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Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond

Edited by Chloë N. Duckworth, Aurélie Cuénod, and David J. Mattingly (Trans-Saharan Archaeology 4). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. Pp. xx + 512. $120. ISBN 9781108908047 (cloth).

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This book is the last of four fat volumes publishing revised versions of papers given at a series of conferences and workshops under the rubric “The Trans-Sahara Project: State Formation, Migration and Trade in the Central Sahara (1000 BC–AD 1500),” devoted to rethinking the Sahara Desert in antiquity. The project builds on and expands the research directed by Mattingly in the Wadi al-Ajal in central Libya, which focused on excavation and survey and the belated publication of work done in the 1960s and 1970s by C.M. Daniels, and the Desert Migrations Project, which was interrupted by the period of civil war that began in 2011. These efforts previously yielded the four-volume series The Archaeology of Fazzān (Mattingly, ed., Society for Libyan Studies 2003–2013) and preliminary articles in Libyan Studies and elsewhere.

For many years the standard view of the pre-Islamic Sahara held that it supported no urban entities and that trade was meager, if at all existent, and only with the Arab conquest in the seventh century CE did cross-desert trade really develop, with a focus on gold, slaves, and salt. This view has now been well and truly demolished by the work of Mattingly’s teams. The Mobile Technologies volume of the Trans-Sahara Project seeks to fill out a new picture through fine-grained examination of case studies on the transfer of specific technological processes, with special attention to irrigation, grain processing and fulling, animal husbandry, weaving, metalworking, glass production, and ceramics. The argument running through these diverse chapters holds that technology transfer was common and widespread in the ancient Sahara and can be traced by careful attention to the material remains at hand. An array of experts in regions outside the central Sahara—especially in West Africa and the Nile Valley—contribute a broader view of the sources and destinations of technological mobility.

Perhaps the firmest case for mobility and transfer in the volume comes in the long chapter on foggara (qanats) by Andrew Wilson, Mattingly, and Martin Sterry (ch. 3). These subsurface aqueducts, traceable by the vertical shafts sunk into the ground to provide access to the channel underneath, tap into an aquifer and deliver its water to irrigate crops. The foggara was invented in Persia and brought to Egypt in the fifth century BCE. Examples of that date are known from the oases of the Western Desert, and it seems clear the idea spread west from there to the Wadi al-Ajal and then throughout the desert. Foggara formed the basis of Garamantian prosperity: as these aqueducts failed in the fifth and sixth centuries CE with the subsidence of the water table, the Garamantian civilization followed them down.

In some cases, certain technologies did not transfer into the Sahara. Touatia Amraoui (ch. 4) examines different types of grain mills found on the North African coast and in the desert interior. She finds mostly saddle querns and grinders at Saniat Jibril, with rotary querns appearing in the second century CE. But the classic Pompeian grain mill, with a fixed conical millstone and a rotating one, “was not present south of the limes” (128). Her review of fulling techniques amplifies her conclusion that “Saharan regions were aware of ‘Mediterranean’ techniques and used them, but . . . they were not concerned by the latest Roman technical changes, in contrast to more northern African regions. Why?” She then remarks: “These limitations in the transfer of techniques cannot be explained only by geography, but are also the result of socio-economic and political factors that need to be studied in more detail” (139).

Several authors deploy various techniques of material analysis to sort out the provenance of goods, especially metals and glass. In another lengthy chapter (ch. 7), Cuénod takes up a hoary question: whether ironworking was diffused south from North Africa and Egypt or was invented independently in sub-Saharan Africa. This question is bedeviled by difficulty in dating finds due in part to the flattening of the radiocarbon curve between ca. 800 and ca. 400 BCE. She tries to work around the problem with a thorough review of sourcing by means of isotope analysis. From these analyses arise the possibilities of trade in metals from as far away as Spain, Sardinia, and Britain. A link to foggara construction emerges from the need for iron tools to undertake their construction. Her cautious conclusion is that “recent analysis of metalworking . . . [is] starting to show not only the trade of metal between the Mediterranean area and the Fazzan . . . but also trade and possible shared technological choices between Fazzan and sites on the southern edge of the desert” (242).

