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Photograph: South African Tourism CC BY 2.0

The discovery of gold in stone ruins north of the Limpopo River in the 1890s attracted prospectors  to the Limpopo River valley. The legend of Mapungubwe was told around their campfires and, for many years, treasure hunters dreamed of plundering her riches.  But it was only in 1932 that those dreams became a reality for a party of farmers when they stumbled across an exposed grave and a skeletal arm laden with bracelets and beads.

So begins the story of how Mapungubwe was uncovered and later covered up.

Subsequent excavations revealed a court sheltered in a natural amphitheater at the bottom of the hill and an elite graveyard with a spectacular view of the region at the top. Twenty-three graves were excavated from this hilltop site. The bodies in three of these graves were buried in the upright seated position associated with royalty, with a variety of gold and copper items, exotic glass beads, ivory and other prestigious objects. Among the treasures were beadworks from Egypt and India, and porcelain from the Chinese Sung dynasty (960 – 1279). These indicated that the inhabitants of Mapungubwe had trade networks with the East hundreds of years before Marco Polo or Columbus set sail.

Most spectacular among the finds is a gold foil rhinoceros moulded over what was likely a soft core of  sculpted wood. Found in pieces in a royal grave, the 800 year old rhino – measuring 11 cm across and made from 24 carat gold – is the first three-dimensional artwork of its kind.

The discovery of Mapungubwe overturned the belief that civilisation had arrived on the shores of Africa in the ships of European colonisers. While Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages, Southern Africa was in the midst of an age of enlightenment, technological skill and artistic endeavour.

This history did not fit into the views of the time and, later, the South African government’s, and it was suppressed until South Africa was reborn as a democracy in 1994. Today, Mapungubwe’s Golden Rhinoceros is a defining symbol of pre-colonial civilisation in South Africa. It signifies a glorious past that continues to astonish us almost one thousand years later.

The Golden Rhino can be seen at the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria.

Factoid: The first recorded mention of Mapungubwe was on the 8th of April 1933 when The Illustrated London News ran an article about “a remarkable discovery in the Transvaal: a grave of unknown origin, containing much gold-work, found on the summit of [a] natural rock stronghold in a wild region”.