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Perspectives Provenance

Excavating Empires of the Sahel: In Conversation with Daouda Keïta

Keïta, an archaeologist and museum director, speaks on historic West African empires.

Feb 26, 2020

A tall man with dark skin, wearing a navy blue suit, stands next to a terracotta figure of a nude woman, in front of a purple background

South of the Sahara Desert is a region called the Sahel. Arabic for "shore" or "coast," the Sahel spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. A current exhibition at The Met, Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, presents art from the western Sahel, an ancient cradle of civilization, and in particular material culture from the historic empires of ancient Ghana (ca . 300–1200), Mali (ca. 1230–1600), Songhay (ca. 1464–1591), and Bamana Segu (or Bambara Ségou, ca. 1712–1861). The historical region's extant visual culture consists of works in fired clay, carved wood, stone monuments, textiles, manuscripts, and creations in precious metals ranging from brass to gold.

The materials of the Sahel are "markers of human ingenuity," said Matar Ndiaye, an archaeologist from Senegal, during a recent visit to The Met. "And in them, we can see a multiplicity of techniques, means of communication, and human thought. These objects are part of a global identity, and the reconstruction of this cultural heritage should be done in a global way."

The history of the Sahel was predominately transmitted through oral stories, passed down by griots, or bards, across generations. It can therefore be challenging to reconcile the visual material of the region with its poetic history. The Met recently had the honor of hosting Daouda Keïta, an archaeologist and director of the National Museum of Mali, in Bamako. During his visit, Isabella Garces and I met with Keïta to discuss the rewards and challenges of studying the art of this region, which is a fountainhead of technical, economic, and material innovation, due in part to its history as a transnational trading hub. We were joined by Oumy Mbaye and Mouhamet Traoré, two fellows in The Met's Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Both from Senegal, they participated in the installation of the exhibition. Keïta described his work as an archaeologist with passion, as well as his work promoting education and fostering his community's awareness about the Sahel's past, its present, and its future.

Garces conducted this interview in French (Mali's official language), and it has been translated and edited for publication.

Will Fenstermaker

Isabella Garces:
You just arrived from an excavation site at Segu, in southwest Mali. What is the historical significance of that site?

Daouda Keïta:
Segu was one of the most powerful pre-colonial states of Mali, and is the subject of many songs and stories told by the griots. But its history is based on information passed down orally. There are very few written sources. In 2010 we did an initial excavation on a site where we were able to discover remnants dating from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. This proved that there was life at Segu before the Bamana Kingdom.

And when we did archaeological excavations in Dougouba, Farkou, and Tougou, we saw that these places were occupied since the sixth century A.D. We found stylistic affinities between Segu and another site, Jenne-jenno, particularly in a type of ceramic called "fine ware" or "Chinaware," a very fine pottery that is well fired. There were also different types of bricks based on the evolution of the settlement over time. And thanks to our collaboration with palynologists (who study pollen and spores), we found plant species that were cultivated or consumed in the area. So we now have a group of artifacts that confirm Segu existed long before the Bambara Kingdom, and that it was a crossroads for different communities, not unlike Jenne-jenno.

What are some of the challenges you encounter during excavations in the region?

Ah, the challenges are enormous! The biggest is to conduct scientific excavations that bring results, and interpreting those results as objectively as possible. The second challenge is getting the population involved in managing this heritage. If we have the means, we can make what we call "site museums," which preserve objects from illegal excavations, so people can see materials from the communities that came before them. When they visit, they will see that heritage is something highly useful for our training, our education, and for fostering awareness. Third, you must raise awareness, inform, and educate. To grow, we must be rooted in our culture above all.

If we do all that, we can forge a link between the sites and the communities, and we'll also get to know another dimension of our history from the material remains we excavate.

Installation views of Sahel

During an excavation, how do you work with the local communities?

This is crucial: You can't do research in a place if you're not on good terms with the community. They have a deep understanding of the land, which we can't learn better through archaeology. If we don't involve the community, we won't succeed in our mission, because we won't let the community appreciate the importance of our work. We're now asking ourselves if scientific study is sufficient to achieve our objectives, because a scientific study is in our own selfish interest. But when we try to write in a language accessible to everyone, we share information and the benefits become available to everyone.

In Mali, we set up structures for managing the cultural heritage in the villages. We call them cultural banks. They have three branches: the village museum, microloan centers, and cultural centers. The village museum is for collecting objects in one place. These objects aren't bought or sold; the communities bring them to the museum, and in return they are granted a loan. We believe the village is the first custodian of these objects, which are part of their heritage and identity. We often find that the information on these objects isn't known to the entire village, but once it is displayed, the whole community can realize how rich their heritage is. Consequently, they protect these objects, they conserve them. The cultural center is there to raise awareness, and they often have training for local artisans.

And the exhibition here at The Met, of course, brings a view of the region's cultural history to New York. Why is it important everyone know the material history of the Sahel?

These days when people talk about the Sahel, they often talk about famine, war, migration, exodus—as if all that sums up life in the Sahel. But no, those are episodes in a normal life!

The curators of this exhibition are showing a new facet of the Sahel: Peaceful, communal, and diversified. This exhibition invites us to draw lessons about life in the region, through objects originating from different countries. The Sahel is a heterogeneous world with different communities and countries, but they are united despite their diversity. You can see everywhere in the exhibition that there is a rich culture, a rich heritage, and it should be preserved and safeguarded for future generations.

A terracotta figurine of a reclining nude woman

This terracotta figure was excavated at Jenne-jenno, a city settled as early as the third century B.C. Reclining figure, 12th–14th century. Middle Niger civilization, Mali, Jenne-jenno. Terracotta, 10 5/8 x 14 3/16 x 9 in. (27 x 36 x 22.9 cm). Musée national du Mali, Bamako (R 88-19-275). Photo courtesy Musée national du Mali, Bamako

Today the Sahel is divided into a number of independent countries. How does archaeology help us see past the borders between these states?

Before colonization, the Sahel was governed by different entities and empires. There was no Mali, there was no Senegal, no Côte d'Ivoire, no Burkina Faso. ... The Sahel's history goes back to prehistoric times with the movements of populations, contact and exchange, as well as climatic changes that pushed people to migrate from one place to another. There were no borders then; humans moved to where they felt comfortable.

Population movements are always linked to problems that humans couldn't solve at home, so they have to migrate to find a solution. But it must be said that these displacements are not a linear phenomenon—there's a back and forth. Archaeological sites help us see that. While excavating the site we might find a period of occupation, a period of abandonment, a period of reoccupation. These different phases explain the movement of people.

And when humans change their surroundings, they often have to change their means of production. They create the conditions they need to survive. Archaeology is what gives us clues to these different factors governing their lives. For example, if you look at the different statuettes, you'll find similarities between them.

Right, your museum is loaning a terracotta figure for the Sahel exhibition. Can you tell me about the history of terracotta in the region?

The terracotta that comes from the Inner Niger Delta characterizes a period of high occupation in that region: between, let's say, the eleventh century and even now, since they continue to make these figurines. These figurines also show the ingenuity of the artisans, their mastery, so there's an aesthetic side.

A gallery displaying a number of terracotta and wooden sculptures

Installation view of Sahel

Mouhamet Traoré:
Terracotta is extremely important, because we rely on ceramics and creative culture to reconstruct the history of West Africa. However, we must recognize African objects not just as artifacts, but as works of art, designed with intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity.

You can't create a piece of art without thinking. I think that conception is very important. You must give credit to the idea embodied in the figurine.

And how do you connect visual objects and the oral narratives told within these cultures? Because almost all the history we have is oral, from stories.

I think that's the big challenge nowadays, because oral tradition, as a source, should not be let go. But must we take the oral tradition as it is given to us? I think we have to reflect on it with a critical mind. And today we are also fortunate enough to have other resources, which you have to cross-reference with the oral sources. One of these sources is archaeology, which provides information based on material remains. As long as there are archaeological sites remaining to be excavated, we know we don't have all the information.

Oumy Mbaye:
Until recently, people hadn't yet found valid answers to your question. In one of the terracotta statuettes, we see what might be a portrayal of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sunjata. We see him in a disabled position, trying to rise up. That's a very important element because the oral histories say that Sunjata was disabled; he couldn't walk. These terracotta figures give meaning to those oral traditions.

In the exhibition there are some figures of women wearing hats and holding babies on their bellies. Some might say that this is simply the bond that exists between mother and child, but if we look at the hat—those are symbols of power. And what does that mean? At a given time in Africa, a woman had power. So again, that indicates that there's a correlation between oral history and object, because traditionally, women had real political and economic power.

Showing the Sahel in all its diversity is so important, because today, we've been divided up. We feel like we no longer share the same history. I am all the more glad to be here with my colleagues from Senegal, because we have the same vision for the Sahel. This exhibition confirms that the Sahel is a geographic space where exchanges and contacts have punctuated the lives of the communities who populated this region. It shows that diversity does not necessarily mean division. It strengthens cohesion, cementing a life of lasting peace.

About the contributors

Editor and Producer, Digital Department

Associate Producer, Digital Department