Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara

Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara

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The identification of rock art found in Farafra as Neolithic adds substance to the argument that Egypt drew on cultural influences from Africa as well as the Near East.

Recently discovered rock art on the walls of a cave in the Egyptian Western Desert has been provisionally dated by a Cambridge University archaeologist as between 6,000 and 7,000 years old. The newly-identified Neolithic drawings supports the view that Egyptian culture drew on cultural influences from Africa and not only from the Near East.

Spotted by a tourist to Wadi el Obeiyid, north of Farafra Oasis, drawings of a giraffe, a bovid (cow-like mammal) and two boats, plus the outline of a human hand, were examined last month by archaeologist Dr Giulio Lucarini who co-leads a team of archaeologists looking at the pathways, and timings, by which domestic animals and plants from the Levant arrived in Egypt. The engravings are thought to have been discovered in 2010. The onset of revolution in Egypt meant that they were not investigated for some time.

Based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, Lucarini is an expert in the transition from foraging to farming in North Africa. With Professor Barbara Barich of ISMEO in Rome, he is co-director of a project (the Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis) that has been studying the archaeology of this region of the Eastern Sahara since the late 1980s.

The site of the newly-identified images – which are engraved into the white chalk surface – has been dubbed the Boats Arch, a reference the shape of the shallow cave. The location is 600 km southwest of Cairo and 50 km into the desert from the nearest paved road at Farafra – a journey across a desert track surrounded by beautiful sand dunes.

Boats Arch is about 3 km from another site – known as Wadi el Obeiyid Cave - where examples of rock art were first examined by Barich in 1995. The art in this first cave features representations of engraved boats and animals as well as painted hand stencils. “What’s really exciting is that these drawings are among the earliest artistic evidence of the people who lived in the Farafra and possibly in the whole Eastern Sahara,” said Lucarini.

Boat engraving at Boats Arch. Credit: Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis

Rock art is notoriously tricky to date. “The marked similarity in style seen in the bovid, which is probably an oryx, and giraffe in the Boats Arch and the animals in Wadi Obeiyid Cave, dated to around 6000/5500 BC, suggests a similar period for the two sites. In style the boat images correlate to those found on decorated pots from Predynastic sites along the Nile Valley, dated around 3500 BC. But we can presume from the regrowth of calcite crystals along their engravings, possible under humid conditions, that they could be even older,” said Lucarini.

Farafra's rock art sites are 600 km from the Red Sea, 400 km from the Mediterranean and 300 km from the Nile.

“The location is another important aspect of the find," said Lucarini. "Representations of boats in the Egyptian Western Desert are rare in comparison to those in the Eastern Desert, a region which connects the Nile valley with the Red Sea. They could have been created by people who were moving across very long distances and could have visited the sea or the Nile Valley. In the sites we investigated we did not find any faunal remains belonging to giraffe so, like the images of boats, the drawing of the giraffe may represent not a local element but something seen somewhere else and considered exotic.”

Giraffe engraving at Boats Arch. Credit: Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis

The Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis is building a picture of the transition from foraging societies to communities based on the exploitation of domestic species. Today the Wadi el Obeiyid landscape is arid and characterised by white limestone formations and high sand dunes, but thousands of years ago the region was a savannah-like environment with grasslands offering subsistence to human groups and animals.

“Since 1987, we have had permission from the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities to survey some 10,000 square kilometres of desert. Our starting point in the research is the use of satellite images which enable us to identify past sources of water and therefore where settlements may have been located. We then carry out detailed walking surveys of these areas to try to locate the presence of old seasonal lacustrine basins, shallow pools, around which people used to live,” said Lucarini.

Over the past years Lucarini and team have been studying the remains of Sheikh el Obeiyid village, a slab structure site with stone circles that were once the foundations of huts made with animal skin and vegetation. “We’ve also found tumuli containing corridor structures. They weren’t dwellings, burials or storage spaces. They may have had a religious or symbolic function,” he said.

“In the past archaeologists have tended to see Africa as somehow lagging ‘behind’ Europe and the Near East, but our work shows that people living in the Eastern Sahara had a significant and developed culture – which fed into the development of the Pharaonic civilization and beyond.”

Lucarini is keen to develop training programmes for Egyptian Antiquities inspectors, teachers and school children in order to share the team’s research into the region’s archaeological and environmental significance and underline the importance of preserving the cultural heritage, which is, at present, vulnerable to damage.

Featured image: Boats Arch in the Eastern Sahara, site of recently identified Neolithic rock art. Credit: Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis

Source: Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara. University of Cambridge

Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara - History

The Age of Exploration (also called the Age of Discovery) began in the 1400s and continued through the 1600s. It was a period of time when the European nations began exploring the world. They discovered new routes to India, much of the Far East, and the Americas. The Age of Exploration took place at the same time as the Renaissance.

Outfitting an expedition could be expensive and risky. Many ships never returned. So why did the Europeans want to explore? The simple answer is money. Although, some individual explorers wanted to gain fame or experience adventure, the main purpose of an expedition was to make money.

