Sue Dickinson and Gill Marshall

Thulamela is a South African National Heritage Site. This means that the site enjoys the highest possible conservation status.

More than 600 years ago, a peaceful tribe lived on a hilltop near what is presently the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The walled city of Thulamela is thought to be an offshoot of the Great Zimbabwe culture. Although its existence has been known for decades, it was only in 1993 that the Gold Fields Foundation initiated a joint venture with the Kruger National Park to explore and develop the site for educational purposes.

Little remained of the original city other than tumble-down stone walls. Archaeologist Sidney Miller was commissioned to head the team of five workers who spent the next 18 months painstakingly reconstructing the fallen walls of Thulamela. From the positioning of the scattered stones, the team were able to deduce the original position, height and thickness of these walls. More than 2 000 tons of rock were manually shifted in the process of restoring the site to some of its former glory.

Originally, stone walls were built to show the high status of the royal family, demarcate living areas and provide privacy. The vast area covered by Thulamela’s walling is evidence that in its heyday, the city housed approximately 2 000 people.

After the stone walling had been reconstructed, the team turned their attention to the excavation of the middens (rubbish dumps). It was from these that the first gold jewelry was unearthed. Other artifacts followed. Iron-age implements, ceramic pots herds, glass beads, spinning whorls, sewing needles and even a piece of Chinese porcelain were brought to the surface. The presence of these items confirmed the hypothesis that gold, iron and other metals were smelted at Thulamela by a technologically sophisticated community who had trade links with the Far East.

In August 1996, archaeologist Sidney Miller discovered two graves within the Royal enclosures.

Miller, in close consultation with the local communities, opened the graves. One contained the remains of a man bedecked in gold jewelry, thought to have been the king of Thulamela. The other contained the remains of a particularly tall woman buried in a foetal position. On her left forearm was a plaited, golden bracelet of exceptional beauty. Although not of quite the same period as the king, she is presumed to have been of noble family.

The archaeological team nick-named the couple “King Ingwe” and “Queen Losha”. In the local vernacular ingwe means leopard and losha refers to the position in which the woman was found buried, one of traditional respect. Also found in the graves were a number of ceremonial objects, including a gold-foil-covered sacred spear handle and a set of East African gongs.

These discoveries attracted unprecedented media attention, both locally and overseas. TV crews from as far afield as Japan, America, Australia and Europe hastened to the site and the news received prime time exposure.

Unique to this archaeological dig was the involvement of the local communities – the latter day descendants of Thulamela. The opening of the site took the form of a traditional grave side ceremony in which offerings were made by Venda and Shangaan groups to the ancestral spirits. At the end of May 1997, the Royals were reburied, in a solemn and moving ceremony, in their original graves.
Radio carbon dating proves beyond doubt that Thulamela was a viable community long before Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope to establish a settlement for the Dutch East India Company in 1652.

It is not known why Thulamela was vacated. Archaeologists and social anthropologists have advanced many theories about traditions surrounding the death of a ruler, an environmental disaster or war over the control of land and resources. These questions may remain unanswered … for now.

Thulamela, in keeping with archaeological ethics worldwide, will be left untouched now for a hundred years. More secrets probably lie beneath the sands of the walled city. It will be the job of an archaeologist from a future generation to carry on with Miller’s research.