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Meet the 800-Year-Old Golden Rhinoceros that Challenged Apartheid South Africa

Meet the 800-Year-Old Golden Rhinoceros that Challenged Apartheid South Africa

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It may be small enough to sit in the palm of your hand, but even now – nearly 800 years after it was lost to sight in what is now South Africa – the Golden Rhinoceros of Mapungubwe has powerful symbolism. It’s a representation of one of the region’s most physically powerful animals– the rhinoceros – and one of the region’s most enduring symbols of power – gold.

It also bears witness to a powerful and sophisticated kingdom that existed in Africa hundreds of years before white settlement. The golden rhinoceros was recovered in 1934 from a royal grave at the site of Mapungubwe in northern South Africa close to the border of Zimbabwe. Its creation in the 13th century is a reflection of the wealth of the state of Mapungubwe, southern Africa’s earliest known kingdom.

The Lydenburg Head. Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections,

The Lydenburg Head. Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Author provided

Gold in Mapungubwe

Mapungubwe is thought to have emerged as the capital of the kingdom from 1220 to 1290, largely because of its control of the gold trade with the coastal Swahili settlement at Kilwa Kisiwani almost 2,000 miles away to the north-east in what is today Tanzania.

Long distance trade in the region was previously based on ivory and animal skins in return for glass beads, known from nearby earlier sites such as Bambandyanalo (also called K2) , which existed from about 1030 to 1220.

Gold bovine figure from Mapungubwe. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

Gold bovine figure from Mapungubwe. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

However, during the 13th century, gold increasingly became the most important trade export. Eventually it replaced glass beads as a symbol of elite wealth and power. The gold rhinoceros was buried with a member of Mapungubwe’s ruling royal elite, which further enhanced its symbolic power.

Finding the Golden Rhinoceros

The golden rhinoceros did not emerge from its royal grave until the 1930s when a team of academic and amateur archaeologists from the University of Pretoria excavated a graveyard on Mapungubwe Hill .

Mapungubwe Hill as it appears today. JJ van Zyl/GFDL,

Mapungubwe Hill as it appears today. JJ van Zyl/GFDL. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Three of the 27 burial sites contained considerable quantities of gold. The gold objects included animal figurines, such as rhinoceroses, a crocodile, and fragments of other unidentified animals – including two which were eventually reconstructed in 2009: an ox and a wild cat.

These figures were found alongside gold scepters, a bowl considered by some to be a crown , bracelets, bangles, beads, nails, and discs. Significant information was lost due to the style of excavation (some of it was undertaken by inexperienced amateurs). Nevertheless, a rich picture of life at Mapungubwe has since been developed based on these and more recent excavations at the site and analyses of the excavated material.

Gold vessel – thought to possibly be a crown. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

Gold vessel – thought to possibly be a crown. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

The picture that has been revealed is of a socially stratified site with the elite living on a restricted access hilltop while the majority of the population lived beneath. The economy of Mapungubwe was based on cattle herding, agriculture, hunting and gathering, as well as long-distance international trade, as indicated by finds of Chinese porcelain .

History Denied

The power of the golden rhinoceros, and other finds from Mapungubwe, were again recognized in the 20th century. The ruling elite of that era, the white South African government, acknowledged their potency by marginalizing them within official South African narratives.

The gold rhinoceros and other sculptures from Mapungubwe, and sculptures from related earlier sites such as Schroda and Lydenburg , presented a challenge to the colonial and apartheid ideologies that supposedly justified European settlement and white rule.

Fertility figurines found at Schroda in southern Africa. Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History, Author provided

Fertility figurines found at Schroda in southern Africa. Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History, Author provided

This included the historical construction that South Africa was not populated when Europeans began to settle there in the 16th century and that black South Africans only arrived at the same time and only occupied a relatively small area of the country, leaving the remainder ripe for white settlement and ownership.

By contrast, pre-colonial sculptures demonstrated that black South Africans had occupied the region for a least 1,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Although archaeologists knew about the objects – they were reported in the press and some were exhibited (albeit with restricted access) – their histories and the obvious implications of their existence were not incorporated into official histories.

The Golden Rhinoceros Receives Fame at Last

The power of the golden rhinoceros was again recognized by the first post-apartheid administration in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC appropriated the golden rhinoceros for the new South Africa and held it up as evidence of a southern African Renaissance before the arrival of Europeans . In 1999 the gold rhinoceros was designated a National Treasure. In 2002 the ANC created the Order of Mapungubwe , the highest honor in South Africa, of which there are four classes: platinum, gold, silver, and bronze. Nelson Mandela was the first to receive the highest of these awards, platinum. At the center of the award is a representation of the gold rhinoceros.

Gold sceptre from Mapungubwe. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

Gold sceptre from Mapungubwe. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

In 2016 the gold rhinoceros left South Africa for the first time to be displayed in the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: the art of a nation’ exhibition, with its powers to communicate charged and enhanced again. In the exhibition, it sat on a world stage where it again spoke to new audiences about the importance of Mapungubwe, the pre-colonial past, the crimes of colonialism and apartheid – and the ambitions of a contemporary South Africa.

Top image: Golden Rhinoceros in the Mapungubwe Collection, SA. Source: CC BY-SA

This article ‘ Meet the 800-year-old golden rhinoceros that challenged apartheid South Africa ’ by John Giblin on The Conversation , and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.

Comments

That is correct, when the Europeans arrived at what is today Cape Town, the furthest advanced black groups had already entered the northeastern part of South Africa, and were 1000kms from Cape Town. When they eventually met 100 years later, it was 700kms from Cape Town. The black people groups had, like the whites, also come from the Northern Hemisphere - from a region around 4000km from South Africa.

The original people groups of the land are the Khoi and San. They have light-brown skin. The black tribes completely eradicated any genetic trace of male KhoiSan in the eastern half of Southern Africa, the area blacks had settled before meeting the Europeans.

The Dutch, French and German farmers very early on became independent from any colonial power in Europe. They adopted many practices from the KhoiSan, even taking them as wives, and are known today as the Afrikaner people. They gradually spread into the rest of South Africa, laying the foundation for the development of the country as we see it today - a country which performed the first heart transplant in the world and developed its own nuclear energy and weaponry by the 1960s. :)

Your readers might like to look at a modern interpretation of the Mapungubwe rhinoceros http://www.designindaba.com/articles/creative-work/new-skin-mapungubwe-r...

That golden sceptre is awesome :) wonder what specie wood was it's staff ?? African black wood ? hmm
Also, I don't think that one artifact is/was a helmet or crown. seems piece or two missing.? Yet could have been a medical bowl use as ritual liquid purifier. Any liquid placed in.

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