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review of B.O.M.Naffé, R. Lanfranchi & N. Schlanger (eds) 2008 L’Archéologie préventive en Afrique: enjeux et perspectives

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  • Landward Research Ltd

Abstract

The first archaeological work in the United Kingdom that was deliberately undertaken ahead of development took place during the Second World War at sites that were to become airfields. A decade prior to this, sites that were to be flooded through the dambuilding programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States were excavated before the waters rose above them. From those early steps we have reached a position where pre-development archaeology is very much the norm, particularly in the global North where the principles of sustainable development mean that the economic impulses that lead to land-use change also have to fund environmental mitigation – such as the investigation of archaeological remains. However, as Nathan Schlanger points out in his introductory chapter to L’Archéologie Préventive en Afrique: enjeux et perspectives, the first true development-led archaeological work in the world was not in Europe, nor the United States, but in Africa, alongside the building of the Aswan dams in the first decade of the twentieth century.
L’Archéologie Préventive en Afrique: enjeux et perspectives. Naffé, B.O.M, Lanfranchi, R. &
Schlanger, N (eds). Éditions Sépia, 2008. ISBN 978-2-84280-146-5
Reviewed by Kenneth Aitchison, Head of Projects and Professional Development: Institute
for Archaeologists.
The first archaeological work in the United Kingdom that was deliberately undertaken ahead
of development took place during the Second World War at sites that were to become
airfields. A decade prior to this, sites that were to be flooded through the dambuilding
programmes of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the United States were excavated before the
waters rose above them. From those early steps we have reached a position where pre-
development archaeology is very much the norm, particularly in the global North where the
principles of sustainable development mean that the economic impulses that lead to land-
use change also have to fund environmental mitigation – such as the investigation of
archaeological remains.
However, as Nathan Schlanger points out in his introductory chapter to L’Archéologie
Préventive en Afrique: enjeux et perspectives, the first true development-led archaeological
work in the world was not in Europe, nor the United States, but in Africa, alongside the
building of the Aswan dams in the first decade of the twentieth century.
This remarkable volume, bringing together 25 papers presented at a February 2007
conference at Nouakchott in Mauritania, is the first attempt to present a review and
assessment of the state of development-led archaeology across Africa and as such it can
also be considered to be practically the first comprehensive look at post-colonial, globalised
archaeology in the developing world. It is necessarily selective, focussing (but not
exclusively so) on Francophone west and central Africa, with many papers presenting
outlines of legislative backgrounds, practice and experiences on a state-by-state basis, while
others concentrate on particular projects.
The existence of such a volume shows that the contemporary establishment of
development-led or “preventive” archaeology is allowing African archaeology to diversify
away from focussing on post-colonial issues such as the repatriation of cultural goods and
the limited scope and activities of deep prehistory. It shows how the processes of
globalisation are now leading to sustainable development, as archaeological work is being
undertaken as part of infrastructure and mineral exploitation projects in particular, but
emphasises again and again how the development of archaeology as a profession in Africa
has been hampered and held back by the poisonous historical legacies of colonial cherry-
picking by foreign universities and museums and by post-independence poverty and
corruption.
Despite Aswan representing the earliest of initiatives, archaeological practice in Africa – and
especially funding for archaeological work – has not developed well. Setting aside work in
the Republic of South Africa and research on the lower Palaeolithic in east Africa, it is
estimated that less than €500,000 per year is spent on archaeological work in the 43 African
countries south of the Sahara combined – a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of Euro
being spent on archaeological work every year in countries like the United Kingdom. This
lack of funding contributes overwhelmingly to the fact that human-resource rich countries
can still be skill-poor – by way of example, in 2001 there were merely half a dozen
archaeologists in Cameroon and only one in all of Chad.
Those figures come from the volume’s stand out paper - Maret, Lavachery and Gouem’s
review of the historical background of African archaeological practices and the case study of
the Chad-Cameroon pipeline project. This remarkable enterprise, which involved
archaeological work along the route of a trench 30m wide and 1,069km long – by
comparison, this is almost exactly the distance between Paris and Rome (1,106km), or
between London and John O’Groats (1,064km) – but crossing multiple ecological and
geological boundaries between savannah in the north and equatorial rainforest in the south.
With 11 million cubic metres of soil removed and 488 archaeological sites investigated, this
is the biggest archaeological project that has ever been undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa.
Funded by oil companies and worked on by joint national-international teams, the project not
only recorded and interpreted archaeological material, leading to increased understanding of
the west African past, but also deliberately aimed to develop human and infrastructure
resources for archaeological practice.
Alongside the other papers relating directly to African archaeology, the volume also includes
a few papers relating to archaeology in France, including Jean-Paul Demoule’s best and
most-up-to-date account of the development of the INRAP system in France, whereby
archaeological investigation is delivered primarily by a quasi-autonomous non-governmental
organisation and is funded through hypothecated taxation.
The conference that generated this volume concluded with the declaration of the Call of
Nouakchott, the “solemn call for the better protection and valorisation of the African heritage,
as part of the promotion of a genuinely preventive archaeology”. The Call of Nouakchott is
not quite the African Valletta Convention, as it does not have the legislative authority of
Valletta (which is published in this volume in Arabic for the first time), but it does set an
important marker on the road to the establishment of strong systems for archaeological
protection and investigation across the African continent.
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