A welcome oasis brings life to field

Journal of African Archaeology
October 20, 2006

A handsome survey that spans a continent and crosses disciplines impresses Tim Insoll as it establishes itself as a vital read for an underserved audience

Reviewing a journal is always a difficult undertaking, for by its nature such a publication is usually an eclectic offering - more so than an edited volume, which one would hope has a focused content. Moreover, for a short review of a journal, one does not want to home in on particular papers because, as here in the Journal of African Archaeology , they have already been through a peer-review process, and it is slightly unfair to subject what can be only a selected handful of papers to further critical comment. Hence, I will place the emphasis on the journal itself. At the outset, it is worth stating that it is a welcome addition to the very limited body of journals that focus on the subject.

In fact, a single primary competitor exists: the African Archaeological Review, which was initially published by Cambridge University Press in 1983 and subsequently taken on by Kluwer/ Plenum and now Springer. Unfortunately, the African Archaeological Review (on the editorial board of which I serve) does not really compete: it is much slighter physically, and even though it appears four times a year it generally feels much less substantial than the Journal of African Archaeology.

There also exists a handful of regional journals, usually with limited audiences, that include papers on relevant African archaeological topics. These include Azania: The Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Libyan Studies, Sudan and Nubia Journal, and the excellent South African Archaeological Bulletin. Other forums for African archaeology include non-regional or discipline-specific journals such as the Journal des Africanistes or the Journal of African History. Hence part of the value of the Journal of African Archaeology is that it provides another specific outlet for archaeological papers on all areas of the African continent and for all periods.

Yet it is to be welcomed for more reasons than this alone. It is beautifully produced in A4 format with full-colour cover. The internal layout is clear and easy to read with generously spaced text, tables and illustrations. It feels like reasonable value at E60 (£40) a year for individuals compared with the prices charged for other journals of inferior quality. This might be due in part to the fact that it is not produced by one of the larger commercial publishing houses, but rather is an initiative of a small company, Africa Magna Verlag, in co-operation with the J. W. Goethe University Frankfurt. The founding editors, Peter Breunig and Sonja Magnavita, are to be commended for this venture.

Turning to the contents of the journal itself, three years and thus six issues were available for review. In terms of regional coverage, West Africa predominates, with 16 papers of the total 37 counted (both longer articles and shorter contributions). Otherwise, the regional figures break down as follows: East Africa and the Horn (four), Southern Africa (three), North Africa, the Sahara and Sudanese Nile Valley (nine), and pan-African (five). It is unclear whether this reflects the greater contacts of the editors with West Africanist archaeologists (this is their research specialism), the very exciting work going on in this region of Africa (I am a West Africanist, so I admit to a bias), or the absence of an effective West African regional journal. Such a journal used to exist in the now almost defunct West African Journal of Archaeology . Certainly one could interpret the lesser numbers of other regional contributions on the basis of, for instance, both Eastern and Southern Africa being served by good quality regionally specific alternatives.

The subjects of the papers are much more difficult to categorise and consider because many of them cross subject categories. A paper, for example, might be concerned predominantly with pottery but might also constitute a field report. In general, however, it is fair to say that a good range of subjects is considered, including field reports, contributions related to the analysis of archaeological materials (beads, pottery, tobacco pipes and so on), issues surrounding animal exploitation patterns and the interpretation of faunal remains, as well as pan-African synthesis and review on, for instance, magnetic survey in Africa or African ironworking.

To these can be added book reviews, which have grown in number (though not excessively), as the journal has become better established, from none in the first issue to six in the last issue under review. This process of establishment of the Journal of African Archaeology within the Africanist archaeological community would also seem to be represented by the inclusion of a "remembrance" for a deceased Finnish archaeologist, Ari Siirainen, in one of the latter issues.

The final point that needs making with regard to content, and in so doing breaking the rule about considering specific papers outlined earlier, is to remark upon a debate, also included in that issue, that takes place between the archaeologists Ann B. Stahl and Derek J. Watson. The subject of this debate (the Kintampo tradition in West Africa) is of little concern here, but it is at times quite personal and vituperative in tone. It thus stands in contrast to the rest of the papers, which are quite benign in intent, being reminiscent of a particularly heated debate of the type one might more frequently find in the relevant section of Current Anthropology , for example.

Such debates are to be welcomed in African archaeology, which is often far too descriptive and which is a passive recipient of material from, rather than a net contributor to, methodological and theoretical debates elsewhere in archaeology and related disciplines such as social anthropology.

However, for such debates to be a positive forum rather than an arena for personal argument, the editors will have to take a firm hand.

In summary, it is hard to be negative about the Journal of African Archaeology , other than resorting to criticising African archaeology as a whole. The latter's faults can hardly be blamed on this journal, and this is not the place to level such criticism. Although this journal will appeal largely to a specialist readership, it contains much of value and interest and is to be warmly welcomed. Every encouragement should be given to its success.

Timothy Insoll is professor of archaeology, Manchester University.

Journal of African Archaeology

Editor - Peter Breunig and Sonja Magnavita
Publisher - Africa Magna Verlag Biannual, www.african-archaeology.de
Price - Institutions €105.00 Individuals €60.00
ISSN - 1612 1651

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