Archaeological science, globalisation, and local agency: gold in Great Zimbabwe.

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UNLABELLED: Great Zimbabwe (CE1000-1600) is world famous for outstanding cultural innovations and localised and globalised entanglement with trans-Africa and trans-Indian Ocean exchange. New excavations yielded fragments of over a hundred gold processing vessels comprising reused pottery and purpose-made crucibles from stratified contexts in the Eastern Ridge Ruins and adjacent areas. Selected samples were studied using archaeological, microscopic, and compositional (SEM-EDS) techniques. All ceramics were made of alumina-rich clays and contain minerals common to granite-derived lithologies typical of the area, although it is possible that particularly refractory clays were selected to make crucibles locally. These technical ceramics were used for refining and collecting gold at high temperature, most likely producing not only relatively standardised ingots but also finished objects. The composition of the gold prills set in crucible slag is consistent with that of natural, unalloyed gold, while the variability in silver levels and minor impurities point to heterogeneous sources of the gold. Considering these finds in their multiple site and regional contexts, and together with complementary threads of information from early reports of antiquarians and looters, we argue that local agency and gold consumption were much more significant than generally assumed. The conclusion to the paper is that Great Zimbabwe's famous participation in local and global exchanges was backed by internally driven but improvisation laden production and consumption occurring in homesteads located throughout its various settlements. We end by raising a word of caution about oversimplified narratives of globalisation and their archaeological expressions (see Supplementary Material S0 for the abstract in Shona). SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s12520-023-01811-7.


Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Dr Godfrey Mahachi, the Executive Director of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, for awarding permits for excavations and for studying the objects. We thank members of the excavation team especially Dr. Foreman Bandama, Dr. Tawanda Mukwende, and Dr. Robert Nyamushosho. We would further like to extend our gratitude to Catherine Kneale and Dr. Simon Griggs at the University of Cambridge for facilitating and supporting the laboratory analyses presented in this paper, as well as Julia Montes-Landa for preparing the polished blocks.

Funder: National Research Foundation of South Africa

Funder: University of Cape Town; doi:

Globalisation, Gold metallurgy, Great Zimbabwe, Indian Ocean exchange, Local agency, Technology
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Archaeol Anthropol Sci
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Springer Science and Business Media LLC
European Commission Horizon 2020 (H2020) ERC (101021480)
Royal Society (NMG/R1/180327)
Excavations were funded through grants from the National Research Foundation of South Africa and the University of Cape Town to SC. This work was funded by a Newton Mobility Grant from the Royal Society for the project “Archaeological science and globalisation: a case study of crucibles and metallurgical artefacts from Great Zimbabwe World Heritage site” (NMG\R1\180327). Additional funding was obtained from the British Academy Global Professorship Programme (GP1_100569) and from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 101021480, REVERSEACTION project).