BMCR 2019.04.13

Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond. Trans-Saharan Archaeology

, , , , , Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond. Trans-Saharan Archaeology. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xviii, 449. ISBN 9781107196995. £90.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This groundbreaking work bridges the scholarship of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa through a focus on ancient trade networks within the Sahara. Compiled from the research materials of the recent Trans-SAHARA Project, this book illustrates the complexity of trade within the Sahara, as well as connections with populations to the north and south. The tripartite division of this work concerns three major topics: the comparability of pre-Islamic and Islamic Saharan trade, the exchange of organic materials, and the trade of inorganic goods. While this anthology focuses on the period between approximately 500 BCE and 400 CE, many chapters also provide information for the following centuries.

The opening chapter by David Mattingly, the director of the Trans-SAHARA Project, outlines the general approaches and major arguments of this volume.1 This introduction defines the broad geographic boundaries of “the Trans-Saharan zone,” discusses the environmental dynamics of water availability and climate change, and explains the methodologies required to integrate the relevant, albeit typically lacunose, historical and archaeological sources. The most significant contribution of this chapter, and indeed the whole monograph, is that it proves, once and for all, that “the essential fact of Trans-Saharan contacts in this era is established” (43). Outlining the relevant historiography, from the early insights of Charles Daniels to the critiques of current doubters like Ralph Austen, Mattingly shows how advocates and detractors have long debated the very existence of ancient Saharan trade networks due to the semi-mythical testimony of Greek and Roman writers and the comparative abundance of later documentation during the Islamic period (13–22). In response, he delineates how recent excavations, advancements in the scientific analysis of artifacts, and the inclusion of consumable and archaeologically invisible goods have systematically revealed the intricacy of trade within the Sahara during pre-Islamic times. Mattingly ultimately conceives the Saharan trade system as fluctuating over time at the direction of the Garamantes and successfully shifts the reader’s attention toward internal Saharan trade routes to counter the doubters’ search for exclusively Trans-Saharan ones. To demonstrate this, Mattingly provides an extensive table of tradable goods, both archaeologically visible and invisible, known to have been traded at Mediterranean, Garamantian, and Sub-Saharan outposts, respectively (26–27). The author successfully introduces the reader to all the relevant materials necessary to appreciate the following chapters, though the historiographical section could perhaps benefit from a more detailed integration of the Sub-Saharan scholarship that underlies many of the ensuing chapters.2

To begin the section on the comparability of pre-Islamic and Islamic trade, Judith Scheele provides a chapter on the interdependence between sedentary agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists. Although the need for pastoralists to rely upon agriculturalists has been long established as anthropological fact, Scheele’s innovation lies in supplanting pre-conceived notions about the interrelation between urbanism, statehood, and general political complexity in Garamantian society. An understanding of heterarchical authority, rather than the quest for a Garamantian “state” or “kingdom,” is central to the study of the pre-Islamic Saharan trade (70–72).

Chapter three, by Anne Haour, presents a general contrast between Pre-Islamic trade and Islamic trade particularly along the central Saharan route through the Chad Basin. Addressing the extent to which mutual belonging to dar el Islam allowed the growth of shared trust among traders in later periods, Haour concludes that the difference between the Pre-Islamic and Islamic eras lay not in the nature of exchange, but in its magnitude (93–94). Addressing the unavoidable challenge that much of this book faces, namely the limits of archaeology in times of modern political insecurity, she catalogues a number of locales ripe for exploration and opens the doorway for her theory to be tested more systematically once the central Saharan route can be better excavated.

Mamadou Cissé’s outstanding chapter concerning the excavations of Gao Ancien and Gao Saney in the modern nation of Mali offers a southern counter-balance to the focus on the northern desert elsewhere in this volume. His chapter describes the physical and chemical attributes of the artifacts and structures uncovered at these locales, including gold nuggets, glass and carnelian beads, and copper and glass fragments of probable Middle Eastern and Mediterranean origin, providing tremendous insight into the deep commercial history that underlay the rise of the Gao kingdom (Kaw-Kaw). Cissé effectively lays the groundwork for the systematic reconstruction of the trade networks of West Africa in the first millennium AD, spanning from Igbo-Ukwu to Marandet, an endeavor that parallels the complex picture painted throughout the rest of this volume for the routes of the Sahara (121–126).

