Kuba Art, East Carolina University




Peter Robertshaw
California State University, San Bernardino

(Editor's Note: Peter Robertshaw's article is in response to Jan Vansina's
"Historians, Are Archeologists Your Siblings?, republished on H-AFRICA with permission)


A couple of years ago while enjoying the luxury of a sabbatical (thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities and my university), I stumbled across Jan Vansina's article, "Historians, are archaeologists your siblings?", published in History in Africa 22 (1995), 369-408. Which archaeologist could resist reading a critique of his discipline by a respected historian? I plunged in with both anticipation and trepidation. These feelings turned out to be justified. I was both excited and a little dismayed by what I read, though I was relieved to find that my own archaeological efforts in Uganda were favorably viewed by the eminence gris.

I used Vansina's article as a starting-point for a discussion on the historiography of oral traditions and archaeology that I incorporated into a chapter of a book that I am writing at a glacial pace. Subsequently I have been disappointed that no archaeologists (to the best of my knowledge) have taken up in print the issues raised by Vansina.1 Therefore, when I was asked by the editors of this listserv to initiate a discussion, I rushed in like the proverbial fool. What follows will, I hope, be viewed as much more than simply a response to Vansina's paper.2 Indeed, what I have written is certainly not a rebuttal of Vansina's paper. I consider myself to be both an archaeologist and a historian, as well as an anthropologist (a jack of all trades and a master of none?). I agree with Vansina that "anyone of whatever discipline who reconstructs history is by definition a historian" (p.399), though I might chaff a little at the nomenclatural hegemony that makes archaeologists historians rather than vice versa.3

I begin with some comments upon Vansina's article. Please note that my focus is upon those sections of his article (I, II, VII, and VIII) that focus upon theoretical issues.4 I then shine the mirror back on the historians by offering a historiographical review of attempts to recover history from oral traditions. Because of my work in Uganda, I am particularly interested in the challenges of integrating archaeology with history gleaned from oral traditions. Therefore, I make this the focus of my discussion. I realize that this is a narrow view of the epistemology and methods of precolonial African history, but I would argue that there is already a substantial and growing body of literature on that portion of historical archaeology that has been termed "text-aided archaeology".5 I hope that by focusing upon archaeology and oral traditions I will succeed in both shedding some light and engendering some debate on the epistemologies of archaeology and history.

A Fraternal Response to Vansina's Critique

"In spite of all the declarations of principle, most historians are simply not interested in the results of archaeology" (Vansina, p.369): an indictment perhaps of the practitioners of both disciplines. Why this sad state of affairs? "The foremost problem may well be that historians have too touching a faith in archaeology as a 'scientific' discipline, and hence misunderstand some basic realities about it" (p.370). Yes, indeed! I suspect archaeologists have been both flattered and bemused by historians' conception of archaeology as science, founded presumably upon the observation that archaeologists dig up real stuff and get it radiocarbon dated by the white-coated high priests of science. I suspect too that archaeologists have also chafed at the implicit elision in meaning between archaeologists as scientists and archaeologists as technicians providing dating services for historians.

I for one always had ambivalent feelings about the long-running (but now defunct) series of commissioned articles on archaeology in the Journal of African History that seem to have been conceived of as annotated lists of radiocarbon dates to be mined by historians. Of course, it was hard to refuse when asked to prepare one of these articles since the invitation carried the aura that one had finally achieved a certain professional standing. However, the way in which archaeologists chafed against the format of these articles presumably contributed to the demise of the series. Of course, now that the series has ended, it would be good to see more archaeologists contributing substantive papers to the journal. My impression here is that the paucity of such papers should not be charged to the editors of the journal, but rather to archaeologists and to the rise of the African Archaeological Review. But I digress.

Vansina rightly points out the fallacies in regarding archaeology as simply "scientific", and urges us to consider archaeological epistemology and its paradigmatic underpinnings. Thus, his first and major criticism of African archaeology is its "nearly total adherence to neo-evolutionary theory" (p.396). Of course, some archaeologists (including Susan McIntosh who comes in for some stick in Vansina's paper) might see this as its major strength!

Sidestepping this debate for the moment, we note that Vansina mounts his attack on the use of neo-evolutionary theory in Africa archaeology, and in particular the adherence to an adaptationist perspective, by examining David Phillipson's African Archaeology (see Vansina, p.371-3, 376). This is a logical but perhaps unfortunate target. As Vansina (p.371) points out, this book is the usual point of entry into African archaeology for historians and other neophytes, since it is written by a respected authority and is the only recent synthesis of all of the field.6 Yes, Phillipson's book7 does profoundly embrace neo-evolutionary theory, even while sometimes disclaiming it. Thus, it is a reflection of the work of African archaeologists, but it is one from which much of the color has been washed out. Therefore, Vansina's contrast of Phillipson's synthesis with Devisse's dialectical historical approach8 turns the former into something of a straw man. African Archaeology must be understood in context. Its author has carefully excised the debates that underlie his interpretations because I believe (and here I impute motives that may be incorrect) Phillipson wished to write a book that was a brief yet authoritative introduction to the field. The result is a book that is breathtaking in its mastery of the literature, but one that is shorn of the debates that make archaeology exciting for most of its practitioners and for readers like Vansina. Indeed, my own students find the book very hard going; it certainly takes a dogged reader to plow through the chapter on the Middle and Late Stone Ages. Moreover, Phillipson mostly eschews any discussion of theory in his work, so it is perhaps unfortunate that Vansina uses African Archaeology as the bellwether of current theory.

