Exhibition Catalog Now Available: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time

The Block Museum of Art and Princeton University Press are pleased to announce the release of the exhibition publication Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time
Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa, (Kathleen Bickford Berzock, ed.)

Hardcover / 2019 / $65.00 / ISBN: 9780691182681 / 312 pp. / 9 x 11 / 192 color illus.

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The Sahara Desert was a thriving crossroads of exchange for West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in the medieval period. Fueling this exchange was West African gold, prized for its purity and used for minting currencies and adorning luxury objects such as jewelry, textiles, and religious objects. Caravans made the arduous journey by camel southward across the Sahara carrying goods for trade—glass vessels and beads, glazed ceramics, copper, books, and foodstuffs, including salt, which was obtained in the middle of the desert. Northward, the journey brought not only gold but also ivory, animal hides and leatherwork, spices, and captives from West Africa forced into slavery.

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time draws on the latest archaeological discoveries and art historical research to construct a compelling look at medieval trans-Saharan exchange and its legacy. Contributors from diverse disciplines present case studies that form a rich portrayal of a distant time. Topics include descriptions of key medieval cities around the Sahara; networks of exchange that contributed to the circulation of gold, copper, and ivory and their associated art forms; and medieval glass bead production in West Africa’s forest region. The volume also reflects on Morocco’s Gnawa material culture, associated with descendants of West African slaves, and movements of people across the Sahara today.

Featuring a wealth of color images, this fascinating book demonstrates how the rootedness of place, culture, and tradition is closely tied to the circulation of people, objects, and ideas. These “fragments in time” offer irrefutable evidence of the key role that Africa played in medieval history and promote a new understanding of the past and the present.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock is associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. She is the author of For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection and the coeditor of Representing Africa in American Art Museums: A Century of Collecting and Display.



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  1. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: An Introduction, Kathleen Bickford Berzock
  2. Uncertain Fragments: A Divination, Chris Abani
  3. Views from Afar: Reading Medieval Trans-Saharan Trade through Arabic Accounts, Robert Launay
  4. The Sources of Gold: Narratives, Technology, and Visual Culture from the Mande and Akan Worlds, Ralph A. Austen
  5. Fragments at Risk: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, Mamadi Dembélé, Ahmed Ettahiri, Youssef Khiara, and Yousuf Abdallah Usman
  6. The Sahara as a Cultural Zone, Cynthia Becker
  7. Sijilmasa’s Role in the African Gold Trade, Ronald a. Messier and Abdallah Fili
  8. Essouk-Tadmekka: A Southern Saharan Center of the Early Islamic Camel Caravan Trade, Sam Nixon
  9. Gao, a Middle Niger City in Medieval Trade, Mamadou Cissé
  10. Urbanization and Trade Networks in the Inland Niger Delta, Mamadi Dembélé
  11. Polities and Trade in Medieval Northern Nigeria, Detlef Gronenborn
  12. Gold, Ivory, and Copper: Materials and Arts of Trans-Saharan Trade, Sarah M. Guérin
  13. Dinars as Historical Texts: Documenting the African Gold Trade, Ronald A. Messier
  14. Gold Processing at the Early Islamic Market Town of Tadmekka, Mali: Preliminary Results from Experimental Replication, Gianluca Pastorelli, Marc Walton, and SamNixon
  15. Medieval Glass Bead Production and Exchange, Abidemi Babatunde Babalola
  16. The Written Word: Islamic Literacy and Arabic Manuscripts in West Africa, Mauro Nobili
  17. Red Gold: Things Made of Copper, Bronze, and Brass, Raymond Silverman
  18. Gnawa Material Culture: Innovation across the Sahara, Cynthia Becker
  19. Saharan Crossing: The Realities of Migration Today Galya Ben-Arieh


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Seeing Medieval Saharan Africa

The Sahara, the world’s largest desert, occupies a vast expanse of western Africa. Between the eighth and the sixteenth century, an epoch that corresponds with the medieval period, the Saharan region was the site of world-shaping events, though these have become veiled in popular memory. The book Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa and the exhibition that it accompanies have been organized to reanimate this history, which stretched across boundaries of culture, region, religious practice, and systems of value, and to draw attention to its relevance and importance in the present day. “History is both a discourse of knowledge, and a discourse of power,” the philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe incisively declared in his pivotal book, The Invention of Africa. While over time the central role of the African continent in the medieval world has been diminished in historical memory, today’s interdisciplinary “global turn” is bringing attention back again to this critical chapter. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time makes a unique contribution to that effort by examining the history and legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange through its dispersed and fragmented material remains.” –Kathleen Bickford Berzock


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