NUMISMATICS is the study or collection of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money and related objects, also referred to numismatology. 

Since their first invention in Western Turkey in the late 7th Century BC, coins have been struck in precious metals as well as copper alloys and, since that time, they have been lost, buried in hoards, placed in graves or otherwise left behind for archaeologists to find. 

When coins are found as part of a scientific archaeological excavation, they can make an immense contribution to our understanding of ancient society. 

Prior to colonisation in the late 19th Century, the economy of the state organisation of MaDzimbahwe, had not developed sufficiently to warrant a formal or institutionalised coinage system.  

All trading was conducted by barter; this was the simple exchange of one commodity for another. Certain goods exchanged, however, though being in general demand, had reached the status of commodity currency in that they assumed generally accepted and established values.

Cattle, sheep and goats, for instance, were the recognised currency for lobola and other localised mercantile trade, while foreign trade with the Arabs and Portuguese introduced a wide range of trade goods such as cloth, porcelain, beads and firearms, among other items, that were exchanged for local gold, copper and ivory.  

This brings me to the question: Have you ever wondered, how much your forefathers were sold for during the slave trade and to whom? 

For the unfortunate, unknown and forgotten people who were captured in Zimbabwe and the greater part of southern East Africa, numismatic archaeology may be the key to unlocking the de-humanising history of zanj slavery south-east of the Zambezi. 

To date, little research has been undertaken regarding the archaeological remains and the fiscal exchanges that took place from the 13th to the 18th centuries between the Arab Slave traders, the Sultanates, the Portuguese and Zimbabweans along the north-east and south-east of the country of Barbaria or Butau, as it was known in ancient maps at that time.  

Nonetheless, the statements of contemporary archaeologists and indigenous informants suggest that many of the archaeological finds in the various forts and ancient ruins, which include hoards of coins, golden ingots, brass artefacts and silver from Kilwa, were inextricably linked to the zanj slave trade, the mercantile trade, as well as the hunter’s and prospectors’ transactions.

The ancient coins excavated in many sites in present day Zimbabwe corroborate documentary evidence of Arab and, subsequently, Portuguese associations with the Empire of MaDzimbahwe that are testimony to trade contacts, mainly with Kilwa in the 14th Century; Indian trade from the 15th Century; Portuguese in the 16th and 17th centuries and Chinese trade in the 18th Century.  

An Indian trade connection with Zimbabwe dating from the 6th and 7th Century until the 16th Century has been postulated based on the discovery of many Indian coins and metalware found at a number of ancient sites and mines.  

Of particular interest were the many ancient north-west Indian copper coins of the Kushan Dynasty, 130-150AD, depicting the ruler Huvishka and Athsho, the Indian god of fire on the reverse, found in Zimbabwe.  

The earliest coin said to have been found in Zimbabwe is the Indo-Scythian copper coin of Kadphisis II, circa 50AD; found near Mbire, that subsequently went missing after it was sent for identification to the South African Museum.  The coin was described as featuring King Kadphisis II on the obverse with the god Siva and a bull on the reverse.

Discovery of various early Roman copper, bronze and silver coins dating from pre-300AD, are also evidence of the early Indian Ocean Trade with the Empire of MaDzimbahwe.  

A Roman silver coin found near the Ruenya River, Makaha, east of Mutoko, depicting the wife of Emperor Phillip I, Octacilia Severa, on the obverse with a hippopotamus featuring on the reverse also testifies to a thriving foreign trade.  Interestingly, this coin was recovered at Makaha Fort, a Portuguese settlement dating from the 17th Century when the slave trade was at its height.

Also, along the eastern border, in an ancient mine shaft near Mutare, at a depth of over 21m, a hoard of Roman coins of Antoninas Pius (138-161AD) were found.  

While records suggest that the coins may have found their way into the interior by the hand of some pre-historic miner, what is the probability that these coins found their way into the country by way of a slave trader?

A 1572 silver sixpence coin was found near Odzi, resulting from Portuguese trade in gold and slaves in Manicaland, which, according to Portuguese records, took place between the 1570-1700.

Additionally, a cache of coins was reportedly found near Nyanga; they ranged from Greco-Indian to 18th Century European, Arabic and Indian coins, together with an array of leg irons.  Surely these artefacts constitute evidence of a slave trade in Zimbabwe.  

The absence of data on the numerous monitory transactions and the provenance of coins remains speculative as many were stolen by the notorious colonial ‘Blanket Prospectors’, a group of early colonial settler-raiders, under Cecil John Rhodes’ direction, who were given carte-blanche, to dig and raid ancient archaeological sites in search for gold; the local informants were given blankets in exchange for assisting them to locate the valuable sites.

In 1510, during the reign of Munhumutapa Kakuyo, Antonio Fernandes was the first Portuguese trader to visit the empire. Having identified the potential for trade, including slave trade, the Portuguese deepened their penetration of the empire and set up permanent trading posts, in exchange for an annual tax to the Munhumutapa.  

In 1572, the Munhumutapa signed a treaty with the Portuguese, inadvertently giving them possession of a number of gold mines and other mineral rights, as well as a strip of land along the Zambezi from Tete, in the land of Mazambuko, to the Ocean, from where they carried out their thriving trade, which included human trade.

During the reign of Munhumutapa Gatsi (in 1596-1627), relations with the Portuguese became increasingly hostile, largely because the Portuguese had now formed small armies to pillage and capture slaves. By 1628, the Portuguese were refusing to pay their annual tributes to the new Munhumutapa Kaparidze, who decided to take punitive action against them.

The dates imprinted on old coins assist archaeologists to ascertain the chronology and provenance of ancient sites. For example, when a coin is excavated at an ancient site, archaeologists can hypothesise on the period of occupation and activities carried out at the site.

Numismatic archaeology could be the key to unlocking the fiscal transactions and monetary alliances that formed the crux of the slave economy in Zimbabwe.  

By following the ancient money trail, Numismatic archaeology should open doors to self-discovery and self-reclamation from an African-centered perspective and ascertain the occurrence of trade patterns of by-gone civilisations and, particularly in this case, attest to the existence of an extensive slave trade in Zimbabwe. 

Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies.   He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practicing artist and corporate image consultant.  He is also a specialist post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher. E-mail:


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