Mining a Mother Lode: Early European Travel Literature and the History of Precious Metalworking in Highland Ethiopia

By Silverman, Raymond; Sobania, Neal | History In Africa, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Mining a Mother Lode: Early European Travel Literature and the History of Precious Metalworking in Highland Ethiopia


Silverman, Raymond, Sobania, Neal, History In Africa


I

Our primary concern in this essay is with reconstructing the history of material culture. As anyone who has ever looked into the material culture of Ethiopia quickly discovers, the travel accounts of early European visitors can be a rich and varied source for illuminating any number of such traditions, including those of metal-, leather-, basket-, and woodworking, as well as pottery, weaving, and painting. Dating from the first part of the sixteenth century, the descriptions of journeys and residences in Ethiopia became more prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when they also begin to include illustrations of more than the landscape. As sources for the reconstruction of a particular material tradition, these accounts can offer valuable insights into the nature of the objects and the people who produced and used them. Conversely, they can be frustrating to work with, since the pertinent data they contain most often come in the form of a sentence here or there. Rarely are there entire sections dedicated to descriptions of particular traditions or processes, unless one happened to be of special interest to the writer.

Among those scholars who have used travel accounts to great effect is Richard Pankhurst. For many decades, as even a cursory examination of his numerous publications illustrates, he has been mining this mother lode for the scattered sentences and tantalizing suggestions they offer. His most comprehensive writing on this subject is an often-cited 1964 article, "Old Time Handicrafts of Ethiopia."1 Divided into sections, each dealing with a different tradition, Pankhurst cited various descriptive accounts that mentioned specific traditions. The basic approach taken in this and other publications that have followed is one perhaps best described, in keeping with the mining metaphor, as one of "prospecting" or in some cases mining "surface deposits."

What we intend to show is that, by digging deeper into this rich body of information, one can collect far more important detail. However, because we cannot possibly exhaust or do justice to the full range of all that these deposits contain, we have limited our inquiry to a single aspect of one of these material traditions-the working of precious metals. The information presented in'the European accounts relates to a number of interesting issues: the types of objects that were made, how and by whom they were used, the processes used in their manufacture, the sources of gold and silver, the manner in which the silversmiths' products were sold, the role of foreign smiths, and the status of silversmiths in Abyssinian society.

We begin by offering an overview of the published work that has looked at this metalworking tradition. This is followed by a systematic sampling of the travel literature that represents the range, depth, and limitations of the historical information these sources offer. Finally, we consider some of the questions that these data raise, emphasizing that the information gleaned from these early travelers' accounts is akin to raw ore that must be refined and alloyed with information from other sources. In other words, simply extracting data from travel literature cannot be an end in itself; it is but the first step in what must be a multifaceted approach to reconstructing the history of these traditions.

II

Scholarship dealing with the social, historical, or technological aspects of working non-ferrous metals in Ethiopia is very limited.2 That which has been undertaken is narrowly focused among the Semitic Christian peoples of the Ethiopian highlands. The distinctive crosses-processional crosses, hand crosses and neck crosses-of the Ethiopian Orthodox church are the best studied objects of this tradition. Made from gold, silver, copper, bronze, and brass (and also wood and sometimes iron), the crosses are not the only objects that mark the faith, there are also sistrums, the finials of prayer sticks, chalices, and crowns.

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