Trans-Saharan gold trade and Byzantine coinage
By David W Phillipson
The Antiquaries Journal, Vol.97 (2017)
Abstract: It is often argued that northward trade in gold from sub-Saharan West Africa began after the establishment of Islamic control late in the seventh century ad. This paper questions that conclusion, and suggests that minting at Carthage of the Byzantine gold coins known as globular solidi was related to the acquisition of metal through developing trans-Saharan contacts. Political developments in the late sixth century may have interrupted the supply of gold to Byzantine Carthage; this problem intensified during the following decades when production of globular solidi began. It is suggested that trans-Saharan imports comprised gold that was cast, for export and apparently also for local circulation, at Tadmekka in north-eastern Mali and perhaps elsewhere, into lumps of standardised weight calculated to meet the needs of the Byzantine mint at Carthage. Preliminary archaeometallurgical investigations provide some degree of support for this hypothesis, and further analyses are planned that may identify the sources of the gold minted in seventh-century Carthage. If and when such detail becomes available, it may have major implications for our understanding of the nature and instigation of ancient trans-Saharan connections.
Introduction: Rich gold deposits in sub-Saharan West Africa have been exploited by indigenous peoples for many centuries. Since at least one thousand years ago, some of this gold has been exported to the circum-Mediterranean world where it has been widely used for coinage and other purposes. The earliest written records of this trade occur in Arabic texts produced long after the Islamic conquest of North Africa at the end of the seventh century AD (late first century AH); they refer to overland transport, but do not indicate when that practice began. Documentary sources, however, clearly show that by the ninth/tenth century it had intensified and achieved significant regularity.
Top Image: Solidus of Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery