The Golden Hills of Mapungubwe: Home to the World Building of the Year

A Colourful History

There is a place where Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa unite, along the banks of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Its name was once the Kingdom of Mapungubwe.

The kingdom came from Bantu cattle culture, a people who were drawn to the Shashe-Limpopo region because of the rich agricultural possibilities. It was also home to many herds of elephant, whose ivory was incredibly valuable. The settlers of the time, known as Leopold's Kopje culture (or K2), took control of the ivory and gold trade before moving up to Mapungubwe Hill in 1075. The hilltop, littered with human bones, attracted the attention of a particular scavenger in the area, giving Mapungubwe its name, "place where jackals eat'.

Archaeologists believe Mapungubwean society to be the most complex in southern Africa, as it was one of the region's first class-based social systems. Stone walls and wooden frameworks demarcated important areas such as the King's enclosure atop the hill where he lived alongside his soldiers, or the principal councillor's residence next to the royal court.

The kingdom's elite were buried in the hills, shown by three royal graves found in the centre of a terraced settlement. The rest of the population were scattered about the land surrounding Mapungubwe Hill.

Life in Mapungubwe was centered around family and farming. Special sites were created for initiation ceremonies, household activities, and a variety of social functions. Collections of artefacts suggest the inhabitants were subsistence farmers, raising both livestock and crops.

Human remains show that the community enjoyed a healthy and varied diet. People were prosperous, having domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and dogs. Charred remains of storage huts were found, showing that millet, sorghum and cotton were cultivated as well. Most speculation about society continues to be based upon the remains of buildings, since the Mapungubweans left no written or oral record.

Secrets Unearthed

After Mapungubwe's fall, it was forgotten until 1932, when on New Year's Eve, a local farmer and his son discovered a wealth of artifacts on top of the hill. They reported the find to Professor Leo Fouché of the University of Pretoria, paving the way for excavations that continue to this day. Despite the fact that the University of Pretoria has excavated the site since 1932, it was kept top secret for a long period of time.

Despite the fact that Mapungubwe Hill and the K2 settlement site were declared national monuments in the 1980s, most of the findings provided evidence contrary to the racist ideology of black inferiority that underpinned apartheid. The Nationalist government did not want the public to know anything about Mapungubwe, thus everything was confiscated and secretly locked away in the bowels of the university.

In 2002 an architect by the name of Moorrees Janse van Rensburg was contracted to do renovations to the university. While exploring the buildings, Moorees came across a locked room, the contents of which were known to nobody. He broke down the door and discovered a room filled with little boxes. Inside were priceless artefacts from the ancient site, dated from 1000AD to 1300AD.

An incredible variety of materials were found, such as glass beads, pottery, Chinese celadon ware (a type of glaze invented in China), gold ornaments (including a famous golden rhino), ceramic figurines, crafted ivory and bone.

The Mapungubwe Landscape was declared a World Heritage Site on 3 July 2003, and is now a national park, archaeological site and home to global architecture's most coveted prize of 2009 - World Building of the Year.

Heart In The Right Place

The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, designed by Peter Rich Architects, was built to house artefacts from the region's prehistory. It sits aside a mesa formed by a series of dramatic geological events which forced the Limpopo to shift its course entirely. Once flowing into the Atlantic, the river now runs through the Mozambican village of Xai Xai into the Indian Ocean. The Centre sits one kilometre away from the ancient ceremonial centre of the Mapungubwe civilisation, a visual climax around which the architectural centrepiece is designed.

The local people played a central role in designing and building the Centre, offering the project a strong hand in social development and poverty relief. It is clear that the rough, organic and handcrafted nature of the building impressed the judges, not to mention its intimacy with the surrounding landscape - one which was both inspiration and source, as much of the material used in its construction came from the area.

The heart of the Interpretation Centre is visually contained by two hollow cairns, mimicking stone piles built as route markers throughout Southern African culture. A building method called timbrel vaulting was used to shape the billowing forms that seem to define the Centre's appeal.

The method of timbrel vaulting was developed in the Mediterranean around the 14th century. It is very different from the Roman method of arch building, which relies on gravity. The timbrel vault, however, relies on the adhesion of several layers of overlapping tiles, woven together with quick-setting mortar. One layer and the structure would collapse, but two or three make the shell almost as strong as reinforced concrete. The result defies common sense because timbrel vaults are much thinner than Roman vaults, but can handle much higher loads, allowing wider spans and gentler curves.

Popularity was not limited to aesthetics; timbrel vaulting is very quick and extremely economical. Firstly, it saves a huge amount of material and thus embodied energy. Secondly, there is no need. It saves material, equipment, labour, time and money - a very favourable characteristic.

This knowledge has now been accepted into the region's culture. Masons who worked on the Centre have taken not only the spare materials but the skills as well, and continue to use them to build homes in the nearby villages.

Into the Sunset

The visitor's first view of the Interpretation Centre crosses a stream onto the vaults leaping from the land. The entry point is lit by an oculus that tracks the path of the sun, much like the beady eye of a giant chameleon. Delicate walkways weave between the domes creating a zigzagging walkway that runs through the complex. Surfaces of rubble stone reach into the earth giving the Centre an ageless appeal.

Visitors are offered a host of visual experiences as they walk through the Centre. Rusted steel screens echo the branches of indigenous trees. Tiles made from local soil plaster the cavernous exhibition space. Ponds cool the air, creating natural ventilation for the buildings. Light reflected off the ponds filter through coloured glass, creating dappled patterns across the walls and ceiling. The second cairn, at the end of the building, represents the African sunset and houses the famous golden Rhino.

Visitors can weave in and out of the building on their way to the upper vault, from where the view is reminiscent of that shared by the ancestral elite. Onward from here, the journey ends at the highest part of the site, affording a classic view of Mapungubwe Hill and the dark Limpopo River snaking through the African landscape.

The Centre acts as both storyteller and messenger, one who seeks to awaken an understanding of history as well as the vulnerable local ecology. By passing knowledge and skills back into the local community, the story will continue to unfold - one of a culture developing in symbiosis with its legacy.

in association with