How did expeditions make money?

Expeditions made money primarily by discovering new trade routes for their nations. When the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople in 1453, many existing trade routes to India and China were shut down. These trade routes were very valuable as they brought in expensive products such as spices and silk. New expeditions tried to discover oceangoing routes to India and the Far East.

Some expeditions became rich by discovering gold and silver, such as the expeditions of the Spanish to the Americas. They also found new land where colonies could be established and crops such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco could be grown.

The Age of Exploration began in the nation of Portugal under the leadership of Henry the Navigator. Henry sent out ships to map and explore the west coast of Africa. They went further south than any previous European expedition and mapped much of western Africa for the Portuguese. In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean.

Soon the Spanish wanted to find a trade route to the Far East. Explorer Christopher Columbus thought that he could sail west, across the Atlantic Ocean, to China. He could not get the Portuguese to fund his expedition, so he went to the Spanish. Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand agreed to pay for Columbus' trip. In 1492 Columbus discovered the New World of the Americas.

Portugal and Spain became the early leaders in the Age of Exploration. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas the two countries agreed to divide up the New World. Spain got most of the Americas while Portugal got Brazil, India, and Asia.

Spain sent over conquistadors to explore the Americas and to conquer the peoples there. Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. They made Spain rich with the gold and silver they found in the Americas.

Portugal sent out Vasco da Gama who found a trade route around the southern tip of Africa and to India. They also explored much of the Far East and were the first Europeans to establish a trading colony in China at Macau.

Other countries such as Great Britain and the Netherlands established colonies in the New World. Eventually Great Britain would surpass all of the European nations in terms of the size of their world wide empire including the thirteen colonies in the Americas that later became the United States.

The Age of Exploration was one of the most important times in the history of world geography. A significant portion of the unknown world was mapped during this short period. Also, many advances were made in navigation and mapping which helped future explorers and travelers.

What is Orientalism?

"Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Edward W. Said, in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, defined it as the acceptance in the West of “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”

According to Said, Orientalism dates from the period of European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or “rescue”.

Examples of early Orientalism can be seen in European paintings and photographs and also in images from the World’s Fair in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The paintings, created by European artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, depict the Arab World as an exotic and mysterious place of sand, harems and belly dancers, reflecting a long history of Orientalist fantasies which have continued to permeate our contemporary popular culture.

France colonized Algeria from 1830 to 1962. From roughly 1900 to 1930, French entrepreneurs produced postcards of Algerian women that were circulated in France. While Algerian women are portrayed in these photographs as if the camera is capturing a real moment in their everyday lives, the women are actually set up in the photographer’s studio. As demonstrated in Malek Alloula’s book, The Colonial Harem, these photographs were circulated as evidence of the exotic, backwards and strange customs of Algerians, when, in fact, they reveal more about the French colonial perspective than about Algerian life in the early 1900s. This is an example of how Arab women have been exoticized and eroticized for the pleasure of the European male voyeur, as these photographs make visible French colonial fantasies of penetrating the harem and gaining access to Arab women’s private spaces.

Shirin Neshat | Iran

Through film, video and photography, Shirin Neshat explores notions of femininity and gender politics in Iran, as well as memory, religion and violence. Her poetic imagery and narratives are accompanied by the stark visual contrast between opposites — male and female, black and white, light and dark. Born and raised in Iran, Neshat went to the United States to pursue higher education in 1974 and, due to the Islamic Revolution, she was unable to return to Iran until the early 1990s, where she started producing her first artworks. These were photographs in which she addressed notions of femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in Iran, such as The Unveiling (1993) and The Women of Allah series (1993-1997). The latter consisted of portraits of women overlaid with handwritten Persian calligraphy. Departing from overt political content or critique, her first video installations — the trilogy comprising Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000) — used two screens to portray abstract oppositions of gender and social status, individual and group. While the videos hinted at the restrictions of Islamic law against women, they also opened up to multiple readings, highlighting universal conditions. She now continues to engage with central themes of religion, violence, madness and gender in a variety of work, including the feature film Women Without Men (2009, Silver Lion at 66th Venice Film Festival) to her photographic series Zarin (2005) and the film Faezeh (2008). In her more recent series, The Book of Kings (2012) and Our House is on Fire (2013), Neshat responds to political events throughout the Arab world, capturing the emotions of people she met after the Arab Spring.

The African Art:

Unlike the art of Western societies, traditional African art was a functional and necessary part of everyday life and it would be impossible to understand African culture without an understanding of their art. The figures or masks were the vehicles through which these spirits made themselves seen and their presence known. Sculpture also served to symbolize authority and played important roles in maintaining social control.
African sculpture is new and unfamiliar to most Americans and yet it is the product of ancient civilizations and many centuries of artistic tradition. Initially the masks and figures may seem strange or even grotesque, but when viewed in terms of their own cultures the sculptures of Africa can be seen to be sophisticated, powerful and dynamic.

