Mapungubwe and the first kingdom of southern Africa


800 years ago, the city of Mapungubwe was the capital of
the first kingdom in southern Africa, which thrived as a
sophisticated trading centre from around 1220 to 1290.

Gold ornaments, glass trade beads and other ancient objects
discovered in the 1930s led to further investigation by the University of
Pretoria. They unearthed a wealth of archaeological material that reflected the
life and activities of an advanced society – one which flourished and declined
within just 100 years.

The city traded with China, India
and Egypt, had a thriving agricultural industry, and may have grown to a
population of around 5,000. The city had access to the Limpopo River, which
connected the region through trade to other sites along the Indian Ocean.

Mapungubwe is the earliest known
site in southern Africa where evidence of a class-based society existed, as the
leaders were spatially separated from the rest of the inhabitants. The homes,
diet and elaborate burials of the wealthy elite are in stark contrast to those
less well-off, who lived at the foot of Mapungubwe and the surrounding plateau.


These gold
sculptures, discovered in three royal graves, are among the most iconic in
Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat and a
rhinoceros – and artworks associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or

These artworks were discovered
alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads, at
Mapungubwe. Gold was mined in the surrounding regions and traded with the coast
as part of a wider international network. The precious metal became a status
symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

Since their discovery, these
works have had a fascinating history. Although many pieces of sculpture,
including these magnificent examples, were known to exist, they were not
included in official histories promoted by the South African state. From 1948 the
government introduced laws that enforced a system of racial segregation known
as apartheid, meaning ‘separateness’. During this period, the official version
of history that was promoted stated that South Africa had been an ‘empty land’
before European settlement in 1652. In fact, these wonderful works are part of
an ancient and ongoing  South African art tradition, showing that people
existed in South Africa long before European settlement.

See these incredible sculptures
in our special exhibition South Africa: the art of a nation (27
October 2016 – 26 February 2017).

Exhibition sponsored by Betsy and
Jack Ryan

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

Gold figurines. From Mapungubwe,
capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1250–1290. On loan from
Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria.