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Sources, Heritage, and Experimental History in Premodern Africa. New Tools, Old Debates

On February 21, 2024, ISITA will host a roundtable discussion highlighting the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who are using techniques of “experimental history” to propose new solutions to challenges posed by the scarcity of written and archaeological evidence for pre-modern sub-Saharan Africa.

View the event details in Plan it Purple.

Experimental history is an approach that establishes a new relation between the scholar and material heritage, to answer questions for which the existing sources are insufficient, unavailable, or inaccessible. While the use of experimental methods in the field of African history is still a fledgling practice, since the late 1980s some scholars have been applying these methods to reconstitute various elements of pre-colonial African heritage. Some, for example, have tried to reconstruct original texts or documents from translations or forgeries or from studying religious practices. With the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, such innovative methodologies, halfway between art, science, and public engagement, are now more accessible and increase collaborative possibilities between historians, artists, archaeologists, and a wider audience, while also raising questions about ethics, access, and dissemination.

The roundtable, "Sources, Heritage, and Experimental History in Premodern Africa. New Tools, Old Debates," will gather scholars who are engaging with experimental methodologies in African history. Each will share a short case study of their work and discuss their experiences, outcomes, challenges, and the reception of their work among academic and non-academic audiences. Through discussion and sharing of insights, we hope that the roundtable will help to forge new pathways for understanding and engaging with pre-modern African history.

Read the abstracts here.

Panel Chair: Paul Naylor, Cataloger of West African Manuscripts, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library


-Akin Ogundiran, history, Northwestern University: "The Chemistry of History: Glass Beads, Mobility, and Regional Integration in West Africa, ca. AD 1000-1380"

-Ali H. Diakité, Cataloger of West African Manuscripts, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library:
"The Case of the Second Appendix of Chronique du Chercheur: An Experiment on a Historical Document from West Africa"

-Sarah Guérin*, art history, University of Pennsyvlania: "Global Ivory Culture and African History"

-Mark Dike DeLancey, art history, DePaul University: "Correcting a Colonial Myth: The Tomb of Askia Muhammad from a Distance"

-Djibril Dramé*, Researcher and Chevening Fellow, the British Library West African: "Manuscripts Crowdsourcing Project: The Case of Djenné Manuscripts"

-Rémi Dewière, history, Northumbria University: "Experimenting with Precolonial Texts: From Digital Humanities to Public History "

*Participating by Zoom.