Spectacular Gold Treasures of Ancient Africa Revealed


Mined, melted and sculptured, adorning royalty and showcasing wealth and prestige, buried or lost in the earth for centuries, only to be excavated and exhibited and once more cast its seductive magic on the psyche of humans, Africa’s two most valuable gold artifact collections, have now found a permanent home in the recently launched Javett-UP Art center in the heart of Pretoria, South Africa. The ancient gold is exhibited in an impressive fortress-like tower, to protect it after another valuable archaeological gold collection, the Thulamela collection (1400 to 1700 AD) was stolen from the Stevenson-Hamilton Knowledge Resource Centre & Museum in the Kruger National Park in 2016.

The Javett-UP Art Centre featuring the Mapungubwe Tower on the right.

Mapungubwe Iron Age Settlement

Near the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers in the Limpopo province of South Africa, on the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana lies Mapungubwe, where an Iron Age society, the Zhizo/Leokwe community, first settled in 900 – 1000 AD. By 1030 – 1220 AD a shift in regional economic and socio-political changes gave rise to the new nearby settlement and finally by 1220 – 1290 AD a ruling class emerged and thus the first southern African state came into being at Mapungubwe Hill. By 1300 AD, Mapungubwe was abandoned until it’s discovery in the 19th century. However, local knowledge of Mapungubwe has been recorded from oral histories, thus supporting ethnographic and historical evidence about the awareness of Mapungubwe as a sacred hill.

The discovery of gold artifacts on Mapungubwe Hill in 1932 served as a catalyst for academic research early in 1933 after the University of Pretoria had secured research rights from the government. Large-scale excavations were undertaken between 1933 and 1940, until research was disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Intermittent excavations followed in the 1950s, which were then continued by thorough stratigraphic excavations throughout 1960s up to the late 1990s.

The National Treasures Exhibition

The National Treasures Exhibition

Javett-UP Art Centre

In a joint venture between the Javett Foundation and the University of Pretoria, the newly launched Javett-UP Art center is now to be the permanent home of the Mapungubwe National Treasure Gold Collection, as well as the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa Collection from West Africa. “Art is for everybody. It tells the story of where we come from and why we find ourselves right here, right now. The Javett-UP is, and will always be, a home for the art of Africa. In the best tradition of warm and welcoming African hospitality, the doors are wide open so all people can come and learn more about this continent, its triumphs, tragedies and its deeply layered, but fascinating, complexity as expressed through African artists, both ancient and modern,” said director of the Javett-UP Art Centre, Dr Christopher Till at the opening in September 2019.

Curator of the Mapungubwe collection Dr Sian Tiley Nel describes the lure of the gold metal: “Although surprisingly found in large quantities, as a unique metal gold has always been avidly sought, skillfully worked and jealously guarded. The innate sensuality of gold lends itself ideally to the sculpturing of gold forms, jewelry and other shapes designed to extract maximum light reflection from the gold surface. Due to the combination of its natural luster, smoothness of texture and the signature of indigenous craftsmanship, gold is most often always seen as a rare treasure.”

The gold rhino of Mapungubwe became a national symbol as it was selected as the symbol for the prestigious Order of Mapungubwe first bestowed upon another national icon in 2002, the late Nelson Mandela who was the first recipient of this presidential order. AD 1250 - AD 1290 (© University of Pretoria)

The gold rhino of Mapungubwe became a national symbol as it was selected as the symbol for the prestigious Order of Mapungubwe first bestowed upon another national icon in 2002, the late Nelson Mandela who was the first recipient of this presidential order. AD 1250 – AD 1290 ( © University of Pretoria)

The Mapungubwe Burials

The Mapungubwe gold collection is regarded as funerary items associated with three royal burials. The first burial on Mapungubwe Hill, known as the original gold burial (M1, A620), was discovered in late December 1932 and has been radiocarbon dated to 1250 – 1290 AD. The grave also contained several gold animal figurines, including the gold rhinoceros, gold bovine and a gold feline (possibly a leopard).

The second gold burial, or scepter burial, was excavated on Mapungubwe Hill early in September 1934. This burial, facing West, has been referred to as the ‘King’s Grave’ because the human remains were found in a seated position with the arms folded in front and the knees drawn up to the chest, with the right hand clutching a gold scepter.

The gold scepter, mace or staff, consists of two parts, i.e. a longitudinal twisted stem, formed from one sheet of gold foil and a decorative knob or finial that was formed and pleated from gold foil into a circular shape. AD 1250 – AD 1290. (© University of Pretoria)

The gold scepter, mace or staff, consists of two parts, i.e. a longitudinal twisted stem, formed from one sheet of gold foil and a decorative knob or finial that was formed and pleated from gold foil into a circular shape. AD 1250 – AD 1290. (© University of Pretoria)

The third gold burial from Mapungubwe Hill is the richest of all the gold burials. This grave yielded three kilograms of gold jewelry in the form of bangles, necklaces, anklets, beads and other ornamental gold forms. More than 100 gold coil anklets, 12,000 gold beads, as well as decorative gold foil formed part of the grave goods.

