Tag Archives: Africa
Music has been part and parcel of humanity for a long time. Not every sound is musical, but sound has meaning and sometimes the meaning of sound is specific to its context.
But when it comes to archaeology there is scant evidence of music or sound producing artefacts from southern Africa. This is because of poor preservation of the mostly organic materials that were used to manufacture musical instruments. Rock art offers depictions of musical instruments as well as scenes of dancing that can be linked with music performance, but here only music-related artefacts will be discussed.
I conducted original research as well as a survey of the literature available on these artefacts. Ethnographic sources were also consulted in order to attempt to provide a broader contextual background against which knowledge of the archaeological implements could be expanded. The Percival Kirby online musical instrument repository has also been used. Music archaeology is multidisciplinary in nature.
The result is one of the first reports on southern African sound- and music-related artefacts.
Research in music archaeology in southern Africa has just begun. Available evidence dates back from around 10,000 years ago, from the Later Stone Age up to the Iron Age. The artefacts fall into two groups, namely aerophones, where sound is produced by vibrating air, and idiophones, where sound is produced by solid material vibrating. These artefacts include spinning disks, bullroarers, bone tubes that could have been used as flutes or whistles, clay whistles, keys from thumb pianos (also called lamellophones or mbiras), musical bells and an ivory trumpet. The list is not exhaustive and more research needs to be conducted.
These music-related or sound-producing artefacts are made from various materials, including bone, ivory, metal and clay. The artefacts show how integral sound and music production was in the socio-cultural practices of people in the past, most likely for entertainment and rituals. Sound production and music making is a sign of being fully human.
Recent experimental work established that some Later Stone Age bone implements from the Klasies River Mouth and Matjes River sites are a spinning disk and a bullroarer respectively. Their replicas produced powerful whirring sounds and they can be referred to as sound-producing implements even though the purpose of the sound or their use cannot be clearly ascertained. They could have been used as signalling implements, toys, in ritual settings or in musical contexts, among others. Nowadays these implements are seldom found in the region.
Bone tubes, mainly in bird bone, have been recovered from Later Stone Age contexts from the southern and western Cape of South Africa and some were also recovered from historical contexts. Previously, these bone tubes were interpreted as sucking tubes and beads. But morphological analysis – or studying their form – has indicated that considering the various lengths and widths as well as their smoothened ends, they could have been used as flutes or whistles. There is no a clear-cut distinction between flutes and whistles.
If they were used as flutes they were single tone flutes since none has finger holes that can enable the production of more tones. Some of the archaeological bone tubes bear chevron and cross hatching patterns, but it is not clear if the decorations have a meaning or were just made for aesthetic purposes. The San and Khoe people in South Africa used reed flutes in the past. Flutes are still used today by various cultural groups in South Africa, for example the Venda people in South Africa use flutes when performing the tshikona dance.
Clay whistles have been recovered from the sites of K2 and Mapungubwe from Early Iron Age contexts. Similar clay whistles are very rare and are not mentioned ethnographically, but it has been said that the Basotho herders in Lesotho used similar whistles. Whistles can also be used during a musical procession or as signalling implements in sending a message.
An ivory trumpet was recovered from Sofala site in Mozambique. It has a blow hole and some decorations on its body.
Ivory trumpets are not common in southern Africa, but are known in west Africa. For example, in Ghana among the Asante people they had a spiritual significance and were associated with the royal court. Ivory trumpets are also said to have been used to announce the arrival of kings. The trumpets that are found in southern Africa are not in ivory.
Thumb piano, lamellophone or mbira keys have been recovered from the Later Iron Age contexts in Zimbabwe and in Zambia. This idiophone became popular with the introduction of iron technology and it is still used today. Some popular musicians play the lamellophone, for example Stella Chiweshe from Zimbabwe. Mbira is closely associated with spirituality, especially among the Shona people of Zimbabwe. The lamellophone is now a common musical instrument globally.
Musical bells were found in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia from Later Iron Age contexts. Both double and single bells existed and, for example, at Great Zimbabwe both were recovered. Ethnographically, musical bells are known to have originated in West and Central Africa and they were most likely introduced to southern Africa through trade. These idiophones are said to have been played to announce the arrival of kings. Musical bells are still used today.
Musical instruments are seldom found in the archaeological record and are not easily identifiable, so there is a lot of debate among researchers when it comes to identifying these instruments from the archaeological record. Some instruments may not have been musical instruments per se but rather sound-producing implements that were used to convey certain messages or used for ritual purposes.
