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Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond

Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond

Edited by M.C. Gatto, D.J. Mattingly, N. Ray, and M. Sterry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019. Pp. xxvi + 561. $140. ISBN 978-1-108-47408-5 (cloth).

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The vastness of the Sahara, a formidable natural barrier, has often contributed to conceptualizations of isolated cultural developments with limited interregional interactions. At the core of this edited volume is an argument that challenges that contention. Gatto and colleagues seek to interrogate the trans-Saharan zone, a broadly defined region comprising the Maghrib, Sahara, and sub-Saharan Sahel spanning between the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Nile Valley, and equatorial African forests, as a great inland sea connected by “ports” of call along vast networks across the north of Africa.

The work takes on a decidedly adventurous tone and scope, with Mattingly’s preface encouraging readers to share in a sense of being on a journey of discovery. The leitmotif of the trans-Saharan zone as an inland sea of interconnectivity brings forth ready comparisons with The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (P. Horden and N. Purcell, Blackwell 2000). The volume makes clear that the intent is not to be comprehensive but to paint a picture of the trans-Sahara as a multifaceted zone that should be interrogated beyond the academic bulkheads of traditional, regional studies (e.g., Nile Valley, Roman North Africa). Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond is the second of a proposed four volumes of the Trans-SAHARA project, having developed out of papers presented at the project’s 2014 conference at the University of Leicester.

The Garamantian heartland, in present-day Libya, forms the central lens for the broader focus of contributions to this volume. The territory of the Garamantes also orients the six parts into which contributions are divided: (1) “Burial Practices in the Central Sahara” (the Garamantian heartland); (2) “Looking East” (Nile Valley); (3) “Looking North” (Algeria, Tunisia, and northern Morocco); (4) “Looking West” (Saharan Morocco and Western Sahara); (5) “Looking South” (Burkina Faso and Lake Chad basin); and (6) “Linguistic Aspects of Migration and Identity” (i.e., linguistic dispersals and cultural interactions across the trans-Sahara).

Chapters focus on questions of burial typology, theory, and method through a polka-dot pattern of regional studies covering materials from roughly the Neolithic to the Early Islamic period, with a focus on the period from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE. A number of methodological approaches are adopted, including typological studies of burials (chs. 2, 8); biochemical investigations of diet, mobility, and biological affinity using heritable skeletal traits and isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and strontium (chs. 4, 7); and linguistic approaches to examining trans-Saharan population dynamics over the longue durée (chs. 14-16).

As one of the main objectives of the overall volume, Mattingly and colleagues (ch. 2) present a typology of Garamantian burials. This typology was developed from approximately 11,000 recorded tombs documented within a 10 km survey area along the escarpment at Taqallit and between Zinkekra and Jarma. Such density of georeferenced data collection presents a method by which increasingly nuanced burial typologies can be defined for regions across the trans-Saharan zone.

The use of carbon isotope values from dental enamel carbonate in the investigation of Garamantian burials, as presented by Ronika Power and colleagues (ch. 4), points out the importance of temporal resolution. Variations in carbon isotope values between primarily C3 consumers from first millennium BCE contexts in the Wadi al-Ajal and mainly C4 consumers from second century CE and later contexts at Watwat present questions of potential mobility events in the region. However, as Power and colleagues point out, by the second century CE sorghum and pearl-millet (C4 plants) had become common summer cultivars in the region, introducing an element of underdetermination as to whether the individuals documented from Watwat with primarily C4 diets reflect a change in local dietary practices over time or an influx of migrants to the region. Such challenges in data interpretation reiterate the importance of integrating multiple lines of evidence and refined dating wherever possible, as is emphasized throughout this volume.

The inclusion of linguistic research marks a relatively novel contribution for integration with otherwise archaeologically or bioarchaeologically driven datasets. The synthesis of archaeological, genetic, and linguistic data by Elizabeth Fentress in chapter 16, presenting a narrative of mobility events across the Sahara, shows how such multiscalar data can provide paths for further investigation into the interconnectedness and isolation of Saharan groups over time. Indeed, perhaps the most succinct summary of the volume’s overall themes is provided by Fentress in chapter 16, where she notes that “archaeological correlates . . . are themselves extremely impressionistic, and it can be understood . . . that I am attempting to make a best fit between story and data, rather than proposing any certainties” (497).

More than anything, this volume draws attention to the need for greater work within the trans-Saharan zone. This argument is made in most chapters and at multiple scales, with David Edwards (ch. 6) advocating for more survey and GIS research, both from extant and novel data sets, while Joan Sanmartí and colleagues (ch. 8) argue that more substantial excavations are needed to better date and define Numidian burials. The takeaway is that the trans-Saharan zone, while studied comprehensively in isolated pockets, needs broader archaeological coverage at both the survey and dedicated site excavation scales. The importance of gaining finer chronological resolution through the acquisition of additional radiocarbon dates is also stressed as a key route forward by almost all authors in this volume, followed closely by the need for comparable data sets, such as the development of interregionally comparable burial typologies. Sterry and colleagues in their concluding synthesis (ch. 17) make clear that there are many challenges ahead, particularly refinements in identifying the nature of human movements across the Sahara and associated insights to cultural affinity: the practice of slavery is cited on numerous occasions as a well-known form of human movement that remains essentially invisible from an archaeological perspective.

Practical limitations are also evident, and are often acknowledged. Scott MacEachern (ch. 13) highlights the challenges of conducting research in the Lake Chad basin, which now spans four modern nations, resulting in balkanized research histories associated with mixed excavation programs. Similarly, a disproportionate amount of research has been conducted in Egypt, Sudan, Libya, and coastal North Africa in comparison with studies farther south and west, effectively skewing available data sets. The same is true of the types of archaeological data available, as excavations of burial contexts have been disproportionately undertaken in comparison to nonburial contexts. The presentation of material from Burkina Faso (ch. 12) is a welcome southerly addition to this volume, while further consideration of archaeological and bioarchaeological research from Saharan Niger, Mali, and Mauritania—all of which, save for passing mentions, are absent from deeper consideration in this volume—will help to more broadly contextualize this region of the proposed trans-Saharan zone. Despite these numerous challenges, the research presented here makes a substantial contribution toward conceptualizing a broader interconnected trans-Saharan koine.

Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond provides novel data sets and substantial footnoting of extant data that will be useful to researchers. This volume will also be valuable in university libraries. While a general readership may find it of interest, the contributions presented are oriented toward readers already familiar with Saharan archaeological history.

Robert James Stark

Book Review of Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, edited by M.C. Gatto, D.J. Mattingly, N. Ray, and M. Sterry
Reviewed by Robert James Stark
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Stark

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