Zimbabwe Bird

The stone-carved Zimbabwe Bird is the national emblem of Zimbabwe, appearing on the national flags and coats of arms of both Zimbabwe and Rhodesia, as well as on banknotes and coins (first on the Rhodesian pound and then on the Rhodesian dollar). It probably represents the bateleur eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus) or the African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer).[1][2] The bird's design is derived from a number of soapstone sculptures found in the ruins of the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Bird

It is now the definitive icon of independent Zimbabwe, with Matenga (2001)[3] listing over 100 organisations which now incorporate the Bird in their logo.


The original carved birds are from the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe, which was built by ancestors of the Lemba, starting in the 11th century and inhabited for over 300 years.[4] The ruins, after which modern Zimbabwe was named, cover some 730 hectares (1,800 acres) and are the largest ancient stone construction in sub-Saharan Africa. Among its notable elements are the soapstone bird sculptures, about 40 centimetres (16 inches) tall and standing on columns more than 90 cm (3 ft) tall, which were originally installed on walls and monoliths within the city.[4] They are unique to Great Zimbabwe; nothing like them has been discovered elsewhere.[5]

Various explanations have been advanced to explain the symbolic meaning of the birds. One suggestion is that each bird was erected in turn to represent a new king, but this would have required improbably long reigns.[6] More probably, the Zimbabwe birds represent sacred or totemic animals of the Shona – the bateleur eagle (Shona: chapungu), which was held to be a messenger from Mwari (God) and the ancestors, or the fish eagle (hungwe) which it has been suggested was the original totem of the Shona.[7]

Colonial acquisition and return to ZimbabweEdit

Three of the Zimbabwe Birds, photographed around 1891

In 1889 a European hunter, Willi Posselt, travelled to Great Zimbabwe after hearing about it from another European explorer, Karl Mauch. He climbed to the highest point of the ruins despite being told that it was a sacred site where he should not trespass, and found the birds positioned in the centre of an enclosure around an apparent altar. He later wrote:

Each one, including its plinth, had been hewn out of a solid block of stone and measured 4 feet 6 inches in height; and each was set firmly into the ground. There was also a stone shaped like a millstone and about 18 inches in diameter, with a number of figures carved in the border.

I selected the best specimen of the bird stones, the beaks of the remainder being damaged, and decided to dig it out. But while doing so, Andizibi [a local tribesman] and his followers became very excited and rushed around with their guns and assegais. I fully expected them to attack us. However, I went on with my work but told Klass, who had loaded two rifles, to shoot the first man he saw aiming at either of us.[8]

Posselt compensated Andizibi with a payment of blankets and "some other articles". As the bird on its pedestal was too heavy for him to carry, he hacked it off and hid the pedestal with the intention of returning later to retrieve it.[8] He subsequently sold his bird to Cecil Rhodes, who mounted it in the library of his Cape Town house, Groote Schuur, and decorated the house's stairway with wooden replicas. Rhodes also had stone replicas made, three times the size of the original, to decorate the gates of his house in England near Cambridge.[9] A German missionary came to own the pedestal of one bird, which he sold to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin in 1907.[10]

Rhodes' acquisition of Posselt's bird prompted him to commission an investigation of the Great Zimbabwe ruins by James Theodore Bent, which took place in 1891 following the British South Africa Company's invasion of Mashonaland.[11] Bent recorded that there were eight birds, six large and two small, and that there had probably originally been more as there were several additional stone pedestals of which the tops had been broken off.[12]

The colonists erroneously attributed Great Zimbabwe to ancient Mediterranean builders, believing native Africans to be incapable of constructing such a complex structure; thus in Rhodes' mind, as a 1932 guidebook put it, it was "a favourite symbol of the link between the order civilisation derived from the North or the East and the savage barbarism of Southern and Central Africa before the advent of the European."[13] Bent attributed the birds, wholly erroneously, to the Phoenicians.[14]

In 1981, a year after the attainment of independence in Zimbabwe, the South African government returned four of the sculptures to the country in exchange for a world-renowned collection of hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants) housed in Harare; the fifth remains at Groote Schuur.[6] In 2003, the German museum returned its portion of the bird's pedestal to Zimbabwe.[10] The birds were displayed for a while in the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo and the Museum of Human Sciences in Harare,[15] but are now housed in a small museum on the Great Zimbabwe site.[6]

Cultural depictionsEdit

The Zimbabwe bird has been a symbol of Zimbabwe and its predecessor states since 1924. The crest of Southern Rhodesia's coat of arms incorporated the Zimbabwe bird, and over time the bird became a widespread symbol of the colony. The paper money and coins of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, issued by the Bank of Rhodesia and Nyasaland also displayed the bird, as did the Flag of Rhodesia. The flag and state symbols of modern Zimbabwe continue to feature the Zimbabwe Bird.[16] It is now the definitive icon of independent Zimbabwe with Matenga (2001)[17] listing over 100 state, corporate and sporting organisations which incorporate the Bird in their emblems and logos.

References and sourcesEdit

  1. ^ Thomas N. Huffman (1985). "The Soapstone Birds from Great Zimbabwe". African Arts. 18 (3): 68–73, 99–100. doi:10.2307/3336358. JSTOR 3336358.
  2. ^ Paul Sinclair (2001). "Review: The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe Symbols of a Nation by Edward Matenga". The South African Archaeological Bulletin. 56 (173/174): 105–106. doi:10.2307/3889033. JSTOR 3889033.
  3. ^ Edward Matenga (2001). "The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe". Studies in Global Archaeology. 16: 1–261.
  4. ^ a b Great Zimbabwe (11th–15th century) | Thematic Essay | Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  5. ^ Hall, Martin; Stefoff, Rebecca (2006). Great Zimbabwe. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-19-515773-4.
  6. ^ a b c Murray, Paul; Briggs, Philip (2016). Zimbabwe. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 203. ISBN 978-1-78477-016-7.
  7. ^ Fontein, Joost (2016). The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage. Routledge. p. 99. ISBN 978-1-315-41720-2.
  8. ^ a b Brown-Lowe, Robin (2003). The Lost City of Solomon and Sheba: An African Mystery. History Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-7524-9490-6.
  9. ^ Kuklick, Henrika (1991). "Contested Monuments: The Politics of Archeology in Southern Africa". In Stocking, George W. (ed.). Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-299-13123-4.
  10. ^ a b "Zimbabwe bird 'flies' home"". BBC News. 4 May 2003. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
  11. ^ Lhote, Henri (1963). Vanished Civilizations of the Ancient World. McGraw-Hill. p. 44.
  12. ^ Bent, James Theodore (1895). The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland. Longmans & Company. p. 180.
  13. ^ Maylam, Paul (2005). The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa. New Africa Books. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-86486-684-4.
  14. ^ Bent, p. 185
  15. ^ Munyaradzi, Mawere; Henry, Chiwaura (2015). African Museums in the Making: Reflections on the Politics of Material and Public Culture in Zimbabwe. Langaa RPCIG. p. 128. ISBN 978-9956-792-82-5.
  16. ^ Kuklick, p. 137
  17. ^ Edward Matenga (2001). "The Soapstone Birds of Great Zimbabwe". Studies in Global Archaeology. 16: 1–261.

External linksEdit