Peter R. Schmidt. Historical Archaeology in Africa: Representation, Social Memory, and Oral Traditions. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2006. xi + 316 pp. $88.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7591-0964-3; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7591-0965-0.
Reviewed by Andrew Brodie Smith (Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town)
Published on H-SAfrica (April, 2007)
African Voices for Different Histories and Archaeologies
Peter Schmidt has taken it upon himself to be a spokesperson for African histories silenced by colonial historiography and archaeology. This he does by leading the reader through his own personal development of ideas since he first engaged African archaeology some thirty years ago. Thus, the author brings to bear not only a long history of his own reflection upon the subject, but also a rich experience of working in Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea.
Schmidt wishes to widen the definition of "Historical Archaeology" beyond its common usage as colonial archaeology to give equal value to the not-so-deep past that might be remembered in African oral traditions. In other words, he wants to give African voices a hearing during the period which overlaps with the colonial experience.
The thesis of the book is summed up well by a quote from Renee Louise Tantala: "Traditions about the remote past (myths, legends, and narratives purporting to relate the political history of archaic polities) are often concise and carefully crafted expressions of a people's world view--in addition to whatever value they have as carriers of explicitly political messages" (p. 20). Schmidt explicitly makes the same point about the oral traditions in Africa, writing that "tropic forms must be seen for what they reveal, say, of disputes over power claims and land claims--the contests from which history is made" (p. 27).
Oral histories, like any history, are combinations of selective "truth" and myth about the past, which often have political overtones. This can be seen in the apartheid education system in South Africa constructing a "white" history at the expense of black people, or in Israel to establish land rights, or in Australia to deny aboriginal resistance to white colonization.
Chapter 2 is a history of Schmidt's writings on "Oral Traditions and Archaeology," where he began in 1978 to formulate a methodology to tie together oral traditions and archaeology in his sub-field of interest, the African Iron Age and, as he goes on, specifically in the development of the history of iron technology in East Africa. He used the Tanzanian society of Haya to interrogate the relationship between their oral tradition and the productive economy (agriculture and iron working). It is in this section that the debate over the value of oral traditions versus archaeology is discussed. Whilst not necessarily giving primacy to the oral record, Schmidt wants to equate it with the archaeological record as a similar powerful historical tool, although he is the first to recognize that even though they might be complementary, the two do not often coincide. He states, "we can then argue that the demonstrated historical value of non-literary historiographic forms when employed with archaeology constitute historical archaeology and African history" (p. 25).
Another part of the discussion is not only about the use of the oral tradition, but also the use of material culture by traditional society that, according to Paul Lane, would constitute an alternative "archaeology." Lane also has shown how Dogon history of household assemblages are linked to the reproduction of the household group, and how these are used differently in the social construction of memory by men and women in the society.. The question remains, is this "archaeology?" Since the household goods are interpreted variously by the different players for specific social ends, as they are distributed from one generation to the next, does this constitute a testing of the record and re-evaluation as new data become available?
An analogy for the equation of traditional versus western knowledge might be the comparability of health systems. There has been an acceptance of the value of traditional medical practices in South Africa and attempts to give them equal space with western medicine. While most South Africans do not have access to modern health services, except through enormous expense of time and money, traditional healers are important purveyors of health. What has developed, however, is giving traditional medicine an equal voice to western training, and to the statements by several sangomas (traditional healers) that they can cure HIV/AIDS. It has also lead to the Minister of Health, Dr. Manto Shabalala-Msimang, supporting a dietary regime and inviting distributors of health supplements to handle HIV/AIDS. The result has been that many of the two million people in South Africa who have died of HIV-related diseases could still have been alive had an effective anti-retroviral program been set up years ago. One could even say in this regard that a little indigenous knowledge could be fatal.
Schmidt outlines several examples of the disconformity between oral traditions and archaeology. He also discusses how colonial historians have made assumptions about African history that are not upheld once excavation takes place. The research on the history of Bego and Mubende Hill in Uganda feature large in the debate, including how ultimately many of the colonial interpretations are appropriated by local historians and used to support their present political agendas. Equally, in instances where archaeological interpretation does not uphold the local beliefs, archaeologists might be in some danger when contradicting local lore. Sacred sites may lose some of their ritual importance, as Schmidt observes: "complex layers of historical representation include colonial and postcolonial interpretations that mask and sometimes erase the symbolic, sacred, and political significance of these important ancient sites" (p. 246).
A new twist is currently playing itself out in Zimbabwe. Written documents about early colonial "mining" of national monuments in the 1920s have been read by local people, who have then learnt that gold was found within the walled structures. Since the Zimbabwe government is in such a parlous condition, and heritage practitioners are seen to be lower down the pecking order than those with mining and mineral rights, permits to excavate for minerals have been given in areas with national monuments. The applications were implicitly made so the monuments could be taken apart.