The works of Rod and Susan McIntosh9 would be more suitable for theoretical analysis, but Vansina's views appear so antithetical to ideas of models and theories of culture process that the McIntoshs' endeavors are subjected almost to caricature rather than analysis.10 Throughout their work, the McIntoshs employ models, primarily derived from geography and anthropology, in order to reveal and explain the patterns hidden in the masses of archaeological data that they have recovered. The results of their endeavors provide readers with explanations of the past that readers can either accept or challenge by consulting the meticulously published reports11 of the archaeological data and suggesting alternative hypotheses. The use of models also helps to place the West African research within the framework of global debates within anthropology and archaeology concerning the rise of sociopolitical complexity. By means of this approach, the McIntoshs demonstrate the relevance of Africa to the interests of specialists in other parts of the globe. If nothing else, this provides an impressive rebuke of Trevor-Roper's famous barb concerning the "the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe".12

Let us now return to the broader critique offered by Vansina. Vansina's article raises numerous issues concerning both the differences between the disciplines of archaeology and history, and the strengths and weaknesses of archaeology. Vansina(p.370) contrasts the evidence of archaeology - "mute" artifacts - with that of history - written or oral "messages;" the former serve to elucidate "situations," while the latter are used to reconstruct "events."13 Thus, the differences between archaeology and history are more profound than simply the differences between the types of evidence that each discipline examines.

Vansina (p.396) identifies the strengths of archaeology as the recovery of material evidence, and the reconstruction of "situations" and the lives of ordinary folk. He also praises archaeologists for their ability to harness evidence from other disciplines, particularly the sciences (p.399). Archaeology's weaknesses are deemed to be (1) "a nearly total adherence to neo-evolutionary theory;" (2) "the refusal to recognize fully the role of contingency by sticking to the use of theoretical models;" (3) "the extravagant use of extrapolation;" and (4) "the lack of contemporary testimony to limit the free range of the imagination" (p.396). Archaeologists can scarcely be held accountable for the last of these weaknesses. The first two "weaknesses" raise important theoretical issues about the goals of archaeology and the nature of explanation, while the third "weakness" also merits brief discussion.

Vansina (p.371) contends that most African archaeologists, either implicitly or explicitly, employ an epistemological foundation of multilinear neo-evolutionism, an approach that "strikes historians as profoundly teleological and hence antihistorical." He rightly equates this paradigmatic orientation with Anglophone archaeologists, who tend to search for evidence that will allow them to develop theories to explain the origins and development of major transformations in human history such as the beginnings of agriculture and the rise of the state.

The neo-evolutionary paradigm is largely equated with American archaeologists who either consider themselves to be anthropologists or at least believe that their discipline is linked first and foremost to anthropology rather than to history. These views, I suspect, are largely shared by British archaeologists even though they may shy away from the more programmatic statements of American anthropological archaeology.

Vansina himself shares a penchant for the "direct historical approach" favored by many of his continental European archaeological colleagues, an approach which he (p.375) considers to embrace assumptions held by historians, such as the importance of contingency and the specificity of change. Some archaeologists, however, might label such an approach as particularistic, provincial and lacking in explanatory value. They might also add, perhaps gratuitously, that grant applications that failed to link planned research in one corner of Africa to larger anthropological themes would stand no chance of obtaining support from major funding agencies like the U.S. National Science Foundation.

These paradigmatic disagreements are hardly likely to disappear, but a brief excursion into the realm of what constitutes explanation may demonstrate that African historians, anthropological archaeologists and archaeologists who subscribe to the direct historical approach hold views that are not as incompatible as they might at first appear to be. Specifically, all protagonists recognize the role of contingency.

Archaeologists and historians both study processes and events that are situated in time and space. Acknowledgment of the temporal element implies that narrative accounts of what happened in the past embody explanations since they may incorporate information on causes and effects. By the same criteria explanation of the human past is patently not the same as explanation of phenomena in disciplines such as physics and chemistry that generally lack a temporal component.

Furthermore, we must recognize that historical processes and events occurred over differing spans of time and space. Thus, different sorts of explanations are likely to be required for different cases. To classify one sort of explanation as particularistic (historical) and another as generalist or global (anthropological) ignores the fact that each explanation may be valid for understanding the object of inquiry. Moreover, to label one kind of explanation as "scientific" or "antihistorical" and the other not is not only potentially judgmental but also demonstrably unsound.

