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This Element discusses a medieval African urban society as a product of interactions among African communities who inhabited the region between 100 BCE and 500 CE. It deviates from standard approaches that credit urbanism and state in Africa to non-African agents. East Africa, then and now, was part of the broader world of the Indian Ocean. Globalism coincided with the political and economic transformations that occurred during the Tang-Sung-Yuan-Ming and Islamic Dynastic times, 600-1500 CE. Positioned as the gateway into and out of eastern Africa, the Swahili coast became a site through which people, inventions, and innovations bi-directionally migrated, were adopted, and evolved. Swahili peoples' agency and unique characteristics cannot be seen only through Islam's prism. Instead, their unique character is a consequence of social and economic interactions of actors along the coast, inland, and beyond the Indian Ocean.
Since the 1960s, archaeological and historical explorations have been concerned with understanding the evolution of inequality cross-culturally. Every generation of scholars has sought to understand the transformation from egalitarian bands to today’s world of ‘savage inequalities’. Archaeology has accumulated the data to engage in cross-cultural synthesis of global archaeologies and histories. But some areas are still underrepresented. In this chapter, I draw from recent archaeological research in on the East African Coast to evaluate the cultural trajectories of communities that flourished during the region’s medieval period leading to the emergence of socially and politically hierarchical chiefdoms, polities, and states. Contrary to earlier migration theories, the current reconstruction strengthens the view that the adoption of agriculture, market-based exchange, and urban centered state structures were the main catalysts for building communal and personal wealth in medieval Africa as in other regions around the world. Networks of interaction were crucial in connecting emergent cities to their hinterlands and to merchants across the sea. The chapter answers two crucial questions. How and in what ways did regional trade serve as the kernel upon which the medieval Swahili state arose? What were the mechanisms through which emerging elites manipulated economic and political power?
It is with humility that I address the 14th Congress of the PanAfrican Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies and the 22nd biennial meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists. I am honoured to be the first Kenyan to address this congress 63 years after the scheduled congress was withdrawn. I wish to thank Professor Karim Sadr for inviting me to address this august group. I doubt that I can pretend to walk in the footsteps of the fathers who founded the congress 66 years ago. What I can proudly assert is that the purpose of that congress was to create an African archaeology without frontiers. Indeed, throughout much of its history, the African continent was a frontier-less entity. People as well as its bounty of life forms moved freely across this beautiful, diverse landscape. They still do today except under quite different conditions and circumstances. Professor Sadr asked me to speak to the theme of an African past and future that is not bound by frontiers, real or imagined, that divide archaeologists and diminish the impact of the continent's contributions to global history.
The theme of the 2014 joint meeting, African Archaeology Without Frontiers, challenges us to transcend national, linguistic, disciplinary and epochal boundaries that separate archaeology's practitioners in Africa. Often, archaeologists work on what are essentially similar research questions, be they focused on technological, ecological, economic or even political themes. Often, these themes mirror the universal questions that are aimed at identifying global patterns. African archaeology has moved forward from its early days as a peripheral sub-discipline of European prehistory to being a diverse field at the centre of global archaeology. Today, practitioners of African archaeology are drawn from all corners of the world. There are research and teaching programmes involving Africa in archaeology departments all over the world. The diversity of practitioners cuts across gender, class, ethnic and national identities.
This is an exciting time to be an archaeologist working in Africa precisely because this may well be the only continent where archaeology in all its dimensions – from hominid evolution to protohistory – can be studied. Furthermore, there are few restrictions on who can conduct research in Africa and on what topic.
Confronting national, linguistic and disciplinary boundaries, contributors to African Archaeology Without Frontiers argue against artificial limits and divisions created through the study of ‘ages’ that in reality overlap and cannot and should not be understood in isolation. Papers are drawn from the proceedings of the landmark 14th PanAfrican Archaeological Association Congress, held in Johannesburg in 2014, nearly seven decades after the conference planned for 1951 was re-located to Algiers for ideological reasons following the National Party’s rise to power in South Africa. Contributions by keynote speakers Chapurukha Kusimba and Akin Ogundiran encourage African archaeologists to practise an archaeology that collaborates across many related fields of study to enrich our understanding of the past. The nine papers cover a broad geographical sweep by incorporating material on ongoing projects throughout the continent including South Africa, Botswana, Cameroon, Togo, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria. Thematically, the papers included in the volume address issues of identity and interaction, and the need to balance cultural heritage management and sustainable development derived from a continent racked by social inequalities and crippling poverty. Edited by three leading archaeologists, the collection covers many aspects of African archaeology, and a range of periods from the earliest hominins to the historical period. It will appeal to specialists and interested amateurs.
Ironsmiths occupy an important yet ambiguous position in many African societies. They are both revered and feared, because they wield social power which arises from their access to occult knowledge, not only of metallurgy but of healing, divination, circumcision and peacemaking. In some societies smiths enjoy high status and are the wealthiest people. In others they are feared, covertly maligned, and blamed for societal misfortunes. In still others the smiths' position is often marginal except when they are needed to intercede on their society's behalf to solve natural or cultural predicaments. The forge or smithy plays a central role in the community as tool-making centre, a place of refuge from violence, of purification, and for healing. This article examines the social context of iron forging among the ironsmiths of the Kenya coast, focusing on the role of iron forging in the coastal economy, the forge, the smiths' life cycle, the institution of apprenticeship, the ritual and technical power of smiths, the role of women in the smiths' community, and the future of iron forging on the coast. It is argued that, while coastal smiths are marginal and despised, they hold important ritual and spiritual powers in coastal society. The article concludes that a detailed understanding of the traditional crafts historically practised on the coast can do much to illuminate the complex history of coastal society.
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