Archive for September, 2012


African connections

Back now from Cambridge where the African Archaeology Group put on an exciting and fun conference. My remit was to open up the session on connections. There were six papers with a wide geographical spread and a general aim to show how African communities were connected to other parts of the continent or other parts of the world.

My first comment was that we’re really in good company with these themes. Moving with the times. There seems to be a lot of interest recently among historians and archaeologists to approach the study of the past globally. See recent posts on this by Sam and by me, and I am also aware of forthcoming ‘global history’-type things forthcoming in Winchester, Kalamazoo and at the Courtauld.

The theme of globalisation was explicitly set out in some of yesterday’s papers, where authors drew on A. G. Frank and Bayly, and the theme clearly feeds through each paper. Together they help discredit the idea that sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from the principal flow of human cultural development. Peter Mitchell’s 2005 African Connections was, as far as I am aware, the first to set this idea out comprehensively – other earlier works which speak of large-scale socio-economic factors in the making and telling of the past, such as those by Abu-Lughod, Braudel, Wolf or Horden & Purcell only dealt tangentially with Africa, at best. In 2007 I wrote Rulers, warriors, traders, clerics which suggested there were parallels in the medieval past of both the central Sahel and northwest Europe, and actual connections too. In the papers presented yesterday we see a deliberate effort to move forward the agenda and to highlight Africa’s role in global history (I use the term history broadly here).

Partly this move forward is driven by increasing data. Knowledge of sites in southern Libya and the northern Sahel is rewriting the history of contacts across the Sahara. In both cases we can only hope that political conditions will rapidly improve: at the moment these areas are largely closed to research.

Partly, this move forward is driven by theoretical and methodological advances. More and more we’re looking at the way ideas and ways of doing things moved, rather than objects. The focus on practices rather than objects is surely a good thing. Freed from the constraints of looking for the elusive trade good or exotic potsherd  (especially since we well know that many goods were simply archaeologically invisible), we can look instead at changes in the manners in which people made things, lived, died and ate, and suggest whether these changes came around through a greater degree of contact with outside communities. Pots for example are a reasonable proxy for practices – new culinary practices, new foods, new ways of shaping.

The idea of focusing on practices is not new – Garrard’s suggestion thirty years ago for an opening up of West African trade routes in late Roman times, using the evidence of measuring systems, is still widely cited. It seems then that we must pay attention to as many aspects of the archaeological assemblage as is possible, since we do not know a priori which might serve as evidence of outside contacts, or, more precisely, the presence of outsider goods, practices or individuals. Things like diet or burial are more reliable indicators of the presence of stranger communities than are imported goods on their own. The Indian Ocean system is a useful contributor here, for scholarship has tended to consider a whole range of markers of contacts, including texts, linguistics and genetics. Madagascar is an excellent example here – contacts with southeast Asia have been proposed on linguistic, ethnographic, technological and genetic data as well as evidence from plants and animals.

One question we keep coming back to is – how much did the various partners in these connections know about each other? I am told that early Arab authors wrote treaties advising Muslims on how to be a good Muslim in the lands of unbelievers and that to them such lessons were valid just as much in China as in Africa. In this, maybe we see simply the old trope of Us versus the Other, as evidenced in Ibh Khaldun’s comment that North Europeans and West Africans were similarly uncivilised as they lived at comparable remove from the temperate Mediterranean. We are limited here to what we are told about the elites, but they are intriguing nonetheless. One wonders why the monk Bede in northwestern England gave away pepper on his deathbed in AD 735 and why Offa of Mercia minted a gold coin in imitation of an Abbasid dinar. To get a sense of what the more menial elements of the exchange chain thought – how they envisaged the boundaries of their known world and the unknown beyond – we probably have to fall back on work by our colleagues who are historians, epigraphers and art historians. There is a growing body of anthropological and sociological work on ‘worlds/spaces of experience’ (see e.g. Gosselain 2008), which I have recently trying to get the grips with in archaeological terms. That literature essentially tried to differentiate the world in which people act and live and learn how to do things and the world of which they know without any first-hand experience. It seems to have obvious relevance to African archaeology but we still need to figure out how to integrate it into our toolkit. This is something I am puzzling over at this point in time, and I am grateful to be able to bounce ideas off Olivier.

Another vote of thanks to the European Research Council, which funds several of the scholars in the Cambridge Connections session, and which is thus playing a major part in improving our understanding of Africa.


beads and pots

Our speaker for our Centre for African Art and Archaeology last night was Akin Ogundiran from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. His talk outlined his work on the expansion of the Oyo empire of southern Nigeria in the past few centuries.

Prior to the talk, Sam and I had a happy while showing him some of our pottery and the handful of beads we have from the last season’s excavation. Akin confirmed that many of the beads are, as suspected, lantana, a sort of jasper which occurs in mines close to our research area (I was told of one when working in Parc W). Lately Olivier and I have been reading up on this stone (see for example this book) and I look forward to hearing his forthcoming paper on the circulation of this material. It is certainly interesting (though actually probably not surprising) that the material made it to Oyo. These beads are quite common. Akin’s pottery from Oyo is remarkably fine – the sherds he showed us were thoroughly burnished and decorated with incisions and a very small twisted cord roulette. He tells us that the colonisation of the landscape by Oyo is readily visible through the appearance of this particular pottery type.