Several chapters take us out of the central Saharan orbit of the Garamantes to surrounding regions. These provide opportunities for comparison and contemplation of technological transfer mediated by societies on the Saharan fringe. Jane Humphris (ch. 8) examines the evidence for ironworking at Meroe and considers the value of network analysis for uncovering links between Kush and other parts of North and East Africa; unfortunately, the data are slim, and bedeviled again by the chronological challenges of the flattening of the radiocarbon curve. Thilo Rehren and Daniela Rosenow (ch. 12) review 3,000 years of glassmaking in Egypt. Caroline Robion-Brunner (ch. 9) takes us to the opposite end of the desert, the West African region, with case studies of ironworking from sites in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Benin. She finds striking diversity in the technologies deployed and suggests local conditions, style, and level of production determined the approaches ironworkers exploited in different regions; this serves as an example of the ways in which local situations inflected decisions about how and whether to adopt a technology. Sonja Magnavita, who has worked for many years in West Africa, examines the early history of weaving there (ch. 6), combining archaeological and literary evidence to offer a longue durée essay on changes and continuities in this technology. Textiles formed an important component of long-distance trade in the ancient Sahara and have served as proxies for trade goods that have not left traces—a central argument in the reconstruction of trade patterns in the Trans-Sahara Project’s first volume.

In a claim that may be controversial—and about which the editors themselves express some caution—Mario Liverani, who directed a very important project in the Garamantian world at Aghram Nadharif, revives a modified diffusionist hypothesis about technological mobility (ch. 2). He argues that the source for many of the technologies discussed in this volume should be sought in the Near East, from which they diffused westward along the great desert belt extending from Mesopotamia through Egypt and all the way to the Atlantic coast.

The authors and editors of Mobile Technologies are of course perfectly aware that technologies do not move by themselves: they are dependent on “being embedded in a fundamentally mobile society” (488). For a discussion of how this mobility worked, readers are again advised to consult the first volume in the series. The structure of desert mobility posited by the Trans-Sahara Project is essentially the nodal connectivity posited for the ancient Mediterranean in Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s widely cited The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Blackwell 2000). The mental analogy between the sea and the desert, a conceptualization that goes back to the Egyptians if not before, analogizes oases to islands and the space between as open ocean. Travelers must carry the supplies they need to get them from place to place. At the same time, few travelers cross the entire space: traders stop at an oasis and sell their goods to others, who use them locally or carry them farther to another destination. Technological mobility will presumably have worked the same way: a skilled ironworker will not have ventured from the Nile Valley to Kissi in present-day Burkina Faso to introduce smelting.

There are, it seems to me, three overarching themes that come out of the chapters in this volume. The first, while obvious, deserves emphasis: our bank of data for assessing questions of mobility, technology transfer, and human interaction in the Sahara is woefully limited. The desert is the size of the United States and only a tiny fraction has been subjected to intense investigation. Current political conditions—which, it must be stressed, have led to terrible human suffering far more important than the travails of archaeologists—have closed off almost all of it to archaeological work. Even finds from earlier excavation and survey are inaccessible in regional or local museums. Questions can be asked, hypotheses proposed, objects that were removed from their countries of origin many years ago can be analyzed, but the data needed for further study are simply impossible to obtain. Mattingly himself and his colleagues have moved on from Libya to a project in the Draa River valley in Morocco, one of the few parts of the Sahara where it is still possible for western archaeologists to work. This is not to say that efforts to understand the ancient Sahara have reached a dead end; the volumes of Trans-Sahara Project provide a wealth of data and discussion that archaeologists and especially historians can engage with for years to come.

