Posted by: Matthew Davies | November 12, 2015

Fourth Workshop, Cambridge May 2015

Between 4th and 8th of May 2015 we held the final network workshop in Cambridge, UK. As with the other workshops, this consisted of a week-long series of meetings, field-visits and practical demonstrations. The workshop was attended by participants from Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and the UK, including Dr Freda M’Mbogori (National Museums of Kenya/British Institute in Eastern Africa), Mr Timothy Kikeu Kiprutto (Marakwet Research Station/British Institute in Eastern Africa), Dr Alex Schoeman (Witts, South Africa), Ms Tanya Hattingh (Witts, South Africa), Professor Caleb Adebayo Folorunso (Ibadan, Nigeria), Dr Emuobosa Orijemie (Ibadan, Nigeria), Dr Matthew Davies (Cambridge/UCL, UK), and Professor Henrietta Moore (UCL, UK). We were also joined at times by Professor Charly French (Cambridge, UK) and Professor Martin Jones (Cambridge, UK) and number of other invited UK academics.

On day one we reviewed the previous field workshops, with sub-project members presenting on what they had learned from the other projects. This was led by presentations from Professor Folurunso and Dr Orijemie (Nigeria) on the Bokoni sub-project (South Africa) and Dr Alex Schoeman (South Africa) on the Tiv project (Nigeria). These presentations were used to develop a number of cross-cutting concepts and ideas which link each of the sub-projects and which might be used as the basis for future joint publications and research projects. On day two we began with a consideration of material culture and heritage, led by Dr M’Mbogori (National Museums of Kenya), including the relevance of theories of materiality to understanding the physical nature of human-environment-crop-animal interactions. The discussion was fruitful in pointing toward newer theoretical concepts which may allow us to combine physical science and social science perspectives. In the afternoon of day two we visited Flag Fen Bronze/Iron Age archaeological site and museum. The comparisons with research into the archaeology of early European agricultural settlements were useful – not in terms of direct analogy – but rather in terms of understanding the range of techniques and methods that may be applied to reconstruct past economic systems. The use of fine-grained geoarchaeology to identify agriculture related microscopic soil structures was especially illuminating.

The comparative discussions of day one were picked up on day three where we considered a range of key topics across each sub-project. These included:

  1. Successive crop regimes
  2. Management of resources, water, soils, fuel
  3. Soil fertility and broader cosmologies of fertility
  4. Evolution of farming systems through time via patterns of settlement and land-use, including the discussion of temporalities (i.e. different social timescales, gradual vs. punctuated change)
  5. Kinship, family structure, gender and agricultural labour
  6. Colonial and post-colonial development narratives and the uses of a deeper historical approach
  7. Broader ‘food’ strategies, planning for shortage, seasonality, climatic variability, differential and complimentary resource (especially crop) ecologies
  8. Broader understandings of climate change and adaptation
  9. Current agricultural challenges/concerns i.e. agrarian reform in South Africa

The workshop participants were in agreement that the above topics each offered considerable potential for future collaborative and comparative research and publication – with considerable work already undertaken by each of the projects on many of these topics. The discussion also usefully allowed us the chance to review differences in the types and focus of data held by each sub-project and to identify key areas in which each sub-project requires further work to bring it into line with the other projects. This balancing out of data across each sub-project is essential for allowing proper comparative study.

On the afternoon of day three we undertook a tour and practical demonstration of the geoarchaeology laboratories at the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Charly French. This allowed for a much deeper understanding of the process of preparing, analysing and interpreting soil thin-sections. Professor French was able to talk us through his analysis of the Marakwet soil samples collected in Year 1 and we were able to discuss practical arrangements for future soil science research between Cambridge and the partner projects. These discussions ranged from the construction of formal collaborative grant proposals, to access of the facilities by African visiting students and the possibilities of remotely sending samples for processing. In the evening of day three we also had a formal drinks reception with the members of the Division of Archaeology in which we were able to discuss our network activities in detail with potential collaborators.

