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Past Imperfect

The contested early history of the Mapungubwe Archive, South Africa

Sian Tiley-Nel
Publication Year:
132 pages, Illustrated throughout in black & white, and colour. 31 figures.
Sub-series name:
African Archaeology, 96
BAR number:


This book interrogates the context, primary literature and silent gaps in the Mapungubwe Archive held at the University of Pretoria. It examines the multiple narratives and ignored indigenous histories of Mapungubwe in South Africa, prior to the scientific gold discovery of 1933. Using postmodern notions of archival theory and science as a central argument, the author demonstrates how the Mapungubwe Archive needs to be questioned, not only as a historical source, but as point of contemporary discourse within global trends of the archival turn and lack of knowledge, specifically on African archives. The book elucidates the origins, research control, powers and authoritative trajectory of Mapungubwe’s colonial and nationalist past, through the institutional lens of the Archaeology Committee. Contestation is focused on Mapungubwe’s controlled history as a ‘treasure trove’ in 1933 under the State and how later, research mirrors present legal heritage debates on reversionary rights of ownership versus responsible rights of stewardship. Using the conceptual notion of history as an imperfect past, the author contends that Mapungubwe’s contested past is inherently unfinished and flawed, because the past constantly challenges ideas of the present.

Sian Tiley-Nel is the Head of the University of Pretoria Museums in South Africa and is the Curator of the Mapungubwe Collection and Head of the Mapungubwe Archive for over 22 years. She serves as the specialist on the Mapungubwe Collection under the stewardship of the University of Pretoria.

‘The author is clearly an experienced researcher in this area and has comprehensive knowledge of the Mapungubwe archive at the University of Pretoria. There is no doubt that this study is valuable and contributes to new knowledge.’ Dr Russell Kapumha, University of Oxford

Introduction (S3080_Tiley-Nel_9781407359632_-_introduction.pdf, 3,516 Kb) [Download]

Table of Contents (S3080_Tiley-Nel_9781407359632_-_toc.pdf, 595 Kb) [Download]