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Archaeology and Oral Traditions: The Two Sides of a Coin


Stanley I. Okoroafor Ph.D Department of History and Diplomatic Studies University of Port Harcourt, P.M.B 5323, Choba, Port Harcourt. Tel: 08032287536; 08057339307 Email: 


The part being played by archaeology vis-a-vis, that of the oral traditions has largely been viewed respectively as that of the beauty and the beast. From the Eurocentric perspective of earlier scholars especially the scientific or processual ones, archaeology is on board to substitute the non-scientific, obsolete instrument of oral traditions for good. In practice however, it is observed that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two historical disciplines. In southern Nigeria, this mutual relativity involving both disciplines has been explored vividly to produce some of the astonishing results of the last hundred years of archaeology in the country and needs to be further strengthened for a more beneficial interaction and results. 


Archaeology no doubt has the blessing of scientific application in the nature of its business especially as it is being practiced in this contemporary period of its development. It has come to be most appreciated in historical studies that in some discussion of history, it is almost indispensable. This is more so in such areas of the world as in sub-Saharan Africa where a long period of preliterate past necessitates its inclusion in more than 90% of the comprehensive historical account of a given society in the area. This contribution by the discipline archaeology, is reckoned most relevant in the area of chronology. The problem of handling the temporal scope of historical discuss especially in pre-colonial period of most developing areas is a daunting one of which a saving grace came in the discipline archaeology. Archaeology with sound chronological provision on such issues as its major goal, stands tall as helper if not sole dependable provider of reliable date in distant historical studies. This and many more have crowned archaeology the king of sources of information used in the reconstruction of the past of humans in their dwellings. 

Nonetheless, in practice, some other sources are quite useful in the historical business even when archaeology is said to be the king. This is the case of oral traditions seen by some to be weak and sometimes not important in modern historicizing. Oral traditions when used properly play complimentary role in the handling of the complex historical data of today. They sometimes as have been experienced by this writer serve as main lead to even the royal archaeology that you may want to judge them as the true king makers in this respect whose presence and function or otherwise would make or mar the kingship. This suggests that both sources of history stand as the two sides of a coin which need each other to be meaningful and valuable as is demonstrated in the lines below. 

Description of Sources 

Archaeology has been described variously by many scholars and some of these have been favoured above others by different persons and at different times (see Clarke 1986, Shaw 1969, Hester 1976, Fagan 1975, Binford 1968, Trigger 1989, Andah 1979, Deetz 1967, Okpoko and Derefaka 2012). Often these scholars had chosen different perspectives to explain what archaeology is. From such perspectives they had described archaeology and 

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its appreciation had grown. Over the years it is in similar vein that this incredible source of historical information is viewed here. Archaeology has been described as a discipline that employs a host of techniques in the middle of which is excavation, with which it reaches out for, gathers, analyses and interpret in a broad reconstruction, the material remains of a people in a given society in order to understand the behaviour and to use such to bequeath the present generation with more credible life-ways. Archaeology through the artifacts can mirror the past of a given society addressing their cultural life, history, and the processes of changes occurring there-in and provide a reliable time frame of such developments. The nature of its data (Hester 1976; 24; Heizer 1973:87), enables it to deal with every human concern through the time of emergence of man on earth and now. 

With the sophistication of techniques in its analysis especially adapted from other quarters, it has become even more suitable to take on the challenges of human behavioural investigation as hinged on his culture. The scientific capabilities coupled with the philosophical basis and directions have all made archaeology a formidable and much more reliable discipline that has been delivering high quality services. Their specialties of its subdisciplines are often of good quality results to the fascination of researchers and the general public alike. For instance ethno-archaeology, archaeobotany and zoo- archaeology are bringing happy relationships between archaeologist and such other scholars as ethnographers, botanists, zoologists, geographers and geologists and helping governments and others to develop tourism to mention but this in many places. Yet another important historical source of information especially in sub-Saharan Africa which archaeology is having fine association with is oral traditions. Oral traditions may judge the oldest form of archaeology and still has a lot in common with one another. 

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Oral traditions represent a corpus of the accounts of what transpired in a given society, which have been handed down from one generation to another mainly through verbal utterances. The traditions are therefore, not dependant on words alone but on other actions of the people in which information about their experience in the past are stored. Such actions would include their festivals, rituals, folklores, drumlores, (information stored in drum beats) mnemonic (for example idioms, proverbs, adages, and other wise-saying, music/songs, dances and rites. Professionals on the source such as Jan Vansina and Alagoa had since identified two major categories of the storage of the traditions namely Free Text and Fixed Text (Alagoa, 2005). The former is the one in which such information is stored in a manner that allows the one telling it to embellish it but not disproportionately. In it also the language used is the everyday conversational prose type where as in the Fixed Text, such latitude for embellishment is not provided as the information is stored in somewhat poetic language and is expected to be rendered just the way it was received. This category is used mainly around palace courts, religious activities and other such serious aspects of life. A good example of this in the Christian religion is the Lord’s Prayer. Oral traditions in whatever form it is found or used would not include gossip, rumour, and propaganda or similar baseless sentiments although some say that when rumour persists then it may be making way into some fact. 

Oral traditions faced stiff condemnation by mainly western scholars who cite its over-dependence on hear-say or memory of man. Such people say of the traditions as not being good enough as source of history which is built on recorded factual evidence of the dealings of man which is verifiable. They say of oral traditions to be more sentimental and unsteady than what should lead to an objective and analytical historical discuss. Oral traditions when applied scientifically as is expected of all genuine disciplines today fail as a reliable data pool of history. For example experts 

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say of man being able retain less than forty percent of what he had just heard when asked to recount all such in full and this diminishes with the passing time. Judged in this way and similar others, oral traditions may be considered weak but when properly developed and used as some historians have done, it is a veritable tool of historical reconstruction and as is accepted now, as history in itself. Oral tradition among Africans really is strong as source of history as has been demonstrated by many thus far and so can it be in some other areas depending on the socio-cultural environment. In Africa, the social system is such that in some aspects of their operations, there is a uniquely serious bound of the people and their entire existentiality including the spirituality and mundane practices. It in such manners that oral traditions can stand as not just sources of history but historical pieces in its self. This makes its use in African history very unique and necessary in arriving at objective conclusions. This is why even in certain disciplines the involvement of oral traditions is accepted with open hands. One of such disciplines around us here in Africa is archaeology. The situation now of the relationship between oral traditions and archaeology is likened to that of the sides of a coin and is further buttressed below with a view to strengthening the collaboration at most times. 

The Complimentarily of Archaeology and Oral Traditions

From the intrepid antiquarians who set the ball rolling in this direction one can observe the collaborative engagements between the direct and indirect source s of information on the past of a given land and people. For even the intrepid foreign persons in our societies were told of and shown the evil forest or groves and the likes by the indigenous folks where they could find grave goods and such properties judged to belong not to the living people but to the underworld especially of evil disposition. When these Europeans got hold of the objects, they made enquiries of the people behind the objects on the basis of which they progressed in their engagements in the area. The 

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Europeans had during the pre-colonial period to the colonial period taken interest in some of the cultural properties of the land. They had taken some home to Europe, made comparisons and reached conclusions. Some had inspired some others later to come visiting and to further make enquiries about some of the items. The case of Leo Frobenus in 1911 in Nigeria is one on point in this respect. When actual archaeological studies began in Nigeria, it was to begin with the interest taken and put on the cultural materials dug up during tin mining around Jos Plateau area. People, including the Africans, involved in the actual digging and the Europeans directing in the exercise, had been intrigued, accidentally finding the object of archaeological relevance, and reported such to the governments. Such information spurred government particularly to cause further investigation on the finds and the situations to go on and report back to it. It was in this way that the Department of Antiquities was established and excavation/archaeological mission followed thereafter. Some of the objects found, such as the Jamaa head and numerous terra-cotta figure and figurines adorn some of our museums in Nigeria today. Although they began with chance finds, the initial knowledge of them when they began to appear were provided by the people of the area, which in some cases after scientific analysis would be proven to be factual. Some of the features (for example facial marks and hair-do) found on the objects are sometimes seen on the locals while some provided information on the environment (Dufuna and the Canoe) or social activity (Ulaira and the hunting) which sometimes were found only in the oral traditions of the people. 