As Roland Fletcher has remarked, "Biologists have no difficulty in arguing that history - in the sense of successions of unique events - matters in a study of the vast patterns and processes of biological evolution, and is consistent with 'science'."14 Eminent biologists, like Stephen J. Gould, have long argued that the course of evolution is charted by the intersection of evolutionary principles (mutation, drift, natural selection etc) with historical contingency. Therefore, following Fletcher's lead, we can argue that a hierarchical structure of explanations is required in archaeology and probably history as well. Large-scale processes do not determine small-scale processes nor can they be reduced to small-scale ones.15 Individual archaeologists and historians presumably exercise some freedom of choice concerning the level of explanation on which they focus their attention. However, we also need to admit that the temporal and spatial scales and resolution of archaeological and historical data are generally dissimilar.

What about Vansina's claim (p.396) that archaeologists indulge in extravagant use of extrapolation? This apparent blanket condemnation seems rather harsh, but perhaps not without merit. Thus, Vansina, in Section III of his paper, neatly demonstrates how archaeologists may gloss over the exigencies of their data,16 while also showing that even apparently prosaic site reports are imbued with a "subjective component".17 Yet the "relentless exposé of the subjectivities involved in archaeological theory and practice" (p.384), while informative, may induce the reader to forget that the practitioners of all historical disciplines, indeed perhaps all disciplines, are imbued with particular worldviews and paradigmatic orientations that could be labeled harshly as "subjective biases". Such biases are bound to exist. Indeed, how could one possibly pursue research in any meaningful way without them? How else could one establish research priorities?

Adherence to a particular paradigm does not necessarily lead to the use of "extravagant extrapolation". However, it is not always easy for either historians or indeed archaeologists to spot extravagant extrapolation when it is clothed in an aura of technical jargon and science.18 One suspects too that historians are as equally guilty here as archaeologists.19 Perhaps archaeologists (and historians) should follow the recent example of Rod McIntosh who inserts chapters of "historical imagination" into his account of the archaeology and history of the Middle Niger.20

To illustrate and expand upon these arguments, I now turn to the promised review of the historiography of oral traditions. Historian, know thyself as an archaeologist sees you!

My Brothers and Sisters in Arms

The data of oral traditions ("recollections of the past that are commonly or universally known in a given culture" and "that have been handed down for at least a few generations")21 and archaeology often seem not only entirely unrelated but also totally incapable of integration. Typical of this impasse is Connah's comment that "Two tonnes of excavated potsherds [are] unlikely to tell us anything … [about] the semi-mythical Bacwezi".22 Elsewhere the same author bemoans the fact that while archaeologists and anthropologists "have sought to understand change in terms of process, historians of Africa have sometimes tended to do so in terms of actors and events".23 Thus, processual theory24 runs aground on the sandbanks of historical particularism. However, while oral traditions may be presented in the idiom of personalities and their deeds ("actors and events"), they may indeed refer to process. Therefore, we should beware of the danger of confusing style with substance.

The beginnings of historical study of oral traditions in sub-Saharan Africa are closely tied to the African independence movements of the 1950's and 1960's. The first generation of African historians tended to assume that oral traditions were relatively uncomplicated accounts of what had happened the past.25 The historian's job was to go out into the field, interview knowledgeable, often elderly, informants and thereby collect the traditions. On return to the office, these traditions were transcribed, translated and woven together into a narrative account of the past of the particular ethnic group studied. The resulting histories began with accounts of origins, sometimes deemed to be creation myths, and ended with the establishment of colonialism.26

Thus, historians sought to compile a definitive history of each ethnic group, an endeavor that was well suited to the political climate surrounding independence. These histories were in many ways the logical progression from the ethnographies produced primarily by British anthropologists working under the aegis of colonial governments seeking to refine the methods of indirect rule.27 Of course, the concept of territorially bounded ethnic groups, each of which merited its own history, was in large part a product of European colonialism.

Methodological concerns among historians tended to focus on chronology, the dating of events in the absence of documentary references; ingenious solutions involving genealogies and solar eclipses were proposed.28 For their theory and method these histories also relied upon Vansina's seminal work, Oral tradition, first published in French in 1961 and in English translation four years later,29 and subsequently much revised.

For Vansina in the 1960's, oral traditions were "messages" from the past that could be deciphered by careful analysis of their content and of the contexts in which they were recited and passed down through generations. Thus, Vansina took a positivist and empiricist position in which history (what happened in the past) could be revealed by patient application to oral traditions of the appropriate analytical methods. An oral tradition could in a sense be unwrapped to reveal the history at its core. However, Vansina also averred that the history thus reconstructed constituted an hypothesis to be confirmed by independent evidence such as written documents and the findings of archaeology.30 Therefore, my own discipline was perceived by historians as a scientific endeavor to be used as a means of testing the accuracy of history written from oral traditions. For example, Merrick Posnansky31 excavated at Bigo in Uganda to verify the interpretation of the Cwezi traditions as referring to the existence of an ancient state.32

If the 1960's was a period of tremendous optimism in African history linked to a positivist paradigm, not in fact very different from the outlook that pervaded "New Archaeology" in that decade,33 the end of the 1970's saw the emergence of a less confident generation of African historians, whose theoretical misgivings were aired in The African Past Speaks.34 These misgivings were prompted primarily by anthropologists who treated oral traditions as "myths," which they then subjected to structuralist or functionalist analysis.35

While Vansina in particular objected strongly to the denial of the historicity of oral tradition,36 other historians explored the relationship between myth and history while also building upon Vansina's earlier insights into the contexts in which traditions were recounted.

