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Guest lecturer illuminates artifacts from West African and Western European trade routes

March 5, 2021

On Wednesday, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) welcomed Dr. Sarah Guérin, to speak in a Zoom lecture about the connection between West Africa and Western Europe during the medieval era. Guérin, an assistant professor of the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania, researches on African-European trade routes.  Guérin’s work has helped reveal the importance of the relationship between Africa and Europe by tracing the paths material goods took.

Through her research, Guérin has come to believe that examining Europe’s primary imports, such as elephant tusks and pecan spice, reveals vital information about the significance of West African goods in medieval Europe.

“The prevalence of these two materials [ivory and spice] demonstrates a profound shift in the trade routes that provisioned European markets with artistic and culinary luxuries and illustrates the central role that West Africa played in the medieval world system,” said Guérin during her lecture.

Guérin argued that the discovery of an abundance of West African material goods in Europe was revelatory and shifted scholars’ thinking about international trade during the medieval era.

“[The findings] demonstrated that a non-Occidental world economic network existed and thrived before the European-dominated system of the 16th century,” said Guérin.

Along with spices and ivory, Guérin also highlighted the significance of gold as another key West African export.

“After the intensification of transcontinental trade in the eighth and ninth centuries, West Africa became the world’s major gold supplier until the era of Columbus and the opening up of South American gold markets,” said Guérin.

Unlike Europe, which used coins for currency, West Africa used cowrie shells. These shells were imported to West Africa through European trade networks. Guérin explained that, as West Africa supplied Europe with capital, Europe facilitated the import of West African currency.

“Cowry shells of a mollusk [are] most prevalent in the Indian Ocean … Specifically, those harvested in the Maldives were used as currency in many parts of the Islamic world, including West Africa,” said Guérin.

Once European goods arrived on the African continent, internal trade routes moved items further into sub-Saharan Africa. These local trade routes used the Niger River to connect European goods to more people.

“The Niger River served as a thruway across West Africa, connecting various ecological zones—from the central savannahs to the edge of the Sahara, as well as the forest regions of the Niger Delta, where it empties out into the Gulf of Guinea,” said Guérin.

Through examining artifacts from burials in Durbi Takusheyi, a high-status burial site in Northern Nigeria, Guérin discovered the results of these interior trade routes. Three elite tombs discovered at the site had burial goods such as glass beads from the Mediterranean, metal works from the Middle East, cowry shells from the Maldives, copper alloy bracelets and gold jewelry crafted in Western Europe. Perhaps most remarkable, Guérin argued, were the pieces of ivory carved in France from elephant tusks local to the area.

“The tombs of Durbi Takusheyi picture [the individuals] as part of a community in direct contact with elephant populations whose tusks were a source for trade routes that journeyed some 4,000 kilometers to the ivory carving workshops of France,” Guérin said. “ [The ivory carvings] demonstrate how export goods were, indeed, appreciated locally.”

Scholars are continuing to find artifacts like the ones from Durbi Takusheyi throughout Western Africa, which Guérin said underscores the crucial role the Niger River played  in West African trade routes.

“Archaeological finds illustrate how the kingdoms and polities throughout this region, such as Ife and later Oyo and Benin, were similarly actively engaged in long distance trade,” said Guérin.

As researchers continue to discover the connections between medieval Europe and West Africa, Guérin believes that the discovery of new trade artifacts has the potential to rewrite the current narrative.

“So much of the historiography we study … has always explain[ed] away any information, any innovation or fabulously sophisticated techniques of something being imported,” said Guérin.  “For obvious reasons, we need to guard ourselves against such approaches.”


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