Artifacts of the Ancient Shona People

Written by katherine morrison
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Artifacts of the Ancient Shona People
Shona artefacts often combine utilitarian use and religious imagery. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

The Shona tribe of Zimbabwe is one of the most culturally dominant groups of indigenous African people. Archaeologists have dated artefacts found in excavations to 600 A.D. These artefacts reveal ancient Shona beliefs about religion and spirituality. Shona artists often attribute their creativity to the "shave," a group of wandering spirits, or to the "vadzimu," a group of ancestral spirits. Shona artefacts vary in design and function, but they almost always reflect these cultural traditions.

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Bark-cloth blankets known as gudza have been made by generations of Shona, reaching back into ancient times. The method for making gudza has been passed down through oral tradition, from mother to daughter. Although relatively few women today understand the process, craft cooperatives have provided education on this complex method of weaving. Oral traditions often describe ancient Shona spirit mediums as wearing bark-cloth hats.

Stone Headrests

Carved stone headrests are some of the best-known ancient Shona artefacts. A 1928 excavation of Shona land by archaeologist Leo Frobenius revealed many of these intricately carved stone headrests. Although the ancient Shona people used them for a very utilitarian purpose, they now serve a more religious function: Some modern spirit mediums sleep on these ancient headrests to connect with their ancestors.

Ceremonial Knives and Axes

The blacksmithing of knives and axes in the Shona tribe often serves the purpose of connecting the object's user with his or her ancient ancestors. These weapons were not used in combat, but in spiritual possession ceremonies, or "bira." During the bira, a spirit medium dances with the ceremonial knife or axe, invoking ancestral spirits. These axes and knives are passed down from generation to generation, ensuring the preservation of ancestral spirits.


Pottery today in Shona households has a strictly utilitarian purpose. The Shona people prohibit any imagery relating to Europe, so modern pieces of pottery are often direct duplicates of ancient pieces. No glazes or paints are used, leaving the stone material exposed. These serve not only a utilitarian function, but a religious function in spirit ceremonies.

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