Analysis of ceramics in archaeological contexts has provided a range of information regarding African history. Archaeologists have approached ceramics as a craft as well as an indicator of identity and status. The Africanist focus on the technological development of ceramic manufacture and production has taken several forms. The most notable are (1) the origins of ceramic production, (2) the spread and independent invention of this technology and regional styles through typological analysis, and (3) technological change related to the identity of the producers and consumers including changing dietary practices over time. The various arguments put forth for the first production and use of ceramics in different regions of the continent are connected to the exploitation of available resources such as fish as well as the rise of agricultural production. Following the appearance and technical history of ceramics in various regions of the continent, a focus on foodways and regional cuisine has placed ceramics at the forefront of interpretation.
Over the last couple of centuries, there has been a profound shift in the things which Africans have around them, or in other words their material culture. At differing speeds and to different extents, depending on the part of the continent and the political and religious positioning of the people concerned, the goods of the globalized world have penetrated to the farthest reaches of Africa. Belongings, and thus identities, have taken on new forms. This, however, is not a completely new phenomenon, as Africans have been absorbing things from outsiders to the continent for as long as there have been humans outside Africa. Understanding these shifts, and analyzing the causes and consequences thereof, requires the study of a wide variety of types of sources, many of which are dealt with by historians of Africa with a rare degree of sophistication, so that the fascinating stories of material change can be fully examined.
The Highveld covers a quarter of South Africa’s central plateau and is one of the most extensively investigated archaeological landscapes in Africa. Cattle-herding, farming communities first occupied these grasslands sometime between the 15th and the 17th centuries. A surge in the importance of cattle pastoralism among the so-called Late Iron Age populations of southern Africa seems to have caused this “grassland rush.” With it came a boom in the construction of dry-laid, stone-walled structures, an innovation the success of which is evidenced by the tens of thousands of ruins visible on aerial imagery of the Highveld. In places their agglomeration reaches urban proportions. Sotho-Tswana culture dominated this grassland rush by assimilating the many Nguni- as well as Khoesan-speaking communities that had also moved into the Highveld. The Highveld’s cultural landscape was rearranged by the southern African civil wars of the 1820s—the Difeqane, as it is known in the Tswana language. Shortly thereafter, the arrival of white settlers in the late 1830s heralded the beginning of the colonial period. Archaeologists in the Highveld have largely aimed to illustrate the historical record and oral traditions pertaining to the Sotho and Tswana communities. More usefully they can focus on questions that these records cannot answer. For example, archaeology can help to fill the many gaps in the records; it can investigate the history of things—such as the changing regional settlement patterns and the diffusion of technological innovations—about which the records are silent, and it can test hypotheses to explain the evolution of social and political complexity in the precolonial Highveld. In this way archaeology can help to balance the mostly “top-down” political view provided by the oral traditions and historical records with a “bottom-up” view of social, technological, and architectural developments among the precolonial farming communities of the Highveld.