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African Archaeology, by DAVID W. PHILLIPSON
Cambridge University Press; 2005 (third edition); xvi + 387 pages; 159 figures (of which 3 tables and 16 maps); ISBN 0-521-54002-X. (£25)

This is the third edition of this introduction to the archaeology of Africa, and in producing this revision Phillipson has had the unenviable task of getting on top of twelve years of scholarship since the last revision in 1993. This has been made all the more difficult, as he notes, by a number of developments for the best and worst in the world of archaeological publishing. These include the extraordinary growth of multidisciplinary research in archaeology requiring the synthesiser to span the sciences from the most physical of geological studies to the quite different world of genetic relationships and their respective journals. They are also proliferated by the impact of research assessment exercises and the requirement to publish research, that Phillipson believes is unfinished (and by implication should not have been published), and by the increase in the number of indigenous archaeologists working in Africa itself. Some parts of Africa have felt the full benefit of this increase in research and researchers whilst other parts have received much less attention. Finally, as Phillipson notes, the character of archaeology undertaken in the north (the regions bordering the Mediterranean including Egypt) is quite different to that undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa, and whilst the two approaches are beginning to merge, the archaeology of north and south remains very different.

The present edition retains the structure and traditional feel of the original, published in 1985. The material is divided into chapters by period, and then within chapters according to geographical regions that vary from chapter to chapter according to the depth of the evidence available for each period. The primary divisions relate ‘the emergence of humankind’ (essentially the record of the early hominids up to the appearance of the genus Homo); ‘the consolidation of human culture’ (essentially the Acheulean); ‘regional diversification and specialisation (the archaeology of the Middle and Later Stone Age and the appearance of anatomically modern humans); ‘the beginning of permanent settlement’; ‘early farmers’ (in which the world of Ancient Egypt is briefly covered); ‘iron-using peoples before AD 1000; and finally ‘the second millennium AD in sub-Saharan Africa’. In each section the text is primarily descriptive with an emphasis on the finds from major excavations and where appropriate the standing architecture of sites, all well illustrated by black and white photographs, line drawings of artefacts, maps of the location of key sites, and some site plans. At the end of each section Phillipson gives his overview of the character of human cultural development for the respective time and place and in so doing touches on current debates.

For the Anglo-Saxon marketplace, this is a text aimed at students in their early undergraduate years, and at those just starting their research on a particular place or period of African archaeology. As such it needs to be up as up to date as possible and with enough bibliographic information to direct students and scholars to the more detailed sources. In both senses this text is superb. As a specialist in the archaeology of the early hominids (and knowing that this is not Phillipson’s area of expertise!) I read the first three chapters on the Acheulean, the Middle Stone Age and the Later Stone Age expecting to find the odd error, a new site that was not covered, or more likely an occasion where interpretations have moved on. I did not find them. For example, there is currently a major debate about the appearance of modern human behaviour in Africa, made all the more heated by the certain knowledge that our own species evolved in Africa and moved out. A number of scholars see modern human behaviour as a package, a series of contemporary skills appearing perhaps 100,000 years ago or slightly earlier. Others, however, see archaeological evidence for modern human behaviour not as a coherent single package but as a series of discrete skills appearing one by one some time earlier, and probably pre-dating anatomically modern humans. Phillipson, however, covers this debate clearly and notes the key evidence that supports either viewpoint. He even manages to get on top of the current nomenclature and inferred relationships amongst the greatly increased number of early hominid specimens. So as an introductory text this is superb.

Comparing this edition to a copy of the first edition it is clear that the structure and the feel has remained the same – a traditional but sound approach. The revisions in this third edition are in reality expansions of the text as much as a rewriting. This third edition is more than half as long again as the first edition, whilst the bibliography alone is nearly 60 pages in length. It is this process of expansion that suggests that this edition may be at the limits of what can be achieved as synthesis. Since the second edition, there have been a series of syntheses of African prehistory, including texts on South African prehistory, southern African prehistory, the archaeology and biology of the early hominids, the archaeology of Islam, and so on. Compared to these volumes, the extent of the detail in African Archaeology is inevitable thinner, and this is only to be expected given the continental scope of this volume and the time spread. Phillipson is of course aware of this; he states clearly for the record that he has concentrated on setting out a record of the major chronological developments and describing our knowledge of the patterns of life, because the diversity of work around the continent is so huge. Perhaps the area where this is most acutely noticed is in his discussion of the archaeology of Ancient Egypt. In this volume it is covered in just 14 pages. The key points are there, but the rendering is quite condensed to say the least. It is however good to see Egypt included as an example of African archaeology rather than another of the classic Ancient Civilisations of a greater Europe.

The end result of this necessary synthesis is that some of the archaeological work that considers the cultural context of such practices as iron-working or the great artistic traditions gets less coverage than I would have liked. For example, as a complete novice I was struck by the similarities in manner of representation between the artistic production of the Chifumbaze complex and the later bronze working of Benin and Ife. They are of course related but in this book they are split into two separate chapters since the archaeology of the Chifumbaze complex dates to before AD 1000, and that from Benin and Ife to after this date. To follow such links through would require a complete restructuring of the book; however, the references are there for me to follow up these links if I should wish to do so.

The style of the book is now also beginning to look dated; more recent synthetic books are full of boxed sections of text on methods or specific sites or cultural phenomena. They are also more extensively served by tables and diagrams with timelines illustrating the development of specific skills or practices, and so forth, and perhaps maps showing the movement of peoples. Phillipson relies on text to describe what is going on and the illustrations are those that would suit a series of traditional lecture presentations rather than provide a visual narrative in their own right.

The one final comment to note is that Phillipson steers clear of much comment on the colonial background to archaeology in Africa, or to the impact of the world antiquities market on the plundering of archaeological sites particularly in central Africa. These are complicated issues, but are essential to the understanding of why African archaeology has developed in the way that it has and to the future development of an indigenous African archaeology.

As an introductory text to the archaeology of Africa as a whole, this text is hard to beat, but there is room for a more thematically structured book that explores another set of contexts of African archaeology both in the past and in the present.

Anthony Sinclair
University of Liverpool

Review Submitted: November 2005

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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