Introduction: Current Trends in the Archaeology of African History

Article excerpt

The 2007 African Studies Association (ASA) meeting in New York marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Association's founding. It was an apt moment to revisit archaeology's contribution to African historical studies, particularly in light of the paucity of archaeological contributions to the Association's annual meetings in the years leading up to its "golden" anniversary. Despite early optimism around the potential for interdisciplinary collaboration in African historical studies, enthusiasm for multidisciplinary perspectives on African history had waned by the closing decade of the twentieth century to the point that historians and archaeologists seemed to look at one another across a gulf created by incompatibilities of sources, temporalities, analytical goals, and theoretical perspectives.1 At the same time, a growing interest in recent decades among archaeologists in the study of colonial processes and the effects of global connections that include the Atlantic slave trade, would seem to reduce the gulf. But as archaeologists who have for decades been involved in projects centered on how the "daily circumstances of life"2 in African villages were transformed through villagers' broader connections, we were puzzled by the apparent inattention of historians to the burgeoning literature on the archaeology of African history. It seemed to us that many scholars of Africa, whether historians, anthropologists, or other social scientists, remained unaware of the topical and theoretical shifts that have taken place in African archaeology in the last decade or two.

It was this that motivated us to organize dual sessions on the Archaeology of African History for the 2007 ASA meetings in New York- one focused on "West African Cultural Dynamics in the Era of Atlantic Connections," chaired by Ann Stahl, and another focused on "Eastern and Southern African Political, Cultural and Economic Transformations, AD 800-1900," chaired by Adria LaViolette. We invited our colleagues to reflect on the dynamics of production, consumption, and exchange and to consider the implications of long-standing intercontinental connections for our understanding of African history. We invited papers that highlighted the growing concern with questions of cultural process and the specificity of practice in seeking to understand the ways in which African societies of the last thousand years were enmeshed in, though not wholly determined by, ramifying connections within and outside the continent. We sought contributions that illustrated what archaeologists are learning from a renewed engagement with questions of intercontinental entanglements through conceptual and theoretical perspectives that highlight the role of daily action in the production of culture, and therefore a shift from the study of "culture" to the study of "culture-making practices." We also sought contributions that illustrated how our understanding of historical processes is enriched by a study of things- by attention to continuities and change in material culture systems and techniques of production.3 The resulting sessions brought together a series of mid-career and newly minted professionals to showcase recent archaeological research informed by these perspectives. The papers in this special issue- three centered on West Africa and two on East Africa- are extended and revised versions of those papers.4

A thread that runs through the contributions focused on West African societies is the value of archaeological sources for investigating how societies in interior regions responded to the shifting landscape of exchange that accompanied the rise of the Atlantic trade. Archaeologists working in what Akinwumi Ogundiran terms "areas of near-perfect documentary silences" are well positioned to balance our understanding of inter-regional trade networks with insights into domestic economic systems and intra-regional exchange. Too often, historical claims about domestic economies are extrapolated from nineteenth- or early twentieth-century patterns and projected back in time. …