Archaeology is the study of a people’s culture of years past through excavation and examination of material remains that are found. It is the understanding of human actions in the past through a study of what they did rather than what they said of themselves. Again, archaeology provides information about how societies adapted their ways of life to suit their natural environment or how they modified their environment to suit their way of life. Archaeological information is obtained through the excavation or digging of specially chosen sites.
In Europe, archaeology has been a useful source of historical evidence since the 19th century AD whereas in Africa, it has been helpful in the reconstruction of the past since the second half of the 20th century.
The archaeologist uses radio-carbon dating (carbon-14 dating) to determine the age of artefacts. The use of this technique to examine running of houses tools and weapons etc. has contributed immensely towards the reconstruction of African history. Among the evidences are the famous Ife works of art in bronze and pottery, which came to the notice of the world through archeological excavations in 1910. Secondly, excavated sites at Igbo Ukwu in the south of Enugu-Nigeria has shown that a highly advanced society existed in that part of Nigeria in the 10th century AD. Thirdly, in the Brong-Ahafo region of modern Ghana, excavation conducted at Begho provided evidence of copper and iron industries. However there are many important sites in West Africa such as Kantora on the Upper Gambia river and Kansala – capital of the Kaabu empire in north-eastern Guinea-Bissau – which still require excavation.
BENEFITS/IMPORTANCE/ADVANTAGES/MERITS/STRENGTHS OF ARCHAEOLOGY
- Existence of Civilization Long Ago: Archaeological information shows that African societies attained high levels of civilization and development in pre European time. Example is the site excavated at Igbo Ukwu and Ife in Nigeria which have revealed highly advanced societies where bronze and pottery technology were practiced.
- Trade Contacts: Archeology helps to reveal the kind of trade contacts that existed among people in the past. A good example is that of the excavations carried out at Begho in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana, which showed that long before the arrival of the Europeans, Africans were in contact with China, Indonesia, Arabia and Phoenicia, since porcelain, coins, pipes and bottles from these areas were found.
- Revelation of Culture: Through the studies of archaeology we get an idea about the political organization of people, their religious/traditional beliefs and economic activities etc. These come to light when archaeologists excavate materials which experts examine and relate them. For instance, if a chief’s linguist staff is found after excavations one may relate it to religious/traditional belief or authority.
- Ancient Tools: Archeology also provides information about the way different people have adapted to their environment e.g. by revealing the tools they made for various purposes.
- Make Other Sources Clear: Archeologists help to confirm what can be known from other sources e.g. Oral Tradition
- Main sources of Pre-History: Archaeology has helped historians to write history of pre-historic times. Since writing began late in most parts of the continent, archeology has become the main source of information for the reconstruction of African history of the distant past.
- How Ancient people lived: Archeologists have revealed in their studies what our ancestors did and so help to provide useful evidence for writing about. Through archeology, the material culture of people in the past becomes known. It is only to excavations that we go to know the kind of building people built and the occupation they engaged in. For example, the ruins in Zimbabwe, Kumbi-Saleh (empire of Ghāna) and the pyramids in Egypt.
- Origin of Humanity: Archeological studies have shown that human beings originated from Africa. From this source, it has been proved that Africa was the first home of man (Homo sapiens). This has been proved by the fossils discovered by Dr. and Mrs. Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in the Northern Tanzania.
- Dates of Events: Archeological studies help us to date event e.g. the use of carbon-14 dating or radio carbon dating.
- Reliable Source: It has been a reliable source of history since artifacts could be seen and felt.
DEMERITS/DISADVANTAGES/LIMITATIONS OF ARCHAEOLOGY
- Guess work: In archaeology, one is bound to use much guess work in the reconstruction of the past, thus leading to inaccurate information. Also, the use of radio-carbon dating always approximate dates. Artifacts found are anonymous and lack the sequence of daily life. Makers and users of such artifacts are usually not known. This makes the archeologist do guesswork.
- Very Expensive: The use of archaeology as a source of writing African history is expensive. It is expensive considering high cost of labour excavating machines, finding the selected site, getting permit, laboratory expenses, and special tools among others. The use of the radio carbon dating (carbon 14) in determining the age of an archaeological find is very complex and expensive.
- Nature of the Climate/Climate Condition: The nature of the tropical climate in Africa makes it difficult for archeological findings (material remains) to be preserved in the soil. The tropical rainforest has high temperature and rainfall which promotes decay of fossil remains as well as chemical weathering. These conditions facilitate fossil decay and weathering of rocks leaving little or no traces of rock paintings or carvings which are very useful sources of information to historians in their attempt to reconstruct the African past.
- Accidental preservation: One major limitation of archeology is that the means by which information is preserved is not deliberate, so most of the findings discovered through excavations are accidental. With this we have the intuition of acquiring some knowledge, but would first at the same time be ‘gambling’.
- View not comprehensive: Archaeological finding is unable to provide a comprehensive view and analysis of the past because it does not tell about the ideological and sociological aspects of life. All these factors limit the scope of information available to the historian.
- Spotty information: The information derived from archeology is often spotty because the information is usually got depending on materials found.
- Difficult to interpret: Archeology unfortunately needs knowledge of many disciplines to interpret information. For example, chemistry, botany, geology, art, history etc. That is, it is not easy to get one person with knowledge on such disciplines thus making interpretation a difficult task.
- Depend on other sources: Archeology rely on information given by oral tradition and written sources. The archeologists in most cases have to receive information about a site or read from a book about a site before excavations can take place. Without receiving information from the local people about a site of ruins, writing African history becomes difficult since the archeologist may be handicapped.