Last week I was able to make it up to the Aga Khan Museum's Caravans of Gold exhibit (there until February 23rd).
Photos aren't allowed in their exhibits so I can only share my notes. The museum does some fantastic information plaques to accompany their displays. I'm using point form with my comments in brackets.
The exhibit deals specifically with trade across the Sahara desert and the medieval kingdom of Mali, which was one of the richest nations in history due to high quantities of gold and salt (necessary for preserving food).
- glass weights were used for measuring gold (I've not seen glass used as a measurement weight before, so this was cool. I'm used to seeing metal weights in European contexts)
- salt from Mali was tastier than other salt due to the number of minerals it contained, giving it a higher nutrient count as well
- lustreware was an ingenious innovation of Arab potters; it was highly prized in Europe for its reflective 'gold like' qualities, which were achieved by mixing silver sulfides and copper oxides into the paint before firing the item a second time
- Arabic manuscripts in west Africa were usually loose pages kept in a leather pouch (I'm curious if these were read one page at a time or if the reader would take out a small stack at once, or if these were more for meditative study rather than quick reading)
- Islamic religious writings were used as amulets (for example the text of the Qur'an was written on a tunic for protection when hunting)
- ivory was purchased by weight so the amount of it removed when carving sculptures/religious icons indicated a lavish expense
- by the 14th century increasing supply of ivory meant lower prices so more domestic items were made out of it (before this it was mainly used in religious icons, after this you find ivory combs, boxes, etc.)
- cowrie shells from the Indian ocean were used as currency in parts of medieval west Africa (I'm guessing their scarcity made them valuable and sought after)
- many ceramic canteens were left unglazed so as to cool the contents through evaporation
- Saharan nomads consider the tent to be a woman's property; mothers collect and sew together goat hides during their daughters' childhoods and then gift them a tent when they marry; this gives women more independence as if they divorce they still have a place to live
- nomads also use a lot of milk products; they put milk in portable containers when they travel and the motion of the camel churns it into butter (what a good use for motion, it also frees the person to do other tasks)