It may be small enough to sit in the palm of your hand, but even now – nearly 800 years after it was lost to sight in what is now South Africa – the Golden Rhinoceros of Mapungubwe has powerful symbolism. It’s a representation of one of the region’s most physically powerful animals– the rhinoceros – and one of the region’s most enduring symbols of power – gold.
And, on the eve of its first trip out of the country for a new exhibition in the UK, it bears witness to a powerful and sophisticated kingdom that existed in Africa hundreds of years before white settlement.
The Lydenburg Head. Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Author provided
The golden rhinoceros was recovered in 1934 from a royal grave at the site of Mapungubwe in northern South Africa close to the border of Zimbabwe. Its creation in the 13th century is a reflection of the wealth of the state of Mapungubwe, southern Africa’s earliest known kingdom.
Mapungubwe is thought to have emerged as the capital of the kingdom from 1220 to 1290, largely because of its control of the gold trade with the coastal Swahili settlement at Kilwa Kisiwani almost 2,000 miles away to the north-east in what is today Tanzania.
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