The result of this soul-searching was a retreat from positivism and, indeed, a new skepticism about the historical value of the narrative content of most oral traditions.37 Miller even felt threatened enough to complain that anthropologists "see history in a much more positivistic sense than do most historians."38 Indeed, he continued, for historians, "history is the study of the remnants of the past that happen to survive into the present, which [historians] then use as bases for drawing probabilistic inferences about what the past may have been like. They make no pretense at comprehensiveness.... They accept as 'history' the selective and tenuous reconstructions they can achieve, however 'mythical' these may appear by the standards of others..... Most historians today would limit themselves to the examination of evidence from the past, examined in the present as signifying something about the past".39 Furthermore, "Histories are what historians ... compose to explain their understandings of the past to readers or listeners in the present".40 Within this context, archaeology was still viewed as an independent means whereby the historical content of a tradition could be confirmed.

While admitting the contested nature of history written from oral traditions, African historians sought to bolster their reconstructions by even more careful analysis of all aspects of the construction, memorization, performance, recording and context of oral traditions. The results of this exercise are evident in the revised version of Vansina's classic text, boldly retitled Oral Tradition as History.41

Nevertheless, historians themselves seemed to remain deeply divided as to the historicity of oral traditions, particularly those that refer to what Miller termed the "absent past", which he distinguished from the "present past".42 The latter term refers to those traditions which are relevant to the understanding and legitimacy of the current dominant institutions and factions in society. Thus, traditions of earlier times that are irrelevant to present circumstances comprise the "absent past".

The historicity of African oral traditions was subjected to further critical scrutiny in Tonkin's widely cited book, the subtitle of which, The social construction of oral history,43 encapsulates her profound skepticism of the historical value of oral traditions. Tonkin insists that "historians who use the recollections of others cannot just scan them for useful facts to pick out, like currants from a cake. Any such facts are so embedded in the representation that it directs an interpretation of them, and its very ordering, its plotting and its metaphors bear meaning too."44

Theoretically well-informed Africanists are hardly likely to consider such remarks revolutionary, but Tonkin goes on to construct a detailed argument concerning how various elements, including the individual, society, history, memory, and cognition, combine in the creation of oral narratives, which can themselves be presented in several different genres.

Tonkin also makes what seems to be a useful distinction in arguing that "history" has more than one meaning: it must "stand both for 'the past', history-as-lived, and 'representation of pastness', history-as-recorded. It is easy to slip from one meaning to another because of the different ways that the past lives in the present and judgments about events which are themselves representations of pastness can also be a form of action".45 Thus, the social construction of oral traditions implies that there may be little that is left in such accounts that refers to "history-as-lived" and the historian's self-appointed task of finding this history may well be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. This, of course, is a very pessimistic view of the task facing historians of oral tradition and one that is presumably not shared by many professional historians.

Oral traditions are not the only means by which historians may attempt to reconstruct the past in the absence of contemporary documents. David Cohen, for example, has argued that history may lie hidden in "the intelligence of ordinary life;" in the case of Busoga in eastern Uganda this intelligence was memories of marriage transactions.46 Perhaps history is wherever historians can find it.

One major area of historical inquiry with its own epistemological and methodological debates is comparative linguistics.47 The histories of words and their attached meanings (semantics) have proved a particularly fertile area for historians. Indeed, Vansina's recent monumental history of equatorial Africa is founded upon the study of "words and things," a combination of linguistic and ethnographic data emphasizing semantics.48 Oral traditions play only a very minor role, which suggests that perhaps Vansina is distancing himself from the problems that have been identified as being inherent in reconstructing history from such sources. This, however, is speculation on my part. The reasons behind the infrequent use of oral traditions in this case may be more mundane and practical, given the logistics of conducting research in the rain forests of Zaire and its neighbors.

Linguistic historians (or historical linguists) have forged relatively close links with archaeologists, even publishing their work in archaeological journals.49 Nevertheless, some archaeologists have remained skeptical of the historians' conclusions.50

Sibling Rivalry?

