Review Article

Social complexity in Iron Age and early modern West Africa

Anne Haour
Centre for African Art and Archaeology, Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, UK

Books Reviewed

STEPHEN A. DUEPPEN. Egalitarian revolution in the Savanna: the origins of a West African political system. xiv+344 pages, 93 illustrations, 33 tables. 2012. Sheffield & Bristol (CT): Equinox; 978-1-908049-20-9 hardback $75.

J. CAMERON MONROE & AKINWUMI OGUNDIRAN (ed.). Power and landscape in Atlantic West Africa: archaeological perspectives. xx+390 pages. 2012. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 978-1-10700-939-4 hardback £65 & $99.

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These two books share a lot. Both are concerned with presenting the archaeology of West Africa, drawing widely on sister disciplines such as ethnography, written history and oral tradition. Both argue that West African data must contribute to wider debates on social complexity, and thus continue to push the case made, for example, by McIntosh (1999).

But beyond these resemblances, the two books come at the subject from different perspectives: Egalitarian revolution examines one site in western Burkina Faso, occupied between the second and the mid-fifteenth centuries, while Power and landscape presents case studies from throughout West Africa in the early modern period, roughly the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. They are also, inevitably, quite different in flavour: one contains 12 chapters covering eight West African countries, which throws up variability as well as similarities, while the other is a book-length monograph discussing one site and its context within the wider 'Voltaic tradition'.

Egalitarian revolution introduces one of the most remarkable sites identified by recent work in the Sahel-savanna band of West Africa—Kirikongo, a cluster of 13 mounds over 37 hectares. Alongside sites such as Sadia and Tongo Maaré Diabal in Mali (MacDonald 1997; Huysecom et al. 2010), Oursi-hu-Beero in Burkina Faso (Petit et al. 2011), and Birnin Lafiya in Bénin (Haour et al. 2011; Haour 2013), Kirikongo sheds light on the 'Iron Age' occupation of first- and early-second- millennium West Africa through a combination of well-preserved architectural features and material culture. The people of Kirikongo paved their houses with crushed laterite or clay/laterite mix, resulting in hard flooring (and, from the archaeologist's point of view, stratigraphically sealed contexts), and they built walls of sun-dried bricks or puddled mud. Egalitarian revolution presents the findings from the site.

The book comprises 15 chapters; broadly speaking, Chapters 1–3 consider the theoretical and ethnographic background, Chapters 4–12 present various classes of archaeological data, and Chapters 13–15 return to the key idea of the book, namely "revolution and the triumph of communalism" (p. 306). There is, therefore, a strong theoretical bent to the book which, aspiring to be more than just a site report, suggests that Kirikongo documents the replacement of exclusionary power by a community involving diverse individual hierarchies. Such 'corporate' strategies are indeed well-documented in early- and mid-twentieth-century ethnographies of western Burkina Faso and elsewhere in West Africa, and one aim running through Egalitarian revolution is to better connect ethnography and archaeology. The strength of the case for an egalitarian revolution rests largely on Chapters 6 and 7, which are devoted respectively to stratigraphy and ceramics, and span over 90 pages. Based on the analysis of almost 14 000 sherds, five ceramic phases are identified: Yellow I and II, and Red I–III (the names come from the nature of the building material). There are also nine radiocarbon dates. The period 'Red II', roughly AD 1100–1300, is identified as a time during which the community was fundamentally reorganised; inequalities based on the power of iron were abolished, a suggested ritual structure was built on the central mound and one material symbol of inequality, livestock, was rejected. The volume is well-presented, but does not include any photographs, which makes some of the discussions of architecture and pottery difficult to evaluate.

The second title under review, Power and landscape, is an edited volume organised around the question of social complexity, focusing on West Africa in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and sharing a concern with integrating archaeological data with other sources of evidence and with situating archaeological sites within their landscapes. It brings together results of archaeological fieldwork from throughout West Africa, some of which results from lengthy field programmes. The book is split into three sections, nominally describing three different 'types' of landscape. Kopytoff's (1987) model of the internal African frontier structures many of the papers, giving a good sense of coherence. The first two sections deal with societies which were in contact, directly or indirectly, with Atlantic commerce. In the first, landscapes where the centralising tendencies of elites were thwarted by factional or heterarchical tensions are discussed. In the second, state-generated landscapes, rendered by political agents, are the focus. Part III deals with regions (wrongly) perceived to have been socially, economically and geographically distant from coastal commerce, that is, the internal frontier landscapes of smaller-scale polities that emerged at the interstices of expansionist states. One note at this point—given the focus on landscapes and a strong reliance on survey, one wonders why the use of GIS is not mentioned more (see Katsamudanga 2009).

