A+ A-

Decolonising archaeology at UP

What does decolonising archaeology mean? Professor Innocent Pikirayi and Dr Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria (UP) have set out to answer this question through their research and teaching work at the institution.

Pikirayi acknowledges that ‘decolonising science’ has become “a heavy-handed buzzword”.

“As an archaeologist, decolonising archaeology means a change in archaeological practice from the traditional, pre-independence ways of approaching science in Africa,” he explains. “To me, it is about doing archaeology that is relevant to the present day.”

For Ndlovu, the decolonisation of archaeology predates the student uprisings that recently brought attention to the concept of decolonising science and education. He has been working towards providing and championing a more Afrocentric approach to the field.

“As a department we were already having discussions on how to improve our curriculum content four years ago in order to promote and support transformation in our field,” he says. “Last year we started transforming our curriculum, moving courses around, renaming modules and changing content.”

Pikirayi’s work focuses on the rise, development and demise of state societies in southern Africa (particularly Great Zimbabwe) dating back to the second millennium CE. He expands on the idea of decolonising archaeology by focusing on the “varied pasts” that proliferate in southern Africa, while moving away from monolithic histories of the region.

Pikirayi’s ongoing work on the archaeology of Great Zimbabwe, which rose to prominence in the 11th century, has focused on how these ancient societies sourced and managed water resources to sustain their societies. He has taken a decolonised approach to this research by changing how he conducts research, and by engaging with communities in the area.

“The usual approach to the archaeology around Great Zimbabwe are tired questions that try to find out when, how, and by whom it was built,” he says. “What we are trying to find out now is how Great Zimbabwe managed its water resources and how that resonates with present-day communities.”

Pikirayi says that decolonising archaeology means engaging with local communities in a more intense manner, since his research requires local information about water sources and their present management to understand how it was managed in the past. He elaborates that his team’s approach is to go to the communities and inform them of the important role they can play in the Great Zimbabwe research project. This project is looking at how water resources in the area were and continue to be managed.

For Pikirayi, decolonising archaeology also means presenting the field to communities affected by its findings in a new way. In addition, it means incorporating the use of multidisciplinary approaches such as geology, chemistry and archaeology, all underpinned by community engagement, to inform studies of the past.

“We are presenting Great Zimbabwe in a way that is relevant to the present,” he says. “We are asking questions that are contemporary and questions that resonate with the public, which is in turn making it possible for the public to see how relevant archaeology is.”

The decolonisation of archaeology will assist in communicating the results and impact of Pikirayi’s current research by engaging scientists in other fields, as well as professionals who might be interested in water management but are not scientists themselves.

“Instead of presenting it as a science of the past, we are presenting archaeology as a science of the present,” he says. “That makes it much more exciting because one can engage anyone who has an interest in water.

Prof Innocent Pikirayi uses community engagement to learn about the past in a way that acknowledges local knowledge and expertise.

Privacy Policy

The University is firmly committed to protecting the privacy of users of the website. No personal information about users of this website will be disclosed to a third party without the prior consent thereto by the user. (Personal information shall at all times be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013 (Act 4 of 2013).)

The University reserves the right to automatically collect information on users' usage of the website (for example, via cookies) in order to improve users' browsing and interaction with the University and for non-personal statistical purposes.

Changes to this privacy policy

The University reserves the right to change, amend, or update this privacy policy periodically.

Modifications to the website

The University reserves the right to modify, change, amend or discontinue the website (or any part thereof) temporarily or permanently, without prior notice.


The University may provide links to other websites or resources. This does not imply the University's endorsement of such sites. The University does not have any control over these websites and will, therefore, not be liable for any damages whatsoever arising from the utilisation of these websites by users.

The University does not prohibit third-party sites to link to publicly visible content on this website. However, it is expressly prohibited for any third party to frame any page on this website in any way whatsoever without the prior written approval of the University.

University of Pretoria proprietary rights

The copyright and other intellectual property rights (which include the University’s brand and logo), which are owned by or licensed to the University, existing in and attaching to this website, are the property of the University. These include but are not limited to text, content, design, layout, graphics, organisation, digital conversion and other information related to the website.

Users are granted a non-exclusive, non-transferable, revocable licence to:

  • access and use this website strictly in accordance with these terms;
  • use this website solely for personal, non-commercial purposes; and
  • download or print out or distribute content from the website, or any part thereof, solely for personal, non-commercial purposes, provided that all copyright and other intellectual property notices therein are unchanged.

Any reproduction of the content of this website, or a portion thereof, must include the following copyright notice: ©University of Pretoria. Users who wish to use the content from this website for commercial purposes may only do so with prior written permission from the University.


This website is for information purposes only. No representations or warranties are given by the University of Pretoria (hereafter referred to as the University) regarding the accuracy of the information this website contains, any material this website provides for or any part of this website. Any reliance by the user on any information this website contains, any material this website provides for or any part of this website, is at the user’s own risk and the University shall not be liable in any way whatsoever in respect of the user or any other person, directly or indirectly, arising from the utilisation of the information this website contains, any material this website provides for or any part of this website.

The user hereby agrees that in the event of any dispute arising from the utilisation of this website in any manner, form or substance whatsoever, the relevant South African law will apply and the appropriate courts of South Africa will have jurisdiction.

Terms & Conditions

By accessing this website, the user hereby agrees to the following:

The use of this website is at the user’s sole risk. This website is provided on an "as is" and "as available" basis. The University gives no warranty that (i) the information posted on this website will meet the user’s requirements; (ii) the information posted on this website will be uninterrupted, timely, secure, virus free or error free; and (iii) the information posted on this website will be accurate or reliable.

Any material downloaded from or otherwise obtained through this website is utilised at the user’s own risk, and the user will, therefore, be liable for any and all damages of any nature whatsoever arising from such utilisation of the website.

Limitation of liability

The user expressly understands and agrees that the University shall not be liable for any damages (subject to the provisions of Chapter 2 of the Consumer Protection Act, 2008 (Act 68 of 2008) (even if the University has been advised of the possibility of such damages) resulting from: (i) the use or the inability to use the website; (ii) the cost of procurement of substitute goods and services resulting from any data, information or services obtained or messages received or transactions entered into through the website; (iii) unauthorised access to or alteration of the user’s transmissions or data; (iv) statements or conduct of any third party on the website; or (v) any other matter relating to the website.