Accepted Paper:

What do we really know about Medieval Ife as an urban centre? Some thoughts on archaeological data and historical imagination  


Gérard Chouin (College Of William & Mary)

Paper short abstract:

In this paper, I attempt a critical study of our shared scientific consciousness about the urban nature of the famous medieval site of Ife, in Nigeria. I attempt to sort out archaeologically demonstrated facts and anachronistic analogical projections of more recent Yoruba urban reality.

Paper long abstract:

Ife is an exception in the historiography of Medieval West Africa, with an extensive literature about this city during the first half of the second millennium CE. This rich historiography is based on three categories of sources: the archaeological record, an outstanding selection of the material record of ancient Ife usually referred to as 'art' and a large corpus of oral traditions. After about 100 years of research on Ife, the city has taken its place on our shelves and in our imagination, as a walled urban centre of a medieval polity occupying a strategic location on the northern edge of the guinea forest and as an island of scholarship in an otherwise little known medieval world in the Guinea belt. In this paper, I critically reflect on the part of this scholarship that deals with the urban nature, characteristics and chronology of medieval Ife. What do we think we know about Ife as a settlement, and how did such knowledge become part of our shared scientific consciousness? How much of this knowledge is anchored in a reasonable interpretation of the archaeological record? How much of it may, however, be no more than an analogical projection of elements of the early modern and 19th century Yoruba urban landscape onto a medieval context? Such a reflection is, in part, emerging from new archaeological work conducted in 2015, 2016 and 2017 at Ita Yemoo and other sites at the cradle of the Yoruba world.

Panel P134
Urban scenographies of political power in Africa before 1900 (double panel)