By Southwester Staff

Rich with archeological treasures of enduring artistic beauty, the exhibit Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, is filled with delights to behold.

Covering the period from the beginning of Islam in the seventh century to the arrival of Europeans on ships on Africa’s Atlantic Coast in the 15th century (corresponding to the European Medieval period), trade in gold across the Saharan Desert connected people and ideas. These are the pages mostly left out of Western Medieval history and art books. The exhibition offers another starting point for our understanding in seeing the present time through interconnections to the past.

This exhibit features over 300 works, covering that wide world of trade from Nigeria and Ghana in Africa, to England and Italy in Europe and Iran in the Middle East, and as far as Xi’an in China. Through “the archeological imagination” fragments of artworks capture the thinking of past ages thus bringing new understanding to complete works of art of the same period.  

Since the exhibit is currently “online only” due to COVID-19 restrictions, the viewer is invited to use their “imagination” to experience these works through the museum’s website.

Caravans of Gold opens with video introductions on how the exhibit was created and what it presents, and truly each piece in this exhibit could probably tell its own story. In Saharan Echoes, examples of 19th and 20th century textile, jewelry, and other objects provide such opportunity for insight into imagining the past. 

Driving Desires: Gold and Salt features rich examples of gold works that includes, beside gold currency, a 10th century leaf from the Blue Qur’an and a 14th century painting from Siena, Italy. A video of an interview with a present day salt merchant in the midst of a transaction in the market place brings to life the long traditions of trading.

The Long Reach of the Sahara offers video discussions on beads and ivory. The selection of works are marvels of technical sophistication and of examples of using both European-sourced metals and trade-goods.

Highlighted are the excavations at Igbo Ukwu in Nigeria where over 600 prestige objects, including extraordinary cast copper alloy sculptures from the eighth to early 12th century, as well as more than 165,000 glass and carnelian beads have been unearthed. Another site, Durbi Takusheyi, has yielded 14th to15th century gold earrings, a pendant, and a ring that are timeless in appeal.

Ivory works, such as a French medieval sculpture of Mary and the Child Jesus and a Sicilian casket from Sicily, were carved from elephant tusks acquired through trade. Scientific analysis of the copper and copper alloy sculptures from workshops in Ife, Nigeria from the 13th and 14th century suggest that some of the ores were mined as far away as France and possibly that copper, in the form of ingots, was transported along these routes to West African cities far south of the Sahara.  

Archaeological Imagination Station: Giving Context to Fragments features interviews with investigators who excavated in Mali at Gao and Tadmekka, and in Morocco at Sijilmasa. 

Archaeologists have found more than 500 fragments of woven cotton and wool textiles along with ceramic vessels, tools, weapons, and ritual articles from caves used as burial sites in Mali’s Bandiagara Escarpment, some as early as the 11th century. The variety of weaving and dyeing techniques point to a deeply rooted regional weaving tradition, while the fragments resemble textiles woven in more recent eras, suggesting connections with populations who lived closer to the centers of trans-Saharan trade.

Tour the Caravans of Gold World features more about the connection of 20 key cities. HI videos online and the HI web app at the exhibition allow the visitor to engage further with the artworks on their smartphones using the Smithsonian-developed, web-based HI app.

Saharan Frontiers with Subsections: Arabic Accounts of West Africa | Slavery in the Medieval Western Sudan | Mansa Musa at the Crossroads presents some of the most significant texts and objects that illustrate the global interconnection of far-flung regions. One work sums it up, that of Mansa Musa, the powerful 14th century ruler of Mali, and perhaps the richest man in the middle ages. He is represented wearing a golden crown and grasping a large gold orb and scepter, posed on a world map known as the Catalan Atlas created on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, Spain.

Shifting Away from the Sahara brings into focus the 15th century, when Europeans devised new naval technologies, with a shift of trading posts from the Sahara to Africa’s Atlantic Coast.  While commodities of gold, ivory, and Saharan trade staples remained important, there were significant changes with cutting out the series of intermediaries essential to Saharan trade. Ships made possible the transport of increased numbers of goods as well as a new industry – the organized enslavement and commercial export of West Africans forced into labor.

While the Smithsonian has started opening museums to the public, the online material provided by the National Museum of African Art is well worth the time to explore before a visit.

You can view Caravans of Gold online at:

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