11
Sep
12

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!


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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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