African Art Part of Everyday Life

Unlike the art of Western societies, traditional African art was a functional and necessary part of everyday life and it would be impossible to understand African cultures without an understanding of their art. Religion, government, education, work and entertainment were all closely inter-related in traditional African societies. All of the arts, whether musical, oral or sculptural, were deeply woven into the very fabric of social life and played a central role in binding together all members of the community through corporate activity.

Sculpture figured prominently in the religious rituals which were a central force in African life giving social cohesion through common belief and participation in ceremonial life. The masks and figures used in such rites were not worshipped, however. Rather it was believed that the world was inhabited by many unseen spirits, each with its own powers and personality. These spirits involved themselves in the lives of human beings in a great many ways for both good and evil. The figures or masks were the vehicles through which these spirits made themselves seen and their presence known in the world of men. The objects themselves, however, did not embody or contain the spirit and hence, though respected and honored, they were not worshipped.

Authority and Social Control

Masks representing spirit forces were particularly important at ceremonies marking the major changes in the lives of individuals or community events such as initiations into adulthood or funeral ceremonies. At the initiation ceremonies the masks frequently led the boys into the “bush schools” where initiations took place. At the funerals the masks not only paid final respect to the deceased but also guaranteed safe passage into the world beyond. Sculpture also served to symbolize authority and played important roles in maintaining social control. Figurative staffs were sometimes carried by representatives of chiefs and kings, symbolizing their power and authority. Often they spoke for him and represented him through visual proverbs as having the power, strength and courage of such creatures as a leopard, water buffalo or elephant. Sometimes it was deemed advisable to call upon the spirits to settle disputes too intractable to be settled by normal temporal authorities. In such cases the spirits were thought to make themselves known through the masks, and the decisions announced by the masks were accepted as having the weight of spiritual authority. Masks also maintained social control in more subtle ways. Often masks served as teaching aids, augmenting the authority of the teacher himself and by symbolizing the ideas or values he wished to teach. While masks were always treated seriously, their appearance itself might be accompanied by great merriment, and humor was often built into their teaching roles. Thus, chiefs and elders might be criticized for pompousness or abuse of authority through seemingly comic ridicule and caricature by a mask. In a similar vein a mask might deliberately act in ways not normally tolerated in the society in order to teach by negative example. In this sense even what might appear to be pure entertainment often had a more serious purpose.

Utilitarian objects such as weaving pulleys, bowls, stools, chairs and textiles were also made with great care to beautify daily life as well as to enhance the status of chiefs and prominent persons. In each case the particular culture created its own set of symbols and artistic style which were understood in the community. Though the symbols varied widely between one community and the next, there was generally within a given community a considerable degree of consistency and thus developed a large number of reasonably discreet styles. Though the artists did not follow stylistic guidelines blindly and each added his own creativity and individuality to the objects he made, the artists generally worked within defined parameters of acceptability within the culture. The artist was thereby able to reinforce the traditional beliefs and values of the cults, men’s societies and political leaders who were his patrons. Perhaps because African masks were carved to be worn in performance and most figurative sculpture is also designed for ritual use, African art is principally symbolic rather than representational. It is more concerned with visualizing concepts rather than with accurately representing nature. Sculpture is often highly stylized with conventional female beauty shown to convey ideas of serenity or fertility bold powerful shapes, such as the horns of animals to symbolize strength and virility and frightening, expressionistic visages to inspire awe and fear for the enforcement of social custom. Similarly the artist often deliberately distorted proportions in order to emphasize those elements he wished to show as important. In most African sculpture, for example, the head, seat of wisdom and personality, is usually enlarged so that it accounts for about one-fourth to one-third of the total height of a human figure instead of the one to seven ratio that it is in nature. In contrast, the hands and feet are generally regarded as unimportant and hence show little detail or attention. Decorative scarification, hair styles, etc., are often highly personal. Portraits pay great attention to accurately capturing these features so that figures may immediately be identified with the person they represent. People are also invariably represented in the prime of life, full of vigor, for to show an individual young and dependent or old and infirm would be insulting.

The material most frequently used by the African sculptor was wood. Climate and insects, however, have taken their toll. As a result few objects of any real antiquity have been preserved. Most existing African wooden sculpture dates from this century. Occasionally, wooden sculptures do survive and some have been found among the Dogon of Mali where the dry climate has preserved them for up to four centuries.

Stone was used much less frequently than wood, probably because much of the stone found south of the Sahara is volcanic and crumbles easily. Nevertheless, some of the oldest existing pieces of African sculpture are in stone. Among them the stone figures of the Sherbro or Bullom of Sierra Leone date from before 1500 and those of Akwanshi and Esie in Nigeria may date from the fourteenth and twelfth centuries respectively.

Ivory was used extensively in the manufacture of jewelry and side-blown trumpets, many with elaborate geometric detail. Figurative sculpture in Ivory was never common traditionally, however. The one exception was at the court of the Kingdom of Benin where the altars of the kings used ivory extensively. Only since the end of the 19 th century has figurative carving in ivory been common elsewhere, and then primarily to meet the demand of the tourist trade.

