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Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes

Date of Submission: 27/11/2018
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe
State, Province or Region:
Matabeleland South Province
Ref.: 6364

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The Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes is located in the south-central parts of Zimbabwe approximately 90 kilometers south of the City of Gweru. This cluster consists of multiple drystone walled sites which functioned as settlement centres between the 16th and 18th centuries. Research has shown that the Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes was part of a network of similar sites located in southern Zambezia. However, the Naletale cluster is unique in that it has the highest concentration of such dry stone walled sites in southern Zambezia, in a localized geographical space. These include Naletale, Nsalansala, Arupanga, Shangangwe, Bhila, Gwenaguru, Belmont Ruin and Lawdale. Critically it is unique in the sense that its walls have the highest number of decorations on individual walls. These decorations include herringbone, cord, checker, banded ironstone, chevron, and double herringbone. These sites are attributed to the Shona, a branch of the Bantu in southern Africa. These settlements are referred to as MaDzimbabwe reflecting the culture of building settlement structures with granite blocks without any binder which was widespread in southern Africa between the 11th and 18th centuries.

In addition to the dry stone walled sites there are several ancient mining sites that have also been recorded in the area pointing to the important role that mining played in the economy of these centers. This is also evidence of the technological development that these communities had gone through to extract various minerals and process them and subsequently manufacture a range of items that include gold and copper bangles, iron and copper spears, needles and various other metal objects. Like other earlier Zimbabwe Culture settlements, the Naletale Cluster was also involved in gold exchange with agents of Portuguese traders, which was eventually exported to Europe during the florescence of these settlements. Unfortunately, some of the evidence of this thriving mining industry was collected as personal souvenirs whilst some were destroyed during unorthodox excavation by antiquarians in the early 20th century. During the 20th century, indigenous populations residing in the area were dislocated and moved to other places to make way for commercial farming. Research is still ongoing in the area to understand better the chronology and material culture relationships of the area. In addition, archaeologists are focusing on the relationships amongst these various drystone walled sites and what kind of function each played within the landscape. Furthermore, archaeologists are grappling with the question of the position of the Naletale Cluster of Zimbabwes sites in the broader Zimbabwe Culture that covered much of southern Zambezia. Some of the major sites in the Naletale Cluster of Zimbabwes include the following among others:

  1. Naletale – one of the most beautiful and well decorated drystone walled site in southern Africa. There are six decorations that have been recorded on the walls of Naletale. Naletale has been dated to the 17th and 18th. It consists of a main enclosure with an elliptical wall, about 60 metres in diameter. Some of the decorations on this wall include chevron, herringbone, cord, checkers and the use of alternating coloured stone inserts. Naletale architecture displays high levels of craftsmanship, creativity and imagination in the drystone walling of southern Africa. However, it is anticipated that research at the site will help illuminate on the position of Naletale within the cluster and help relate it to other Zimbabwe culture sites such as Khami and Great Zimbabwe.
  2. Nsalansala – This unique Dzimbabwe features decorations patterns in the interior of its dry stone walled structure. It is probably the only site that was decorated internally. The decorations include herringbone, double herringbone and cord.
  3. Bhila – Bhila is a large enclosure of about 10 metres in diameter. The walls reach a maximum height of 1.5 metres in places. Unlike other dry stone walled sites in the area such as Naletale and Nsalansala, the stone used in construction is not dressed and knapped, hence the rough appearance of the walls. There is no evidence of any settlement at this site both within the enclosure and outside. However, there are large heaps of granite stone on the eastern side, which probably suggest that construction of the site was still in progress. Bhila is located 12 km from Naletale as the crow flies.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Naletale Cluster of Zimbabwes consist of a network of dry stone walled sites that formed a discernible cluster now within a vicinity of approximately 20 km from each other. A common thread among the various zimbabwes within this cluster is the ubiquity of wall decorations at these sites. In the case of Naletale there are six patterns that were used to decorate the walls of its dry stone structures. Naletale is the only known Zimbabwe with such a high number of decoration patterns in the dry stone walling tradition of southern Africa. On the other hand, Nsalansala is probably the only site that has decoration patterns in the interior of its walled structures. While not exhibiting monumentalism to the same levels of Great Zimbabwe and Khami, the Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes is still significant in its architectural finesse, which makes the zimbabwes of this cluster the most beautiful. In addition to the fine architectural detail, the spatial layout of the cluster points to a lineage based system that relied more on heterarchical rather than hierarchical structures. Excavations at Naletale have yielded a variety of objects that include gold ornaments, porcelain from Asia and glass beads. Porcelain and glass beads have been described as evidence of the participation of the centre in the East Coast exchange network. The gold from this part of south-western Zimbabwe is argued to have sustained the East African Coast trade with the Portuguese.

