Archaeology of Christian Missions in Southern Africa

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Archaeological engagements with historic Christian mission stations have increased significantly since the late 1990s, but in joining the established dialogue between historians and anthropologists about mission pasts in southern Africa, the distinctive contribution offered by archaeological approaches has not always been recognized. Interdisciplinary conversations have at times focused on excavation, archaeology’s most distinctive method, and the material evidence this uncovers, without recognizing the distinctive ways of thinking and working that archaeologists have developed to understand the past on the basis of its material traces.

Through an engagement with the material world as it exists in the present, archaeologists develop understandings of the past that form the basis of new narratives. This is a form of engagement shared with others, including local and family historians, and on which many people’s engagements with museums and heritage sites are based, including a number of museums and heritage sites based in and around historic mission sites in southern Africa.

Engaging the traces and remains of missionary pasts in this way, whether through places, artifacts, images, or texts, has the potential to reveal traces of ways of acting, thinking, and being that were not recognized or understood within the textual sources upon which many early 21st-century understandings of southern Africa’s missionary past have been built. This form of engagement, overlapping as it does with the projects of enthusiasts and nonprofessional scholars, has the potential to generate new stories that can become the basis of new interpretations at heritage sites and museums.

As places that were not the exclusive preserve of any single racial or ethnic group, Christian missions have the potential to allow stories to be told that include a range of forms of historical engagement, from displacement and refuge, to slavery and emancipation in the Cape, from collaboration and conflict in the face of expanding colonial frontiers, to tension, negotiation, and compromise between missionaries and African leaders both within, and beyond, formal colonial boundaries. Missionary pasts exemplify histories of racial mixing as well as segregation, and provide a glimpse into the multiple ways in which a range of future-oriented political and religious projects were imagined and manifested, but also frequently failed.

Christian missions are boundary objects, with the potential to constitute borderlands where a range of academic disciplines, but also nonacademic projects, can come together to develop new ways of making sense of the past in as yet undetermined and potentially transformative ways. In an expansive and globally comparative mode, the archaeology of Christian missions has the potential to illuminate some of the ways in which Christianity itself has been remade in southern Africa, but also remade as southern African, since the early 19th century.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Feb 2022


  • Christian Missions
  • Archaeology
  • Heritage
  • Mission Station
  • Museum
  • southern Africa

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