TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part II of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part II is called “Archaeological Sources,” 3-104.

CHRISTOPHER R. DECORSE AND SAM SPIERS. “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 29-42.


This review paper is the first part of a two-part series about non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based upon a reading of five essays that provide case studies for working with sources in archaeology and material culture. To begin this paper, I would like to summarize what the anthropologist James Denbow concludes about archaeological source materials in his introduction to the “Archeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History. Writing in the year 2004, Denbow states that the discipline of archaeology has traditionally “served history in a ‘validationist’ role,” meaning that practitioners often took their leads from the documentary record and engaged with archaeology as a way to track and confirm stories that they found in written sources.[1] By now, however, researchers are using archaeological methods in a way that is much more expansive. Instead of a supporting role, material culture plays an equal role alongside oral traditions and written records in the process of historical inquiry. Generally, this means acknowledging the fact that archaeology, like these other two modes of inquiry, suffers from “inherent biases and limitations.” It also means recognizing that archaeology has the potential not only to validate, but to amend old theses and even to propose new ones. [2]

Archaeology and the Study of African History – Conclusions from the Case Studies

For the study of African History more specifically, the rise of material culture as an equally valid mode of historical inquiry carries special meaning. The study of archaeology allows historians to move the geographic and temporal boundaries of analysis beyond areas that were only covered by literary sources. With archaeology, so-called “non-literate” times may be used as a vantage point from which to interpret the historical events of later eras that left behind written records. This is done in Laura Mitchell’s chapter on the spatial geography of Dutch, white settler-colonialism in the Cedarberg frontier of South Africa during the eighteenth century.[3] Mitchell uses mapping techniques to literally overlay sites of Khoisan material culture that date back to the Late Stone Age—identified mostly through rock art and the presence of stone tools—with land-grant data taken from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. What Mitchell discovers is that these maps occupy the exact same spaces. Her research suggests that scholars should not understand the colonial war that Khoisan people waged against Dutch settlers in 1739 as a general confrontation over contested resources, but as an engagement over the right to access and control very “specific pieces of land” that were both environmentally strategic and spiritually sacred to the Khoisan people.[4]

In addition to expanding the geographic and temporal bounds of African History, archaeology allows historians to effectively combat lingering stereotypes about the primitive, primordial, or unchanging African society. This theme comes out in several of this week’s readings. Akinwumi Ogundiran’s piece, for example, brings a much greater definition to the precolonial history of the Yoruba-Edo region (today western Nigeria and Benin). Ogundiran uses the archaeological record to outline “six cultural historical phases” that defined the area from 500 BC to 1800 AD. The result is a “long-term chronological scheme” that historians can now use for “understanding the origins, changes, and continuities of the cultural institutions in the region over time.”[5] Ogundiran bases his historical schema off of changes that are visible in the material culture of the region. One piece of evidence, for example, that testifies to the ascendancy of a confederacy-style political structure in the region during what Ogundiran defines as the Early Formative Period (500-800 AD) is the proliferation of defensive embankments, ditches, and ramparts. To mention just one additional example, Ogundiran tracks Ile-Ife’s rise to political and cultural dominance during the Classical Period  (1000-1400 AD) through its monopolization and exportation of several new artistic traditions, like terracotta ceramics, potsherd architecture, brass casting, and glass-bead production.[6]

A third and final way that archaeological methods carry special meaning for African History is that they permit historians to bring interior regions of the continent into closer conversation with coastal areas that are generally much-better documented in the written source materials. This theme comes out most clearly in Edwin N. Wilmsen’s contribution, which offers historians a “brief outline of the social organization of trade” in the Angola-Botswana-Namibia border country between 1650 and 1912.[7] Wilmsen compares material-culture data taken from 25 archaeological sites with the oral and documentary record. Perhaps his most interesting piece of evidence is the inventories of “slave bundles” from the Okavango region of the continental interior. These bundles contain items—such as guns, imported cloth, and cowrie shells—that are “remarkably congruent with those found all across the Angola-Congo slaving zone.”[8] Ultimately, Wilmsen concludes that, despite what many ethnographers have claimed in the second half of the twentieth century, the Khoisan were not descendants of isolated and foraging Bushmen. To the contrary, their ancestors were “engaged as labor in production for a world market” since at least the seventeenth century. Khoisan history is directly tied to the “Portuguese-inspired Congo-Luanda trade” on the coast.[9]

