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Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time

Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa


This website presents a condensed digital version of the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa and highlights some of the important objects that were featured in it. Organized by The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, the exhibition was on view from January 26 through July 21, 2019. The exhibition was also presented at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada (Sept. 21, 2019–Feb. 23, 2020) and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. (July 16, 2021–February 27, 2022).

Caravans of Gold calls on what archaeologists have termed “the archaeological imagination”—the act of recapturing the past through surviving traces—to present a critical reframing of the medieval period (eighth–sixteenth century).1 The exhibition draws from sources that include material fragments from archaeological sites around the Sahara Desert and West Africa’s forest region; complete objects of the period that help us to understand what those fragments may have been like; texts written in primarily in Arabic that describe medieval West Africa from the perspective of scholars, diplomats, geographers, and historians who were often writing from second- and third-hand information; and more recent artistic and cultural practices that have traceable connections to the medieval past. Together, these sources bring a new understanding to the medieval period and center Africa’s role in it.

Protecting and Preserving Cultural Heritage

By using archaeological excavations in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria and their associated remains as case studies that can be connected to broader histories, this project sheds light on the precious material remains of a period in African history that had a major impact on world dynamics. Museums and research centers in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria have made important historical materials available to the Caravans of Gold project. These institutional partners are active in the preservation of national cultural heritage, an undertaking that is essential to understanding medieval trans-Saharan exchange. Such heritage includes works of art and other archaeological remains, documents, historic sites, and cultural practices. This diverse cultural heritage is part of a shared global history, and its safeguarding must not be endangered by the boundaries imposed by nations, languages, regions, religions, and access to resources. Illegal looting of remains from medieval sites robs objects of the detailed information that comes from controlled archaeological excavation, including data that helps to determine age, cultural context, and use. Protecting, studying, and disseminating knowledge about ancient and historic sites and excavated materials are critical steps in recognizing our interconnected history across regions and its relevance to the present day. The work of specialists, institutions, governments, and global organizations is of vital importance to preserving this cultural heritage for future generations.2

Exhibition Publication

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly publication co-published by the Block Museum and Princeton University Press. The book Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa draws on the latest archaeological discoveries and art historical research to construct a compelling look at medieval trans-Saharan exchange and its legacy. Contributors from diverse disciplines present case studies that form a rich portrayal of a distant time.

Caravans of Gold Companion Website

Please visit the Caravans of Gold companion website for additional information about the original exhibition, including a complete checklist of exhibited objects, images and information about the objects, press coverage, interviews with experts, and resources to support teaching.

Lenders to the Exhibition






United States


This project was conceptualized during the museum seminar “Reshaping an Exhibition: Preparing Caravans of Gold for Presentation in Africa,” taught by Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock at Northwestern University, Spring 2019. Sarah M. Estrela, Block Curatorial Graduate Fellow, and Melanie Garcia Sympson, Block Curatorial Associate, assisted on the development of the app, which was built by Chris Diaz, Digital Publishing Services Librarian at Northwestern University Libraries. Undergraduate student contributors: Emily Andrey, Lois Biggs, Meghan Clare Considine, Brian Rogers Cook, Zoe Detweiler, Brianna Heath, Nicholas Liou, Mina Milaz, Joely Simon, Cindy Qian, Elizabeth Zhang.


Caravans of Gold has taken shape through partnership and exchange. If you would like to share how you are using these materials, or if you would like to inform us of any errors in translation or content, please contact

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