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.

Introduction

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] Continue reading “Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana”