Oil painting on cotton cloth, depicting the a battle scene.

Gaverne Bennett's highlight objects: African kingdoms timeline



By Gaverne Bennett, Creator of The Guardian Black History Timeline and the British Library Black Literature Timeline

Publication date: 29 October 2021

Explore our new African kingdoms timeline with Gaverne Bennett, who has selected a range of fascinating objects to take a closer look at.

Gaverne Bennett's highlight objects: African kingdoms timeline

When I was asked to comment on this fantastic African Kingdoms timeline I was delighted. I love stories about how we all got to be the way we are today, and African history holds a special place in all of that. That is because in all senses, all human history goes back to Africa – all human beings today, as far we know, come from a small group that lived in Eastern Africa, where modern-day Ethiopia and Kenya are today.

Some of the earliest recorded art forms emerged in Africa, which seems to show this continent was the first place where people like us first dreamed, first wondered about their environment, the animals around them, the moon and stars above their heads.

I first remember going to the British Museum when I was about 10 years old. I distinctly remember it because it was the UN year of the child. My mother had taken me there a number of times before, but on one occasion she made a point of taking me to the bits of the Museum that related to Black history, to African history.

I have a memory of seeing the Egyptian history paintings of people with different coloured skins on the ancient walls. I realised there was a rich and varied history that I had no idea about. The first thing I found out about was the so-called Nubian Pharaohs who came from further south of the River Nile.

As time went on, I never lost my sense of wonder and curiosity, so when the Africa section of the British Museum opened, I would visit it at least once a year. I visited it regularly when I put together The Black History Timeline for The Guardian and, in fact, the few days when the idea of a Black History timeline came into my mind was when I was spending my days going between the British Museum and British Library.

I am so glad that this particular timeline has been put together because I hope it will give you a compass, a map to make sense of the richness of African history – as rich as any other history. I have chosen five objects that reveal, I think, what is fascinating about African history – that I hope you will find fascinating too – which will bring you closer to the great civilisations, cultures, the peoples that produced them. These objects will hopefully help put you in the time, in the circumstances, in the skin of those who created them in the way only objects can.

These objects helped me realise that while we live in one world today, that there have been many previous versions of this world in which people have lived differently. We are all part of an ongoing story that will hopefully end with us leaving something of equal value for generations to come.

1. Naqada decorated pottery jar, around 4000–3000 BC

1. Naqada decorated pottery jar, around 4000–3000 BC

I chose this piece because it is connected to food and drink, a subject close to my heart!

This jar has possibly existed for 5,000 years. It was made by people from the Naqada valley in the east of modern-day Egypt, who were part of early farming villages along the River Nile, whose descendants may have gone on to build the great pyramids we still see today.

This Naqada pottery jar showed me that this was a people who loved life. Look closely at the carvings on the side – people dancing, ostriches, people on boats. It says to me that they, like us today who prefer cups that have our favourite things on the side of them, liked to stamp the things they ate and drank from with something that expressed their individuality, their surroundings, their culture.

It is amazing to think of all the skill that went into making this Naqada jar. Just consider there was no electricity, no DIY shop, no YouTube where you could learn how to make this. They really had to make this beautiful object from absolute scratch. Think of the brilliance it takes to create something that can still speak to us almost 5,000 years after it was made!

See this object on display in Room 64.

2. Carved Stone Palette commemorating an Egyptian Pharaoh’s victories, around 3100 BC

2. Carved Stone Palette commemorating an Egyptian Pharaoh's victories, around 3100 BC

I chose this object because when you look at it, especially when you stand physically in front of it, it just screams: POWER! LOOK AT ME!

Narmer is a central figure in human history because he unified Lower and Upper Egypt, setting the stage for the wonders of Egyptian civilisation like the famous pyramids. He is the first known Pharaoh, and when you look at this palette it is clear he wants you to know that.

If you examine it carefully, he looks like a giant standing there – so you have a sense that whoever put this together wanted you to know how important Narmer was. I imagine people at the time standing in front of it and wondering, as we do when we see special effects in a movie or see something on YouTube, 'How did they do that?'

You can see this object on display in Room 64.

3. Brass head of an Ooni (king) of Ife, 1300 – early 1400s

3. Brass head of an Ooni (king) of Ife, 1300 – early 1400s

I chose this object because of its sheer beauty – the beauty of the face, the beauty of the artistry that made it, and the beauty of the culture that produced it. It is a brass casting of an Ooni (king) from over 600–700 years ago from the mighty Ife kingdom.