Even when proper archaeological missions began with the pioneer archaeologists such as Shaw Hartle, Fagg, Daniel and Connah, oral traditions aided the search in diverse ways at different areas. In the North excavations at Daima, Yelwa, Ulaira, Nok, Rop, the Benue Valley all had some form of collaborative contribution of oral traditions which aided in the general understanding of what happened in the distant past of the 

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areas. Some stone tools thought to have come from God, were later known not to be so as more of inches were excavated from the vicinity of the extant users. Here, archaeology played the leading role but with oral traditions supporting such, it all becomes clearer and more meaningful. Today, the Nok culture zone is better understood by all Nigerians although it has not been made proper use of. 

To the West, where the University of Ibadan that became the front line institution and operational base of the archaeologist, the interaction between archaeology and Oral Traditions could be seen helping scholars to reach their objectives in historical studies. It was from University of Ibadan that Prof. Shaw, the father of Nigerian archaeology founded what is now the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology and attracted a lot of other important scholars in the area notably Prof. Andah. Shaw’s immediate striking research results aroused a lot of interest around. More scholars from Europe, America, Asia and Africa trooped in with zeal. They took up different research perspectives covering diverse areas of Nigeria and various aspects and periods of the discipline. There were further success stories beneficial not only on the account of past of the land and people of Nigeria but on the restoration of their pride and dignity as a people among the 20th century band of world population progressing from the crude pre-1950 world behaviour to the glorious new one of the civility and grace. 

With these developments come the challenges of more verifiable and credible researches that address the concerns of the people and nation. Results of researchers were given immediate attention just as funding was taken seriously by the government. The people even outside scholarship and government direct dealing were touched with some especially among the nobilities captivated as to want to be directly involved. Even the three 

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years civil war that the nation experienced did not damped the spirit and zeal. The archaeologist continued to work hard with passion and to contribute to better knowledge of the people’s past that help in their self- actualization and determination until about the past twenty-five years now. 

These developments were made possible through the cooperative provisions of both archaeology and oral traditions. At Ijaye Orile the University of Ibadan had gone on field-works as part of the training processes of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of its students. Then this writer was doing his postgraduate studies there and was part of the team which comprised of people from different parts of Nigeria and at least two foreign students. There were many Yoruba staff and students with us but no one had good knowledge of what happened around the mound that we chose to work on. Faintly, some knew that there was war with such personality as Kurumi mentioned. The excavation resulted to surprise and exciting finds. This attracted many people including the government. Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) sent Mr. Ayo Adewuyi to cover it while we were still in the field working. It was telecast almost live on NTA and later in more detail on Frank Olizes’ NTA show ‘News Line’. The news went international with Dutchervella reporting it. There were some on the spot observations. It was the people of the community who provide verbal details of what transpired there, and identified some of the objects that were unearthed. Here, the work was enriched because the two disciples came together in reconstructing the past. 

The excavation at Iwo eleru Ondo state Nigeria was spearhead by oral traditions and collaborated with it also. That of Ife, Wumonije and many others in the west had similar experience. 

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In Benin, it was the same story as we read from Paul Ozane’s report. Since then, other reports from the famous kingdom have proved that both disciplines are virtually indispensable in carrying out researches around here. It is the same in the Eastern area and the Niger Delta. Around here, this effort is most needful, being an area where population shift occurred frequently with the change in the environmental setting coupled with the nomadic nature of the people, which is dependent mainly on a fishing life. In almost all the excavations (Onyoma, Agadagbabou, Saipripogu, Kaiko, Isomobon, Okochiri, Obigwe, Obrikom, Ahiakwo and Oguta), the two disciplines worked hand in glove to make sense of the account being reconstructed. 


In some of these, archaeology had helped to put to rest, issues raised and adopted based on oral traditions. This has been in the main the major contribution of archaeology to the people except where they choose to operate on falsehood. Archaeology therefore, authenticates history especially those recorded based mainly on oral traditions. It has as well invalidated some other records and made the people to know the actual fat about the development around them from the past. There is therefore, no gain saying that these need each other at different times to bring about more objective reports of our history. For the prehistoric period perhaps this may not always be the case but the possibility should not be ruled out. This is because the changes that occur around many, are not so different, that connection to the past whether remote or near can still be noticed with careful handling of the data. The historian dealing with issues not properly documented as in most of the situations around us here, should employ the services of archaeologists so not to have parts of the account represented as the full occurrence. For both scholars (archaeologist and historian), they should see each other as the two sides of a coin in reconstructing certain aspects of the past especially in such areas as Nigeria and other parts of sub- Saharan Africa. 

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Published inNumber 1Volume 4