The oldest art objects found anywhere south of the Sahara are the terra cotta figures discovered at Nok in Nigeria, many of which date from five centuries before the birth of Christ. These figures and heads are exceptional not only in terms of age and beauty but in size as well. As a general rule, clay was seldom used for figurative sculpture, probably because of the difficulties of firing large pieces.

Brass casting also has a long history in Africa. All brass and bronze and most casting in gold was done by a very sophisticated technique known as the “lost wax” process. The artist first fashions a model in beeswax and then forms a mold of moist potter’s clay around it. After the clay has hardened, the wax is melted away and molten metal is poured into the mold through vents left for that purpose. Once the metal has cooled the clay is broken away to reveal the finished casting. Thus each casting is unique, the mold having been destroyed in the process.

Though the forms of art and the style of the artists differ from the use we are familiar with in the West, a closer look will show that they have a remarkable degree of aesthetic skill and technique. Moreover, as we learn more about the role that sculpture played in the social-life of the community, we see more clearly that the art met in particular ways the social as well as the creative needs of those communities which produced it.

The Richness and Vitality of African Art

One final note must be made on this collection. The sculpture-producing regions of Africa are confined for the most part to Western and West Central Africa. The objects in this collection and shown here in this catalogue are all from West Africa, with the exception of the Coptic Christian Art of Ethiopia. The weight of the traditional art shown here is from those areas in which the S.M.A. Fathers have worked. Though not truly representative of all areas which produce sculpture, this catalog and exhibition are designed to show something of the range of forms and the purposes to which art was put in sub-Saharan Africa. Hopefully, those who see this art will gain a deeper understanding of the richness and vitality of African art and the cultural heritage and creativity of the African people.

William Siegman
African sculpture from the collection of the Society of African Missions’
SMA Fathers, Tenafly, 1980, pp 4-5

SMA Fathers | 23 Bliss Avenue, Tenafly, New Jersey 07670 | Tel:201-894-8611 | Directions
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What's in Glenbow's Collection?

Glenbow’s incredible collection of art and objects can provide us with a sense of belonging, an understanding of what it means to live here in Alberta, and an appreciation for the legacy of the remarkable people and events that have shaped our communities.

The museum’s collection was started over 50 years ago by our founder, Eric Harvie. His goal was to ensure that the people of Alberta had access to the art and history that has shaped our province, our nation and other societies around the world. Since then, Glenbow’s collection has continued to grow, as we collect both historical and current items that are meaningful and relevant to the ever-changing needs and aspirations of our community.

The largest public art collection in Western Canada: 33,000 works of art

Collecting and exhibiting the work of Canadian artists is core to our mission and artistic vision. Since 2013 we’ve exhibited over 800 works of art by Canadian artists and acquired more than 1500 for the collection.

Glenbow’s art collection is focused on artists from Calgary, Alberta and the rest of Canada (about two thirds of the collection) with the remaining third of the collection by international artists). The art collection includes artworks encompassing historical, modernist and contemporary art and features works in all media including paintings, sculpture, photography, prints and drawings, Western art, Inuit art, nineteenth century artworks focused on settlement and exploration, and extensive individual collections that represent many important artists from Western Canada.

Ashevak, Drummer, no date, Collection of Glenbow

One of the largest Indigenous collections in Canada

Glenbow is home to items that represent Indigenous cultures and traditions from across Canada. Our primary focus is on Indigenous people from the northwestern Plains, especially Nisitapii (Blackfoot-speaking people), Tsuu T’ina, Cree and Anishinabe. The history and culture of the Metis people of western Canada is also included in our collection, as is the life of Inuit communities in the Arctic. Glenbow also has collections from the Kwakwaka’wak and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples of the Northwest Coast, representing their daily activities and ceremonial art. Items representing the Dene of the Subarctic, the Iroquois speaking people of the eastern woodland, and the Mi’maq of the Atlantic coast further illustrate the cultural diversity of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

A collection for discovering and understanding cultural diversity

We believe that increasing our knowledge and appreciation of different cultures from around the world helps us to better understand one another. Our founder, Eric Harvie, believed in this, too. That’s why he collected artwork and objects from West Africa, Latin America, Oceania and Asia.

Discovering cultural diversity and promoting inclusivity includes better understanding ourselves as Canadians. That’s why we have collected objects that tell the story of the diversity of settlers and immigrants who have made Canada their home.

Decorative arts: the melding of function, beauty and story

Glenbow’s collection of decorative arts encompasses silverware, glass, ceramics, textiles, furniture, jewellery and fashion. Primarily dating from the mid-1800s to today, through this collection we can learn more about the design and creation of these objects and the people who made and owned them. Because many of these objects were donated by Albertans, they reflect not only the history of design and craft, but also the history of our province.

