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November 2005

Medieval Africa: Great Zimbabwe and the Arabic Connection

800px-Gr_Zimbabwe_visitorsOne of the tragedies of the modern colonization of Africa has been the reinvention of African history in a European image. Prior to Portuguese incursions, from around the 1500s, Europeans knew very little about the geography and culture of Africa. It was a “dark continent,” and most European knowledge had been received through the limited filters of the Bible, classical histories, and other fragmented sources. As Western interests and colonies became established across Africa, it was presented as a place ripe for discovery by the civilizing forces of modern empires. But in so doing, African history was largely written within a Eurocentric framework. As a result, many aspects of that history were distorted or ignored.              

The Western “discovery” of Africa from the 16th century onwards, was underpinned by two basic assumptions—both deeply racist. The first held that black people were incapable of understanding or writing a history of their own; therefore, white people had to discover and write it for them. But the second assumption was even more insidious—black people were deemed incapable of having a history. Thus, throughout the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the history of Egypt, of the Bible, and of other sources with direct bearing on the history of both the Middle East and Africa, were reinterpreted and reinvented to present a view of ancient civilizations of which the West was the sole inheritor.

One astonishing example of this re-writing of history is the treatment of Great Zimbabwe, the greatest stone monument in sub-Saharan Africa....

Read the whole article here (originally published on Islam Online)

Photo: wikicommons

Caves of the winter sun: Astronomy at the Boyne Valley Passage Graves

100_0091This article, published in Riocht Na Midhe, the journal of the Co. Meath Archaeological and Historical Society (2003), argues that the three great Boyne valley passage-graves: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth have inter-related astronomical orientations.

It reveals that all three passage-graves are precisely and exclusively oriented on the winter solar cycle, with the solstice orientations at Newgrange, Dowth and possibly at a range of satellite mounds, at their heart. This finding has two significant implications. The first is that it reveals that not only was orientation to astronomical phenomena central to the ritual uses to which the individual monuments were put, but that these orientations functioned together, so that the relationship between orientation and ritual was coordinated across sites as well as operative within each single site. The second is that the winter solar cycle appears to have been central to the ritual meanings embodied in the monumental site as a whole.

There is a tendency within archaeology to dismiss such evidence, even as it is revealed; but in fact, the pattern of orientations at the Boyne valley presented here is striking, and significantly furthers our understanding of the ways in which the site may have functioned as a ritual and cosmological complex. The fact that the winter solar cycle was enshrined at the heart of an extremely elaborate prehistoric monumental and ritual site such as the Boyne indicates that the season itself had a powerful role within the cosmologies of such groups. Such a role cannot be reduced to ‘simple’ concerns to observe the turning of the year, but would have interacted integrally with the range of procession, deposition and initiation rituals evidently practiced at all three monuments. It would also have had meaning and significance in terms of the spatial use of the monuments, and certainly had significance in relation to the complex cosmological symbolism suggested by the rock art. 

The central and integrated relationship of the orientations at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth suggests that the winter cycle may even have acted as a structuring principle for such ritual practices and cosmological meanings, embodying an authority that appeared to lie beyond human agency, within the ‘order’ of the cosmos itself. Moreover, the winter solstice is a central alignment at other highly prominent Neolithic sites, suggesting it may have had a structural ritual role across as well as within particular regional monumental groups.