The Archaeology of African History*

By Stahl, Ann B. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of African History*


Stahl, Ann B., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


In the beginning, historians of Africa put great store by archeology.1

Historians and archaeologists interested in Africa's pasts once envisioned themselves as working toward broadly similar goals using complementary sources and methods in a collaborative interdisciplinary project. Archaeology's value was perceived to lay in its potential to inform on the longue durée of African societies, to provide evidence of daily life (e.g., subsistence, settlement), and to validate insights drawn from other sources. The regularity with which the Journal of African History published overviews of radiocarbon dates underscored archaeology's role in providing a chronological framework for African history.2 Thus, in an early contribution on methods, Jan Vansina, Raymond Mauny, and L. V. Thomas forecast that "the contribution of the archaeologist to African history is not marginal."3

"Not marginal" perhaps, but certainly bracketed in relation to select contexts and periods. Several decades after the first flush of enthusiasm for interdisciplinary approaches, the multivolume Cambridge and UNESCO histories of Africa captured the temporal division of labor that had emerged between historians and archaeologists. In the nine volume Cambridge History of Africa published from 1975-1986, archaeological papers dominated Volume 1 and were prevalent in Volume 2; however, by Volume 3, covering the period AD 1050-1600, Neville Chittick alone bore archaeology's standard in his chapter on coastal East Africa. Volumes 4-9 included no archaeological chapters.4 A similar pattern held in the eight- volume UNESCO General History of Africa- published between 1981 and 1993.5 This temporal division of labor reflected the concerns of archaeologists at the time, preoccupied as Anglo-American-inspired archaeology was with studying questions of origins and migration, building chronological frameworks, and its attention firmly focused on "pre-colonial" contexts.6 Although one can identify exceptional scholars on both sides of the disciplinary divide who have drawn on both historical and archaeological sources, the rarity with which papers have been co-authored by archaeologists and historians similarly indicates how an early vision of collaborative research failed to materialize and allowed disciplinary boundaries in African historical studies to remain intact.7

In practice, twentieth-century historians valued archaeology primarily as a source of chronological insight for periods when other sources were unavailable; however, archaeology's value in this regard was diminished by two developments. First, the interest in precolonial history that characterized mid-century African history gave way to a more substantive focus on colonial and post-colonial history for which archaeological chronologies were deemed irrelevant. Second, scholars began to recognize the imprecision of radiocarbon chronologies for recent centuries due to atmospheric fluctuations in radiocarbon concentrations through time. Transforming radiocarbon age estimates to a calendric scale requires calibration with a dendrochronological curve that, because of extreme fluctuations in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations over the last 500 years, renders dates so imprecise that contexts younger than 500 years effectively cannot be dated by radiocarbon methods.8 Both developments contributed to a sense that historical reconstruction could proceed without the "mute"9 material evidence of archaeology.

Thus, by millennium's end, the mid-century optimism regarding archaeology's contribution to African history had faded. In 1995, when Vansina asked historians if archaeologists were their siblings, he wrote of disillusion, disinterest, an incompatibility in sources, temporalities, and analytical goals born of disparate theoretical perspectives. He bemoaned the inattention in Anglo-American-inspired archaeology to historical contingency and the "daily circumstances of life."10 The dissonances were clear in instances when scholars attempted to "blend an archeological reconstruction of an earlier period with a subsequent historical one,"11 a quote that underscores the extent to which archaeology's role was confined to 'pre'-history (admittedly an outcome that flowed in large measure from the preoccupations of archaeologists with origins questions). …

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