A centre for the study of art in Western Canada

Glenbow’s library and archival material related to art history, artist’s files, art books and other material enhances Glenbow’s unique role as a centre for western Canadian art.

Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara - History

The origins of African art exist long before recorded history, beginning with the evolution of the human species. Over time, the continent became increasingly diverse in culture, politics, and religion.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the cultures of Ancient Africa

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The human species originated on the African continent, making it the oldest inhabited territory on Earth. It was here that cattle were first domesticated and metalworking invented. Climate change in the fifth millennium BCE triggered a migration to the western and tropical areas of the continent.
  • For much of prehistory , Africa had no nation-states. The Egyptian civilization arose by the late fourth millenium BCE, impacting the northern part of the continent for the next 3,000 years. The fourth century BCE ushered in European exploration and conquest with Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE and the Roman conquest in the late first century BCE.
  • The early seventh century CE witnessed the spread of Islam into North Africa and eventually into sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Between the ninth and 18th centuries, Africa contained as many as 10,000 separate nation-states, as well as polities governed by units as small as familial clans.

Key Terms

  • Ife: The first of the Yoruba city-states or kingdoms, which established government under a priestly oba (“king”).
  • Nri Kingdom of the Ig: One of several independent kingdoms that developed
    in the forested regions of the West African coast.
  • San peopl: Familial groups of hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa between the ninth and 18th centuries.
  • Hausa states: The early dynastic states that had spread across Africa by the ninth century, including Ghana, Gao, and the Kanem-Bornu Empire.
  • Almoravids: A Berber dynasty from the Sahara that spread over a wide area of northwestern Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the 11th century.
  • Banu Hilal and Banu Ma’qil: A collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Africa is considered the oldest inhabited territory on Earth, where the human species originated. During the middle of the 20th century, anthropologists discovered evidence of human occupation as early as seven million years ago. Their findings included fossil remains of early hominid species thought to be ancestors of modern humans.

Early Civilizations

Throughout humanity’s prehistory, Africa had no nation-states and was instead inhabited by groups of hunter-gatherers such as the Khoi and San. The domestication of cattle preceded agriculture. It is speculated that by 6,000 BCE, cattle were already domesticated in North Africa. In 4,000 BCE, climate change led to increasing desertification, which contributed to migrations of farming communities to the more tropical climate of West Africa.

By the first millennium BCE, ironworking began in Northern Africa and quickly spread across the Sahara into the northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa. By 500 BCE, metalworking was fully established in many areas of East and West Africa. Copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia, and Ethiopia dating from around 500 BCE have been excavated in West Africa, suggesting that trans-Saharan trade networks had been established by this date.

At about 3300 BCE, the Pharaonic civilization of Ancient Egypt came to power, a reign that lasted until 343 BCE. Egyptian influence reached deeply into modern Libya, north to Crete and Canaan, and south to the kingdoms of Aksum and Nubia.

European exploration of Africa began with Ancient Greeks and Romans. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in Egypt, which would become the prosperous capital of the Ptolemaic dynasty after his death. Following the conquest of North Africa’s Mediterranean coastline by the Roman Empire, the area was integrated economically and culturally into the Roman system. Christianity soon spread across the region.

In the early seventh century, the newly formed Arabian Islamic Caliphate expanded into Egypt and then into North Africa. Islamic North Africa became a diverse hub for mystics, scholars, jurists, and philosophers. Islam spread to sub-Saharan Africa, mainly through trade routes and migration.

Ninth to Eighteenth Centuries

Precolonial Africa possessed as many as 10,000 different states and polities characterized by many sorts of political organization and rule. These included small family groups of hunter-gatherers, such as the San people of southern Africa larger, more structured groups, such as the family clan groupings of the Bantu-speaking people of central and southern Africa heavily structured clan groups in the Horn of Africa the large Sahelian kingdoms autonomous city-states and kingdoms such as those of the Akan Edo , Yoruba , and Igbo peoples in West Africa and the Swahili coastal trading towns of East Africa.

By the ninth century a string of dynastic states, including the earliest Hausa states, stretched across the sub-Saharan savanna from the western regions to central Sudan. The most powerful of these states were Ghana, Gao, and the Kanem-Bornu Empire. Ghana declined in the 11th century and was succeeded by the Mali Empire, which consolidated much of western Sudan in the 13th century. Kanem accepted Islam in the 11th century.

In the forested regions of the West African coast, independent kingdoms such as the Nri Kingdom of the Igbo grew up with little influence from the Muslim north. The Ife, historically the first of the Yoruba city-states or kingdoms, established government under a priestly oba (“king”).

The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty from the Sahara that spread over a wide area of northwestern Africa and the Iberian peninsula during the 11th century. The Banu Hilal and Banu Ma’qil were a collection of Arab Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula who migrated westwards via Egypt between the 11th and 13th centuries. Following the breakup of Mali, the Songhai Empire was founded in middle Niger and the western Sudan. Its leader Sonni Ali and his successor Askia Mohammad I (1493–1528) made Islam the official religion, built mosques , and brought scholars to Gao Muslim.

