On 14 December 2016, South Africa lost a vital piece of its history. In all likelihood, it is gone forever. The few hundred gold beads and bracelets would not have been worth much — if melted down, they would be about the size of a match box and reach a paltry price from a gold shark — but, in reality, they were priceless artefacts from a southern African kingdom that existed in the region before Europeans arrived.
More than two years later, there are no suspects and no arrests have been made.
The theft was a blow for those calling for cultural artefacts to be returned to the place within the country where they were discovered, a conversation that has been raging in South African heritage circles.
Stolen from a locked display case in the Kruger National Park, the jewellery was a rare tangible example of the pre-colonial artisanal gold trade that once ran the length of southern Africa. Despite the prevalence of gold in the area, and the oral traditions surrounding gold craft, there are only two known examples of gold artefacts from this time in South Africa.
The beads and bracelets were known as the Thulamela gold, a relatively unknown find compared with the gold treasures found at Mapungubwe. That once great African kingdom in the north of South Africa flourished between 1 000 and 1 300 ACE (after the common era), and it is there that archaeologists found the famous golden rhino of Mapungubwe (about the size of a person’s palm, it is made of small gold sheets and held together with tiny gold nails). The rhino, along with a bowl, beads, strips of gold wires and other treasures, are stored in the University of Pretoria’s Mapungubwe Collection, which is open for public viewing.
Mapungubwe was excavated in the 1930s, but the objects retrieved from the earth ran counter to the prevailing narrative of the time. The history promoted by the then-government and later the apartheid regime was that South Africa had been a largely empty territory and that black African people and Europeans arrived at a similar time. Sites like Mapungubwe and Thulamela, which existed hundreds of years before Europeans arrived, debunk that narrative. But they were, at best, overlooked by those in power at the time or, at worst, actively hidden from sight.
“Although archaeologists knew about the objects — they were reported in the press and some were exhibited (albeit with restricted access) — their histories and the obvious implications of their existence were not incorporated into official histories,” writes John Giblin, an honorary lecturer at University College London and a curator at the British Museum.
Excavation on Thulamela began in 1993 and and continued until 1997, spanning the country’s transition to democracy.
The stone-walled hilltop, which was inhabited from about 1 200 to 1 600 ACE, is in the northernmost reaches of the Kruger National Park. From its summit, it overlooks the Levhuvhu River about 17km from its confluence with the Limpopo River.
And within these stone walls there were two graves holding the bodies of one woman and one man. They were between 45 and 60 years old when they died; the gold found with their bodies, their age and the hilltop location have led researchers to deduce that they were part of their society’s elite. The man’s body appears to have been moved from another location and reburied at Thulamela.
As the University of Pretoria and researchers at what was then the National Parks Board write in their 1998 paper, describing the Thulamela burial sites and artefacts: “Because of differing cultural perspectives, the Eurocentric perception of the previous century has coloured African culture as inferior and savage.
“The concept of a healthy, prosperous people flourishing in the southern African interior at the time of Thulamela also serves to alter perceptions of indigenous civilisation in a country still haunted by the negative perceptions of the past.”
Additional research comparing Iron Age sites in southern Africa speak to more than a prosperous people, but a thriving intra- and international trade.
A 1998 study, undertaken by researchers from Anglo American Research Laboratories and the University of Cape Town, found chemical similarities between gold from Thulamela, Mapungubwe and an archaeological site in Bosutswe, Botswana.
“The export of iron, copper, gold and tin from southern Africa via the Indian Ocean trade network in exchange for glass beads and other luxury goods is evidence of economic contact with North Africa, the Middle East, India and China,” those authors write in Fingerprinting of Gold Artefacts from Mapungubwe, Bosutswe and Thulamela. “Such intercontinental trading flourished from about AD 800 and is marked by a significant increase in metal production at the start of the 2nd millenium AD.”
These sorts of findings place metal mining and metallurgy at the centre of African urbanisation, social structuring and state formation — prior to the arrival of Europeans. Technology has progressed in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years, which opens up new opportunities to understand the history of southern Africa and its people.
But overnight, a piece of this history disappeared.
“Gold artefacts are an extreme rarity and that is why the Thulamela theft is a travesty,” says Sian Tiley-Nel, manager of the University of Pretoria museums and the chief curator who oversees the Mapungubwe collection. “It is strange, owing to the importance and significance of the Thulamela gold, how this case has fallen on deaf ears and no one takes responsibility.”
The display case in the Skukuza library in the Kruger National Park had not been tampered with or jimmied open, but the gold inside was missing while other items were left behind.
The artefacts — along with others discovered at the site, such as a double iron gong, seashells, a hyena mandible and lions’ teeth — were on loan to the South African National Parks (SanParks) from Ditsong Cultural Museum in Pretoria.
Although SanParks says the theft was reported immediately to the police, and through them to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks), the artefacts’ legal custodian, Ditsong, only found out about it through the media and from colleagues. Beeld newspaper first reported on the theft, in 2017.
However, this issue levers open an ongoing debate in heritage circles, in South Africa and internationally. SanParks is technically the owner of the artefacts, as they were discovered within the boundaries of the Kruger, but it lacks the accredited storage necessary to house them. Heritage artefacts form part of the “national estate” and have to be stored in accredited facilities.
Asked why the artefacts had been moved to Skukuza, even though its facility was not accredited, SanParks head of communications Janine Raftopoulos said in 2017: “All parks in South Africa have a rich history and heritage pre-dating the establishment of the parks. SanParks has a duty to tell the full story about its parks and where it necessitates exhibiting artefacts, steps are taken to put such on display.”
South Africa’s heritage regulations encourage that artefacts be housed near where they were found, if possible, to ensure that people are able to see these parts of the country’s heritage. But it is expensive to install the measures — such as security, temperature and humidity controls, and fire safety, among others — that are necessary to house precious heritage artefacts.
Responding to questions about the current state of the police case and if the Thulamela theft had altered operations at SanParks exhibitions, Raftopoulos says there are additional security measures in place but did not elaborate.
In many ways, the trust has been broken. Curators of museums, which are usually in major city centres far from sites of origin, are unlikely to part with items that could disappear to light fingers.
But when it comes to the Thulamela gold, South Africans will have to read in books that these artefacts once existed and were proof of a rich kingdom and a sprawling gold trade. Most heritage specialists doubt the jewellery survived long after it was stolen.