Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Fall 2008

The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage. Joost Fontein. New York, NY: UCL Press, 2006. 246 pp.

In The Silence of Great Zimbabwe Joost Fontein fashions a learned narrative about contested heritage. Working in Masvingo District in southern Zimbabwe, where the Nemanwa, Charumbira, and Mugabe clans reside, he charts the alienation of African associations and expressions bound to contemporary Great Zimbabwe. Palpable disenchantment among African communities, each with their own contingent historical representations of the place, derives from interpretive violence to the site. By unmasking the dynamics of the “silence of unrepresented pasts” and the “silence of anger,” the author hopes that the voices of the countryside might once again be heard and appreciated, reestablishing the sacredness of Great Zimbabwe and its multiple significances.

Rosemary Joyce elsewhere laments that archaeologists often speak for communities, usurping local agency. Fontein escapes this critique by fulsomely engaging Zimbabweans and quoting passages from local (frequently oral) texts that empower and enrich his narrative. To capture competing historical perspectives and document as yet “unrepresented pasts,” in the first half of his text the author draws on the “performances” of local chiefs, village leaders, respected elders, and spirit mediums, among others. Each, he argues, articulates a past whose legitimacy is couched in the authenticity of their “performance of the past”: an ability to “perform their narratives and social roles” in line with local standards (p. 41). In this manner, Fontein demonstrates the crucial role of individuals and social groups in making pasts as well as the dynamic nature of interacting voices and negotiated histories at Great Zimbabwe. As a place alive with history, its pasts are regularly remade, as his presented historiography outlines.

Fontein’s study exemplifies ethnographic archaeology: practice that employs ethnography to explore the social dimensions of archaeology’s own enterprise. To reflect on archaeologists’ roles in silencing pasts of local genesis, the author details how colonial antiquarians with prevailing racial attitudes, such as Carl Mauch, distanced Zimbabweans and their perspectives by claiming a foreign, non-African origin for Great Zimbabwe. Moreover, and certainly more novel, Fontein impugns professional archaeologists for appropriating knowledge of the past at the site and hindering multivocal accounts. The ‘objective’ renderings of archaeologists, asserts Fontein, are rooted in claims of “professionalism” that do “symbolic violence” to other ways of knowing (p. 12). By locating the principal problematic of Great Zimbabwe in its origin rather than in the memories constitutive of the place’s shifting importance through time, but especially in the present, archaeologists dismiss as inapplicable local Zimbabwean experiences and expressions.

In the second half of the volume, the author contends that archaeology, rooted in Enlightenment notions of time as linear and progressive, plays a pivotal role in producing the “silence of anger” penetrating Great Zimbabwe. As residents attest, the absence of sacred voices and everyday sounds once perceived to emanate from the surrounding landscape marks the site as desecrated. The author demonstrates that linear narratives, in contrast to local memories, view the past as increasingly distant, robbing the site of its historicity. But, Zimbabweans not only constitute pasts “through a sense of place,” memories, traditions, and ancestors, but “[P]lace itself, and what should be done with it, is perceived, imagined and constructed through a sense of its past” (p. 78). Herein Fontein identifies a primary significance of local historical renderings that disturbs the historical treatments and heritage plans of archaeologists and historians alike.

Shared discursive and spatial landscapes at Great Zimbabwe interact with other political and politicized discourses of scale. Using documentary and other materials, including those from Zimbabwean archives and UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the author interrogates the power struggles of competing stakeholders that spawned the “silence of anger.” Fontein finds that the post-independence Zimbabwean state, too, marginalized perspectives of local clans, most strikingly through its association with international institutions promoting world heritage. Drawing from Partha Chaterjee’s theories of the postcolonial state, he explains that the independence movement, by seeking to escape from colonial Rhodesian mythologies about Great Zimbabwe, placed faith in European modernization, the very state model that reinforced western notions of time and ‘objectivity’ that legitimated archaeology while undervaluing local “performances of the past” (e.g., pp. 132-133). Fontein casts this maneuver as the “anti-politics of world heritage” (p. 188). In effect, internationalism de-politicizes claims to the “universal value” of Great Zimbabwe which further entrenches the authority of the state and “professional” interpretations of the monument.

This thoughtful volume of ten chapters (with numerous black and white images) is theoretically informed and readable. Instructors and students of archaeology, heritage studies, African history, and postcolonial studies will find much worthwhile in its pages. By valuing and enlisting Zimbabwean perspectives, Fontein critically assesses the actions, memories, and words surrounding the contested landscape of Masvingo District. The author overcomes what anthropologist Sherry Ortner labels “ethnographic refusal” by tailoring a genuinely multi-vocal account in which the historical representations of groups and influences of stakeholders find meaning in relation to one another.

Jonathan R. Walz
University of Florida