African Archaeology Today. (Special Section)

By Lane, Paul | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

African Archaeology Today. (Special Section)

Lane, Paul, Antiquity

For most archaeologists across the globe, mention of Africa in the context of archaeological research will probably bring to mind the important discoveries of early stone tools and hominid remains in eastern and southern Africa, the spectacular stone-walled enclosures and other structures at Great Zimbabwe, and images of `tribal' culture, subsistence practices, artefacts and housing that, to some Western eyes at least, can seem reminiscent of a more distant non-African past. For some, the architectural and artistic splendours of Egyptian civilization may also form part of this image of archaeology on the continent, although for complex geopolitical, historical and academic reasons the study of Egyptian archaeology, in all but a few instances, continues to be regarded as distinct from that of the rest of Africa. While accepting that the preceding sentences are something of a caricature of the non-Africanist's understanding and perception of the work of archaeologists on the continent, and that general introductory texts on archaeological methods and theory nowadays give wider coverage of African case-studies than was the case even a decade ago (e.g. Renfrew & Bahn 1991; Fagan 1995), the level of awareness of the breadth of African archaeology, current discoveries and research issues, as well as the many problems that practitioners and managers face on a daily basis, remains abysmally low.

Accounting for this restricted view of African archaeology within the wider discipline is beyond the scope of this Introduction, but any attempt would have to consider, at the very least, the history of Africa's relationship with the West (and, to a certain extent also the East); the dominant images of the continent, its peoples and their lives at large in the world today; the low levels of funding of archaeology across the continent by both African governments and the broader academic community; and the publication crisis which afflicts not just archaeologists but virtually all academics who live and work in Africa (for discussions of these different issues and how they constrain and channel the production of knowledge about Africa's pasts, see e.g. Robertshaw 1990; Schmidt & Patterson 1995; Hall 1996). Whatever the precise reasons (which are bound to be both varied and multi-layered), the relative neglect by the broader discipline of the substantive archaeology of such a vast continent, and the theoretical, methodological and practical issues that its study raises, is disheartening.

It is disheartening in the first place because of the enormous opportunities on offer for field research, given that large tracts of land remain in archaeological terms terra incognita. The results of such surveys not only enhance understanding of regional culture histories, but are also crucial to the establishment of viable sites and monuments registers and effective management and protection of the archaeological resources of individual African countries.

Secondly, there is the very real potential that careful analysis of African archaeological material and contexts has to inform most of the broader `big-issue' theoretical debates in the discipline. Regrettably, aside from the debates over the evolution of our species and the origins of hominid and modern human behaviour, virtually no other major theme in the discipline is routinely discussed using African case-studies. Where such material is considered, it is normally used to illustrate examples of either `secondary' centres of adoption or technological diffusion. That this is so can only serve to reinforce perceptions by the outside world of Africa as `primeval' and peripheral. Yet, whether one examines the emergence of complex hunter--gatherers; the nature and meanings of rock art; plant and animal domestication and the adoption of agriculture; the development of metallurgy; the rise of urbanism and emergence of complex societies; indigenous responses to colonialism; or a host of other issues, in all cases there is much to learn from Africa's experiences and the historical trajectories of its peoples. …

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