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The dramatic Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe where ceremonies were held
Rob Burrett lives near Bulawayo in southern Zimbabwe. It took me a while to absorb the astonishing breadth of his work: he is involved in research, guiding and publishing, and at both community and national level he promotes heritage tourism, renewable energy, wildlife and forest conservation, alternative livelihoods and natural medicine. His quiet influence flows widely.
Rob is probably best known as an archaeologist, the former curator of Great Zimbabwe, teacher, mentor and University lecturer. He has worked widely across southern Africa, but Great Zimbabwe, the vast stone structures near Masvingo that have astonished travellers for 650 years, are a particular speciality. It is perhaps the most significant archaeological site south of the Sahara and one of the most impressive and controversial historical sites in the world, its complexity often explained in many exotic theories, including ancient Jewish or Phonecian influence.
Rob is definitely not an ivory tower researcher. His love of archaeology began young, on walks with his grandfather in the open bush, finding stone tools, rock paintings and ruins, and he has always been an independent thinker. Whilst it is true you might find him dusting off artefacts in remote digs, he does not like the title ‘academic’.
He is deeply involved in society, as a teacher, a speaker and guide, and in numerous social projects and economic initiatives. As you get to know him you see the continuity at work: for Rob Burrett there is no gap between research, reflection and participation. And he sees with acute clarity that present realities are the consequence of the past.
Rob’s Masters degree at ‘Wits’ (the respected University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg) focused on stone age archaeology in Zimbabwe. This gave him the rare experience of working with contemporary Bushmen as he wrestled with how this ancient people interacted with the Bantu that migrated into southern Africa over the last two thousand years. His work introduced him to remote people groups and took him to Zambia and Botswana as well as Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Over time his on-going research has become more ‘historical’, the impact of the colonial era and mission stations in particular. How did these influence the identity, culture and economies of indigenous people?
Great Zimbabwe has always presented a massive controversy in Zimbabwe. Could a site that undoubtedly required a high level of sophistication and organisation have been created by a Bantu kingdom? Or was it developed by outsiders, non-Africans? The site was at the heart of a state system that developed around 1000AD and dominated trade and power for hundreds of years. Rob notes that theories about the site reveal more about the prejudices of the speaker than its actual history. "It has been used by politicians from all hues to justify their own agendas” he laments.
Controversy has raged over who built Great Zimbabwe
For some, it triumphs the achievements of the Shona tribe, others express exotic theories, that its vast constructions were directed by Europeans, Jews or Asians. Rob rejects these ideas and peels back misunderstanding and political spin with a common sense approach that is grounded in archaeological research. He rejects dogmatic interpretations, and emphasises the need to hear other points of view. He refuses to glorify the past for political gain. His hope is that a scientific, rational understanding of this key national and pan-African symbol will help to promote a more tolerant society.
An Introduction to Great Zimbabwe Former warden of Great Zimbabwe, author and guide, Rob Burrett takes us on a tour of the site, exploring the Hill Complex, the Great Enclosure and the outer ruins, re-creating this once-powerful African capital.
Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 14 Dec 2010
Location: Southern Africa | Zimbabwe
Themes: the past, travel | 1400 - 1600, tour guide