Art and Centralized Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Conical tower, Great Zimbabwe. Shona artist, Zimbabwe. Photo by William Dewey.


Few African states left behind permanent monumental architecture as a tangible, visible record of complex social organization. This was due to the lack of durable materials that could withstand the rigors of a tropical climate. Exceptions can be found in southern Africa, where ruins of stone buildings are scattered throughout present day Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Among the most spectacular is the site of Great Zimbabwe, where massive stone ruins dating from the tenth to sixteenth-century A.D. stand today. The site includes a palace, a fortress on a granite hill, and a complex mass of walling and enclosures.  The building of Great Zimbabwe was possible because of the wealth obtained from trade in gold and copper, but little is known about the kingdom that gave rise to this striking architectural feat. Nevertheless, the remarkable ruins stand as a testimony to the greatness and glory of the southeastern African kingdom and provide evidence of a hieratic society with a highly organized labor force.