If this week’s readings from the “Archaeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History share it a common theme, it might be this: the addition of archaeology to an historian’s repertoire transforms the field of African History, both literally and figuratively. For another example of how this done, I would like to turn to our two remaining essays, both of them on coastal Ghana. One of these readings is a chapter by Christopher DeCorse and Gerard Chouin and the other is an article by DeCorse and Sam Spiers.[10] The first piece uses the authors’ research about Ghana’s Central Coast to make an argument for greater collaboration between archaeologists and historians, and the second is a comparative analysis of two polities in coastal Ghana during the era of Atlantic trade, defined here as between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first polity is Elmina, a coastal fishing village and satellite of the Eguafo Kingdom that became a host to a Portuguese and later Dutch trading factory and then an autonomous city. The second polity is Eguafo, a Fante capitol located approximately 7 miles in the hinterland that gradually out-grew its borders and became both an urban power and an intermediary in the Atlantic economy.

As previously mentioned, Denbow has drawn attention to the fact that archaeological work is strongest when it engages with oral tradition and documentary sources. In both of these pieces, the authors follow that instruction, performing what the archaeologist Graham Connah has described as a “total history” approach. This approach draws upon documentary, archaeological, and oral source materials.[11] All of the authors conclude that “increasing urbanization is the most striking change [that takes place] on the coast during the post-European contact period,” with the 1600s being a watershed century.[12] The researchers track this urbanization through the fact that there are no significant settlement mounds, embankments, or midden deposits in places like Elmina during the pre-European contact period. Likewise, Eguafo’s expansion is proven by a change in settlement patterns. The village had to relocate from a hill top to a valley to accommodate its growing populations.[13] Both of these essays also demonstrate how archaeology can be used to track the diffusion of specific traditions across wider regions. Just as Ogundiran demonstrated the spread of Ile-Ife’s culture in the Yoruba-Edo region, DeCorse, Chouin, and Spears demonstrate the dissemination of an Asante-centric Akan culture throughout southern coastal Ghana. Evidence for this thesis comes from the appearance of Akan craft traditions—like Forowa brass vessels and black-burnished ceramics—in places like Elmina and Eguafo in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[14]

But DeCorse, Chouin, and Spears are not content simply to document the demographic and cultural growth of the Gold Coast region during the precolonial era. They also want to read “landscapes as artifacts,” and, in the words of Ogundiran, connect physical objects and individual locations “to time-specific sociohistorical processes.”[15] Instead of interpreting the sacred groves of the Gold Coast, such as Nananompow and Dumpo, as pristine and unchanging sites, the authors follow the same logic as Wilmsen and look on them as “palimpsests of the African past.”[16] Many of these sites became sacred through an historical process wherein local African people reacted to specific “traumatic events such as the spread of smallpox or military encounters in the last quarter of the nineteenth century”[17] Likewise, all of these three authors connect physical evidence of Gold Coast urbanization to the historical development of very specific socio-political institutions and structures. Although these institutions and structures were fundamentally new, they were also inspired by regional African precedents such as “kin-based Akan organizations.” [18] Some examples of these institutions and structures are the rise of asafo militia units and ohen chiefs in Elmina and adaptations in tax-collection, settlement patterns, and long-distance commerce in Eguafo.[19]

