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Looking for a past: the Republic of Congo

This post comes from Tim Copeland who is a Visiting Fellow in Landscape Archaeology and a Senior Advisor to Nexus Heritage.

In 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy, the then French President, gave an incendiary speech in Senegal describing the situation in the former French colonies: ‘….the tragedy of Africa is that Africa has not entered into history. The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words….This traditional African man never launched himself towards a future’ (read about these comments

This notion of under-productivity, living according to the seasons, not having a linear notion of time that would produce concern about the future and development, is typical of the discourse of the Orientalists summarized by Said as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.’  Under-lying such a prejudiced view is the notion of Africa as the ‘Dark Continent,’ where seemingly there was no tradition of the written word for recording events, had cultures steeped in superstition, the infrastructure was poorly built, and many people lived in wooden huts and hovels.

The use of the term ‘Dark,’ as in ‘Dark Continent,’ was typical of classically trained politicians, geographers and historians pre-1940 to describe the period between AD 410 (the End of Roman Britain) and AD 900 (the unifying of England under Saxon rule): the ‘Dark Ages.’ Academics regarded this period as ‘barbaric,’ largely as invaders such as the Saxons, Vikings and Jutes were perceived as lacking literary cultures, having a timber culture for artefacts and buildings, as opposed to the stone structures which were an index of a ‘civilized’ world. Part of the problem was that with this mind-set was that there was little motivation to identify evidence of non-Classical cultures, which by its nature was difficult to recognize. It was the generation of non-Classically trained archaeologists that made the major discoveries, such as Jorvik (Viking York), which demonstrated the era to have been sophisticated in so many aspects. Now the concept of  ‘Dark Ages’ has been largely displaced by terms that identify changes of culture from the ‘sub-Roman,’ to the ‘Migration’ and ‘Early Medieval’ periods, all before the Norman Invasion of 1066. Perhaps this academic progress is being paralleled in the growth of African archaeology, which is increasing undertaken by indigenous archaeologist, geographers and historians resulting in chronologies of change with causation and outcomes, thereby demonstrating dynamic pasts.

The response to Sarkozy outburst was characterized by anger, and many countries made attempts to demonstrate that they did have a dynamic past and a varied heritage. In the Republic of Congo this was seen in the establishment of an archaeological department in the Ministry of Culture and, externally, gaining membership of UNESCO’s ‘World Heritage Convention’ as well as other international bodies and the adoption of their protocols.

Some significant archaeological work including excavation had taken place in the coastal area of the Republic of Congo in the 1980s led by the University of Texas. The teams recovered pottery fragments with a range of quite different decorative patterns and varied shapes of vessels which indicated significant cultural change. The soil layers in which these artefacts were found were radio-carbon dated and this suggested five different cultural episodes beginning with the Stone Age, through an Iron Age, and ending with the ‘Maritime’ period when European objects relating to the Slave Trade were recovered. Unfortunately, the base feature for the 1980s survey maps was a triangulation point (BP113) set in concrete by Texaco, the oil company, and the maps relating to it had disappeared. Therefore, the expedition’s own survey points, each prefixed with ‘JD’ after James Denbow the project’s leader, could not be located.

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When the development of a potash mine at Sintoukona in the south-west of the country was proposed in 2011, the international protocols were followed and Nexus Heritage was employed to investigate the area of the mine, the course of the pipelines and roads towards the coast, and the port facilities at Point Noire on the Atlantic. Nexus worked alongside black archaeologists from the Institute Fundamental d’Afrique Noire in Brazzaville. Fieldwalking along a route 0.5 km either side of the route was to be undertaken, followed by archaeological excavation if necessary. The terrain varied from a high plateau with snakes and scorpions, to coastal areas also with snakes and scorpions, to jungles with snakes, scorpions and leeches. Although no ancient settlements were discovered along the route, the artefact types discovered by the University of Texas were retrieved throughout the length of the corridor demonstrating that there had been different cultures using a coastal route throughout the past. As luck would have it, the lost triangulation BP113 point was discovered (being used as a ritual object with offerings of stones) and therefore the University of Texas’ ‘JD’ locations were also located. These could then be co-ordinated with the Nexus investigations and provided an over-all picture of both research projects.

The Institute Fundamental d’Afrique Noire suggested that Nexus collaborate to situate the knowledge acquired into a wider geographical framework by using scientific research from the surrounding countries. The main findings were that individual motifs which appeared on pottery of varied dates corresponded with various present-day languages in the south-west of Africa, Lingala, Kingwana, Kikongo, Tshiluba (especially in Angola), thereby demonstrating that there had been cultural change throughout time by migration, challenging the simplistic assumption of the sedentary society proposed by Sarkozy. The report on this work will be published by the University of Oxford’s journal Archaeopress later this year.

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