Slavery had long been practiced in Africa. Between the seventh and 20th centuries, the Arab slave trade took 18 million slaves via the Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean routes. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade took an estimated seven to 12 million slaves to the New World .

Ancient African Kingdoms and Empires: This map depicts a sample of the diverse cultures, kingdoms, and empires of pre-colonial Africa.

Architecture under the Merovingians

Merovingian architecture emerged under the Merovingian Frankish dynasty and reflected a fusion of Western and Eurasian influences.

Learning Objectives

Describe some basic elements of Merovingian architecture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Merovingian architecture often continued the Roman basilica tradition, but also adopted influences from as far away as Syria and Armenia.
  • Many Merovingian churches no longer exist. One surviving church is Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains at Metz, originally built as a Roman gymnasium in the late fourth century and reappropriated into a church in the mid-eighth century.
  • Some small Merovingian structures remain, especially baptisteries, which were spared rebuilding in later centuries.
  • The Baptistery at Saint-Leonce of Fréjus, highlights the influence of Syrian technique on Merovingian architecture, evidenced by its octagonal shape and a covered cupola on pillars . On the other hand, St. Jean at Poitiers is very different from the Baptistery at Saint-Leonce of Fréjus, as it has the form of a rectangle flanked by three apses .
  • Although mostly reconstructed, the interior of the baptistery of Saint-Sauveur reveals the influence of Roman architecture on Merovingian architects.

Key Terms

  • the Baptistery at Saint-Leonce of Fréjus: A structure that highlights the influence of Syrian technique on Merovingian architecture.
  • the basilica of Saint Martin at Tours: One of the most famous examples of Merovingian church architecture, built at the beginning of the dynasty’s reign.
  • Merovingian dynasty: A Frankish family who ruled parts of present-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and parts of Germany from the mid-fifth century to the mid-eighth century.

Merovingian architecture developed under the Merovingian dynasty , a Frankish family who ruled parts of present-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and parts of Germany from the mid-fifth century to the mid-eighth century. The advent of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul led to important changes in architecture.

The unification of the Frankish kingdom under Clovis I (465–511) and his successors corresponded with the need for new churches. Merovingian architecture often continued the Roman basilica tradition, but also adopted influences from as far away as Syria and Armenia. In the East, most structures were in timber , but stone was more common for significant buildings in the West and in the southern areas that later fell under Merovingian rule.

Many Merovingian churches no longer exist. One famous example is the basilica of Saint Martin at Tours, at the beginning of Merovingian rule and at the time on the edge of Frankish territory. According to scholars, the church had 120 marble columns , towers at the east end, and several mosaics . A feature of the basilica of Saint-Martin that became a hallmark of Frankish church architecture was the sarcophagus or reliquary of the saint, raised to be visible and sited axially behind the altar, sometimes in the apse. There are no Roman precedents for this Frankish innovation. A number of other buildings now lost, including the Merovingian foundations of Saint-Denis, St. Gereonin Cologne, and the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, are described as similarly ornate.

One surviving church is Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains at Metz. The building was originally built in 380 CE as a gymnasium (a European type of school) for a Roman spa complex. In the seventh century, the structure was converted into a church, becoming the chapel of a Benedictine convent. The structure bears common hallmarks of a Roman basilica, including the round arches and tripartite division into nave (center) and aisles (left and right of the nave), a division visible from the exterior of the building. Apparently missing, however, is the apse.

Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains: This church in Metz, France bears common hallmarks of a Roman basilica, including the round arches and tripartite division into nave (center) and aisles (left and right of the nave), a division visible from the exterior of the building.

Other major churches have been rebuilt, usually more than once. However, some small Merovingian structures remain, especially baptisteries, which were spared rebuilding in later centuries. For instance, the Baptistery at Saint-Leonce of Fréjus, highlights the influence of Syrian technique on Merovingian architecture, evidenced by its octagonal shape and covered cupola on pillars.

Baptistery at Saint-Léonce of Fréjus: The Baptistery at the cathedral at Saint-Léonce of Fréjus reflects the Syrian and Armenian influences on early Merovingian architecture (demonstrated by the cupola on pillars).

By contrast , St. Jean at Poitiers has the form of a rectangle flanked by three apses. The original building has probably had a number of alterations but preserves traces of Merovingian influence in its marble capitals .

Baptistry of Saint-Jean of Poitiers: The Baptistry of St. Jean at Poitiers (sixth century) has the form of a rectangle flanked by three apses. The original building has probably undergone a number of alterations but preserves in its decoration (marble capitals) a strong Merovingian character.

The baptistery of Saint-Sauveur at Aix-en-Provence was built at the beginning of the sixth century, at about the same time as similar baptisteries in Fréjus Cathedral and Riez Cathedral in Provence, in Albenga, Liguria, and in Djémila, Algeria. Only the octagonal baptismal pool and the lower part of the walls remain from that period. The other walls, Corinthian columns, arcade , and dome were rebuilt in the Renaissance . A viewing hole in the floor reveals the bases of the porticoes of the Roman forum under the baptistery.

