Forgotten Africa: An Introduction to its Archaeology, by GRAHAM CONNAH
Graham Connah has been involved in archaeology in Africa for over forty years; currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University in Canberra (where he has also conducted wide-ranging work on the archaeology of Australia), he has excavated archaeological sites in Africa from Benin in Nigeria in the west, to Uganda in the east. He has made, it may be said, a truly towering contribution to the evolution of African archaeology as a mature discipline in its own right, and this contribution is the latest in a long line of publications promoting the diversity of Africa’s heritage to a global academic audience. Connah is best known perhaps for his compendious African Civilisations (2001, second edition; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), a book aimed squarely at the undergraduate market and one which in terms of scope and coverage of the evolution of socio-economic complexity in a range of areas of Africa has hardly been bettered. The book reviewed here, Forgotten Africa, extends the scope of that work in terms of chronological and geographical coverage, although does not equal the in-depth treatment of Civilisations.
Forgotten Africa (one assumes that the title is a tongue-in-cheek dig at the global archaeological community) is clearly targeted, as the cover blurb indicates, to the general reader and beginning student; advanced undergraduates and postgraduates may find the coverage a little too basic, and in terms of these readership criteria, Connah hits the mark. Connah emphasises this approach in his introduction, and he goes on to weave a very accessible, approachable and engaging book. The coverage is vast: early hominins, regional rock art, food production and then area-specific case studies embracing everything from ancient Egypt (good to see this recognised as actually belonging to Africa), Nubia, Ethiopia and across into western Africa, the tropical rain forest and points southwards. Every major site, theme and theory is covered in an accessible manner and as such the book lives up to its mission statement; the reader is given enough essential detail and reference to major theoretical debates current in the discipline, although the further reading section is very, very brief and does not embrace specialist journal publications.
Inevitably the brevity of the work is a major weakness; dealing with the key developments of human evolution in five pages (chapter one) will naturally result in many important nuances in the story being lost, and every other specialist who reads the book will think that their area of expertise has been too sketchily presented. The need to oversimplify and generalise can very often lead to confusion; a major fault in this regard, I feel, is the rather casual way that dates are presented (e.g. ‘about 200 years ago’). Here a chronological table would have been useful, as would a much more detailed continental map at the beginning. In this connection, the graphics are generally useful and germane to the work, but the whole is probably rather too under-illustrated. Incidentally, UK field archaeologists, and especially those responsible for Health and Safety, could do no better than use figures 34, 41 and 49 to illustrate how not to dig holes; this criticism might sound light hearted, but having pictures of human scales standing beneath tall, un-shored sections really does reinforce prejudices about the colonial and amateur legacy of African field archaeology that are still current today. In any case, these pictures are not exactly informative to amateur or specialist alike, and the allocation could probably have been better used in illustrating something else of value.
One feels that Connah may have set himself up for an academic pillorying for producing such a work; some reviewers may savage the book and will, as usual, miss the whole point of it. Those of us who actually teach undergraduates on a regular basis will thank Professor Connah for a work that is readable, affordable and pitched at the right level for the beginner undergraduate who may find the more advanced works a little daunting. This work will surely complement David Phillipson’s classic African Archaeology (happily in the throes of a new edition), and is to be highly recommended for the basic student market, especially, it must be said, in African universities, where accessibility to basic textbooks is highly problematic. On a final note, it is also satisfying to observe that Connah’s dedication recognises the work of Thurstan Shaw, that doyen of African archaeology; it is to be hoped that Connah’s contribution to this fast-developing discipline of archaeology in Africa will be similarly celebrated in the near future.
Review Submitted: May 2005
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