Medievalists organize study day around Caravans of Gold

Sarah Guérin (Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania) and Christina Normore (Department of Art History, Northwestern University) organized a study day of the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa at The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. On May 13, 2019, a group of International Center of Medieval Art (ICMA) members got an exclusive look at the exhibition, which is the first to take stock of the material culture of medieval trans-Saharan trade and its legacy.

Kathleen Bickford Berzock gives ICMA members a tour of Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time. Photos courtesy of Melanie Garcia Sympson.

The exhibition’s curator, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, The Block’s associate director of curatorial affairs, lead a tour of the exhibition, which highlights the central but little-recognized role Africa played in medieval history. The exhibition addresses the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe during the critical epoch of the eighth through 16th centuries, when West African gold fueled a global economy and was the impetus for the movement of things, people and ideas across the Sahara Desert.

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Caption: Fragments from the sites of Sijilmasa (Morocco), Tadmekka (Mali), and Gao (Mali) in the exhibition Caravans of Gold. Photograph by Clare Britt, courtesy of The Block Museum of Art.

The tour benefitted from the presence of important collaborators and advisors to the project. Marc Walton, research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, spoke to the group about clay molds recently excavated at Tadmekka, Mali by the archaeologist Sam Nixon. Dated to the 10th and 11th centuries, the molds are evidence of the earliest known fabrication of currency in West Africa. Walton and his team replicated the technique that Nixon hypothesized was used at medieval Tadmekka in which gold was purified by melting and filtering it through crushed glass. They also created 3-D printed versions of molds to cast replica blank coins. The analysis has brought the unique casting methods of medieval Tadmekka to life.

Sarah Guérin speaks with ICMA members at The Block Museum of Art. Photos courtesy of Melanie Garcia Sympson.

Sarah Guérin spoke about a complex relay trade in the thirteenth century that sent ivory from sub-Saharan Africa to Northern Europe. Guérin discussed how, over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, medieval craftsmen developed an approach to carving that was tailored to this luxury material. She also spoke of the movement of copper from sources in Europe and in the Sahara to sub-Saharan Africa, where it was cast into sophisticated sculptures.

Left: Virgin and Child, ca. 1275–1300, France, Ivory with paint, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.295; Right: Seated Figure, Possibly Ife, Tada, Nigeria, Late 13th-14th century, Copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin, Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, 79.R18.

The day ended over lunch and conversation about the impact of Caravans of Gold. Many noted that the exhibition was in line with emerging threads in the field of medieval art history, including an emphasis on materiality and an acknowledgment of the importance of global trade networks. Participants also remarked that the exhibition would have implications for their teaching, especially introductory comparative surveys.

The Block Museum was especially enthusiastic about hosting members of the ICMA. Berzock explains, “It has been incredibly rewarding to see the reception of the project from medievalists whose primary field of study is Europe. Part of the intent of the project is to build bridges between scholars of different regions, who work in different disciplines and who are based in different countries in the world, to contribute to a fuller picture of Africa’s central role in the medieval period.”

Written by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate, The Block Museum of Art

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