Mark Horton, Alison Crowther, and Nicole Boivin delve into the methods of comparative history through their chapter on the East African coast. While much of their discussion concerns the post-Classical era and the zenith of the Swahili trade, substantial room is given to the Periplus Maris Erythraei and whether archaeological sites correspond to the locations mentioned within it. The authors examine similarities between the Sahara and the Indian Ocean Coast, including their human geography, trade products, patterns of urbanizations, comparable geographical status as liminal regions, and even the historiographical denial of their trade with the African interior (133). Altogether, they successfully integrate this easternmost leg of trade between north and south and demonstrate how “Trans-Saharan” phenomena extend beyond the desert itself.

Chapter six, by Sam Nixon, compiles a history of the Trans-Saharan gold trade from the earliest hints of exchange between the Garamantes and Romans to 1500 CE. Bridging the divide between the Pre-Islamic and Islamic periods, he focuses on the timing and routes of the earliest trade, the location and nature of gold mines, exchange rates, and gold-working technology. Of all the chapters in this volume, Nixon’s relies most upon the methodologies of numismatics, introducing the analysis of weight systems (165), gold purity (170–171), and trace element analysis (172–173).

Concluding the first section of this monograph, Andrew Wilson boldly opens his chapter with the proclamation that “the number of archaeologically identified objects that can be unequivocally shown to have come to the Roman world from the Garamantes is, currently, precisely zero” (191). Considering slaves, carnelians and other gemstones, gold, salt and minerals, cotton, animal products, and services and technologies, he determines that this trade generally proved less significant to the Romans than other sources and was more beneficial to the Garamantes than to the Romans (204–205). Citing often from the other contributions to this volume, this chapter acts largely as a synthesis of the general literary and archaeological evidence on this subject matter and would perhaps be better situated as an additional introductory chapter, rather than the conclusion of Part I.3

Both Part II and Part III offer a plethora of raw archaeological data and artifact typologies that Roman, Saharan, and West African archaeologists will find both useful and necessary for future analysis of the commercial relations between the Mediterranean and the Sahara. The former examines the archaeological evidence for organic remains of Saharan trade. Its first chapter, organized by David Mattingly and Franca Cole, considers the centrality of textiles in the Saharan trade. Despite their low level of archaeological visibility, “[t]extiles may yet emerge as the key commodity of trade that moved in all directions within the Saharan trading networks” (218). Lise Bender Jørgensen further provides a chapter on the implications of this claim to textiles discovered in Egypt, and Stéphanie Guédon follows with a chapter concerning locales along more western trade routes, such as Zaraï and Bu Nijim.

The final section of this book, addressing inorganic evidence, similarly begins with a chapter written by the editors compiling discoveries in ceramics, glass, beads, and metalwork, and the wonderfully printed maps, graphs, and photographs that can be found throughout this volume shine most clearly here. Overall, this lengthy and detailed analysis challenges Wilson’s conclusion by demonstrating that the considerable inorganic trade from the Romans to the Garamantes suggests an equivalent movement of less visible goods from the Sahara to the Mediterranean. Michel Bonifay and Anna Leone explore the ceramic evidence and the Roman side of the inorganic trade through their respective chapters on amphora “import substitution” and North African finewares. Thereafter, Sonja Magnavita and Laure Dussubieux provide two chapters on glass, beads, and copper mostly from a Saharan and Sub-Saharan context and with extensive utilization of chemical analysis.

Overall, Trade in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond is an innovative anthology in which all scholars of Northern, Saharan, and Sub-Saharan Africa can find material that will inform their future research and their appreciation of the interrelations between these regions. While Parts II and III essentially lay out the fundamental evidence upon which the arguments of the book are based, Part I frames their multifaceted implications. This monograph therefore shifts the attention of ancient Saharan scholarship, long fixated on Roman influences from the north, to a focus on the center within the Sahara itself and reconceives the desert, not as a barrier, but as an ecotone. Even the very utilization of the phrase “Mediterranean Africa” in the first paragraph of the book to denote the Roman territories within Africa contributes much to relocate the scholarship of the Sahara into a broader continental history of Africa where it has always belonged (i).

