Urbanism and the Archaeological Visibility of African Complex Societies

In: Journal of African Archaeology

One of the principal manifestations of African complex societies is urbanism. However, a concentration on the excavation of larger settlements built in long-lasting materials and on the excavation of elite structures within such settlements, means that the archaeology of African social complexity presents an unrepresentative picture. Archaeologically, some societies have a low visibility. There is a need to improve our methodology if this problem is to be overcome. A greater use should be made of aerial photography and satellite coverage to locate sites, and many known sites need detailed planning by these and other means. Regional surveys are also needed, in order to establish the settlement hierarchies of which the principal sites were a part. Such surveys should be followed by systematic surface collection and by both physical and electronic sub-surface prospection, use of the latter particularly needing development in the African context. Only then should excavation be resorted to but it is largescale open-area excavation guided by rigorous sampling procedures that will be necessary to obtain the most useful information about social organization in the past. In addition, relevant ethnoarchaeological investigations need to be undertaken wherever possible, and extensive use should be made of ethnohistorical documentation. It is concluded that, to improve the archaeological visibility of ancient African urbanism, we need either larger and internationally-funded research programmes or we need programmes that make up for modest funding by continuing over a number of years.

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