From Captain Cook to the First Fleet: how Botany Bay was chosen over Africa as a new British penal colony
Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here, and an interactive here.
After Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1770, the east coast of Australia was drawn on European maps of the globe for the first time. Yet, in terms of European contact with the continent, there was an 18-year lull in between Cook’s 1770 landings and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.
The main reason for this was Britain’s preoccupation with subduing its rebellious colonists in the War of American Independence from 1776-83.
Britain’s defeat in that war brought forth an urgent problem that eventually led to the colonisation of Australia: what it saw as a need to dispose of convicts who were overflowing the available prisons at home.
Previously, many British convicts were transported to the American colonies but after independence this option was no longer available.
The next penal colony: let the search begin
Discussions about alternative penal colonies meshed with Britain’s larger strategic and commercial goals at the time. Many hoped a new convict settlement would provide a base for extending British power in the wake of the American debacle and be “advantageous both to navigation and commerce”.
The search began in 1779 when the House of Commons established a committee under the chairmanship of British politician Sir Charles Bunbury. Various locations were considered, in particular, Senegal and Gambia on the west African coast.
But a new destination soon emerged with the testimony of Joseph Banks, the botanist on board the Endeavour, who had recently been elected president of the Royal Society. Botany Bay on the Australian coast, he contended, would be the best site for a penal colony since it had a Mediterranean climate and would be fertile. Banks added, too, that
there would be little Probability of any Opposition from the Natives
It was a prediction that would ultimately prove incorrect.
Why Botany Bay?
The search for a penal settlement lost momentum during the war, but regained some sense of urgency with its end in 1783.
James Matra, an American-born seaman aboard the Endeavour, circulated a proposal among policy-makers about establishing a new settlement at Botany Bay. It was based on his own first-hand knowledge of the coast, as well as his discussions with Banks, who remained the most influential advocate for the site.
Matra’s most immediate concern was to provide a home for the American loyalists – those, like his own family, who had lost their property in the new United States because of their loyalty to the British crown during the war.
Matra’s proposal also appealed to some key strategic and commercial concerns:
flax and timbers could be brought from New Zealand to grow in the new colony, providing the British navy with much-needed supplies;
the planting of spices and sugarcane would reduce Britain’s reliance on the Dutch East Indies;
the site could be used as a base for those engaged in the lucrative fur trade in America; and
the settlement could act as a strategic base to challenge the Dutch in the East Indies and the Spanish in the Philippines and even South America.
Another serious contender emerges
After Matra submitted his proposal, another House of Commons committee was established in 1785, chaired by Lord Beauchamp. Both Matra and Banks gave evidence in favour of Botany Bay, with Banks arguing,
from the fertility of the soil, the timid disposition of the inhabitants and the climate being so analogous to that of Europe I give the place the preference to all that I have seen
The committee, however, opted for an African site. It believed Das Voltas Bay, in southwest Africa, could reduce British dependence on the Dutch Cape of Good Hope in what is now South Africa and serve as a refuge for the American loyalists.
Before venturing down the path of establishing a colony, however, an exploratory voyage was sent to the African coast. It concluded the site was unsuitable as it lacked an effective harbour and fertile land.
Botany Bay was back in serious contention.
Dreams of Pacific trade
Other supporters soon emerged to sing the praises of Botany Bay.
Sir George Young, a naval officer and former East India Company officer, argued a colony at the site could serve as a base for trade with South America and underlined its strategic importance. If war broke out with Spain in the region, Botany Bay could be a place of refuge for British naval vessels.
Another advocate, John Call, an engineer with the East India Company, saw the advantages of a secondary settlement on nearby Norfolk Island. Flax grew in abundance on the island, he said, and the mighty Norfolk pine tree would be ideal for the masts of ships.
These observations were based on reports from Cook’s second and third Pacific voyages. The second included a visit to Norfolk Island, while the third ventured to the northwestern coast of America and traded furs in China, further fuelling British aspirations for Pacific trade.
Such arguments eventually led Prime Minister William Pitt and his Cabinet to accept the proposal to establish the settlement at Botany Bay.
A costly endeavour
Such a settlement demanded an unprecedented degree of state planning and financing.
The First Fleet, for example, consisted of 11 ships (no larger than the Manly ferry) that carried, among other things, a supply of seeds from Banks to help establish a “new Europe” on the other side of the Earth.
The convicts sent to New South Wales also incurred considerable state expense compared to those sent to America. From 1788-89, the new colony accumulated expenses of over 250,000 pounds, which equated to 100 pounds per convict per annum.