Baptistery of Saint-Sauveur : Although mostly reconstructed, the interior of the baptistery reveals the influence of Roman architecture on Merovingian architects.

By the seventh century, Merovingian craftsmen were brought to England for their glass-making skills, and Merovingian stonemasons were used to build English churches, suggesting that the culture’s ornamental arts were highly regarded by neighboring peoples.

Warka Vase

One of the most precious artifacts from Sumer, the Warka Vase was looted and almost lost forever.

Warka (Uruk) Vase, Uruk, Late Uruk period, c. 3500-3000 B.C.E., 105 cm high (National Museum of Iraq)

Picturing the ruler

So many important innovations and inventions emerged in the Ancient Near East during the Uruk period (c. 4000 to 3000 B.C.E. and named after the Sumerian city of Uruk). One of these was the use of art to illustrate the role of the ruler and his place in society. The Warka Vase, c. 3000 B.C.E., was discovered at Uruk (Warka is the modern name, Uruk the ancient name), and is probably the most famous example of this innovation. In its decoration we find an example of the cosmology of ancient Mesopotamia.

Ancient Near Eastern sites (with the borders of modern countries and modern capitals)

The vase, made of alabaster and standing over three feet high (just about a meter) and weighing some 600 pounds (about 270 kg), was discovered in 1934 by German excavators working at Uruk in a ritual deposit (a burial undertaken as part of a ritual) in the temple of Inanna, the goddess of love, fertility, and war and the main patron of the city of Uruk. It was one of a pair of vases found in the Inanna temple complex (but the only one on which the image was still legible) together with other valuable objects.

Bottom bands (detail), Warka (Uruk) Vase, Uruk, Late Uruk period, c. 3500-3000 B.C.E. (National Museum of Iraq), photo: Hirmer Verlag

Given the significant size of the Warka Vase, where it was found, the precious material from which it is carved and the complexity of its relief decoration, it was clearly of monumental importance, something to be admired and valued. Though known since its excavation as the Warka “Vase,” that term does little to express the sacredness of this object for the people who lived in Uruk five thousand years ago.

The relief carvings on the exterior of the vase run around its circumference in four parallel bands (or registers, as art historians like to call them) and develop in complexity from the bottom to the top.

Beginning at the bottom, we see a pair of wavy lines from which grow neatly alternating plants that appear to be grain (probably barley) and reeds, the two most important agricultural harvests of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia. There is a satisfying rhythm to this alternation, and one that is echoed in the rhythm of the rams and ewes (male and female sheep) that alternate in the band above this. The sheep march to the right in tight formation, as if being herded—the method of tending this important livestock in the agrarian economy of the Uruk period.

The band above the sheep is a blank and might have featured painted decoration that has since faded away. Above this blank band, a group of nine identical men march to the left. Each holds a vessel in front of his face, and which appear to contain the products of the Mesopotamian agricultural system: fruits, grains, wine, and mead. The men are all naked and muscular and, like the sheep beneath them, are closely and evenly grouped, creating a sense of rhythmic activity. Nude figures in Ancient Near Eastern art are meant to be understood as humble and low status, so we can assume that these men are servants or slaves (the band above, displays the slave owners).

Drawing, top register, Warka (Uruk) Vase (reconstructing some missing areas), by Jo Wood, after M. Roaf, from Leaving No Stones Unturned: Essays on the Ancient Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P. Hansen (Eisenbrauns, 2001), p. 17.

The top band of the vase is the largest, most complex, and least straightforward. It has suffered some damage but enough remains that the scene can be read. The center of the scene appears to depict a man and a woman who face each other. A smaller naked male stands between them holding a container of what looks like agricultural produce which he offers to the woman. The woman, identified as such by her robe and long hair, at one point had an elaborate crown on her head (this piece was broken off and repaired in antiquity).

Behind her are two reed bundles, symbols of the goddess Inanna, whom, it is assumed, the woman represents. The man she faces is nearly entirely broken off, and we are left with only the bottom of his long garment. However, men with similar robes are often found in contemporary seal stone engraving and based upon these, we can reconstruct him as a king with a long skirt, a beard and a head band. The tassels of his skirt are held by another smaller scaled man behind him, a steward or attendant to the king, who wears a short skirt.

Top band (detail), Warka (Uruk) Vase, Uruk, Late Uruk period, c. 3500-3000 B.C.E. (National Museum of Iraq), photo: Hirmer Verlag

The rest of the scene is found behind the reed bundles at the back of Inanna. There we find two horned and bearded rams (one directly behind the other, so the fact that there are two can only be seen by looking at the hooves) carrying platforms on their backs on which statues stand. The statue on the left carries the cuneiform sign for EN, the Sumerian word for chief priest. The statue on the right stands before yet another Inanna reed bundle. Behind the rams is an array of tribute gifts including two large vases which look quite a lot like the Warka Vase itself.

