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Glass Beads of 7th to 17th-Century CE Sub-Saharan Africa  

Marilee Wood

The value of glass beads to archaeologists has increased dramatically in the 21st century thanks to the development and improvements of methods to analyze the chemical composition of the glass used to make them. In addition, the amount of data accumulated from glass analysis has grown to the point that it is often possible to trace the probable origins of various glasses based on elements and trace elements present in the sands or quartz pebbles and sometimes the fluxes used to make the glass. But glassmaking and beadmaking are usually two separate professions, and raw and recycled glass were frequently traded even continents away. Thus, knowledge of bead manufacturing techniques and where they were practiced is needed to help determine where the beads might have been made and how they were traded. Beads found in archaeological assemblages in sub-Saharan Africa between the 7th and 17th centuries ce were made of several glasses from different regions, including the Near East, the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and China. Sometimes, beads of the same glass type are found right across the continent (particularly in the early period, 7th–10th centuries); but usually, bead assemblages in West Africa are different from those on the eastern side of the continent, and the East Coast and southern Africa are seldom in sync. Southern Africa usually received beads from only one source in any given period, beginning in the 7th century with glass beads from Mesopotamia, then India, followed by beads made from Central Asian glass but an unknown region of production, and finally a return to India. Beads found on the eastern seaboard, from Kenya to Madagascar, came from diverse sources: beginning in the 7th century with beads from South Asia (probably Sri Lanka) and others from Mesopotamia (like those in the south). These were followed by beads from India along with a few from Egypt or the eastern Mediterranean. In the early 15th century, a scattering of beads from China appeared, possibly brought as gifts by the fleet of the Chinese admiral Zheng He. Then a century later, more Chinese beads are found, but they were probably brought by early European traders. West Africa began, like the other regions, with beads of glass from Mesopotamia, which were followed by similar beads, but they were made of glass produced in the Levant or Egypt. After the 11th century, the region received very small numbers of beads from India and ones made of glass from Central Asia, but the most interesting were beads made of glass that was produced in Ile Ife, Nigeria—the only known primary glass production center in sub-Saharan Africa.


The Medieval Archaeology of Somaliland  

Jorge de Torres Rodriguez

During the medieval period, Somaliland and the rest of the Horn of Africa went through a number of important processes that laid the foundations of many of the historical dynamics of the 20th and 21st centuries in the region. These transformations included the consolidation of Islam, the expansion of international trade networks, the movement of the Somali people to the west, and the emergence of a score of Muslim principalities that progressively consolidated their control over significant territories and populations. Although the general outline of the period is well known through a number of Ethiopian, Arabian, and European texts, material evidence for this period is still scarce, especially in Somaliland where research had been discontinued until the 2010s due to political reasons. Research conducted during the 2010s has shown the coexistence of a network of permanent settlements with a rich nomadic culture, expressed in coastal trading posts, inland gathering places, and funerary monuments. Permanent settlements varied widely in size and functions, but showed a remarkable uniformity in terms of architecture, urbanism, and material culture. Nomadic gathering sites, on the contrary, show significant differences but share a common feature: their role as fixed nodes in an otherwise fluid landscape, where groups of different backgrounds could interact safely. Both types of sites were deeply involved in a complex trade system that connected the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East, India, and China, with Somaliland playing a key role in the import, export, and transport of commodities and goods. Nomads, urban dwellers, and foreign merchants collaborated in the maintenance of this key economic activity that, unlike in other regions of east Africa, did not lead to the emergence of urban centers by the coast. The western region of Somaliland shows clear similarities with nearby regions of Ethiopia, and was probably soon under the control or influence of the Muslim sultanates that ruled the region. On the contrary, the central region remained mostly a nomadic area until well into the 13th century. At this moment, the increase of trade around Berbera, the arrival of Islam, and the progressive influence of the Muslim states altered significantly the balance of the region, leading to the emergence of permanent settlements and deep changes in its social and economic parameters. Further to the east, the territory seems to have stayed a nomad’s land, far away from the Muslim states’ influence, although active relationships were established between the Somali clans and the Sultanate of Adal during the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 16th century, the complex balance established in previous centuries suffered a series of major setbacks due to the disturbance of the maritime trade routes by the Portuguese, the defeat of the Sultanate of Adal against the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia, and the Oromo expansion from the south. The network of permanent settlements was almost completely dismantled and state structures disappeared in the region until the 20th century, with most of the population embracing the nomadic life that has become the traditional Somali lifestyle into the 21st century.