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Decolonising archaeology at UP


What does decolonising archaeology mean? Professor Innocent Pikirayi and Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) have set out to answer this question through their research and teaching work at the institution.

Pikirayi acknowledges that ‘decolonising science’ has become “a heavy-handed buzzword”.

“As an archaeologist, decolonising archaeology means a change in archaeological practice from the traditional, pre-independence ways of approaching science in Africa,” he explains. “To me, it is about doing archaeology that is relevant to the present day.”

For Ndlovu, the decolonisation of archaeology predates the student uprisings that recently brought attention to the concept of decolonising science and education. He has been working towards providing and championing a more Afrocentric approach to the field.

“As a department we were already having discussions on how to improve our curriculum content four years ago in order to promote and support transformation in our field,” he says. “Last year we started transforming our curriculum, moving courses around, renaming modules and changing content.”

Pikirayi’s work focuses on the rise, development and demise of state societies in southern Africa (particularly Great Zimbabwe) dating back to the second millennium CE. He expands on the idea of decolonising archaeology by focusing on the “varied pasts” that proliferate in southern Africa, while moving away from monolithic histories of the region.

Pikirayi’s ongoing work on the archaeology of Great Zimbabwe, which rose to prominence in the 11th century, has focused on how these ancient societies sourced and managed water resources to sustain their societies. He has taken a decolonised approach to this research by changing how he conducts research, and by engaging with communities in the area.

“The usual approach to the archaeology around Great Zimbabwe are tired questions that try to find out when, how, and by whom it was built,” he says. “What we are trying to find out now is how Great Zimbabwe managed its water resources and how that resonates with present-day communities.”

Pikirayi says that decolonising archaeology means engaging with local communities in a more intense manner, since his research requires local information about water sources and their present management to understand how it was managed in the past. He elaborates that his team’s approach is to go to the communities and inform them of the important role they can play in the Great Zimbabwe research project. This project is looking at how water resources in the area were and continue to be managed.

For Pikirayi, decolonising archaeology also means presenting the field to communities affected by its findings in a new way. In addition, it means incorporating the use of multidisciplinary approaches such as geology, chemistry and archaeology, all underpinned by community engagement, to inform studies of the past.

“We are presenting Great Zimbabwe in a way that is relevant to the present,” he says. “We are asking questions that are contemporary and questions that resonate with the public, which is in turn making it possible for the public to see how relevant archaeology is.”

The decolonisation of archaeology will assist in communicating the results and impact of Pikirayi’s current research by engaging scientists in other fields, as well as professionals who might be interested in water management but are not scientists themselves.

“Instead of presenting it as a science of the past, we are presenting archaeology as a science of the present,” he says. “That makes it much more exciting because one can engage anyone who has an interest in water.


Prof Innocent Pikirayi uses community engagement to learn about the past in a way that acknowledges local knowledge and expertise.

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