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Abbot Payson Usher Prize recipient 2021

Robyn d’Avignon, New York University

Spirited Geobodies: Producing Subterranean Property in Nineteenth-Century Bambuk, West Africa,” Technology and Culture 61:2 Supplement (2020), S20-S48


The Abbot Payson Usher Prize committee congratulates Robyn d’Avignon as the winner of the 2021 competition, with the essay “Spirited Geobodies: Producing Subterranean Property in Nineteenth-Century Bambuk, West Africa.”

This essay is beautifully written and illuminates a set of techniques and technologies for locating gold and making land claims. Given the existing scholarly attention to the development of cartography and its ties to European imperialism, d’Avignon suggest we must also understand how pre-colonial African societies understood and represented minerals. She shows how gold miners cultivated relationships with jinne to create durable claims. The essay explores the interplay of religion with mining, and weaves together the history and archeology of West Africa with the global turn in science and technology studies.

The essay simultaneously intervenes in several bodies of historical literature, positioning history of technology to engage closely with scholarship on ritual, religion, and secularism. Robyn d’Avignon’s methodological dexterity allows the essay to bring together documentary evidence and oral history in a way that makes clear how sophisticated ethnography can enrich our histories of technology.