Top band (detail), Relief-carved alabaster vessel called the Uruk Vase, Uruk, Late Uruk period, c. 3500-3000 B.C.E. (National Museum of Iraq), photo: Hirmer Verlag

What could this busy scene mean? The simplest way to interpret it is that a king (presumably of Uruk) is celebrating Inanna, the city’s most important divine patron. A more detailed reading of the scene suggests a sacred marriage between the king, acting as the chief priest of the temple, and the goddess—each represented in person as well as in statues. Their union would guarantee for Uruk the agricultural abundance we see depicted behind the rams. The worship of Inanna by the king of Uruk dominates the decoration of the vase. The top illustrates how the cultic duties of the Mesopotamian king as chief priest of the goddess, put him in a position to be responsible for and proprietor of, the agricultural wealth of the city state.

Broken-off foot of vase, tossed over, National Museum of Iraq, May 2003, photo: Joanne Farchakh


The Warka Vase, one of the most important objects in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, was stolen in April 2003 with thousands of other priceless ancient artifacts when the museum was looted in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Warka Vase was returned in June of that same year after an amnesty program was created to encourage the return of looted items. The Guardian reported that “The United States army ignored warnings from its own civilian advisers that could have stopped the looting of priceless artifacts in Baghdad….”

Even before the invasion, looting was a growing problem, due to economic uncertainty and widespread unemployment in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. According to Dr. Neil Brodie, Senior Research Fellow on the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa project at the University of Oxford, “In the aftermath of that war…as the country descended into chaos, between 1991 and 1994 eleven regional museums were broken into and approximately 3,000 artifacts and 484 manuscripts were stolen….” The vast majority of these have not been returned. And, as Dr. Brodie notes, the most important question may be why no concerted international action was taken to block the sale of objects looted from archaeological sites and cultural institutions during wartime.

Read more about endangered cultural heritage in the Near East in Smarthistory’s ARCHES (At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series) section.

Additional resources:

Neil Brodie, “The market background to the April 2003 plunder of the Iraq National Museum,” in P. Stone and J. Farchakh Bajjaly (eds), The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), pp. 41-54 (available online here).

Neil Brodie, “Iraq 1990–2004 and the London antiquities market,” in N. Brodie, M. Kersel, C. Luke and K.W. Tubb (eds), Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006), pp. 206–26 (available online here).

Neil Brodie, “Focus on Iraq: Spoils of War,” Archaeology (from the Archaeological Institute of America), vol. 56, no. 4 (July/August 2003) (available online here).

Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara - History

Nok sculpture by Unknown

Africa is a large and diverse continent. Its history is filled with the rise and fall of numerous civilizations and empires. As a result, the art of Ancient Africa is varied and diverse. However, there are some common themes throughout much of African art that we will discuss on this page.

Ancient African art can be somewhat divided into regions. The art of northern Africa was heavily influenced by the Arabs after the Islam conquest. Similarly, the art of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa was influenced by Europe and Christianity. There is also the well preserved art of Ancient Egypt found in temples and burial chambers. However, what most people think of today as African art is the art produced by the peoples living south of the Sahara Desert.

The art of Ancient Africa was produced using a wide variety of materials. Unfortunately, a lot of African art was produced using wood, which has since been destroyed by time and the elements. Other materials, such as metals (like bronze and iron), ceramics, and ivory have survived.

Woman's Head in Bronze.
Photo by Daderot
African art. Photo by Daderot

One of the main elements of African art is that it is often created in three-dimensions rather than two-dimensions. For example, they used sculpture more often than flat paintings. Here are some of the primary types of art used in Ancient Africa.

Sculpture - Sculpture was one of the most important types of art in Ancient Africa. Sculptures were mostly made of people and sometimes animals. African artists often used wood for their sculpture, but they also used bronze, terracotta, and ivory.

Masks - Masks were an important part of art. They were often used together with dance to create a type of performance art. Masks were generally made of wood, but were often decorated with ivory, gems, paint, and animal fur.

Jewelry - Many Ancient African civilizations created jewelry from gold, gems, shells, and other materials. Jewelry was an important part of showing one's status and wealth.

Pottery - Ceramics were used for everyday items like bowls and cooking pots. However, some ceramics were works of art that were shaped and painted with fine details.

One of the main themes in the art of Ancient Africa is the human form. The primary subject in the majority of the art is people. Sometimes people were shown with animals or as part animal, part person. Many times the representation of people wasn't natural, but was more abstract with certain features exaggerated while others were entirely left out.

African mask. Photo by Daderot

Monumental Art and Architecture

The most famous examples of monumental art and architecture in Ancient Africa come from Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians created huge structures such as the pyramids, the Sphinx, temples, and statues (like the giant pharaohs at Abu Simbel). Other African civilizations built monumental structures as well including the giant obelisks of Aksum in Ethiopia, mosques like the Great Mosque of Djene in Mali, and the rock-cut churches in Ethiopia.

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