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African Archaeological Review

, Volume 26, Issue 2, pp 75–135 | Cite as

Historical and Dialectical Perspectives on the Archaeology of Complexity in the Siin-Saalum (Senegal): Back to the Future?

  • François G. RichardEmail author
Original Article

Abstract

Drawing on recent critiques of evolutionism, this article reviews the history of Iron Age studies in Siin-Saalum (Senegal) to examine the construction of African archaeological knowledge. From the 19th century to the 1980’s, analyses of complexity in Senegal have been animated by developmentalist views that have portrayed the regional past as a stagnant backwater. In the past 25 years, however, archaeological research has sought to redress these inaccuracies by exploring the diversity and idiosyncracy of African histories, and the processes behind sociopolitical change. These critical agendas can help us exploit the analytic potential of material culture to reincorporate African societies into the stream of world history, and to use the African past to reevaluate current scenarios of complexity and their applicability to various regions of the globe. To achieve these goals, however, and develop a fully self-reflexive archaeology in Senegal, researchers must eschew moral celebrations of African distinctness and strive instead to document how local pasts owe their particular qualities to complex political-economic articulations with other world societies. Concurrently, we must also attend to the dynamics of historical production in and out of guild circles, and consider our entanglement in the making of contemporary ‘culture wars.’ Because it is ideally suited to probe the historical and material depth of cultural differences and inequalities, archaeology must take a leading role in dispelling essentialist readings of Africa and promoting democratic knowledges about the continent.

Keywords

Senegal Complexity Intellectual history Dialectics Archaeology 

Résumé

S’inspirant du récent regard critique sur l’évolutionnisme, cette article examine la construction de la connaissance archéologique de l’Afrique à la lumière de l’histoire des études de l’Âge du Fer au Siin-Saalum (Sénégal). Entre le 19e siècle et les années 1980, l’analyse de la complexité au Sénégal a été dominée par des idées développementalistes, qui ont fait un portrait statique du passé régional. Néanmoins, au cours des 25 dernières années, la recherche archéologique s’est efforcée de redresser ces erreurs en étudiant la diversité et les caractéristiques propres aux histoires africaines, et en retraçant les dynamiques de leurs changements socio-politiques. Ces nouveaux courants théoriques sont intéressants parce qu’ils s’appuient sur la culture matérielle pour réintégrer les sociétés africaines dans la mouvance de l’histoire mondiale, et sur le passé africain pour tester la pertinence des scénarios de complexité en usage et leur application à d’autres régions du globe. Pour atteindre ces objectifs, et contribuer au développement d’une archéologie plus autocritique, il est toutefois nécessaire de pousser la réflexion archéologique au delà d’un éloge moral des anciennes ‘cultures’ africaines et s’attacher plutôt à comprendre comment le passé africain s’est construit au cours d’une longue histoire d’intéractions économiques et politiques avec les sociétés du monde. En même temps, nous devons examiner les rouages de la production historique, tant à l’intérieur qu’ à l’extérieur des carcans disciplinaires, afin de mieux cerner notre position dans les ‘guerres de culture’ qui sillonnent notre quotidien. Parce que l’archéologie est capable de sonder les fondements historiques des différences et des inégalités culturelles, elle doit jouer un rôle majeur dans la critique des lectures essentialistes de l’Afrique et la promotion de savoirs démocratiques pour le continent.

Notes

Acknowledgments

As is true of all dialectical productions, the present essay can only be regarded as a collective endeavor, built on the century-and-a-half of archaeological research in Senegal, the various voices of critique that have arisen along the way, the few but excellent syntheses which have attempted a dissection of this complex history, and the ‘productive tensions’ that have animated the whole. In this light, I wish to thank Phil de Barros, Chris DeCorse, Scott MacEachern, Susan McIntosh, and Ann Stahl for their invaluable help with the manuscript, providing the right dose of encouragement, editorial red ink, and substantive comments. Ann Stahl’s careful interventions were instrumental in changing the direction of the article, and expanding my political, theoretical and bibliographic horizons. Her work has been the central inspiration behind many of the ideas presented above. I am also eternally grateful to Adria LaViolette for her generous comments and giving me the opportunity to publish this very long piece in the African Archaeological Review. The current subtitle, far catchier than the original, was suggested by Fekri Hassan. In Senegal, this article has benefited handsomely from Ibrahima Thiaw’s insights, his dissertation’s thought-provoking reflections on Senegalese archaeology, and from conversations with Sokhna Guèye, Massamba Lame, and Hamady Bocoum. My deepest appreciation also goes to the many people in Ndiongolor, Diakhao, Diofor, and Dakar, who have often gone out of their way to facilitate the writing of this paper while I was doing dissertation fieldwork in 2002–2004. As is de rigueur, however, and dialectical disclaimers notwithstanding, I remain the sole one to be blamed for the potential flaws and inaccuracies still present in the above essay.

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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