Journey to Great Zimbabwe: Edward Matenga’s interpretation of figurines
AS pointed out in an earlier installation, one archaeologist who has provided plausible interpretation of figurines is Edward Matenga who, at one time, worked for the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ). In this article we draw from his work and try to relate what he has written to our emerging theme at Great Zimbabwe. It is our argument that figurines will not stand in contradiction to the overall and overarching theme within the cultural edifice we call Great Zimbabwe. If anything, the figurines add and complement the theme which is expressed in other forms such as architectural form and design, sculpture, choice of stones as building materials. We argue for a holistic approach where, in totality, Great Zimbabwe represents and expresses a common theme inspired by a common ideology, cosmology and symbolism.
We have in the past expressed confidence in Archaeology as an exact Science that may be relied upon at the concrete level. Equally, we have expressed reservations when it comes to interpretation of concrete finds such as figurines where Ethnography, and in particular African Cosmology and African Worldview, are not afforded or allowed the chance to lead in the onerous task of interpretation of what belongs in the tangible domain. Material objects are a product of mental creativity. Minds of creators have to lead the way towards interpretation. As we seek to unravel the meaning behind created objects, we have no option other than to get into the minds of those who created material objects with their intangible elements beyond the tangible elements. Failure to do this, for whatever reason, risks coming up with interpretations that are informed, or rather tainted, by one’s cultural background and experiences. The major pitfall in this a [roach is to view objects through one’s own cultural lenses and thus see what makes sense in one’s cultural perspective.
Let us start with where Matenga (in Dewey 1997) says the figurines were found. That should provide, in addition to the form of the figurines, insights regarding why they were found in places where they were found. There has to be a reason why they were located there and not elsewhere. Matenga identifies homesteads, ritual places, caches and burials as locales for figurines. Let us begin with caches, a term that implies a number of figurines hidden from public view. Where figurines are associated with puberty rituals, this should not come as a surprise. In the last instalment we did observe that figurines associated with puberty rituals were kept hidden from people other than the initiates who, for the first time, were exposed to the secrets of adults who have undergone transition from childhood to adulthood. Only those who have biologically matured qualified to see and use figurines.
Ritual places that have yielded figurines are beyond the homesteads where seclusion is an important consideration as it symbolically marks departure from the homestead with its associated pre-adolescent stage. Ritual places would be the sites where circumcision of males and or females takes place. If caches were found near these sites, it would be according to expectation and functionality. Burials constitute another locale where Matenga says figurines were found. This may suggest multifunctional roles for figurines, certainly beyond use during puberty rituals. While attainment of the stage of puberty takes place within the earth realm, involving transition from material being to material being, it is not so at death. The departing spirit must be assisted in its journey as happens when a human being reaches puberty. The exiting spirit must be guided in the journey to the next stage within the spiritual realm.
Burial chambers for the Egyptian Pharaohs had their walls painted with pyramid writings and funerary items meant to guide the spirits on a journey to the stellar destination. Figurines on African graves should be seen in the same light. After all, rites of passage do embrace death which is an important stage in the unending cycle of life. In the absence of death, the cycle would not be powered on towards unendingness.
Matenga cites Bullock who argues that death does not break the cycle of life — it powers it and ensures the cycle is eternal. Death indeed powers life into the next critical stage, that of ancestral spirits whose roles include, inter alia, protection of their progeny. Cyclicality of life embraces the spiritual stage which is attained only after death. There is thus a link between fertility and ancestral spirits. The latter emerge from the former who are products of fertility, or sexuality. Matenga argues that the figurines are a form of symbolic art which reflects the people’s conception of the world. We can’t agree more with Matenga.
the human figurines, embodied an ideology focusing on fertility, an informal but nevertheless important cornerstone of Shona cosmology (Matenga in Dewey 1997:58) However, what Matenga posits as Shona cosmology we, on the other hand, perceive as pan-African. Sexuality or fertility is held sacred and, as an ideology, lies behind many cultural practices, all of which draw from and express continuity, eternity and endlessness. Examples include iron smelting, ritual killing and use of nodules from iron smelting in agricultural production. For our purposes, we see a link between figurines yielded at Great Zimbabwe and representations and expressions of fertility resident within the same cultural edifice.
With regard to form in figurines, Matenga makes observations that reinforce residence of the concept of fertility. Human figurines, he notes, bear cicatrices and scarification. Both forms of body art are common among African communities such as the BaTonga. Iron smelting furnaces have been observed to have these incisions which are associated with females.
The furnace is the female element whereas skin bellows and the blow pipe constitute the male element within the fertility complex. Interestingly and, indeed accurately, some figurines are without legs and arms. Some have featureless heads. Some of these anthropomorphic figurines do bear human genitalia, a clear indication of their expressions of fertility. Arms, legs and heads are excluded as they are perceived not to feature prominently in fertility or sexual reproduction, whereas genitalia do. Where the pelvic girdle in enlarged that too reinforces fertility. The womb is located in that part of the human body. Male genitalia are also associated with the same region. This does tally with the location of the chevron pattern, a pointer to the position of the womb, as found on the outer wall at Great Zimbabwe. It is impossible to exclude fertility from Great Zimbabwe. We are yet to be convinced about Great Zimbabwe being a royal town, a spiritual site or trade and commercial centre.
“The sexual tricycle is often clearly defined by excised lines; the vulva and, in some cases, the clitoris are shown; the vaginal canal may be shown as well. The male counterparts depict penises and in a few cases testes (Matenga in Dewey 1997:61). Nubile figurines represent phallic objects, the male elements that complement the female element. Matenga identifies materials that have been used in the making of figurines: terracotta, soapstone (mica-schist) ivory (especially at the Khami Monument) and clay (generally fired). What emerges from the choice of materials and their treatment is solidity which guarantees near eternal existence. Men worked stone and metal while women were restricted to clay and grass, generally.
We find it difficult, nay impossible, to trash, let alone demolish, Matenga’s hypothesis as regards the fertility ideology. All that we may caution is to confine fertility ideology to the Shona people of Zimbabwe alone. What ties the Africans together is not their skin hue or residence on the African continent. Rather, it is their ideology, including ideas regarding fertility ideology, cosmology and worldview. Matenga’s argument stems from an Afro-centric perspective and emanates from one who has deliberately sought to centre the African mind and allow his interpretation to be inspired by the very mind that created the figurines.