New Light on the Early Islamic West African Gold Trade: Coin Moulds from Tadmekka, Mali

By Nixon, Sam; Rehren, Thilo et al. | Antiquity, December 2011 | Go to article overview

New Light on the Early Islamic West African Gold Trade: Coin Moulds from Tadmekka, Mali


Nixon, Sam, Rehren, Thilo, Guerra, Maria Filomena, Antiquity


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Introduction

As South American gold enchanted the early modern world, West African gold enchanted the medieval world before it. Following the Islamic conquest of North Africa in the seventh century AD, Islamic traders crossing the Sahara to West Africa found abundant, high-quality gold there (Levtzion & Hopkins 2000). Over the next 300-400 years West Africa was incorporated into the Islamic trade network, leading it to become the world's major gold supplier until Columbus' era (Messier 1974; Devisse 1988; Spufford 1988; Gondonneau & Guerra 1999; Levtzion & Hopkins 2000; Mitchell 2005; Figure 1). The Islamicised West African trading towns, where traders obtained gold, took on huge significance in people's minds (Figure 2), and fantastic and mythical tales of their splendour and riches were told (e.g. Levtzion 1968; Benjaminsen & Berge 2004). Medieval texts have provided great insight into the reality of these towns and their trade (Levtzion & Hopkins 2000), but they also leave uncertainties. A particularly intriguing issue that has so far been impossible to resolve is whether references within these texts to local, pure gold coinages at the West African towns described myth or reality.

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In AD 1526 Leo Africanus--a Muslim prisoner in Europe who became a protege of the Pope--recorded his knowledge of West Africa (Brown 1896). Within his description of Timbuktu, the trans-Saharan trading town which flourished from the fourteenth century, he stated that "the coin of Timbuctoo is of gold without any stamp or superscription" (Brown 1896: 825). He also described "pure gold coins without inscription" at another major town, Djenne (Brown 1896: 822). Some 500 years earlier (AD 1068) the respected Arabic geographer al-Bakri wrote a world geography using contemporary and historical sources. He noted of the West African trans-Saharan trading town of Tadmekka that "their dinars [Islamic gold coins] are called 'bald' because they are of pure gold without any stamp" (Levtzion & Hopkins 2000: 85). Other chroniclers also reported exchanges of "dinars" at Tadmekka and other important West African towns, including the early trading centre of Audaghust (Levtzion & Hopkins 2000: 45-9, 81, 90).

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None of these unstamped gold 'coins' has been recovered, nor indeed is there concrete evidence of any coinage produced in West Africa before twentieth-century colonial issues. This stands in stark contrast to significant archaeological recovery of coinages produced elsewhere throughout the early Islamic world (e.g. Ehrenkreutz 1992; Gondonneau & Guerra 1999; Figure 3), including from areas where mints are not historically documented, such as the East African coast (Horton et al. 1986). Despite the lack of finds, early scholars believed the West African gold coins to be a reality (Mauny 1958; Messier 1974), suggesting that failure to find them in West Africa was because they were likely transported across the Sahara to be stamped on arrival. Subsequent prominent studies, however, made no reference to them (Garrard 1982; Devisse 1988; Devisse 1993), and they are also absent from wider texts drawing on these specialist studies (Spufford 1988; Blanchard 2001; Mitchell 2005). The consensus has clearly been voiced (Devisse 1988: 387) that while complex gold-working traditions existed in West Africa--producing jewellery and other display items (Joire 1943; McIntosh 1995: 267; Insoll 2003: 245)--commercial exchange of gold in the West African towns was restricted to gold dust and rudimentary processed forms; alongside other commonly encountered West African money such as cowrie shells, copper ingots, and cloth (see Eagleton et al. 2009). Meagre archaeological finds of gold trade in West Africa--wire and simple ingots (Devisse 1988: 404)--have not altered this view. Seemingly, then, the references to local gold money in an internationally recognised coin form in medieval West Africa had come to be seen as merely colourful elaborations of early Muslim authors.

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