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.