How can we find out about civilizations in the past?

Many complex societies existed in history, yet many have been forgotten by Historians. Why is this the case? And how can we begin to understand what they were like?

You can download the worksheet for today’s lesson here. If you are unable to download the worksheet, complete the tasks in the yellow boxes below.

Civilization = A society that has a complex culture and way of living.

I asked you this question on our very first lesson together, but let me ask you the question now we have had a year of learning History together:
1) If you had a time machine, where would you head back to and why?
2) Is it possible to completely understand the History of a society without going back and visiting it? Why?

What are we learning about?

For the rest of the year we will be learning about two civilizations that existed in West Africa in the Medieval period. They are:

  1. The Malian Empire (now modern day Mali).
  2. The Kingdom of Benin (now part of modern day Nigeria).

Their territories are outlined in the map below:

TASK ONE: How can we find out about civilizations in the past?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine. Even the laws of physics are pretty strict and say that we can’t reverse time. 😦

So how can we begin to understand civilizations in the past? List as many things as you can that would help Historians understand what a place was like in the past. A few pictures are below that might give you an idea.

TASK TWO: What can we infer about the Malian Empire and the Kingdom of Benin?

Look at the sources below. What can we understand about what the Malian Empire and the Kingdom of Benin were like from from these sources?

From Source A, I can infer that

Medieval Mali

SOURCE A: A map of the Malian Empire at the height of its Empire.
Hint: Look at the resource that the Malian Empire was close to.

SOURCE B: West African gold, made into coins and jewellery in Morocco, shipwrecked off the coast of England.

SOURCE C: A History textbook describing religion in the Malian Empire.

‘The [Malian] court observed Islam, and literate Muslims were secretaries and accountants. Beyond the capital, however, local priests continued to give offerings to the ancestors and look after their gods’.

SOURCE D: A medieval atlas, drawn in Spain. It shows the King of Mali, Musa Mansa, who reigned between 1312 and 1327.
Hint: Look at what Musa Mansa is holding. Also, look at images of other towns. What does this suggest about the land in the Malian Empire?

The Kingdom of Benin

SOURCE E: A map of the Kingdom of Benin at the height of its Empire
Hint: Look at what natural resource the Kingdom was near. What does this suggest about what the Kingdom relied on?

SOURCE F: A statue made of bronze, made in 16th century Benin.
Hint: Don’t just look at what the statue looks like, also look at what the statue is made from. What does this tell us about the people of Benin?

SOURCE G: Information about the walls of Benin City

‘Benin City is protected by over 10,000 kilometers of earth boundaries (walls made using the earth). They are the world’s second largest structure (after the Great Wall of China), and has helped protect Benin from invasion’.

SOURCE H: Jewellery made from ivory (elephant tusks) showing the Oba (the King of Benin) and Europeans.

TASK THREE: Reflecting on these historical sources.

Look back at the inferences you have made on these sources:
1) What has surprised you about these civilizations?
2) Write down two questions that you have about these kingdoms. What would you like to find out more about to help you understand them completely?

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