The Museum’s collection of material culture from the continent of Africa, acquired through donations, museum sponsored expeditions, purchases, and exchanges with other museums, includes over 173,000 objects and continues to be an important resource for knowledge, ongoing research, and loan and exhibition. The African collections are comprised of nearly 30,000 ethnographic and approximately 143,500 archaeological objects. Africa's complex art, technology, architecture, and political systems are documented both by the Museum's archaeological assemblages and varied historical and contemporary collections.
The Museum’s ethnographic collections are particularly strong from Nigeria, Angola, and Madagascar. Over 2,500 objects represent the Museum’s collections from Nigeria. Over 900 of these represent the Yoruba peoples and include over 200 ceramic vessels, over 160 beaded ceremonial objects, and nearly 200 wood carvings, over 100 of which are ibeji twin figure sculptures. Also represented in this collection are iron tools, musical instruments, gourd containers, and basketry. A good portion of the Nigerian collection as well as the majority of the Angolan collections, numbering nearly 1,500 items, were the results of Wilfrid D. Hambly’s collecting during the Frederick H. Rawson Field Museum Ethnological Expedition to West Africa in 1929. The ethnographic collections from Madagascar number nearly 4,800 items. Ralph Linton collected the majority of this collection (4,579 items) in 1925 when he amassed this well documented and the most systematic of the Museum’s African holdings. Almost all Malagasy tribes are represented, with special attention paid to the Merina, Tanala, and Betsileo. While the 500 traditional textiles in Linton’s collection have received the most scholarly attention, the collection is also strong in woodcarvings, weapons, and ironwork. Most recently, Dr. Chap Kusimba has added contemporary textile collections from Madagascar, bark cloth textiles and objects from Uganda, and pottery vessels from Kenya to the Museum’s African holdings.
The Egyptian archaeological collections number approximately 3,500 objects. Edward Everett Ayer began to assemble the Museum’s Egyptian collections in Cairo and Alexandria in 1894. His purchases included funerary objects, such as mummies, coffins, ushabtis, Books of the Dead, and canopic jars; wood, stone, and bronze images; and fragments of stone reliefs from the period of the Middle Kingdom through the Roman era. In 1907 and 1908, Ayer added two intact chapel rooms from the tombs of Unis-ankh and Netcheruser to the Museum’s collections. Pre-Dynastic collections of pottery and stone vessels, flints, and other objects spanning early to late periods were donated to the Museum by Sir William M. Flinders Petrie, H. W. Seton-Karr, and Gertrude Caton Thompson. In 1944, the Egypt collection was further enhanced through the gift of the Gurley collection, which consisted of jewelry, scarabs, canopic jars, ushabtis, and statuettes. Notable within the collection is the funerary boat of Sen-Wosret, one of only six known outside of Egypt. This comprehensive Egypt collection also includes Coptic textiles, stone, bronze, and pottery pieces.
The Prehistoric archaeological collections from Africa number over 140,000 items. In 1957 and 1958 a field party from the University of Chicago gathered approximately 7,500 pieces from East Africa while working at Isimila in the Central Highlands of Tanzania. A majority of these specimens, recovered from the Acheulian levels of the site, were dated by the uranium-series method as more than a quarter of a million years old and are now suspected to be considerably older. A smaller collection of Middle Stone Age and later artifacts was obtained from higher, more recent deposit at the site from neighboring localities. The South African archaeological collection originates from the University of Chicago excavations at Nelson Bay Cave Site along the coast of Southern Africa. The material was excavated from the Middle Stone Age levels at the site, which are considered to be more than 60,000 years old and perhaps as much as 120,000 years old. Of particular interest are artifacts that are similar to those believed by historians and archaeologists to be the work of the earliest anatomically modern humans.