Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal
Submit an article to Indago - a peer reviewed journal

Machemma, also known as Machemma’s Kop, refers to the ruins of an archaeological Iron Age site that is situated on the farm Solvent about 20 kilometres northwest of the Waterpoort railway station, which is due north of the Soutpansberg in Limpopo, and 27 kilometres west of Wyllie’s Poort, an N1 road pass in the Soutpansberg.  The settlement on top of the kopje (hill) was the chief’s stronghold, while the ordinary members of the tribe lived in the valleys to the north and south.

Figure 1: Left –Recent picture of a section of the western wall. Photograph by Coenraad de Buys. Right – a graphic illustration of the same wall by James Walton in 1953.

The top of the kopje is ringed by a stone wall with the inner area called the muzinda (or palace). Within the muzinda was the chief’s kraal, enclosed by a roughly circular curtain wall with a funnel-like exit to the west.  A short distance from this exit the remains of a conical tower can still be seen today.  This was most likely the chief’s granary. Outside the eastern side of the kraal walls were the middens (rubbish dumps) and inside the kraal on the western side, a maze of walls form smaller kraals.  Many of these walls on the western part have collapsed, but those that remain display interesting herring-bone, chequer-board and oblique patterns.  This wall-patterning is one of the pieces of evidence of a relationship with the Zimbabwe ruins.   Herringbone patterning denotes female quarters, whereas chequer-board patterning denotes male areas.

The outermost western enclosure is proposed to have been the meeting-hall or ghotla since it has a raised platform of clay and there are monoliths on the wall, of the kind that are known to have served as backrests for the councillors (See Figure 1). The clay platform was probably the official seat of the Chief and fulfilled the same purpose as the niches in the walls in other Venda kraals.  This was a predominantly male area and the patterning of the wall reflects that. Machemma is considered to have been the stronghold of a Senior Chief who controlled an area of roughly 10 000 m2 in size.

The African Iron Age is traditionally considered that period in mankind’s existence when ironmongery (the smelting of iron for the production of iron goods) was practiced.  In Southern Africa it is divided into three periods, namely the Early Iron Age (AD 200 – 900), Middle Iron Age (AD 900 – 1300), and Late Iron Age (AD 1300 – 1840). Radiocarbon dating places Machemma’s occupation in two distinct periods with the first occupation period during the early15th century and the second occupation period in the 16th century.  According to Prof Huffman, one of the leading scholars on the Iron Age period in Southern Africa, the walling at the back of Machemma represents a further third phase of occupation which probably dates to the 17th century.  This correlates with the three ceramic facies (shape as well as nature of the decoration of ceramic items) associated with Machemma, namely Khami for the 1st occupation period, Thavhatshena for the 2nd occupation period, and Letaba for the 3rdoccupation period of Machemma.  The latter style is still in use by the Venda people today.

Figure 2: Iron implements: three different-sized shafted arrowheads from the National Museum’s Machemma archaeological collection

The Zimbabwe Culture refers to cultural remains that share similar traits, e.g. patterned walling and certain types of pottery shapes and decoration, as well as the non-material aspects mentioned below.  Unlike the name suggests, the earliest site for this culture is actually Mapungubwe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Limpopo Province which was the largest settlement in the African subcontinent before it was abandoned after the 13th century AD.  The trade connections that the Limpopo valley offered were then taken over by Great Zimbabwe further to the north. Two of the defining characteristics of the Zimbabwe Culture is the correlation of class distinction and sacred leadership, where society is divided into two socio-economic classes namely nobles and commoners.  The elite or nobles lived on top of the hill, whereas the commoners lived in the valleys below the hill.  This class-distinction and political status quo were maintained by the ideology of ‘sacred leadership’; a twofold concept that involved a mystical relationship between the leader and the land as well as a link between the leader, his ancestors, and God.

Figure 3: A string of ivory beads from the National Museum’s Machemma collection

Similar to the Early Iron Age people, the larger Late Iron Age communities also grew crops and kept cattle, but unlike the early farming communities they developed more complex economic and social structures associated with long-distance trade in items such as ivory and animal skins and became the first urban centre of Southern Africa with several thousands of inhabitants in any one centre.  These archaeological sites usually contain a great number of trade beads which stand testimony to their extensive trading activities. Specialised crafts such as bone and ivory working also formed part of trading items produced. The trade connections that the Limpopo valley offered were taken over by Great Zimbabwe after Mapungubwe was abandoned.

Figure 4: Metal axe head (left) and pottery spindle whorls (right) [National Museum Machemmaarchaeological collection]
Farming was supplemented by gathering wild plant foods and hunting.   Labour division between male and female in its most basic form can be summed up as women worked with clay and soil, men with animals and wood.  As such women were responsible for the preparation of fields as well as planting the crops and men were responsible for hunting.  Similarly so, women were responsible for making clay pots that had a multitude of uses, from basic food preparation to making and storing sorghum beer.  Men prepared the wooden poles for the wattle-and-daub huts as well as carving wooden drums and various other ceremonial as well as household items.  Ironmongery was an exclusively male occupation.

Figure 5: Semi-assembled decorated pot (left) and single decorated pottery sherds (right) [National Museum Machemmaarchaeological Collection]
The National Museum hosts a small collection of Machemma artefacts which was collected in 1952 by Prof A.J.D. Meiring who, at the time, held the position of Assistant Director at the National Museum.  The collection contains pottery sherds (both decorated and undecorated), faunal material, iron objects and implements (including iron as well as copper slag – indicative of both iron and copper smelting), glass trade beads, ostrich shell beads, ivory and bone beads, pottery spindle whorls, a single shell, as well as some raw material such as iron ore.


Huffman, T.N. 2000. Mapungubwe and the origins of the Zimbabwe Culture. Goodwin Series, Vol. 8, African Naissance: The Limpopo Valley 1000 years ago, pp 14-29

Huffman, T.N. 2007. Handbook to the Iron Age – the archaeology of pre-colonial farming societies in Southern Africa. University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Huffman, T.N. & Du Piesani, J. 2011. Khami and the Venda in the Mapungupwe Landscape. Journal of African Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 2., pp 189-206

Walton, J. 1960. Patterned walling in African folk building. The Journal of African History, Vol. 1., pp. 19-30 accessed on 3 June 2019 accessed on 24 May 2019 accessed on 28 May 2019 from the James Walton Collection at the Stellenbosch University accessed on 6 May 2019 accessed on 24 June 2019

Comments are closed.