I look forward to more exciting discussions at the African archaeology meeting in Cambridge this week-end. I’m introducing a session on Sunday which deals with ‘Connections’. There are six papers with a wide geographical spread and a general aim to show how African communities were connected to other parts of the continent or other parts of the world. A fast-moving scene, so look out for the conference publication in due course.


Reflections on Medieval West Africa from Finland

Following on from Anne’s entry (and in some senses serving as a ‘comment’/conversation post!), I have myself just returned from a discussion of West Africa within a global context at the European Association of Archaeologists conference in Finland. Myself and Søren M. Sindbæk (Aarhus University, Denmark) were running a session entitled Beyond the Frontiers of Medieval Europe, intended to draw archaeologists together to investigate the connections of medieval Europe with a wider world, but also to discuss how far we can go in talking of a ‘global medieval world’. Was the ‘medieval’ a purely European phenomenon? Does the usage of this term ouside of Europe bring more problems than benefits?

What was really motivating the session was that we saw scholars concerned with various regions of the world outside Europe referring to their research as within the ‘medieval period’ and labelling the societies they studied as ‘medieval’. It was felt therefore that it would be useful to meet to share opinions and try to find common ground. The session included scholars dealing with the Islamic Mediterranean (Balearic Islands), the Ottomans, Central Asia, Libya, India, East Africa, Japan, and West Africa.

My own contribution discussed West Africa. What I was trying to convey is that West Africa was a thriving part of the Islamic world and that patterns of cultural development there might be of interest relevance to researchers pursuing ‘medieval’ research elsewhere in the world. Within the talk I did not seek to make any claims for the ‘medievalness’ of West Africa or otherwise, as the initial aim was mainly to raise awareness of this part of the world for scholars perhaps unfamiliar with it, these kinds of broader claims and statements being reserved for the final session debate.

The concluding discussion of the session involved strong opinions about the problems with the term “medieval” and perhaps more than anything highlighted how far apart Europeanists and scholars from other areas of the world are in the extent to which they have discussed this term. If nothing else what I think I have brought back from the session is a more reflective use of the term “medieval”! West Africanists all too often casually use this term, and we on the the Crossroads project have inevitably done this and will no doubt occasionally do so again!

The consensus seems to be that the term “medieval” is useful and applicable to areas of the world outside Europe and we should not abandon it for purely chronological labels or constantly seek locally specific periodisation labels. In the West African context ‘medieval’ certainly seems more meaningful and useful than ‘late Iron Age’ and brings a chronological definition not provided by the rather unspecific term ‘pre-colonial’. So hopefully we can continue to talk of a ‘medieval’ period in West Africa, and even ‘medieval empires’, but we need a little more definition of what we mean by  these labels and why we think it is useful to use them. As yet a conclusive summary statement on the problem escapes me, but we are hoping to build on the session to develop further ideas!



I’m in Oxford for a workshop themed ‘Defining the Global Middle Ages’, sort of following on from my visit here just over a year ago, but this time to a larger group of medievalists from around the UK.

The aim of the workshop, which is convened by colleagues from Birmingham, Newcastle, and Oxford, is to debate what it is that global history can gain by including the Middle Ages. Comparative work is obviously large part of this, but it is also about connections – a topic I suspect will be returned to later this month  in Cambridge with a completely different group of people.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon we talked about empires. I presented an overview of Crossroads‘ ongoing work in Bénin and linked it more widely to a brief outline of the historiography of empires in West Africa, using Kumbi Saleh as an example. The notion of empire structures much of the popular and scholarly narrative of the West African past yet, as authors such as Pekka Masonen have shown, a serious critique of what empires mean in West Africa remains to be done. I guess for me the most interesting thing about ’empires’ (note the cowardly quotation marks… or states or kingdoms or whatever we want to call them) is that they were one of the ways in which contacts between people happened (I have a chapter about this in my liminality book) – basically how did it change things for people on the ground?

I am in a room in Balliol and look out onto the lovely lawn at Trinity college and it is (almost exactly to the day) twenty years since I came to Hertford around the corner as an undergraduate and ten years since I took up a three-year British Academy postdoctoral fellowship there. Round numbers are pretty interesting like that.

About this blog

This blog has been set up to chart the activities and research findings of two projects led by Anne Haour, an archaeologist from the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

The first project, called Crossroads, brings together a team of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists studying the Niger Valley where it borders Niger and Bénin (West Africa). We are hoping to shed more light on the people that inhabited the area in the past 1500 years and to understand how population movements and craft techniques shaped the area's past.

The second project, called Cowries, examines the money cowrie, a shell which served as currency, ritual object and ornament across the world for millennia, and in medieval times most especially in the Maldive Islands of the Indian Ocean and the Sahelian regions of West Africa. We hope to understand how this shell was sourced and used in those two areas.

These investigations are funded by the European Research Council as part of the Starting Independent Researcher Programme (Seventh Framework Programme – FP7) and by the Leverhulme Trust as a Research Project Grant. The opinions posted here are however Anne Haour's own!

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September 2012