What do historians think of African archaeology and its practitioners? Perceptions have changed over time in accordance with paradigmatic shifts in both disciplines, but historians have remained fairly steadfast in their belief that archaeology provides a set of methods whereby the validity of history reconstructed from oral traditions can be tested with independent data. An early and rather successful example of the use of archaeology as verification was provided by Merrick Posnansky's excavations at Bweyorere; evidence was unearthed of events that were mentioned in traditions while radiocarbon dating bolstered the chronology reconstructed by genealogical methods.51

In the 1960's, archaeology's contribution to African history was thought to be primarily the provision of dating evidence and the elucidation of past migration routes. Thus, in a seminal article on Bantu expansion, the historian Roland Oliver rhetorically asked, "What, now, can archaeology add to this picture?" His answer, "dates".52 Similar sentiments were echoed by Vansina in Oral Tradition, but with a caveat; "Archaeology can throw light on certain aspects of the past, especially on migrations and on material culture. It is, however, often impossible to link the information obtained from oral traditions with definite archaeological finds".53

A concern with migration routes and the identification of the geographical origins of various innovations, such as metalwork, pottery and agricultural crops, pervaded African archaeology in the 1960's and much of the 1970's. This was perhaps a lingering legacy of the colonial period when it was widely assumed that cultural innovations, and sometimes people themselves, must have exotic rather than indigenous origins.

Animated debates over the expansion of Bantu languages and their archaeological correlates in the pottery of the Early Iron Age fueled the interest in migrations.54 However, the rapidity with which new data, emanating particularly from linguistics but also from archaeology, led to the speedy abandonment of what had seemed to be excellent interdisciplinary reconstructions55 provoked some archaeologists56 to throw out the linguistic baby with the bathwater.57 Indeed, what are archaeologists to make of the latest language-based model of Bantu expansion58 that not only throws out the hallowed migration model but also seems to defy any attempts at correlation with current archaeological knowledge? The archaeologist who ventures into this particular bath had better wear a protective diving suit.

A pioneering effort at the integration of archaeology and oral traditions was Peter Schmidt's research in Buhaya (northwestern Tanzania) in the 1970's.59 Schmidt is still one of the few African archaeologists who have also received graduate training in oral historiography. He is also one of the few archaeologists who possessed the time and inclination to collect oral traditions as a prelude to his archaeological investigations.60

Schmidt was fortunate to discover that the Bahaya used objects and places as mnemonic devices for their oral traditions;61 thus, archaeological sites were identified from oral traditions. However, Schmidt did not consider his archaeological research to be a test of the validity of the oral traditions he had recorded, arguing that "The simple conjunction of archaeological evidence with ethnohistoric evidence in specific cases does not ipso facto constitute proof of the oral tradition, nor does it mean verification of interpretive ideas that might be held in an oral tradition, such as a discussion about the function of an earthworks or a technological area".62 Instead, he suggested that together archaeological and historical evidence might be employed to formulate hypotheses for subsequent archaeological testing.63

In hindsight, Schmidt's appeals for the development of methodology and rigorous testing owes much to his philosophical attachment to the hypethetico-deductive approaches embraced by American processual archaeologists of the time. However, this positivism did not sit well with the narrative explanations offered by oral traditions and the structuralist and symbolic approaches that Schmidt was himself attempting to apply. Schmidt's work was criticized by some historians; Roland Oliver, for example, was skeptical of the claim that oral traditions kept alive memories of Early Iron Age archaeological sites.64 However, Schmidt's contributions to understanding the Bacwezi and the history of the Great Lakes region are acknowledged by almost all later historians.65 Most archaeologists tended to ignore Schmidt's work, confining their discussions to the early dating evidence that he had obtained for metallurgy and Early Iron Age ceramics.66 Schmidt, it seems, was espousing research topics and methods that were outside the mainstream of African archaeology even at the end of the 1970's.

By the time Jan Vansina revised his classic text on oral traditions, his views on archaeology had evolved to the extent that he no longer promoted archaeology as a means of investigating past migrations. However, he still considered that the major contributions of history's sister discipline was in the confirmation of historical evidence gleaned from oral traditions and in the provision of chronometric dates.67 He also warned against the dangers of simplistic interpretations of traditions linked to particular archaeological sites, pointing out that spurious traditions may be invented to explain the presence of archaeological features on the landscape, a phenomenon known as iconatrophy.68

Other academics who wrote about oral traditions, however, apparently remained naive about the pitfalls of archaeology. Tonkin, for example, eulogizes what she calls "traces," i.e. material remains of past times, such as ancient earthworks revealed by aerial photography. For her these "traces" are "...small lighted windows in the darkness of time, and the glances they permit seem miraculously to override the natural law by which we cannot re-play the past."69 However, no such illusions befuddled Vansina in the article that prompted this paper.

Towards a Mature Relationship?

How then can we go about building a new relationship between archaeology and history that both promotes archaeology to a full partnership and grapples successfully with the different sorts of data to which each discipline has access? It is tempting to end this article here and let others try to answer this question. However, I feel duty-bound to suggest one useful avenue of inquiry. This emanates from my own recent research. I think of it as exemplary rather than prescriptive.

The study of political economy has the potential to combine the politics revealed by historians with the economic evidence unearthed by archaeologists. Moreover, the study of power fits comfortably with the methods and vocabularies of both history and archaeology. On the one hand, discussion of power strategies may be expressed in terms of the motives and actions of individuals, just as occurs in the oral traditions. On the other hand, power strategies are expressed materially in the archaeological record in guises such as trade goods and monuments. Moreover, the cults and religions found in oral traditions may be mirrored archaeologically in shrines and material symbols of ideology. Thus might archaeology and the study of oral tradition be harnessed together.

