Our understanding of the artistic accomplishments of this period derives from a limited number of stone remains and works in metal and terracotta. Entering the second half of the first millennium A.D., Aksum remaines a powerful Christian kingdom in northern Africa. When the kings convertes to Christianity in the fourth century, Aksum becomes linked to Byzantine Egypt. Trade extends to Alexandria to the north and beyond the Nile River to the south. By the close of the sixth century, Persian invaders have undermined Aksumite ascendancy; however, Christianity remains entrenched throughout the region. The shifting control of trade has a profound influence further south as well. Arab traders along the eastern coast of Africa learn local African languages and introduce Islam; the synthesis of African and Arab cultural elements produce the dynamic Swahili culture (Swahili comes from the Arabic sahel, meaning coast). Swahili trade extends from present-day Kenya and Tanzania at least as far south as Mapungubwe, contributing to the accumulation of wealth and the growth of city-states in what is now Zimbabwe. Also dating to this period, but at the far southern end of the continent, is a series of terracotta heads. These works are the earliest figurative sculpture on record from southern Africa.
The kingdom of Aksum originates as an urban center founded by Ge’ez-speaking people and situated in the highlands of Ethiopia, later growing to encompass much of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea and even conquering distant southern Yemen for a time. With access to the lucrative Red Sea trade through Adulis, its port city, Aksum becomes an important link in the network extending from the Roman empire to India. In 270 A.D., Aksum begins minting its own gold coins to facilitate international trade, following the model of Roman coinage. These coins provide visual evidence of a far-reaching religious and cultural shift that occurs in 330, when the Aksumite ruler Ezana (r. 320–50 A.D.) converts to Christianity; previously bearing a southern Arabian disk and crescent, coins are thereafter imprinted with the Christian cross. Ezana’s conversion may have reflected his desire to cement relations with the Greek-speaking world of the Mediterranean; the influence of Greek culture is shown in the inclusion of Greek inscriptions alongside those in Ge’ez on Aksumite monuments of the period. Aksum declines in the seventh century, when Islamic Persians take control of the trade routes upon which it depends, but its Christian legacy remains vital in Ethiopia to the present day. Aksum is now principally known for the monolithic stelae erected at its capital city during the third and fourth centuries.
The Lydenburg heads, a group of seven ancient fired earthenware heads found in the Transvaal of South Africa and named after the site where they were discovered, are buried in a manner suggesting careful deliberation. While their meaning is unclear—they may have been used in masquerades as part of initiation rites—the heads remain the most impressive works of Early Iron Age art yet discovered in the southern regions of the African continent.
Trade brings Arab merchants to the East African coast. Gradually this trade leads to the formation of settlements (which are nevertheless primarily African communities) and intermarriage with local African populations, giving rise to the Swahili Coast Culture. Exports include ivory, slaves, ambergris, and gold. Zanzibar eventually develops as a slave warehouse.
The site of Kilwa on the coast of modern-day Tanzania is first occupied. Originally a fishing and weaving community that may have traded with interior settlements, Kilwa later develops into one of the most important trading centers on the Swahili coast. Ivory is probably a major item of trade, exchanged for ceramics brought from the Persian Gulf by Arab merchants. Locally minted silver and copper coins, dated between 980 and 1100, are found on Pemba Island.
Late Iron Age sites such as K2 (Bambandyanalo) emerge in the Limpopo River valley, as well as the earliest walled settlements to appear on the Zimbabwean plateau. Goods such as imported glass beads found at both centers indicate the existence of trade with the eastern coast of Africa. Abundant tools and ivory ornaments found at K2 point to a thriving ivory-working industry. The K2 community declines in the mid-eleventh century with Mapungubwe’s rise to power.
“Eastern and Southern Africa, 500–1000 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=06®ion=afa (October 2001)