On day four we turned our attentions to the future of the African Farming Network and our plans post the British Academy grant. In the morning each sub-project outlined its current activities, funding and immediate research plans. The work of various students and ECRFs were also discussed as were project specific funding plans already in process. For example, in Nigeria we heard about the developing plans for Dr Orijemie’s international fellowship and for Mrs Ngonadi’s proposed PhD. In South Africa we heard about Ms Tanya Hattingh’s ongoing PhD research and other masters research projects. After assessing the current research landscape of each project, we discussed the areas in which we might wish to concentrate the future resources of a larger joint collaborative project and how this might be structured in terms of institutions, personnel, research and studentships. There was a general consensus that the way forward is to train African students in a range of key research methods such as geoarchaeology, palaeoecology, archaeobotany, ethnobotany, and ethnography and interview techniques. We all also felt strongly that such students should be pan-African in their outlook and able to learn from and work across the continent irrespective of where they were trained – this would in effect lead to a network of peers with relative specialisms and the ability to share capacity across the partner projects. All partner projects also expressed an interest in community engagement and the benefits of a more citizen science oriented approach. Finally we discussed immediate and future publications/outputs and put in place a schedule for the production of thematic comparative papers.

On the afternoon of day four we were able to tour the archaeobotany laboratories of the Division of archaeology and to see first-hand the current cutting edge work being undertaken on the histories of old world crops. Professor Martin Jones was able to outline this research and make strong suggestions for how similar ideas might be applied to African crops. In particular, we engaged in a detailed discussion of the nature of the Columbian exchange and the movements of new world and Asian crops into Africa, and African crops into Asia. Although the focus of the partner-projects is relatively localised, consideration of our work within broader global narratives was especially useful and provided a new dimension to consider the relevance of the work we are all undertaking. In particular, in order to reconstruct global scale narratives, high quality localised data are also required and each of the African Farming Network Projects has a great deal to contribute here. The possibilities of incorporating our projects into a broader Cambridge centered network exploring the archaeobotany of the Columbian exchange seems an unexpected by highly desirable potential outcome.

On the final and fifth day we held an open workshop at Pembroke College in Cambridge. Each of the sub-projects presented on their detailed research findings with comments on what they had learned through interaction via the network. The projects also commented on their future plans and ideas and how these had been informed by the network. Introductory and summary comments from Professor Henrietta Moore outlined the aims and objectives of the network and our future plans. Professor Moore particularly focused on the comparative themes as listed above and the aim to establish a wider research and training network as the next step. In order to gain the opinions and ideas of specialists in the field of African agricultural history and historical ecology we invited a number of specialist guests, including Professor Michael Bollig (Cologne), Professor Bill Adams (Cambridge), Dr Liz Watson (Cambridge), Dr Daryl Stump (York), Professor Charly French (Cambridge), Professor Martin Jones (Cambridge), and Dr Diane Lister (Cambridge).  These invited participants offered a variety of constructive comments and broad encouragement and we are greatly thankful for their input.

Overall the African Farming Research Network (AFN) has been a great experience and we are excited to take the next step and to maintain the network across new phases of funding. Alongside the numerous ongoing activities of each sub-project, the AFN has directly generated a wide range of new data, including soil micromorphology/ geoarchaeology in Kenya, palaeoecological coring in Nigeria, ethnobotanic interview data in Kenya and Nigeria, and new soils and phytolith work and an experimental crop garden in South Africa. We have generated a wide range of new concepts and directions for comparative pan-African research, many of which are listed above. We have generated a number of small grant applications and have been successful with funded post-doctoral and PhD applications for our Nigerian contingent. We have presented as a group in Johannesburg, South Africa, Ibadan, Nigeria and Cambridge, UK. We have submitted one joint paper for publication and have plans for future published outputs. Most of all we have strong plans for the next phase of research funding, African student training and the continuation of what has been a hugely profitable enterprise.

Please watch this space for more activities!


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