At least three hurdles70 remain to be overcome: first, how to deal with the vexed issue of dating; second, how to establish ethnic identity in the past; and third, how to avoid the more epistemological problem of premature integration of archaeological and historical results and thus the conversion of discipline-based speculations into spurious interdisciplinary reconstructions of the past, as indeed has happened too often with studies of the spread of Bantu languages and the Early Iron Age.

In a (vain?) attempt to keep this paper to a length suitable for reading via the Internet, I have chosen not to pursue here the problems pertaining to dating and ethnic identification.71

The problems of premature integration of results are not unique to Africa. Mike Smith, writing about Postclassic Mexico, has complained that the data of archaeology and history have been "juxtaposed prematurely before either has been sufficiently analyzed on its own terms".72 Similarly, it has been proposed that archaeologists need to pursue their research independently of the oral traditions.73 Clearly, many archaeologists reject the notion, popular among historians, that archaeology is primarily a means of testing hypotheses about the past derived from studies of oral traditions.

It is equally true that the idea that archaeologists may work without any regard to the interpretations of historians is nonsense. In designing our research and preparing our grant proposals we have all read the theories and interpretations offered by historians and, at the very least, have perused the traditions that the historians have analyzed. Therefore, whether or not we admit it, archaeologists will consider the relevance of their results for historical interpretations, not as a final step in the research process but as an ongoing debate throughout their work. Thus, some degree of feedback from historical interpretations into archaeological research design is probably inevitable. Therefore, rather than aspiring to disciplinary aloofness, archaeologists might be better advised to enter into a dialogue with historians as equal partners rather than as glorified technicians.

This article has tried to continue the dialogue begun by Jan Vansina.74 Historians, archaeologists are indeed your siblings, not wayward servants with an unwarranted attachment to neo-evolutionary theory.


1. I will forego speculation about why archaeologists failed to rise to the bait. Return to the Text.

2. I thank Kathryn Green for suckering me into this effort and for her comments on last week's draft. She is not responsible for what follows. Return to the Text.

3. Are historians archaeologists? Since archaeologists attempt to reconstruct the past from its material remains, then, reluctantly, I think that historians are not archaeologists, since the objects of historians' studies are far from tangible. However, Vansina's recent emphasis on what he terms the study of 'words and things' (see below for references) is perhaps not too far removed philosophically from archaeology. Return to the Text.

4. Methodology in particular is discussed in Section III, while Section VI focuses upon the 'Neolithic "Revolution"'; others may well wish to comment upon the interesting ideas expressed in those sections. Sections IV and V present a synopsis of recent archaeological research of interest to historians, and might, therefore, be deemed less controversial. Return to the Text.

5. For example, Barbara J. Little (ed.), Text-Aided Archaeology (Boca Raton, 1992); Charles E. Orser, Jr., A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World (New York, 1995). For text-aided archaeology in Africa, see Merrick Posnansky and Christopher R. DeCorse, "Historical archaeology in sub-Saharan Africa - a review," Historical Archaeology 20(1986), 1-14. For examples of research, see publications on most of the regions discussed in Graham Connah, African Civilizations (Cambridge, 1987). Return to the Text.

6. Martin Hall's recent Archaeology Africa (London, 1996), while discussing various topics in African prehistory, is aimed more as an introduction to archaeological method and theory for an African audience, though historians might well benefit from reading it. Return to the Text.

7. D.W. Phillipson, African Archaeology (2nd ed., Cambridge, 1993). Return to the Text.

8. J. Devisse, ed., Vallées du Niger (Paris, 1993); J. Devisse, "La recherche archéologique et sa contribution à l'histoire de l'Afrique," Recherche de pédagogie et culture 55 (1981), 2-8. Return to the Text.

9. For example, R.J. McIntosh, The Peoples of the Middle Niger, (Oxford, 1998); "Early urban clusters in China and Africa: the arbitration of social ambiguity," Journal of Field Archaeology 18(1991), 199-21; "The pulse model: genesis and accommodation of specialization in the Middle Niger," Journal of African History 34(1993), 181-212; R.J. McIntosh and S.K. McIntosh, "From siècles obscurs to revolutionary centuries on the Middle Niger," World Archaeology 20(1988), 141-65; S.K. McIntosh, "Changing perceptions of West Africa's past: archaeological research since 1988," Journal of Archaeological Research 2(1994), 165-98; S.K. McIntosh (ed.), Pathways to Complexity: An African Perspective (Cambridge, 1999); S.K. McIntosh and R.J. McIntosh, "Cities without citadels: understanding urban origins along the Middle Niger," in T. Shaw, P. Sinclair, B. Andah, and A. Okpopo (eds.), The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns (London, 1993), 622-41; "From stone to metal: new perspectives on the later prehistory of West Africa," Journal of World Prehistory 2(1988), 89-133. Return to the Text.