The fact it cost considerably more to transport a convict to New South Wales than to keep him or her in a British jail supported the view held by some in England that the penal colony was a subterfuge for broader strategic goals.
Rival nations also thought the British were trying to deceive them. Alejandro Malaspina, who captained a Spanish expedition that visited Sydney in 1793, thought the settlement could be a potential naval base for an attack on Spanish America.
A repository for convicts
And yet, in the end, the settlement at New South Wales did little to advance British strategic goals.
The site lacked a naval base and its defences were so weak, François Péron, a naturalist aboard the French Baudin expedition that circumnavigated much of Australia from 1801-03, thought it could be easily captured.
In fact, no naval expedition was mounted from New South Wales during the Napoleonic wars of 1803-15. Nor did New South Wales live up to the commercial benefits some had invested in it. Tropical fruits and spices would not grow in Sydney, and Norfolk Island proved a disappointment as a source for naval supplies.
The American loyalists also chose to resettle in nearby Canada instead of distant New South Wales.
But New South Wales proved to cater to the most immediate reason for British settlement: a repository for convicts.
European museums are under mounting pressure to return the irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist who works in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I benefit from the convenience of access provided by Western museums, while being struck by the ethical quandary of how they were taken there by illegal means, and by guilt that my colleagues throughout Africa may not have the resources to see material from their own country, which is kept thousands of miles away.
Now, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has recommended that art plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era should be returned through permanent restitution.
The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, speaks of the “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent” by which colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for “restitution” echoes the widely accepted approach which seeks to return looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.
The record of colonial powers in African countries was frankly disgusting. Colonial rule was imposed by the barrel of the gun, with military campaigns waged on the flimsiest excuses. The Benin expedition of 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, famous not only for its huge city and ramparts but its extraordinary cast bronze and brass plaques and statues.
The city was burnt down, and the British Admiralty auctioned the booty – more than 2,000 art works – to “pay” for the expedition. The British Museum got around 40% of the haul.
None of the artefacts stayed in Africa – they’re now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.
The 1867 British expedition to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which never fully acceded to colonial control – was mounted to ostensibly free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Tewodros II. It culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the looting of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from the Ethiopian church, which reputedly needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them all away. Most ended up in the British Library, the British Museum and the V&A, where they remain today.
Bought, stolen, destroyed
Other African treasures were also taken without question. The famous ruins of Great Zimbabwe were subject to numerous digs by associates of British businessman Cecil Rhodes – who set up the Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 sites of their gold – and much of the archaeology on the site was destroyed. The iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but many items still remain in Western museums.
While these are the most famous cases, the majority of African objects in Western Museums were collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little thought as to the legality of ownership. Even if they were bought from their local owners, it was often for a pittance, and there were few controls to limit their export. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or grave-markers, were simply collected and taken away. Such activities continued well into the 20th century.
Making them safe
The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.
Colonial powers had a patchy record of setting up museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in colonial capitals, they were later starved of funding or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were low on the priority list for national funding and overseas aid and development, while regional museums were virtually neglected.
Nowadays, many museums on the African continent lie semi-derelict, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are numerous examples of theft or lost collections. No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.
If collections are to be returned, the West needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs and invest in the African museums and their staff. There have been some attempts to do this, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to an uncertain future – there must be a plan to rebuild Africa’s crumbling museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.
The rightful owners
Will the Musée de Quai Bramley, that great treasure house of world ethnography in Paris, which holds more than 70,000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian Castle rebuilt at great cost to house ethnographic artefacts in Berlin which opens early in 2019 – be shorn of its African collections? There are already fears at the British Museum that a very effective campaign may lead to the return of its Rapu Nui Moai statues to Easter Island.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V&A Museum has entered into worthy discussions to return its treasures to Ethiopia. But there are reports this would be on the basis of a long-term loan, and conditional on the Ethiopian government withdrawing its claim for restitution of the plundered objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin entered into a similar agreement, unwilling to cede ownership of a tiny fragment of soapstone bird to the Zimbabwe Government in 2000.
The report by Savoy and Sarr offers hope that such deals could become a thing of the past and that Africa’s rich cultural heritage can be returned, restituted and restored to the brilliant cultures that made it.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.
While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.
Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.
Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.
Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.
Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.
The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.
Violent, brutal language
The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:
Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …
Another part reads:
Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …
Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.
But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.
Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).
In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.
The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.
Desire between women
Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.
In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:
Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …
Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.
The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).
Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.
The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.
The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.
Still magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.