Second, technologies are embedded in human culture. They do not exist abstracted from the social structures that shape our lives, in contrast to the implications of Amraoui’s position. Maria Carmela Gatto (ch. 13) is especially clear about the “social dimensions of technological transfer” (474) in her examination of ceramic decoration and pot-making, stressing that “in family economies, such as those of the Sahara at the inception of the Garamantian era, kinship, friendship and neighbourly relations are the basic structuring forces behind knowledge circulation” (476). That is to say, adoption of a given technology depends not only on the technology itself but also, sometimes crucially, on how that technology fits into the social structures into which it must be adapted and the ways a new technology may reshape those social relations. A much more recent example—but befitting Gatto’s own use of ethnographic parallels—might be the complex connections in Tuareg society between people and camels (see B. Tyr Fothergill, Veerle Linseele, and Silvia Valenzuela Lamas, ch. 5). Among the Tuareg of the Ahaggar (a mountain range in Algeria on the Libyan border), animal husbandry is strongly, though not exclusively, gendered and class-determined. Camel care is men’s work; women of the vassal class tend and ride only donkeys. Gatto raises the ethnographic example of women potters from the Dendi region of Benin descended from slaves as a possible parallel in antiquity for “the arrival in Fazzan of potters from a different learning network” (475). In a recent examination of skeletal remains from the Garamantian village at Fewet, Francesca Ricci and her colleagues cautiously noted cranial features in women that “apparently indicate a certain amount of gene flow along a North–South African gradient” (“The Human Skeletal Sample from Fewet,” in L. Mori, ed., Life and Death of a Rural Village in Garamantian Times: Archaeological Investigations in the Oasis of Fewet (Libyan Sahara), Edizioni all’Insegna del Giglio 2013, 330). Peter Robertshaw (ch. 11) also stresses the social role played by beads, remarkably evocative objects for tracing movement in the Sahara.

The third overarching theme is that environment and climate remain crucial actors in the complex interplay of human beings and their technologies. The Sahara Desert is a difficult place to live. The oases that provide water and agricultural opportunities, particularly in the “oasis package” of dates, grapes, and grain, are not simply out there. As Judith Scheele argued in an important article (“Traders, Saints, and Irrigation: Reflections on Saharan Connectivity,” Journal of African History 51.3, 2010, 281–300), oases capable of supporting continued human habitation require capital investment. The Garamantes’ foggara illustrate this principle nicely: without this technology there would not have been an urbanized Garamantian civilization in the Wadi al-Ajal. At the same time, however, the editors urge readers to reflect not only on “Saharan technologies as ways of overcoming the constraints of the desert” but also “what is enabled by this environment” (488, emphasis original). It would have been useful to have expanded on this observation with some examples. What technologies does the desert environment enable? To what extent and how might such enabling interact with the social structures of Saharan populations to encourage or discourage the adoption or adaptation of particular technologies? For instance, the adoption of camels as the premier long-distance transport animal could be seen as a technology that the desert enabled.

Additionally, it is worth bearing in mind the long shadow of colonialism. The long-standing tropes about the Sahara in antiquity, which have now been undermined, were products, in part, of a colonial attitude toward the desert and its peoples. Although the contributors rarely advert to this question (but see comments in chs. 7, 10, and 11), the editors bring it up forcefully in their conclusion: “It is impossible to escape the spectre of colonialism in the interpretation of the Sahara. From debates around when foggaras were introduced, to analyses of African metallurgy, the tension between colonial and post-colonial perspectives remains at the core of the discipline [of archaeology]. On the other hand, as noted by Liverani, much of the old ‘diffusionist’ model of technological change was a side effect of the colonialist relations of the past centuries, we must be aware that the present focus on technological interaction is a side effect of post-colonialism and neo-capitalist globalisation” (490). This self-reflectiveness is a welcome reminder that, although we may look back at our predecessors and see the ways their own sociopolitical context inflected their interpretation of the past, we, too, are bound up in our own postcolonial (or is it post-postcolonial?) moment. However, even this clarity has its limitations: for many Indigenous peoples the “colonial” period has not passed; while we in the West may see ourselves as beyond our own colonial endeavors, the subjects of colonization may not. There are perhaps implications here, too, for our work as archaeologists and historians.

Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond ranges far and wide. It serves as a nice capstone to the publications of the Trans-Sahara Project, and its chapters engage in dialogue with the essays in the earlier volumes. Every university library needs a copy, and everyone interested in the Sahara, or deserts more broadly, whether in antiquity or later, will find much to ruminate on.

Gary Reger
Trinity College
Hartford, Connecticut

Book Review of Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond, edited by Chloë N. Duckworth, Aurélie Cuénod, and David J. Mattingly
Reviewed by Gary Reger
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.Reger

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