Jour­ney to Great Zimbabwe: Ed­ward Matenga’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of fig­urines

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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.

“Most fig­urines,


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.

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