Institute of Archaeology

Beyond Chiefdoms: Archaeologies of African Political Complexity


In this course we address current developments in the archaeology of socio-political complexity in historic and pre-historic Sub-Saharan Africa. Our approach is multi-disciplinary, combining and critiquing historical, anthropological and archaeological narratives.

Current developments in thinking about social complexity in Africa are breaking new ground in revising tired and constraining social evolutionary stadial categories – so this course is also relevant to students with a wider interest in the archaeology of social complexity – whatever their region of specialization.

Themes will include:

  • Critical re-assessment of social evolutionary categories
  • Archaeological Recognition of Heterarchy versus Hierarchy
  • Attribute-based analyses of historical African political, ideological and economic systems
  • Archaeologies of slavery/ enslavement and warfare

Aims & Objectives of the course

  • Familiarise students with current developments in the archaeology and history of African political traditions (states) and their implications for the archaeology of social complexity beyond Africa
  • Make students aware of the basic framework of the later prehistory and history of Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Put the interpretation of African later prehistory and historic archaeology in the context of wider theoretical debates within the discipline
  • Understand the opportunities and limitations posed by archaeological data for studying ancient settlement landscapes and socio-political systems, including variants ranging from stateless and heterarchical social structures, to systems of warfare and enslavement

Learning Outcomes

  • critically assess interpretations of African complex societies and put them into a wider context
  • have a general understanding of the main Sub-Saharan polities from the second millennium BC up to the colonial era
  • be able to participate in general discussions on African socio-political traditions, their attributes and their archaeological study
  • have a basic knowledge of the relevant material culture and important sites

Teaching Methods

Lectures with Post-Lecture Discussion

Course information

For registered students

  • Moodle page:
  • Reading list:


  • Not running in 2017-18

Bookmark and Share