Group of gold bead bracelets Mapungubwe Hill, AD 1250 – AD 1290. (© University of Pretoria)

Group of gold bead bracelets Mapungubwe Hill, AD 1250 – AD 1290. (© University of Pretoria)

Gold was not only a precious metal but also a medium of exchange and art, as well as a symbol of power and status. The power of gold stemmed from notions of sacredness and from the economic and political consequences of embedding and sedimentation of metallurgical technologies within the elite social structures at Mapungubwe. Therefore, gold was much more than just a decoration or a reflection of metal technology; its associated meanings and metaphors suggest that it was charged with a spiritual power of the ancestors, and with social and ritual control of indigenous metallurgy. The advent of metallurgy in southern Africa is associated with the earliest agriculturalists early in the first millennium AD.

Gold canular coil bracelets Mapungubwe Hill, AD 1250 - AD 1290. (© University of Pretoria)

Gold canular coil bracelets Mapungubwe Hill, AD 1250 – AD 1290. (© University of Pretoria)

These gold coil bracelets, considered to be archaeologically rare, were only recently brought to light through a specialized museum conservation project. They were manufactured by bending very thin (±0.5mm – 0.7mm) strips of gold wire around organic plant fiber forming a flexible, twisted wire bracelet. In some cases, two strips of gold wire were coiled together for several turns. In traditional Venda culture today, similar wire bracelets known as vhukunda tshoshane , are given to a bride by her husband’s family to mark significant events such as initiation or marriage.

AngloGold Ashanti Barbier Meuller Collection

Leigh Bregman of the Javett Foundation emphasized the importance of not only the Mapungubwe collection but also the AngloGold Ashaniti Barbier-Meuller west African gold collection, which: “grounds the educational and curatorial project of this center firmly in South Africa and Africa. The presence of these works allows the challenging conversations that we, as South Africans, need to have about the future to be conducted in a positive and empowered manner. The University of Pretoria and the Javett Foundation are also busy putting plans in place to work closely with the Javett-UP Art Centre to support these conversations and ensure that they are rich and productive.”

A golden feline from the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa collection. The leopard can represent ingratitude or falseness. (©Javett-UP Collection)

A golden feline from the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa collection. The leopard can represent ingratitude or falseness. ( ©Javett-UP Collection)

In 1922 Swiss art lover, Josef Mueller first assembled a collection of surviving gold artifacts from African kingdoms for over 50 years.  His daughter Monique and her husband Jean Paul Barbier continued his legacy and up to 2000 the collection was exhibited in the Barbier-Mueller museum in Switzerland, when it was returned to Africa.  AngoGold Ashanti, a large gold mining company took custody of the collection and exhibited it in the Martin Melck museum in Cape Town, from where it has now been transported to the Javett-UP Art center.

Not all the African kingdoms valued gold, and most of the gold jewelry of West Africa comes from two broad zones: the arid Sahel, which extends from Senegal to Mali and Niger, and the central West African forest of Ghana and Côte d’Ivore. Large deposits were discovered in the kingdom of the Ashanti, which, together with other kingdoms where gold was valued, believed that the power and wealth of the community was embodied in and reflected by the king or chief himself.

The AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Meuller collection consists of approximately 350 items representing the major regions of West Africa where goldsmithing is practiced.(© Javett-UP Collection)

The AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Meuller collection consists of approximately 350 items representing the major regions of West Africa where goldsmithing is practiced.( © Javett-UP Collection)

Gold was thought to come from the sun and the gods and was believed to possess fetish powers. Only the king or chief who communicated with the ancestors on behalf of the people could properly channel these powers. Therefore, it was accepted that the gold belonged to the king and any found in the rivers and alluvial diggings was deposited with the king to mediate and control the proper order of things temporal and spiritual.

The manufacturing techniques adopted by African goldsmiths are: forging, wire working, granulation, lostwax casting, chasing, filigree and gold leafing. (© Javett-P Collection)

The manufacturing techniques adopted by African goldsmiths are: forging, wire working, granulation, lostwax casting, chasing, filigree and gold leafing. ( © Javett-P Collection)

The Javett-UP opened with four groundbreaking exhibitions. They are 101 – Collecting Conversations – Signature works of a Century (a collection of 101 signature works of South African art selected from collections around the country); All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Collection, guest curated by Gabi Ngcobo; National Treasures (an exhibition of significant gold pieces from the Mapungubwe Gold Collection) and more than 350 artifacts from the AngloGold Ashanti Barbier-Mueller Gold of Africa Collection from West Africa, curated by Dr Sian Tiley Nel; and A Strange Thing Materialized Along the Way (a selection of quirky objects from the university’s museums, curated by Gerard de Kamper and a number of UP students).

Top Image: The most striking feature of African gold adornment is the wealth of its proverbial imagery. Many of the objects depict animals, birds, fish, insects, seeds, manmade objects and fruit. (© Javett-UP Collection)

By: Press release Javett-UP Art center opening



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