These three landscape sections work well together. Space does not allow full discussion of every paper, so I have selected one example from each section. The four chapters in Part I illustrate, using examples from Sénégal, Bénin and Ghana, how elites failed to establish lasting centralised control over trade or to sustain political authority. Oftentimes centres of economic and political power did not coincide. For example, Thiaw's survey along 50km of the Falemme River of inland Senegal (Chapter 2) shows that the pattern of site distribution was radically altered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the region was integrated into the Atlantic world; campsites and fortified stone settlements, both interpreted as consequences of the increase in political violence wrought by integration into the Atlantic world, proliferated. Islamic reformers, European traders, local elites and French colonists are among the many actors who jostled for power and acted on the landscape, all in a context of high population mobility—a far cry from simplistic models of incoming Europeans and acquiescent Africans. The surveys by Richard, Spiers and Norman similarly demonstrate that in many parts of West Africa, the political landscape was 'fragmented'. In contrast, Part II illustrates how polities engaged in major projects to construct new landscapes showing the mark of their authority. Such was, for example, the case with the towns of Ségou (MacDonald & Camara, Chapter 6), the palaces of Dahomey (Monroe, Chapter 7) or the creation of the colony of Ede-Ile by the Oyo empire (Ogundiran, Chapter 8). Here, the focus is certainly on hierarchical modes of organisation even though authors make it quite clear that alternative means of organising the landscape exist in parallel (for example, in the case of Ségou, the commercially-minded towns, the marka). Finally, Part III deals with regions (sometimes wrongly) perceived to have been socially, economically and geographically distant from the Atlantic world—inland places in what are now in Sierra Leone, Togo and Cameroon. The creation of states and the construction of massive dry-walled structures in the Mandara mountains—which have been proposed for listing by UNESCO—in the mid second millennium AD has been attributed to the influence of the Kanem-Borno empire—one of Africa's longest-lived polities—but MacEachern (Chapter 11) shows clearly that elements such as settlement walling or the use of horses predate by a huge margin the move of Kanem-Borno into these areas. Although the developments here have no direct link that we can at present detect with events in the Atlantic, there is no doubt that the region was part of a global world connected, for example, through the Sahara. The other chapters in this section, by DeBarros (Chapter 9) and DeCorse (Chapter 10), tie us again to the coast.

The maps and illustrations are excellent throughout the volume and the quality of production is very high.

As noted earlier, these two books share a lot. A common tension is the weight to give to field data versus theory. Power and landscape issued indirectly from an 'African archaeology' session at the 2005 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), where the lack of thematic coherence led a momentarily disheartened chair (Monroe) to join forces with Ogundiran and put together a much more focused session at the 2006 meeting (p. xv). That session, oriented around the question of how participants' Africa-based fieldwork spoke to issues relevant to scholars working on social complexity around the world, gave rise to the Power and landscape volume. It is a very successful product; the chapters combine strong theoretical backbone, drawing on a range of literature worldwide yet never overwhelming, with a detailed, well thought-out presentation of data. These chapters are well-rounded and mature contributions, which demonstrate a remarkable convergence on the themes of landscape and interdisciplinarity. Chances are high that the volume will indeed—as suggested in the foreword—become a reference point in the archaeology of West Africa. An egalitarian revolution is quite different in that it hopes to use a single site to help break the equation between social complexity and increasing centralisation. The determination throughout the book to think about what archaeological remains can tell us in the wider picture is definitely to be welcomed. However, the focus on the large thematic narrative tends at times to overwhelm the presentation of factual data. All being said, though, this is a very readable book on a remarkable site, and one which will certainly push forward debates on social organisation.

Together, An egalitarian revolution and Power and landscape should get non-Africanists talking about what African archaeology can offer to the wider understanding of social complexity.


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