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Journey to koBulawayo: Learning about a community through its material culture

06 Mar 2022 at 08:22hrs | Views
WHEN a people settle at a place, there is interaction between them and the environment.

Their minds, their worldview impact on the environment, its various aspects and, in the process, space is organised.

The built area becomes a mirror of and entry point into the minds of creators, builders and users of the resulting structures.

As we inch closer to the explanation of archaeological research undertaken at Old Bulawayo, we think it is pertinent to give a contextualising and parting shot before we do that.

Our interest lies also in facilitating some rudimentary appreciation of the work of archaeologists when they undertake work on a given site.

A settlement that has been deserted bears the cultural signature of the people who once lived there.

This should be apparent even to some of us without any formal training in Archaeological studies.

The first point of entry is recognition of both the natural and cultural landscapes.

What type of vegetation is found there?

In Matabeleland, it is easy to identify where secondary vegetation has taken over.

The various species of acacia trees include the following: umkhaya, isinga, and ugagu/ibhankali.

During the summer period, what type of grass is found and is that type of grass uniformly distributed throughout the once settled spaces?

For example, where cattle and other domesticated animals were kept in pens, their (pens) location may be indicated by the presence of healthier and taller grass, which derives nutrients from the manure.

Taking some walk-about on the cultural landscape (enxiweni), a once settled place will reveal quite a bit of knowledge and information regarding the former settlers.

There are items, artifacts and other materials that are not bio-digestible which may still be lying around.

Some of the enduring items of material culture may be exposed on the surface and therefore readily identifiable.

There are artifacts of material culture that are made of materials that are biodegradable such as wood, grass, gourd/calabash and skins.

Quite clearly, Ndebele material culture had many items made out of the materials indicated above.

Hut roofs, hut wall frames, attire for both men and women, shields, grass baskets and storage vessels are but examples of such.

On the other hand, there are quite a litany of items of material culture made from enduring substances.

Included in this category may be the following: glass, metal, glass beads, bones, ivory, horn, stone, fired clay, inter alia.

From these substances, we may find substances such as the following, of course depending on the community involved: grinding stones, animal/bird bones, and other faunal remains, whole or pieces of fired clay pots, spears in various stages of rusting (oxidation), arrowheads, bottles and parts thereof, ivory divination pieces.

A researcher will map where the various items were found and their quantities and careful descriptions, noting any lettering/words pointing to places of manufacture.

Pictures about the once settled area may be beginning to emerge.

That may only be covering items that were easily identifiable on the ground.

There may be some sections of hardened floors, fired bricks, stone slabs serving as supports for granaries or grass grain bins.

Out of the initial walk-about, the distribution of structures such as huts may already be emerging.

Usually, researchers will come up with maps that show the distribution of retrieved items from the surface.

The maps are drawn according to specified scales.

One begins to get some appreciation of how space was organized.

Relatedness of landscape features helps to give some indication of the overall purposes and roles of the various cultural features, holistically arriving at some overarching theme.

Over time, some items of material culture are covered under the soil.

In earlier articles, we did make mention of some research methods that are used to retrieve such items that lie below the ground.

Excavation trenches are dug to reveal items that may be retrieved and at the same time noting the layers (stratigraphy) that yielded the various items.

The excavation trenches may be dug at various places.

What now lies below ground level may be revealed and this may indicate a more comprehensive picture regarding the settlement.

We also mentioned research methodologies that are less intrusive.

Geophysical surveys are one such.

Some of them depend on varying magnetic susceptibility of different items beneath the surface.

It will pick up the various materials.

For example, designs of the Royal Enclosure and the Commoners' Enclosure were definitively identified using this method.

Other more advanced survey methods have since been developed.

Aerial surveys are used to achieve more comprehensive pictures of what lies beneath the surface.

Such methods for example reveal the mineral wealth that lies underground.

When all the items available have been gathered, a tentative culture of the community is figured out.

What then follow is marrying the results from archaeological research with those from historical and ethnographic researches.

A clearer and more comprehensive picture, knowledge and information relating to the community emerges.

It is out of the collected and compiled data that ideas relating to the various aspects of the community's way of life emerge.

An idea of their worldview may begin to emerge.

That worldview informs various other aspects of culture.

A people's material culture, some economic activities and industries may be worked out.

Based on the material culture, we may figure out the technologies at world, the various industries in existence and the raw materials that were used.

Sometimes we get to know the trade that resulted in some items of material culture getting to the cultural landscape. We may also get to know the sources of origin for the finished products that were imported to the site.

Aspects of a community's spirituality or religiosity may be gleaned from retrieved evidence.

Their architecture may be figured out too.

Clay clumps (amagade) from walls decay slowly and will give some indication of how the people made their hut walls.

Even the culinary traditions are equally presumed. Artistic traditions of the people may be gleaned, especially those of a visual nature.

When, in the next article, we begin to deal with specific archaeological research conducted at Old Bulawayo, the various areas that they dealt with will be grounded on what this and other previous articles have pointed.

The groundwork will have been covered and methodologies and findings related.

As we pointed out, interpretation will be what the researchers came up with together with my own interpretation based on my intimate knowledge and experience with Ndebele history, and culture, particularly their thought, beliefs and philosophy.

Source - The Sunday News
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