Great Zimbabwe, 2012. Copyright Julian Glover (no, not that one!), all rights reserved. 

In June 1929 there was a general election in South Africa that was fought – and won – on race grounds. General Hertzog’s National Party swept to victory using the slogan of ‘black peril’, and South Africa moved one step closer to the apartheid era.

As the same time, in neighbouring Rhodesia, a fierce and sometimes difficult woman was conducting research that would challenge ingrained notions of racial inequality and help shape a nations identity. That woman was Gertrude Caton Thompson, and she was excavating the site of Great Zimbabwe.

Great Zimbabwe is a 720ha late Iron Age (1100-1450) city in southern Zimbabwe (‘Rhodesia’ in 1929), and the largest man-made structure of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. It was first made known to the wider world in 1871 by Carl Mauch, a German geologist. Mauch could not believe that the local Shona (Bantu) people were capable of creating such a civilization, and came to the conclusion that it was the work of the Queen of Sheba.

From 1902 -1904, journalist Richard Hall excavated at Great Zimbabwe, starting with removing all sediment to get rid of any evidence of occupation of the local peoples, in order to “…remove the filth and decadence of Kaffir occupation.”
Like Mauch, he concluded the ruins must be that of an ancient population in the Near East.

In 1905, David Randall-MacIver’s excavation showed evidence of the local Shona culture in the oldest layers of the site, alongside foreign elements – Chinese, Arab, Persian – which suggested a medieval age. But Richard Hall wasn’t having it, and many people agreed with him: the idea of an indigenous, complex, rich civilization, with trade networks in the Near and Far East did not fit with European ideas of the ‘capabilities’ of black Africans.

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Great Zimbabwe in 2012. Copyright Julian Glover, all rights reserved.

This, plus the politics of the South African elections, was the backdrop to Gertrude Caton Thompson’s 1929 excavation at Great Zimbabwe. She led an all female team: Dorothy Norie (an architect), and a young Kathleen Kenyon (fresh out of university and on her first ever archaeological dig*).

Caton Thompson’s systematic and scientific approach to excavation, with strict control for stratigraphy, confirmed Randall-MacIver’s findings: it was medieval, though probably older than MacIver had suggested, and it was most definitely ‘native’.

Her announcement of her findings at the the British Association of the Advancement of Science (BAAS, the forerunner to today’s BSA) annual meeting in Johannesburg caused an uproar, coming as it did right after General Hertzog’s election, and in the wake of race riots in Durban. The anthropologist Raymond Dart (of Taung Child fame) threw a bit of a hissy fit, by all accounts. But Gertrude Caton Thompson’s meticulous work was irrefutable – John Myres (then President of the BAAS) recalled how one Dr. L. Frobenius came armed with slides ready to try and do just that but as GCT spoke, one-by-one he had to discard them as she anticipated his every challenge!

It must have been quite a learning experience for Kathleen Kenyon, watching her formidable mentor use the power of evidence to brush off the criticisms of great men of science. In the audience too that year was Margaret Murray, who listened proudly to her former student’s academic triumph.

While Gertrude Caton Thompson was working there, Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia. It wasn’t until the 1960s that African nationalist groups agreed that the country should be known as Zimbabwe in honour of Great Zimbabwe. (Zimbabwe actually means “house of stone” in Shona, one of the native languages, as the city of Great Zimbabwe was made of stone). 
She had changed the entire nation of Zimbabwe forever with her work at the site of Great Zimbabwe, acknowledging** the native Africans as the descendants of the people who built the once great city.

In 1986, one year after Gertrude Caton Thompson’s death, Great Zimbabwe was added to the World Heritage List in recognition of both its archaeological importance, and its role in the history and identity of the Zimbabwean people.

*According to Miriam Davis, GCT was the only person that Kathleen Kenyon was ever scared of, writing to her mother: “I never thought you could like a person, and yet be so frightened of her.”

** although we should be careful not to cast GCT as a pioneer of racial equality – she was very much of her time in terms of her attitude here. But the evidence spoke for itself, and she listened.

You can watch a short film of Mortimer Wheeler visiting Great Zimbabwe in 1958 here. The whole programme King Solomon’s Mines is here.

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The core of this post was written by Liesel Gentelli, who also blogs at archaeologyandscience.wordpress.com

Liesel based this post on a 2009 undergraduate lecture by Philip Edwards at La Trobe University – Philip, we salute you for spreading the word about Gertrude Caton Thompson!

Tori (@ToriHerridge) edited and added the socio-political context & BAAS stuff, so any error there are all hers. Huge thanks to Imran Khan at the British Science Association, who let us root around in his cupboards for pictures of GCT – none were found, but the John Myres story was uncovered!

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4 thoughts on “Gertrude Caton Thompson

  1. Cosmas says:

    Gertrude Caton-Thompson’s work was entirely incomplete. She completely and deliberately ignored evidence that would disprove her. The unfortunate effect was that the study of the history of Zimbabwe is in a quagmire even a century later. No one has written a doctorate thesis on Great Zimbabwe to this day because her accepted theory is a dry bone. I think she was seeking popular attention like David Randall-McIver.

    1. Becky says:

      Hi,
      Thanks for your comment. Caton-Thompson was certainly working within her time while being pioneering in many ways, but I’m not sure about malpractice accusations. Archaeologically her work has been supported since, and there is on-going research into the site at present e.g. http://www.historytoday.com/ann-hills/great-zimbabwes-trading-past.

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