This volume has summarily sounded the death knell for disbelief in the existence and intricacy of the pre-Islamic Saharan trade, despite the brevity of extant textual sources and the incomplete nature of the available archaeological information. I eagerly anticipate reading the subsequent three books that are projected to continue this series.

Authors and Titles

David Mattingly. “The Garamantes and the Origins of Saharan Trade: State of the Field and Future Agendas” (1–52).
Part I: Connectivity and Networks
Judith Scheele. “The Need for Nomads: Camel-Herding, Raiding, and Saharan Trade and Settlement” (55–79).
Anne Haour. “What Made Islamic Trade Distinctive, as Compared to Pre-Islamic Trade?” (80–100).
Mamadou Cissé. “The Trans-Saharan Trade Connection with Gao (Mali) during the First Millennium AD” (101–130).
Mark Horton, Alison Crowther, and Nicole Boivin. “Ships of the Desert, Camels of the Ocean: An Indian Ocean Perspective on Trans-Saharan Trading Systems” (131–155).
Sam Nixon. “Trans-Saharan Gold Trade in Pre-Modern Times: Available Evidence and Research Agendas” (156–188).
Andrew Wilson. “Saharan Exports to the Roman World” (189–208).

Part II: Trade in Organic Materials
David Mattingly and Franca Cole. “Visible and Invisible Commodities of Trade: The Significance of Organic Materials in Saharan Trade” (211–230).
Lise Bender Jørgensen. “Textiles and Textile Trade in the First Millennium AD: Evidence from Egypt” (231–258).
Stéphanie Guédon. “Circulation and Trade of Textiles in the Southern Borders of Roman Africa: New Hypotheses” (259–284).

Part III: Trade in Inorganic Materials
Victoria Leitch, Chloë Duckworth, Aurélie Cuénod, David Mattingly, Martin Sterry, and Franca Cole. “Early Saharan Trade: The Inorganic Evidence” (287–340).
Michel Bonifay. “Can We Speak of Pottery and Amphora ‘Import Substitution’ in Inland Regions of Roman Africa?” (341–368).
Anna Leone. “Pottery and Trade in North and Sub-Saharan Africa during Late Antiquity: The Distribution of North African Finewares” (369–392).
Sonja Magnavita. “Track and Trace: Archaeometric Approaches to the Study of Early Trans-Saharan Trade” (393–413).
Laure Dussubieux. “Glass Beads in Trans-Saharan Trade” (414–432).
David Mattingly, Victoria Leitch, Chloë Duckworth, Aurélie Cuénod, and Martin Sterry. “Concluding Discussion” (433–440).


1. The Trans-SAHARA Project (2011–2017) acts largely as the successor of David Mattingly’s earlier excavations around Old Jarma (Garama) as part of the Fazzan Project (1997–2001). These earlier finds are compiled in his four-volume Archaeology of Fazzān (2003–2013).

2. See, for example, the wealth of archaeological data from the Middle Niger, especially the excavations of Jenné-Jeno conducted by Susan Keech McIntosh and Roderick J. McIntosh: S. K. McIntosh and R. J. McIntosh, “Cities without Citadels: Understanding Urban Origins along the Middle Niger,” in The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns, ed. T. Shaw et al. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 622–41; S. K. McIntosh, “Floodplains and the Development of Complex Society: Comparative Perspectives from the West Africa Semi-Arid Tropics,” in Complex Polities in the Ancient Tropic World, ed. E. A. Bacus and L. J. Lucero (Arlington: American Anthropological Association, 1999): 151–165; S. K. McIntosh, “Reconceptualizing Early Ghana,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 42, no. 2/3 (2008): 347–73.

3. See Mattingly’s discussion of the Garamantian impact on the rise and decline of trade vis-à-vis Wilson’s Romanocentric and imperial model (20–21).