This figure almost feels like they are looking at you, about to say something – maybe a command given what we know of it.

It is difficult to read the expression on the face of this carving, which makes it all the more impressive. This feeling of mystery increases if you actually stand in front of it because you can almost feel the presence of the artist and the person that is depicted here. There is still an Ooni (king) in the palace in Ife, Nigeria, today.

Visit this object on display in Room 25.

4. Ancestral stool, Kingdom of Asante, around 1750–1850

4. Ancestral stool, Kingdom of Asante, around 1750–1850

I chose this object from the Kingdom of Asante, famous for its gold, for a number of reasons – personal, historic, and artistic. Firstly, it is from the powerful, notable African Kingdom founded by Osei Tutu in the 17th century that had/has a very sophisticated, fascinating culture, history and still exists in modern-day Ghana.

Secondly, I want to draw your attention to this chair simply because of the striking gorgeousness of it. Look at the sides. It jumps out at you how much time and effort has been put into making these intricate carvings. It tells you a lot about the sophistication of the people who made it. Sometimes when you see this amount of attention going into making something, you know it has a ceremonial purpose, it is supposed to keep your attention, and this chair most certainly does – especially when you stand in front of it in Room 25.

Thirdly, I chose this object because like a lot of families from the Caribbean, my family in all probability come from what is modern-day Ghana, so I like to dream that an ancestor of mine might have seen this chair.

See this object on display in Room 25.

5. Cotton cloth depicting the Battle of Adwa, 1896

5. Cotton cloth depicting the Battle of Adwa, 1896

This painted cloth depicts an important conflict, the battle of Adwa, waged by Empress Taitu and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia (who are seen leading their troops), to maintain their independence and sovereignty against an invading Italian army.

I chose this painting because it shows the one part of Africa that wasn't colonised – Ethiopia. A civilisation possibly as old human civilisation, right at the centre of a lot of celebrated stories like that of King Solomon, King David's son, who is mentioned in a number of holy books.

Most of all, it shows that Africans were not happy to lose their independence, their right to make history, which is what many believed for a long time and was an idea used to justify this invasion.

Apart from that, I think that this painting is fascinating because it echoes the whole of human history – the way the soldiers are lined up might have been the way the ancient Assyrian or Roman armies formed themselves many millennia before, the way the cavalry is organised seems to echo the Mongols, while the guns are from modern times.

It illustrates how African history is bound up with human history – not just in terms of war and resistance – and that it is bit strange to say that the cradle of humanity would itself have no history.

You will also find that the image on this cloth has a hypnotic quality if you stand in front of it – especially if you do so with the truly open eyes that history can give you, if you let it.

This object is on display in Room 66.

I have drawn attention to five objects on the African Kingdoms timeline that captured my attention for personal, historic and artistic reasons. Looking at this timeline, which objects would you select as being most interesting to you?

I hope it is clear as you read this that these are not just objects. Behind them were people who just like yourself had feelings, with a point of view, with their own culture. It is always important to remember that the people who made what we see here today had their own perspectives, were active once, and that part of what we are doing here is making sure that their voices too are part of our understanding of what they left behind.

This African Kingdoms timeline is the first part of a series of African history timelines that will be produced in the next few years. It is worth taking the time to look at them, not only because your ancestors, all our ancestors, came from some of the places described here, but because unfortunately for a long time it was thought that these places, this continent, these peoples, had no history.

In learning about this history, in reading this timeline, in visiting the British Museum we can all be part of the process of developing a more rounded understanding of African history, of human history.

For me history is not simply about the past, but really about the future. The people that made these wonderful things created them, to my mind, for the same reason people make TikTok videos or YouTube videos today – they wanted to be seen in their own time and in future. Just as today you would like to be seen on your own terms, to be respected, so too we should extend this respect to the ancient peoples who made these beautiful artefacts, and their descendants.

Hopefully, 5,000 years from now people like yourself will try to form a fully rounded, fair picture of today as you are now doing by reading this, doing your own research, and making up your mind.

Download the African kingdoms timeline, or find further resources for teaching African and African Diaspora history.

Visit the Museum to see these objects on display and discover two million years of history.