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Elites and commoners at Great Zimbabwe: archaeological and ethnographic insights on social power

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 August 2018

Shadreck Chirikure*
Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa
Robert Nyamushosho
Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa
Foreman Bandama
Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa
Collet Dandara
Division of Human Genetics, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, Observatory, 7925, South Africa
*Author for correspondence (Email:


Archaeological indicators of inequality at major historic centres of power have long been poorly understood. This paper is the first to address the archaeology of class and inequality at Great Zimbabwe (AD 1000–1700) from an African-centred viewpoint. Data from new excavations, combined with insights from Shona philosophy, practice and ethnography, suggest that the categories of ‘elite’ and ‘commoner’ were situational and transient, and that they require a more robust theorisation than that currently adopted for the site. The results provide a valuable study for the comparative archaeology of ancient cities, differing in many ways from established interpretive frameworks in global archaeology.

Antiquity , Volume 92 , Issue 364 , August 2018 , pp. 1056 - 1075
© Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2018 

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