Bad archaeology, the Queen of Sheba, and a water park

Lazy rivers are the best (Wikimedia Commons/Christine Schmidt).

Lazy rivers are the best (Wikimedia Commons/Christine Schmidt).

I love water parks. The slides, the wave pools, the smell of sunscreen, the funnel cakes, and above all the lazy rivers. A good water park will always have a soft spot in my heart.

That’s why when I first learned of a water park in South Africa called Sun City that seemed to be propagating a myth that an ancient civilization of European origin had built a great lost city in the region, I was a little shocked. In my 10th grade world history class, we watched a documentary about the real ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an archaeological site with a controversial past. It’s final images were of children frolicking at Sun City. The innocence of my childhood spent in inner-tubes clashed with this bizarre message that frankly sounded…kind of racist.

The myth begins with bad archaeology. Built between 1200 and 1400 CE, Great Zimbabwe once served as the capital of a complex local civilization in southeastern modern Zimbabwe. Its stone enclosures with walls up to 30 feet high were built without mortar and adorned with soapstone bird sculptures. The hilltop palace and surrounding city covered about 1800 acres, and could have housed more than 10,000 people. Untouched by European influence, Great Zimbabwe probably looked pretty impressive, rising above the grassland.

These people weren’t isolated. Excavations of the site turned up gold working equipment, ironware, pottery shards, Arab coins, Chinese porcelain, and Persian beads. Second hand stories from Arab traders eventually made their way to the ears of Portuguese explorers. Some thought it was Ophir, a biblical city built by the Queen of Sheba, or the seat of a mythological Christian ruler called Prester John…or even the location of King Solomon’s legendary mines.

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