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20.06.10 Berzock, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time

20.06.10 Berzock, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time is a monumental achievement. The title refers not just to the volume under review, but to a traveling exhibition bearing the same moniker located at the Block, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian in 2019 and 2020. This volume appears in conjunction with that exhibition, which features items of material culture loaned from the Saharan region for display in North America. In editor Kathleen Bickford Berzock's words, the two are efforts to examine, "the history and legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange through its dispersed and fragmented material remains" (23).

The project is a truly collaborative venture of archaeologists, art historians, historians, and more, located in and around the Northwestern community, and closely partnered with staff at major museums and institutes in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria. Forewords authored by project partners, indeed, are a pleasure to read, and reflect the close camaraderie between participants at these locations, as well as their joint investment in working towards a shared goal. The core approach of this volume is that medieval Saharan Africa (referring here to the eighth through sixteenth centuries) cannot be considered in isolation from other parts of the globe, nor was it a lesser partner than those Eurasian regions which have long occupied the attention of scholars. In an era characterized by increasing suspicion and anger towards migrants, the volume also serves to foster a spirit of "cultural empathy...[and] acknowledge our interdependence" (8). The creative originality of African material culture and ideas sits at the core of most of the chapters. For as the Block's director Lisa Corrin writes, the contributors wished to reveal the "far-reaching and lasting impact of intercultural relations developed in Africa" (7).

The volume contains nineteen chapters divided into four sections. It opens with five chapters on "Groundwork," with Berzock's introductory essay an effort to give primacy to the archaeological fragments produced in medieval West Africa. Berzock explores the range and variety of goods created, bought, and sold in the Sahara as a centerpoint of global trade and interaction. "Archaeological imagination"--a central theme of the collection--inspires us to wonder of the hundreds of interactions, conversations, episodes of bartering, or arguments that might have surrounded a shard of porcelain from eastern China uncovered in Mali (29). Writer Chris Abani then ruminates on the nature of fragments, providing a series of questions to enable us to consider deeply their often fleeting and mysterious identities, and wonder about their authority and performativity. Robert Launay explores descriptions of Saharan trade and West Africa's empires in the Arabic sources, and Ralph Austen the valuable gold trade. Concluding this section's groundwork for the remainder of the volume is a piece authored by Mamadi Dembélé, Ahmed Ettahiri, Youssef Khiara, and Yousuf Abdallah Usman. All experts on the curation and preservation of material culture, the four authors discuss efforts to maintain cultural heritage in their respective countries in the face of various challenges.

Caravans of Gold continues with a second section entitled "Sites." Cynthia Becker considers how the Sahara constituted a "distinct cultural zone" during the medieval period, introducing the traders, nomads, oasis dwellers, slaves, warriors, scholars, and politicians who interacted as the human pieces of the trans-Saharan trade, sharing a material culture. She is especially sensitive to the region's complex environment and how it has affected the development of its history, including in the present. Becker's chapter is the background for five individual essays on specific archaeological sites in and around the Sahara. Ronald Messier and Abdallah Fili take on Sijilmasa, Morocco's "mythical city of gold" and a northern terminus of the cross-desert trade (107). They place material remains in conversation with Arabic texts, surmising how Sijilmasa negotiated the medieval period (the conquest of the city by the puritanical Almoravids in 1054-1055, for instance--which involved banning the consumption of wine--is supported by a decline in archaeological evidence for grape pips). Sam Nixon studies Essouk-Tadmekka ("resemblance to Mecca") near the southern edge of the desert, an urban trading center notable for several reasons including the revealing early Arabic inscriptions discovered in the remains of its cemeteries and on cliffs. Mamadou Cissé then recounts Gao's history and a description of two materially rich archaeological sites at Gao Saney and the smaller Gao Ancien which speak particularly to the histories of urbanization and, of course, trading. Mamadi Dembélé takes on the fertile inland Niger Delta including its fascinating togé mounds that date from the first millennium, notably drawing attention to trade networks extending beyond the Saharan routes. And the section culminates with Detlef Gronenborn's chapter on northern Nigeria, focused on the trading relations of this central Sahelian region notable for the Kanem-Borno empire and Hausaland city states.

"Matter in Motion" constitutes the third part of this book, and addresses the movement of items and forms of knowledge. Sarah Guérin discusses the ways copper, ivory, and gold moving in the trans-Saharan trade were utilized across West Africa's distinct environmental zones, before demonstrating their importance for the material culture of the broader Mediterranean world. Ronald Messier continues to develop the volume's multifaceted approach to medieval gold through analyzing the "texts" of 295 medieval dinars, mined south of the Sahara and minted in North Africa and Andalusia by the Fatimids, Umayyads, Almoravids, Almohads, and Zirids. And Gianluca Pastorelli, Marc Walton, and Sam Nixon continue in a similar vein, in their case describing the way gold was processed into coinage in Tadmekka, a site which contains the only existing evidence for the activity south of the Sahara. Of great interest is the way these archaeologists and scientists used 3-D imaging and printing to recreate the molds from which the coins were made, and experimented in using them to learn more about the manufacturing process. Abidemi Babatunde Babalola describes the earliest evidence for West African glass bead production in Ife-Ife from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, revealing how these commonly traded items were not simply foreign imports, as has been commonly thought. Mauro Nobili concludes the section by discussing the rise and spread of Arabic literacy in medieval West Africa, and the original contributions to knowledge made by scholars resident there. Inscriptions carved on rock discovered in the region provide a more permanent material basis than paper or parchment, and future research may focus more on these sites.

The arrival of significant numbers of European seafaring traders at the West African coast altered the long-standing primacy of trans-Saharan desert trade and brought the medieval era to a close. In the final part of this text--"Reverberations"--three chapters consider the legacies of the period. Raymond Silverman discusses several Mamluk (Egyptian) copper bowls/basins and two water ewers from England, all discovered in Akan territory (contemporary Ghana). He ruminates on the passages through which these items might have arrived in West Africa, and what their presence suggests about late-medieval trade. And two chapters turn to the more contemporary era. Cynthia Becker looks at the Gnawa of Morocco, male musicians and female diviners who are the descendants of slaves. Their distinctive comportment and cultural practices bond them to an "elsewhere" below the Sahara (270). And finally, Galya Ben-Arieh considers political and economic migration across the Sahara today, using Agadez in Niger to illuminate how the men and women moving across the desert were both similar and different to those in eras past.

The volume is beautifully illustrated with color images on almost every page. The most memorable are the full page photographs showing important items of material culture, and they are bolstered by others showing fieldwork sites, as well as a series of outstanding maps (particularly those double-page spreads inside the front and back covers showing the locations of medieval polities, trade routes, and the course of Mansa Musa's hajj in 1324-1325). Often, the images are not directly referenced by the chapters' texts, but are situated in appropriate places and accompanied by informative captions that explain their significance. It is notable that a number of images provide evidence for the connections of items and ideas far beyond the Saharan world; for instance, the extraordinary thirteenth-century "Virgin and Child," part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection, was shaped from the tusk of an elephant from West Africa's savanna (191). No expense was spared in laying out and producing this stunning book, and its price presumably has been subsidized to make it more accessible. This is a wonderful, interdisciplinary compendium that beautifully explores the medieval Saharan world and its peripheries.