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African Archaeological Contributions to Understanding Rituals and Religions

  • Prof Timothy Insoll
Monday 14 December 2015
Van Steenis
Einsteinweg 2
2333 CC Leiden
Mursi Cows
Mursi Cattle

The archaeology of rituals and religions in sub-Saharan Africa is immensely rich and varied, encompassing diverse forms of beliefs and material expressions. This will be explored through four case studies based on the results of field research completed in different areas of Africa.


African derived ancestor concepts, particularly Malagasy ones, have been influential in archaeological interpretation. Much greater ancestral variety exists and is assessed through interpretation of clay figurines from Koma Land in northern Ghana and how they potentially relate to medicine, ancestry, and personhood. Ancestors were often linked with shrines, which could be a context and focus for objectification of memory, time, and biography. The archaeology and materiality of shrines is examined, again in northern Ghana, through focusing upon the Talensi Tong Hills. A primary component of shrine based ritual practice was animal sacrifice. How animals were symbolically perceived in the African past raises intriguing implications for the archaeological record as is evident with Mursi cattle modification in southwest Ethiopia, and how it might relate to the interpretation of rock art. Finally, how sub-Saharan African archaeology has contributed to our understanding of Islamisation and Islamic conversion is briefly indicated using material from the Niger Bend in Mali and eastern Ethiopia.


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