11 October 2017

Rwanda: Archaeologists Discover Ancient King's Artifact

Photo: Faustin Niyigena/New Times
Ntagwabira and one of the two professional Rwandan archaeologists scrub soil from the former king's palace for sample analysis.

A team of archaeologists are excavating a place believed to have been palace for former Rwandan kings in Karongi District in search of artifact that can help tell the country's history.

The place of interest is located in Rubengera Sector in Western Province. The archaeologists have already come across some pieces of old objects from the former residence of King Kigeri IV Rwabugiri, who reigned from 1853 to 1895.

The objects are expected to reveal the king's lifestyle and rituals that used to take place at the royal palace.

Rwabugiri had many residences around the country, including on the shores of Lake Kivu that specifically served him in preparation of military expeditions, across the lake.

According to museum officials, Rubengera royal residence was built in 1874 after the king's military expedition in Butembo (DR Congo).

The site stands out for two reasons.

It is a place where king Rwabugiri regularly celebrated the Harvest Day (Umuganura).

Most of the military expeditions the king conducted in Congo (Bunyabungo and Ijwi Island) and other related rituals during which the warriors recounted their feasts to the king, were organised at Rubengera, according to officials.

On the shores of Lake Kivu, around Rubengera royal residence, there is a place that was reserved for Rwabugiri's military 'flotilla' or war boats at the time, as well as a place where warriors camped waiting for the D-Day for recounting feasts at the royal palace.

According to André Ntagwabira, a research fellow in Archaeology who leads the team, the excavation exercise started two weeks ago aimed at getting archaeological information that would be analysed, documented and preserved for the current and future generations to learn more about Rwanda's history.

Historians say there are shortcomings of oral tradition as a source of history such as bias and exaggeration, among others. That is why it is important for historians to carry out research and document history for current and future generations, according to Ntagwabira.

"We are conducting archaeological excavations here, we want to write the history of this site, what happened at the royal court, various rituals which were conducted at the royal court so that we may build database which will be used to promote cultural tourism at Rubengera site," he told The New Times.

Ntagwabira said the retrieved information will be used for publications of articles, books with summarised information which will be provided to tourists.

"We are going to preserve materials that will be excavated here because this is our heritage. Archaeological records are very interesting and must be protected and preserved for present and future generations," Ntagwabira.

King Rwabugiri is the second famous king of Rwanda after Ruganzu Ndoli.

"Rwabugiri had many royal palaces but this one was very interesting as the king celebrated harvest day seven times and it is the palace that hosted such an event more often," he said.

New discoveries so far

Ntagwabira said they first identified the site as part of a move to build national database of different cultural heritage sites that can be preserved and promoted for cultural tourism in Rwanda.

The second phase, he said, was to gather oral traditions from the site by talking to elders while conducting archeological research.

"Here, we are uncovering Intango z'Imitsindo (big pots) that were used for ritual purposes. We have seen two of them, we were told they were three, so we are looking for the third one," he said.

He said the field is fruitful as they had discovered postholes that may direct them to the entire structure, the houses and the enclosure.

"Apart from Intango, we are finding other artifacts which may give us information on how the structure was, enclosures, houses built around... "

"Inside Intango, we found other objects like small bones, small objects made from quartzite, beads which we can consider now as Imitsindo because they were also found in another grave of former King Kirima Rujugiro. That is interesting because if you have found materials in one king's grave and you find them in another site, which was inhabited by the former king, it is very interesting," says Ntagwabira.

Another part of interest is where the royal place was built.

Around the place, there is a mountain, named 'Ijuru' by locals and it is believed to be the place where people who protected the king lived.

What is the way forward?

Ntagwabira said a big part of Rwandan history is known through oral traditions.

"The archeological resources we are looking for will help us know the exact version of our history because oral tradition would be changed or forgotten as people cannot be able to remember things which happened four hundred, five hundred years ago, but these materials will help us have a well-researched version with supporting materials," he notes.

"The way forward is that, after excavating Rubengera, we are going to publish on Rubengera and the institute of museum will work with other stakeholders to develop this site for tourism purpose," he said.

Pending sites

Other sites which were excavated are Bushenge in Nyamasheke District where previous publications in 1987 by the Whiteman mislead the public that people did not practice iron smelting while recent one proved that eople could smelt.

Another site is Masangano and Musanze caves in Burera, among others.

"Because of those data, that project helped us know the whole sequence of early iron age, middle iron age and late iron age in Rwanda whereas before those excavations we knew only the early iron age and stone age in Rwanda," he said.

He said that the sector is a new field in Rwanda because it was not developed previously. The first research was carried out by people from outside the country who took the objects in Europe.

Currently, Rwanda has only two qualified archaeologists.

The country, according to Jerome Karangwa, the director of research and publications unit at the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, such research help the institute combine both oral and written history.

"The next phase will be to make this site a cultural based tourism site, we will construct this site in a form of former King's palace and bring other objects that will attract tourists," said Karangwa.

There are more than 500 heritage sites in Rwanda and few of them have been excavated, there are more than 100 royal places of which one is being excavated.

According to Karangwa, the sector lacks qualified employees and they are planning trainings to build human resource capacity.

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