JOHANNESBURG — As if to signal the magic of the moment, leopards made a rare daytime appearance when archaeologists literally struck gold in South Africa's largest nature preserve last month.
The discovery of Thulamela, a Middle Ages-era stone citadel and royal grave site in the northernmost reaches of Kruger National Park, is being hailed as one of the most important archaeological finds in Africa this century.
Thulamela, or "place of giving birth," reveals a sophisticated industrial kingdom that prospered from the 13th to 16th centuries and included mining and trade links with Asia and Arabia before white settlers arrived.
The contents of this cache may rewrite history in the region and could not have come at a better time, when black South Africans are proudly rediscovering their heritage in the aftermath of apartheid.
"Thulamela is one of Africa's most interesting, senior sites. These people were more advanced than anyone had thought," says Andre Meyer, head of the archaeology department at Pretoria University, whose staff leads the project.
Thulamela, set amid baobab trees near the remote corner where South Africa meets Zimbabwe and Mozambique, lies on a harsh land whose earlier inhabitants were thought to be mere hunters and gatherers.
But the treasures excavated from the ancient city - intricately worked gold bracelets and beads, spears, and agricultural tools - show its medieval residents were skilled craftsmen who mined and worked various metals including gold, copper, and iron.
These artifacts show signs of trade with distant peoples. Archaeologists believe that the residents also hunted elephants for ivory, which they sold along with gold to Arab and other foreign traders, perhaps with markets as far away as China.
A find that links modern and medieval Africans
The highlight was the discovery of the grave of the 16th-century ruler, King Ingwe - named for the leopards who appeared when archaeologists found the site. His remains were adorned with gold of at least two colors - red and white - and a delicate sash of iron wire encrusted with gold studs.
Excavators also exhumed what is believed to be the remains of his wife, also adorned with jewelry. She was buried with her hands folded below her chin, a traditional pose of respect associated with the Venda people, a modern-day ethnic group.
Archaeologists working on the project say Thulamela could be followed by more discoveries in the area of the Venda, which is rich in folklore and mythology.
Thulamela is one of more than 500 stone-walled ruins discovered on mountain tops in an area stretching across Mozambique, Bots-wana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The first written record of such ruins came from Portuguese traders in 1505 in modern-day Mozambique. The most famous site is the Great Zimbabwe, whose name means "stone house." The giant complex is the largest ancient man-made building in sub-Saharan Africa.
Thulamela was not built on the huge scale of the Great Zimbabwe. But it is particularly interesting because, unlike the area surrounding the Great Zimbabwe, its bush environment was less favorable to such a large city.
A compromise between science and tradition
The discovery also breaks ground for archaeologists who face the dilemma of either disturbing sacred cultural sites or leaving them alone and forgoing their work. Park officials and researchers have negotiated an unusual deal with the local community so as to treat their ancestors' remains with dignity while carrying out a scientific study.
DNA and carbon samples will be examined before the bones are reburied by the local people in a traditional ceremony. Archaeologists will continue to have access to the site. Experts say such tranquil compromises are rare, if not unprecedented, in world archaeological circles.
"It is perhaps the first time local people are so involved in managing an archaeological site," Professor Meyer says.
Thulamela has the advantage of having been discovered a century later than the Great Zimbabwe and excavated with the latest scientific methods. Unlike many African sites, it was never plundered by thieves or grave robbers. The royal enclosure, undisturbed for 400 years, will give archaeologists new insights into the diet, customs, and lifestyles of its ancient inhabitants.