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African Archaeology

Co-ordinator: Professor Paul Lane

Other staff teaching on this course: Dr Jane Humphris, Dr Giulio Lucarini


The Course

This MPhil focuses on the later archaeology of sub-Saharan Africa from c. 200,000 BP to the present day, with particular emphasis on the last 10,000 years and the role of archaeology and heritage in contemporary Africa. Its core module provides a general overview of the intersections between archaeological, palaeoecological, palaeogentic and historical linguistic evidence across sub-Saharan Africa from the first appearance of Homo sapiens to the early twentieth century.

Two central threads throughout the course are how archaeological discoveries and research have challenged preconceptions of Africa’s diverse pasts, and how researchers have sought to combine multiple strands of evidence and data type in reconstructing technological, socio-cultural, economic, population and landscape histories of the deep past. Key topics include ‘becoming human’, ‘hunter-gatherer diversity’, ‘multiple pathways to food production’, ‘metals, society and symbolism’, ‘urbanism and trans-continental exchange networks’, ‘archaeologies of enslavement, colonialism and conversion’, and ‘usable African pasts for future sustainability and cultural resilience’. The module aims to 'decolonise' the traditional curriculum by highlighting the diverse experiences of Africa’s populations over millennia and their contributions to global processes and events.

The Themes

One of the enduring reasons for study the archaeology of Africa is the opportunity it provides to explore multiple narratives about the past from the perspective of different lines of evidence – from material records to genetic signatures, linguistic cues to palaeoenvironmental proxies. At times many of these lines of evidence intersect, and align also with the oral histories African societies have produced and/or the written record. Yet, it is also common for different sources to tell rather different stories about the same set of historical events or processes. How should scholars deal with this dissonance between sources? Why are there gaps in these diverse records, what do these ‘silences’ tell us about the task and process of ‘history making’, and how might they (or should they?) be filled? What are the political and contemporary implications of favouring one interpretation over another? Does the material record provide a more objective account, or a more democratic one? And, who has the authority to generate these narratives and decide on how Africa’s multiple pasts should be represented, displayed and protected? These are among the recurrent questions tackled in this course, through lectures, seminars, group work and independent research projects.

Students from a diverse range of educational backgrounds and interests are welcome, whether coming from previous study in archaeology (including historical archaeology), archaeological science, or from related subjects such as history, anthropology or geography, or are new to the subject. Whether you aspire to apply the skills and analytical frames of archaeological science to answering questions about Africa’s past, or are interested in undertaking a study of a specific time period of class of artefact, or are more fascinated by learning more about how Africa’s heritage can be enabled, the course has something to offer everyone.


The Structure

For your three main modules, you take

  • African Archaeology (G34). This module is based on weekly lectures, two practical classes a museum fieldtrip and a joint one-day workshop in African Archaeology and Heritage with the Sainsbury Research Centre, University of East Anglia. This module is assessed through two essays of not more than 4000 words length (each counting for 50% of the final mark of the module).
  • Core Archaeology (G02), a seminar-based module shared with other students of the MPhil in Archaeology which reviews fundamental concepts in archaeological theory and practice and provides a shared basis for approaching archaeology. This module is assessed through an unseen examination (67%) and an essay of not more than 3000 words length (33%).
  • Any other module(s) taught within the Department of Archaeology, subject to the instructor's consent and the approval of the MPhil co-ordinators. Where relevant to your dissertation and career plans you may choose from methodological courses in archaeological techniques, other area or period based courses, and thematic courses in museums and heritage.

In addition, you would attend a Research Skills module and write a 15,000 word dissertation on a topic in African Archaeology and Heritage.


The MPhil Dissertations

The dissertation offers a chance to undertake an independent, original research project under the guidance of academic staff. Some projects are based on laboratory analyses, fieldwork or studies of museum collections, others on analysis of existing databases or published literature. Specific dissertation supervision expertise at Cambridge in Africa topics includes:

African Quaternary Archaeology & Hominin Palaeoecology

  • Dr Nikhil Chaudhary (hunter-gatherer ecology)
  • Professor Rob Foley (hominin evolution, evolution of behaviour, origins of modern humans)
  • Professor Marta Mirazon Lahr (evolution of modern humans and their diversity, human biology and palaeobiology, evolutionary genetics and adaptation, Stone Age archaeology)

African Holocene Archaeology

  • Professor Paul Lane (transitions to food production, archaeology of pastoralism, historical archaeology, historical ecology, maritime archaeology, eastern and southern Africa)
  • Dr Kate Spence (Ancient Egypt and Sudan)

African Heritage

  • Professor Paul Lane (archaeological heritage management, archaeology and sustainable development, archaeological ethics)
  • Professor Charly French (landscape historical ecology and sustainability)
  • Dr Dacia Viejo Rose (cultural heritage and the politics of the past)

Analytical Approaches in African Archaeology

  • Professor Matthew Collins (palaeoproteomics)
  • Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres (material culture and technology, archaeometallurgy)
  • Professor Charly French (geoarchaeology)
  • Dr Tamsin O’Connell (isotopic analysis, ancient diet and climate)


For further information, contact Professor Paul Lane, the co-ordinator for this option.