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Case studies

Utilizing a cutting-edge curatorial approach, ‘Caravans of Gold’ juxtaposes fragments and rare treasures to highlight Africa’s global reach.

These object pairings provide evidence of the West Africa’s vast trade systems in which gold and other resources moved throughout the Medieval world. Artworks preserved in Western museums are placed next to archeological fragments excavated in West Africa to allow viewers to make visual sense of these remains of the distant past.

Material Exchange: Tada Figure and Virgin Mary

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LeftSeated figure; probably Ife, found at Tada, Nigeria; late 13th–14th century; copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin; National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, 79.R18.
Right: Virgin and Child; France, ca. 1275–1300; ivory with paint; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.295.
The style and the extraordinarily thin casting of this naturalistic figure (left) points to its creation at Ife, the royal capital of a powerful kingdom. In the early twentieth century the figure was part of the ritual life of Tada, a small village on the banks of the Niger River 120 miles north of Ife. Tada’s location would have been of strategic importance to Ife, connecting it with long-distance trade. Analysis of the raw copper from which the statue is made suggests that it may have originated in France, traveling along these very trade routes to Ife, where it was cast.
Large-scale Virgin and Child statuettes represent the apex of ivory carving in the Gothic period in France, and this sculpture (right) is among the largest. Measuring 6 1/2 inches in diameter at its widest point, the solid statuette could only have been made from the tusk of a Savanna elephant.  The artist has maximized the size of the figures of the Virgin and Child obtained from the large tusk, and augmented it further with separate ivory pieces for the throne. This statuette was finished with fine details in gold and paint.

QingBai Porcelein

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Left: Foliate bowl with stylized peony spray; China, Northern Song dynasty, 12th century; porcelain with underglaze carved decoration; Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Russell Tyson, 1964.847
Right: Fragment of Qingbai porcelain excavated at Taddemaka, Mali; China, Northern Song dynasty, 10th–12th century; Institut des sciences humaines, Bamako
The commodities and manufactured goods that moved along trans-Saharan trade routes were often destined for markets at astonishing distances from their places of origin. A small fragment of celadon porcelain that was excavated at the site of Tadmekka, Mali, is a type known as Qingbai ware. Produced in China’s southeastern Jiangxi province, Qingbai pottery was widely exported between the tenth and twelfth centuries, and fragments of it have been found at medieval sites from Central Asia to Egypt, and across the Sahara.
The shape of this fragment suggests that it once formed part of the rim of a bowl. The distinctive damask weave of a small piece of silk, also excavated at Tadmekka, proves that it was also made by Chinese artisans, though the chain-stitch embroidery in red cotton that runs across it was likely added in Tadmekka as further embellishment to a luxury garment.


Giving Context to Fragments: Shield


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Top: Decorative fittings for leatherwork or wood; excavated at the site of Tadmekka, Mali; 10th/11th century; copper alloy; Institut des sciences humaines, Bamako, Mali

Bottom left: Shield (Agher); Tuareg, Niger, early 20th century; oryx skin, leather, wool, cotton, copper alloy; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Gift of the Estate of Dr. Lloyd Cabot Briggs, 1975. © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 975-32-50/11886

Bottom right: Openwork disk; excavated at the site of Gao Ancien, Mali; 10th/14th century; copper alloy; Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Bamako, Mali

Copper was processed at multiple locations in the Western Sudan. Remains from copper working have been uncovered at sites in present-day Mali including Gao, Jenne, and Tadmekka. Copper was worked in its pure state or alloyed with arsenic, lead, tin, or zinc to make brass. The yellow tones of brass might have been particularly appreciated in the Western Sudan because of their visual affinity with gold.
This large openwork copper-alloy disk was excavated at Gao’s royal capital, Gao Ancien; its blue-green color is the result of corrosion over many centuries. The smaller copper-alloy fittings were excavated at the major trading center of Tadmekka. One of them has a small piece of hide adhered to it, providing some evidence of its former use.
The large Tuareg shield was made in the early twentieth century. Crafted of oryx hide and embellished with copper disks and colored hide and cloth, it alludes to one possible use of copper-alloy decorations in the medieval period. Oryx hide shields were traded across the Sahara Desert in exchange for gold, copper, and other commodities. The twelfth-century Andalusian geographer al- Zuhri noted, “these shields are most amazing .  . . . given as presents to the kings of the Maghrib and al-Andalus.” Similar shields are depicted in the Cantigas de Santa María, a thirteenth-century Spanish manuscript, as part of the weaponry used by the Nasrid emirate of Granada in battle against the Christian kingdom of Castile-Léon.

Giving Context to Fragments: Knife Blade


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Left: Horse and rider and four figures; Bankoni, Mali, 14th/15th century; terracotta; Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment, 1987.314.1–5

Center: Knife and sheath; Tuareg, Hoggar-Aïr, Algeria, late 19th or early 20th century; knife: wood, iron, and brass; sheath: leather; The Field Museum, Chicago, 175876
Right: Knife blade; excavated from the site of Tadmekka, Mali; 14th century; IronInstitut des sciences humaines, Bamako, Mali
This iron knife blade was excavated at Tadmekka, Mali, an important trade center on the southern edge of the Sahara from the tenth to the fifteenth century. A similar blade was found at Gao Ancien (see the case at the center of the gallery). Iron blades have a recent analogue in the form of arm knives from across the region.
Sheathed knives of similar size and shape are depicted worn strapped to the upper left arms of medieval terracotta figures. The figures are portrayed wearing bangles, hair ornaments, and pendants that reflect the wealth of the region, which was heavily involved in trans-Saharan exchange. Horseman—a common theme—point to the importance of cavalry for expanding influence and maintaining security. A breed of small horses was indigenous to the region, and larger Arabian horses were also imported across the Sahara.
In one of the great tragedies of West African history, the vast majority of medieval terracottas have been removed clandestinely from sites by looters without the systematic recording of data that would help us understand them. Nonetheless, important archaeological research in the region provides information that allows us to speculate on their meanings and functions. This group of figures relates stylistically to others that were excavated from mounds near Bamako, Mali’s capital, where they had been intentionally buried. In the nearby Inland Niger Delta region, terracotta figures were found buried in house foundations in the city of Jenne, while at Natamatao, figures of humans and horses were found buried as a group alongside horse skeletons.
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