Mbanza Kongo: ancient walls and new buildings,
Rock engravings from Mbafu cave (ochre copies)
and from Ntadi-ya-Mbevo rockshelter
(photograph), bas-Congo, 1983
Crucifix: Saint Anthony of Padua, 18th century
Angola/Democratic Republic of Congo;
Kongo Brass - Metropolitan Museum of Art
KONGOKING : Archaeology
Archaeology of complexity and urbanism in Central Africa
Since historical records are relatively recent, it goes without saying that archaeology is indispensable for the reconstruction of Central Africa’s past. Unfortunately, during European colonization, the history of pre-colonial states in this part of the continent was deemed hardly worth excavating. The problematic political and economic situation persisting since then has seriously slowed down progress in archaeology.
The fact that the emblematic Kongo kingdom has never been the object of a systematic excavation program is of course significant in this respect.
Nonetheless, with its wide diversity of pre-colonial political systems, ranging from ‘acephalous’ societies to highly centralized kingdoms, the archaeology of Central Africa provides an important input to recent theories on the growth of social and political complexity. This is especially so for the Lower Congo area, where not only the Kongo empire arose, but where more or less contemporaneous kingdoms or states also developed, such as Loango, Tio and Mbundu.
Being very similar but each with its own particularities, these political systems represent an interesting situation of unity in diversity. The earliest available oral traditions on the Kongo kingdom, for instance, point out that it was mainly formed through a federation of different independent provinces. Only some provinces would have been subjugated by force. The same oral traditions, collected in the 16th and 17th century, allow tracing back the kingdom’s history as far as the second half of the 14th century. Since such traditions always incorporate mythical elements and are often manipulated to justify the ruling powers, their historical value can always be debated. They are not very informative on the economic, social and cultural developments underlying the rise of this centralized state either.
The little archaeological research done in the Lower Congo region so far shows a high density of prehistoric occupations from around 500 BC, but there is a gap in the archaeological record between AD 250 and 1000. After that date, archaeologists recovered several ceramic traditions bearing witness of emerging trade networks in the area, which possibly brought about political centralization. The growing importance of iron and copper, also attested in the archaeological record, connects with the strong relationship between metallurgy and political power omnipresent in Kongo mythology. Also linked with the increase of political complexity and social stratification is the rise of urbanism.
It is known from the historical records that the Kongo kingdom had not only a central capital, i.e. Mbanza Kongo located in current-day Angola, but also each province had its own capital. These early cities are unique in Africa south of the Equator. Their archaeological documentation will certainly be beneficial for recent theories on early urbanism in Africa and other tropical regions of the world which have stressed cross- cultural diversity. Early European travel accounts describe the layout of the Kongo capital cities as one of open, scattered garden- cities with a ceremonial and symbolic centre.
Preliminary excavations carried out in graveyards of two provincial capitals yielded an interesting mixture of Kongo pottery and pipes with European objects such as religious medals, crosses, iron weapons, glass bottles, decorated nail heads, and tombstones.
It is clear that digging these mbanza sites is highly relevant for our understanding of the character of early African- European relations and may challenge Eurocentric accounts of this contact prevailing in the early European reports.
This unique interplay between historical documents and the archaeological record offers an ideal test case for historical method and may add to the debate on the concept of ‘historical archaeology’ in the specific context of Africa. Archaeological finds may shed a different light on issues which are ideologically charged in the historical accounts, such as the adoption of Christian faith, or surrounded with mystery, such as the ‘Jaga’ invasions in the 2nd half of the 16th century.