10. Vansina, p.374. Vansina seems to be profoundly ambivalent about the work of the McIntoshs. While deriding their use of models, he nevertheless considers the 1977 Jenne-jeno excavations as the last archaeological endeavor to have seized the attention of historians (p.369). He also expends considerable space in a discussion of the results of the McIntoshs' recent work (p.385-7). Return to the Text.

11. R.J. McIntosh, Peoples; S.K. McIntosh (ed.), Excavations at Jenne-jeno, Hambarketolo and Kaniana in the Inland Niger Delta (Mali). The 1981 Season, University of California Monographs in Anthropology 20 (Berkeley, 1995); S.K. McIntosh and R.J. McIntosh, Prehistoric Investigations in the Region of Jenne, Mali, Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology no. 2 (Oxford, 1980). Return to the Text.

12. H. Trevor-Roper, "The rise of Christian Europe," The Listener 70(1963), 871-875, 915-919, 975-979, 1019-1023, 1061-1065. Return to the Text.

13. Vansina clearly has the Annales school of history in mind here, as indeed he makes clear later (p.375). Return to the Text.

14. R. Fletcher, "Time perspectivism, Annales, and the potential of archaeology," In A.B. Knapp (ed.), Archaeology, Annales, and ethnohistory, 35-49 (Cambridge, 1992), quote from p.35. Return to the Text.

15. Ibid., p.35. Return to the Text.

16. See especially p.379. Return to the Text.

17. See p.381-2. Return to the Text.

18. I hesitate to cite examples of this practice among the work of my colleagues. Vansina mentions examples in his discussion in Section 3. In fact, the critical reader wishing to find examples need look no further than my own site reports. Return to the Text.

19. Historical linguistics seems to me to be a field of study, like archaeology, where extravagant extrapolation may be easily concealed in technical appendices. Return to the Text.

20. McIntosh, Peoples. Return to the Text.

21. D. Henige, Oral historiography (New York, 1982), p.2. Return to the Text.

22. Graham Connah, "The salt of Bunyoro: seeking the origins of an African kingdom," Antiquity 65(1991), 479-94, quote from p.480. Return to the Text.

23. Graham Connah, African civilizations: precolonial cities and states in tropical Africa: an archaeological perspective (Cambridge, 1987), p.13. Return to the Text.

24. Briefly, processual theory attempts to explain the past in terms of the varied interactions between aspects of culture and the ecosystem. It is closely allied to systems theory. Adherents of processual theory tend to prefer explanations that focus upon internal developments within society over those that attribute change to migration or to the deeds of "Great (Big?!) Men". Archaeologists, of course, have a lot of trouble identifying the latter in the archaeological record. Return to the Text.

25. In the interests of both brevity and debate, please allow me to indulge in a few somewhat sweeping generalizations. Return to the Text.

26. Historians may supply their own examples. Return to the Text.

27. See note 26. Return to the Text.

28. For critical discussion of these dating efforts, see D. Henige, The chronology of oral tradition: Quest for a chimera (Oxford, 1974); idem, "Reflections on early interlacustrine chronology: an essay in source criticism," Journal of African History 15(1974), 27-46. Return to the Text.

29. Jan Vansina, Oral tradition (Harmondsworth, 1965). Return to the Text.

30. See also J. Vansina, "The power of systematic doubt in historical enquiry," History in Africa 1(1974), 109-27. Return to the Text.

31. Merrick Posnansky, "Kingship, archaeology and historical myth," Uganda Journal 30(1966), 1-12. Return to the Text.

32. Roland Oliver, "A question about the Bachwezi," Uganda Journal 17(1953), 135-7. Return to the Text.

33. The "New Archaeology" that emerged in the 1960's embraced a positivist and explicitly scientific approach to archaeology. During its infancy, adherents of New Archaeology proclaimed that archaeology could reconstruct all aspects of the human past, even topics such as kinship systems which many scholars had previously believed to be beyond the compass of archaeological data; see, for example, Lewis Binford and Sally Binford (eds.), New Perspectives in Archaeology (Chicago, 1968). Return to the Text.

34. Joseph C. Miller (ed.), The African past speaks: Essays on oral tradition and history (Folkestone, 1980). Return to the Text.

35. Joseph C. Miller, "Introduction: listening for the African past," p.3, in Joseph C. Miller (ed.), The African past speaks: Essays on oral tradition and history (Folkestone, 1980), 1-59. Return to the Text.

36. Jan Vansina, "Is elegance proof?" History in Africa 10(1983), 307-48. Return to the Text.

37. Henige, Oral historiography; idem, "Truths yet unborn? Oral tradition as a casualty of cultural contact," Journal of African History 23(1982), 395-412; Miller, "Introduction", 45. Return to the Text.

38. Miller, "Introduction", 46. Return to the Text.

39. Ibid., 47. Return to the Text.

40. Ibid., 49. Return to the Text.

41. Jan Vansina, Oral tradition as History (London, 1985). Return to the Text.

42. Miller, "Introduction", 41-3. Return to the Text.

43. Elizabeth Tonkin, Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History (Cambridge, 1992). Return to the Text.

44. Ibid., 6. Return to the Text.

45. Ibid., 2. Return to the Text.

46. D.W. Cohen, Womunafu's Bunafu: A study of authority in a nineteenth-century African community (Princeton, 1977). Return to the Text.