Criterion (ii): The Naletale Cluster of Zimbabwes has evidence of the development of dry stone walled architecture of southern Africa associated with a unique decorative patterning that is typical of the Naletale cluster only within the whole southern Zambezia. 

Criterion (iii): The Naletale Cluster bears testimony to a cultural and architectural tradition once practiced in southern Africa. It is testimony of the technological development associated with the construction of walled structures with no mortar but nevertheless with high levels of craftsmanship and creativity as exhibited in the profuse wall decoration.

Criterion (iv): The cluster is characterized by heterarchically ordered multiple drystone walled sites some of which seem to have served various functions and also ancient mining sites. The cluster is broadly associated with the increase in long-distance exchange networks with the East Coast which saw gold from the area being exchanged with other imported objects from Asia. 

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes cover an area approximately 314 km2. Within this area are the individual dry stone walled sites, which make up the cluster. These include Naletale, Nsalansala, Shangangwe, Bhila, Gwenaguru and Arupanga. These are of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the cluster. Most of these sites have not been disturbed from human activities such as research or vandalism. Some of the sites such as Naletale were at some point targeted by antiquarians, who removed some material culture associated with the site. However, in the modern era, research at this site has followed professional ethics and has richly contributed to the understanding of the broader dry stone walled tradition of southern Africa. The integrity of the cluster has been bolstered by commercial farmers around the area who have collaborated with National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe in protecting the properties. In addition, most of the sites are protected as National Monuments under the National Museums and Monuments Act Cap 25/11 and fall under the direct management of the cultural heritage management authority, i.e. National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ).


The Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes has not been subjected to any destructive form of human intervention since abandonment. The management authorities have however carried out a number of interventions to conserve and manage the dry stone walled structures. This has been in the form of restorations all of which have been well documented and adhered to international best practices in architectural conservation guided by the Venice Charter (1964), Burra Charter (1981) and Nara Document (1994). In addition, these conservation initiatives have also made use of local knowledge and understanding of the behavior of dry stone walling. No new materials have been introduced in the process. In the end the whole conservation initiatives have served to enhance the values associated with this cluster of Zimbabwes.  

Comparison with other similar properties

Within southern Africa the Naletale Cluster of Dzimbabwes is comparable to similar dry stone walled architectural properties three of which are on the World Heritage List. These are Great Zimbabwe, Khami and Mapungubwe. All three properties are associated with the same time period in southern Africa, which saw the proliferation of dry stone walled architecture between the 11th and 18th centuries A.D. Generally, these sites have all been attributed ancestral Shona groups. The Naletale Cluster reflects the geographical spread and distribution of the dry stone walling tradition in southern Africa. Unlike Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Khami, the Naletale Cluster is defined by an elaborate interlink of sites that seem to have functioned as direct satellite to Naletale thus describing a discernible cluster – the Naletale Cluster. This is suggestive of a lineage based system that relied more on heterarchical structures in comparison to the hierarchy model noted at the other three world heritage properties. A key characteristic that makes the Naletale Cluster stand out is the profuse decorations associated with these sites. For instance, at Naletale itself there are six wall decoration patterns that have been recorded. The architecture of the cluster displays high levels of craftsmanship, creativity and imagination in the dry stone walling of southern Africa.