African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction by Ann Brower Stahl (ed.)

Eras Journal – Warfe, A: Review of “African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction”, Ann Brower Stahl (ed.)

Ann Brower Stahl (ed.), African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction,
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2005.
Isbn 1405101563

When reviewing a newly published volume on African archaeology one is inclined to draw comparisons with the several existing single or multi-authored compendiums on this subject. In doing so, one is also inclined to acknowledge the high standard that has been set in volumes of this ilk, particularly those with broad thematic, theoretical and chronological scope. The latest addition to this body of literature, African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction, meets this standard on all levels.

As part of the Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology series, African Archaeology was published with two objectives in mind, the first of which is to introduce the reader to a wide range of topics that have shaped our understanding of Africa’s past. Most entries read as concise overviews on the history of archaeological research in a particular region over a set period of time and often conclude with proposed directions for future research. Each chapter familiarises the reader with key debates on a subject – typically involving nomenclature, classification systems or interpretive models – and several chapters explore innovative methods of analysis, some of which are beginning to shed new light on old problems. A number of authors have also taken the opportunity to incorporate elements of archaeological theory into their chapters. Despite the introductory nature of the book, examples of this neither gloss over, nor get mired in the minutiae that often accompany theoretical discourse. The inclusion of extensive and up-to-date bibliographical lists at the end of each chapter is useful, providing fixed starting points for further research on the topic. The second objective of the book is to consider the implications of studying the pasts of other peoples. This timely point highlights a growing awareness among archaeologists conducting fieldwork in any foreign environment. Now, perhaps more than ever, researchers working in Africa are confronted with political and ethical responsibilities that have significant meaning beyond the academic milieu. The resulting effect is a form of disciplinary introspection, with practitioners openly accepting their responsibilities and constructing their research goals accordingly. In the case of Africanist archaeologists from non-African backgrounds, these responsibilities are articulated thoughtfully in the introductory chapter by Ann Stahl, the volume’s editor and compiler, who asks ‘For whom is knowledge on Africa’s pasts relevant? And how might that knowledge affect the present and future of African peoples?’ (p. 2). The temporal, spatial and thematic scope of the chapters that follow is necessarily broad. Chapter 2, by Paul Lane, explores the usefulness of ethnoarchaeology as a research tool and how this has transformed over time with the changing values of researchers. Following this, chapters are arranged in rough chronological order, beginning with the earliest ‘archaeological traces’ some 2½ million years ago and progressing through to the twentieth century. With such a time span, significant temporal gaps between chapters are to be expected. The important thing to note, however, is that the arrangement of chapters does not concern itself with charting technological progress through the ages. While such a narrative has formed the common thread of other volumes, it is rightly acknowledged here that this approach can overlook or devalue the more significant cultural developments that did not occur along neat chronological lines. Spotted coverage on a spatial scale is also to be expected, given the size of the continent, the issues of logistics that go hand-in-hand with fieldwork and continuing political tensions. Having said this, it is notable that Saharan Africa gets far fewer mentions than Sub-Saharan Africa. Although this geographic and cultural imbalance is acknowledged by Stahl (p. 2), it is not altogether clear why it was not corrected. The diversity of topics covered in African Archaeology reflects a wide authorship consisting of both luminaries and newcomers to the field. Chapters 3-5 cover different aspects of Upper Pliocene and Pleistocene archaeology, focusing on behavioural and adaptive patterns during these periods and Chapters 7-10 do the same for the Early and mid-Holocene period with the focus on the adoption and maintenance of various food-production strategies. Chapter 6 explores the transition from one epoch to the next. Chapters 11-18 are framed within more ‘recent’ history – in that they cover the last few millennia. Among these, Chapters 11-13 each deal with the origins, growth and spread of metallurgy, Bantu languages and urbanism, whilst Chapters 14-16 examine forms of interaction among communities with overlapping levels of political, social and economic distinction. The final two entries, Chapters 17 and 18, sum up the volume by way of general narratives on archaeological research in Central and West Africa up to the present day.

While the stated aim of the Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology series is to produce texts targeting the ‘upper-division undergraduate’, African Archaeology will presumably reach a wider audience. For those familiar with African archaeology, this book serves as a reminder of the vibrant and dynamic nature of Africa ‘s past cultures and of a discipline maturing to give voice to the human record. For those new to the subject, the book acts as a guide on how future research on Africa ‘s past should be conducted.

Ashten R. Warfe

School of Historical Studies, Monash University