47. For the interrelationship between this field and archaeology, see, for example, Christopher Ehret, "Linguistic evidence and its correlation with archaeology," World Archaeology 8(1976), 5-18; idem, "Language change and the material correlates of language and ethnic shift," Antiquity 61(1988), 366-74; idem and Merrick Posnansky (eds.), The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982). Return to the Text.

48. Jan Vansina, Paths in the rainforests: Toward a history of political tradition in equatorial Africa, (London, 1990), see especially p.11-2. Return to the Text.

49. For example, Ehret, "Linguistic evidence", "Linguage change"; David L. Schoenbrun, "Cattle herds and banana gardens: the historical geography of the western Great Lakes region, ca. AD 800-1500," African Archaeological Review 11(1993), 39-72. Return to the Text.

50. For example, Peter Robertshaw and David Collett, "A new framework for the study of early pastoral communities in East Africa," Journal of African History 24(1983), 289-301. Return to the Text.

51. Merrick Posnansky, "The excavation of an Ankole capital site at Bweyorere," Uganda Journal 32(1968), 165-82. Return to the Text.

52. Roland Oliver, "The problem of the Bantu expansion," Journal of African History 7(1966), 361-76; quote from p.371. Return to the Text.

53. Vansina, Oral Tradition, 174. Return to the Text.

54. For reviews, see Jan Vansina, "Bantu in the crystal ball I," History in Africa 6(1979), 287-333; idem, "Bantu in the crystal ball II," History in Africa 7(1980), 293-325; M. Eggert, "Historical linguistics and prehistoric archaeology: trends and patterns in Early Iron Age research in sub-Saharan Africa," Beiträge zur Allgemeine und Vergleichenden Archäologie 3(1981), 277-324. Return to the Text.

55. For example, David W. Phillipson, "The spread of the Bantu languages," Scientific American 236(1976), 106-114. Return to the Text.

56. For example, Eggert, "Historical linguistics"; Robertshaw and Collett, "New framework". Return to the Text.

57. Compare Ranger's dismissal of archaeology quoted by Vansina at the beginning of his paper; T.O. Ranger, "Towards a usable past," in Christopher Fyfe (ed.), African Studies since 1945 (Edinburgh, 1976), 21. Return to the Text.

58. Jan Vansina, "New linguistic evidence and 'the Bantu expansion'," Journal of African History 36(1995), 173-95. Return to the Text.

59. Peter R. Schmidt, Historical Archaeology: A Structural Approach in an African Culture (Westport CT, 1978). Return to the Text.

60. One sometimes hears it mooted that, in the absence of polymaths, the best means to undertake interdisciplinary research is to send teams of specialists to the field, an approach that has been very successful in palaeoanthropology. I was a member of two such teams, sponsored by the British Institute in Eastern Africa, that worked in the Southern Sudan nearly twenty years ago (see J. Mack and P. Robertshaw (eds.), Culture History in the Southern Sudan, British Institute in Eastern Africa memoir no. 8 (Nairobi, 1982)). Although the experience was enjoyable, it was in my view not particularly successful since the historians and cultural anthropologists both needed longer periods than that of the normal archaeological field season in which to conduct their work. Moreover, they had different requirements in the field; if anything, the presence of an archaeologist, who sometimes employs many local people and generally disrupts the local economy, may be a hindrance to other social science researchers. Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it clear that I believe that archaeological research generally benefits from the presence of teams of archaeological specialists in the field, who may also work closely and productively with natural scientists. Return to the Text.

61. Schmidt, Historical Archaeology, 111. Return to the Text.

62. Ibid., 5. Return to the Text.

63. Ibid. Return to the Text.

64. R. Oliver, "Review of P.R. Schmidt, Historical archaeology: a structural approach in an African culture," Journal of African History 20(1979), 289-90. Return to the Text.

65. For example, R.L. Tantala, The early history of Kitara in western Uganda: Process models of religious and political change, PhD thesis, University of Wisconsin (Madison, 1989), 27-8. Return to the Text.

66. See, for example, Phillipson, African Archaeology, 188. Return to the Text.

67. Vansina, Oral tradition as history, 160, 185. Return to the Text.

68. Ibid., 10. Return to the Text.

69. Tonkin, Narrating, 84. Return to the Text.

70. Readers may think of others. Return to the Text.

71. I have prepared pieces of a draft dealing with these issues that I would be happy to share if there is sufficient interest. Return to the Text.

72. M.E. Smith, "Braudel's temporal rhythms and chronology theory in archaeology," in A.B. Knapp (ed.), Archaeology, Annales, and ethnohistory (Cambridge, 1992), 52. Return to the Text.

73. For example, Connah, "salt of Bunyoro," 480. Return to the Text.

74. I thank Jan Vansina for inspiring this article and for not giving up on archaeology. I can only wish that my command of Jan's discipline would even approach his command of mine. Return to the Text.

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