Overall, DeCorse, Chouin, and Spiers believe that their archaeological research on coastal Ghana can contribute to larger questions about how scholars understand the socio-political development of societies. “The polities of Ghana,” they summarize, “challenge us to reconsider how we define socio-political complexity…and how we place African models in the wider debates concerning socio-cultural evolution.”[20] Here the authors are arguing against a traditional model which claims that societies evolve according to “a unidirectional evolution from lesser to greater complexity,” ultimately culminating in the emergence of “politically centralized, bureaucratic states.”[21] Scholars who adhere to this model typically see increased urbanization as one of the primary harbingers of this change. However, the material evidence from coastal Ghana exhibits a lack of “dramatic differences in wealth accumulation.” [22] This suggests that burgeoning urban centers do not necessarily transform into hierarchical states. For the Gold Coast, the new socio-political structures of the era of Atlantic trade were diffuse, countervailing, heterarchical, and cross-cutting. This thesis about the Gold Coast’s decentralized nature is a standard one (the historian Rebecca Shumway has used the phrase “coastal coalition” to describe it in her book on coastal Ghana). However, the unique strength of these articles is how the authors build their case by drawing on written evidence from European travelers as well as material evidence from the polities themselves.[23]


Taken together, this week’s readings demonstrate that archaeological methods have much to offer historical analysis, provided that historians are willing to take Jan Vansina up on his recommendation from 1995 and begin seeing archaeologists as their professional siblings.[24] Taking archaeology seriously as an equally valid method of historical inquiry does not mean overlooking its flaws. As Mitchell demonstrates in her essay, archaeology has its blind spots like all other fields of study. Archaeologists working with Khoisan history, she explains, have often “internalized the imperialist construct of the ‘empty landscape’” and mistakenly concluded that all Khoisan artifacts that could have been produced in the precolonial era must have been produced then.[25] Nonetheless, African History is a field of study defined by a particular set of challenges. Many regions and time periods, especially interior regions and the precolonial period, are not well documented by written records. These obstacles have inspired many historians and anthropologists to make false assumptions about the primitive, or unchanging nature of African peoples and places. If used thoughtfully, archaeology can help historians overcome these limitations and expand their analyses.


[1] James Denbow, “Section Introduction to Archaeology and History,” in Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed, edited by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 3.

[2] Ibid. 4.

[3] Laura J. Mitchell, “Material Culture and Cadastral Data: Documenting the Cedarberg Frontier, South Africa, 1725-1740,” in Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed, edited by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 16-32.

[4] Ibid. 27.

[5] Akinwumi Ogundiran, “Chronology, Material Culture, and Pathways to the Cultural History of Yoruba-Edo Region, 500 B.C.—A.D. 1800,” in Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed, edited by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 33 36.

[6] Ibid. 46-59.

[7] Edwin N. Wilmsen, “For Trinkets such as Beads: A Revalorization of Khoisan Labor in Colonial Southern Africa,” in in Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed, edited by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 82, 94.

[8] Ibid. 90.

[9] Ibid. 96.

[10] Christopher R. DeCorse and Gerard L. Chouin, “Trouble with Siblings: Archaeological and Historical Interpretation of the West African Past,” in in Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed, edited by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 7-15; Christopher R. DeCorse and Sam Spiers, “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 29-42.

[11] DeCorse and Spiers, “A Tale of Two Polities,” 29.

[12] Ibid. 30, 32; DeCorse and Chouin, “Trouble with Siblings,” 10.

[13] Ibid. 33; DeCorse and Chouin, “Trouble with Siblings,” 11.

[14] Ibid. 31; DeCorse and Chouin, “Trouble with Siblings,” 10.

[15] DeCorse and Chouin, “Trouble with Siblings,” 11; Ogundiran, “Chronology, Material Culture, and Pathways,” 70.

[16] DeCorse and Chouin, “Trouble with Siblings,” 12.

[17] Ibid. 12-13.

[18] DeCorse and Spears, “A Tale of Two Polities,” 38.

[19] Ibid. 34-37.

[20] Ibid. 37.

[21] Ibid. 38.

[22] Ibid. 35

[23] Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011), 11.

[24] Jan Vansina, “Historians, are Archaeologists your Siblings?” History in Africa 22: 369-408.

[25] Mitchell, “Material Culture and Cadastral Data,” 28-29.

*NB: This post was written as part of an independent-study course entitled “West African Ethnographies and Histories of the Eighteenth Century.” The course was taken in the UC Davis History Department during Fall Quarter of 2017.