About the time of the Dark Ages of Europe, the royal court at Mapungubwe in Limpopo welcomed traders and men of influence from Arabia and the Far East. Only in recent decades have the fascinating details of this ancient city been uncovered.

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The University of Pretoria's Mapungubwe Museum displays the largest archaeological collection of gold artefacts in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe was once the capital of a country as large as Swaziland, surrounded by more than 200 satellite towns.

Now the stones and bones and venerable baobabs of Mapungubwe are at rest in the Limpopo Valley, and today form a World Heritage Site and national park.

Archaeologists have been carefully picking over the ruins for decades, and they tell us the rule of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe extended from about 1050 AD to 1270 AD, just as Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages and dealing with a rampant Genghis Khan.

They say a mini Ice Age stripped the area of its resources, effectively bringing the kingdom down. Not long after the demise of Mapungubwe, the fortified city of Zimbabwe (capital of the Monomotapa Empire) rose to the east.

Mapungubwe Hill lost many of its treasures over the years.

Even so, there was enough for archaeologists at the University of Pretoria to slowly piece together the story of Mapungubwe. They found human skeletons lying in seated or foetal positions, often with artifacts like beads, ivory, animal bones and pots. Burials on the hill were obviously those of royalty, and vast quantities of gold were found with their remains.

The most intact gold artifact still under safekeeping at the university is the small figurine of a gold rhino.

The beads found at Mapungubwe 'are thought to originate from India, Egypt, Southeast Asia and the Middle East', says Sian Tiley, author of Mapungubwe - South Africa's Crown Jewels. It was a commercial network that would make today's globalised traders envious.

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