Schmidt's book, however, is not just about political interpretations; it also suggests that colonial history created an "inferiority paradigm" that tended to downplay the technical skills and knowledge developed by Africans (p. 177). He uses the example of iron technology and experimentation with tuyère performance) as an indicator of how sophisticated this was long before the first colonists appeared on the horizon (pp. 184-193). The reader, however, should be aware that there is considerable debate among iron technology specialists on this, and it is not universally accepted.
Schmidt also takes some archaeologists to task for not recognizing the time frame of this knowledge, that dates as far back as the Early Iron Age in the first millennium A.D. (p. 253). A good point is made when he argues for small scatters that "inadequate field methods can erase history from a landscape" (p. 254), an argument that I have used for the difficulty of recognizing mobile pastoralist sites in Africa.
A final example of the hegemony of colonial historiography is Schmidt's discussion on the Sabean influence from the Yemen. His excavations at Ona in Eritrea do not support this, suggesting instead that the genesis for urbanism in the Horn was indigenous. Local people appropriated power symbols from Arabia as a means of political legitimization. He thus may seem to wish to counter the modern Ethiopian ideas on historic hegemony, and fuel the fires of local Eritrean nationalism.
While the book is overtly political, Schmidt is correct that there is the danger of essentializing "African History." This is obvious in the case of South African President Thabo Mbeki's "African Renaissance," where there would be a return to an African Golden Age (which never existed, except in the minds of those who want to mythologize African history). One must accept that Africa (Ifriquiya, Ethiopia) only existed in the minds of outsiders. Thus, African history is a colonial concept.
Schmidt is supportive of Bassey Andah's idea "that it is important to listen to ancestors" (p. 198), but this gives primacy to Bantu-speaking African ancestor worship. What about the rest of Africa? Africans practicing an agricultural lifestyle have denigrated Bushmen (Basarwa, baTwa, etc.) and other hunting peoples often forced to incorporate into the more dominant society. The Bushmen of Botswana have just succeeded in winning a mammoth court case against the government that tried to exclude them from their hunting lands that are rich in diamonds. The traditions and spiritual places of earlier inhabitants have sometimes been appropriated by farming people, as seen in the example of Dombashava in Zimbabwe, a Bushman rock art site seen by local farmers as spiritually important. Attempts to protect the rock art were actively resisted when the local people were excluded from use of the site, and the art destroyed by wanton vandalism, as related to the reviewer by Shadreck Chirikure.
This book is a very useful debating point for post-graduate seminars and anyone interested in the current arguments pertaining to the place of archaeology in post-colonial African history. There is no question that African voices need to be heard, but perhaps those voices should be from people who speak African languages--and in this case, not just Bantu-speakers. The debate, of course, will continue, because those who write in English will no doubt have been educated in a western school system. Maybe they will still be closer "to the ancestors," but if they write in their mother tongue, then they will continue to be silenced, at least for the foreseeable future.
. Renee Louise Tantala, "Kantu and the Kings: The Cosmology of Politics in Precolonial Kitara (Western Uganda)," paper presented at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association, Denver, 1991.
. Andrew B. Smith, "The Hotnot Syndrome: Myth-Making in South African School Textbooks," Social Dynamics 9, no. 2 (1983): 37-49. On Israel, see Bernard Lewis, History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975). On Australia, see M. F. Christie, Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835-1886(Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1979).
. Paul Lane, "Global Information, Local Knowledge and Archaeological Interpretation," paper presented at the World Archaeological Conference, Cape Town 1999.
. Paul Lane, "Household Assemblages, Lifecycles and the Remembrance of Things Past among the Dogon of Mali," South African Archaeological Bulletin 61 (2006): 40-56.
. As cited in the weekly "HIV/AIDS Barometer" of the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian (2007).
. Duncan Miller, "Review Article: P. R. Schmidt. ed., The Culture and Technology of African Iron Production" South African Archaeological Bulletin 51 (1996): 114-116; J. E. Rehder, "Use of Preheated Air in Primitive Furnaces: Comment on Views of Avery and Schmidt," Journal of Field Archaeology 13 (1986): 351-353; and Shadreck Chirikure, "New Light on Njanja Iron Working: Towards a Systematic Encounter between Ethnohistory and Archaeology," South African Archaeological Bulletin 61 (2006): 142-151; but see the response of Peter R. Schmidt, "Resisting Homogenisation and Recovering Variation and Innovation in African Iron Smelting," Mediterranean Archaeology14 (2001): 219-227.
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Andrew Brodie Smith. Review of Schmidt, Peter R., Historical Archaeology in Africa: Representation, Social Memory, and Oral Traditions.
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