Having waved goodbye to colleagues and friends we thank everyone for an enjoyable and productive African Archaeology Research Day, and look forward to the next one, in Bristol, with 2015 in Stirling.
After seven months of planning, we are just two days away from African Archaeology Research Days 2013, the yearly gathering of Africanists in the UK, which this year will be held at UEA.
We have about 110 registered participants. We will have a couple of keynote papers, plenary session papers which will deal with Kenya, Tanzania, Benin, Mali, Senegal, Libya, the Sahara as a whole, the UK, Sudan, and the Western Sahara. Focus discussion groups dealing with archaeology and development, museum collections, the Indian Ocean system, and ritual in archaeology will consider those and other parts of the continent and bring the plenary session participants up to date with burning thematic developments in the field.
The fun starts at 9.15 Friday.
Most of last week was taken up with our yearly steering meeting or with its preparations.
Eight of the Europe-based team members gathered in Norwich to discuss two main things – on the one hand, progress so far and what that means we still need to do in the 2014 fieldwork; and on the other, plans for publications.
Generally speaking, pieces of the jigsaw are really starting to come together since we started our first, initial, foray into the Dendi past almost three years ago. Matters are certainly making more sense than they did then. In particular – and fantastic news, given our focus on the spatial patterning of material culture – we are seeing emerge a real division of ‘our’ region into distinct zones of material and technical practices. Weaving, ironworking, recent pottery techniques, surface ceramics, settlement foundation, all see a hiatus in the area around Guene. That area will form a particular focus of the 2014 work, partly through test pitting and partly through survey.
Another focus will be truing to close the five-century gap we currently have between our latest archaeological data (the radiocarbon dates keep coming in, and still don’t break past AD 1300) and the oral-historical information on settlement dates. This will, unavoidably, mean more test pits.
Finally, we have our job to finish at Birnin Lafiya and will be continuing soils sampling, excavation, geophysical survey, and if all goes well ground-penetrating-radar investigations.
As regards plans for publication it is now agreed that, as well as specialised journal articles, we are aiming to have a Crossroads volume as a Journal of African Archaeology monograph in 2016. The layout of the book is what we are discussing now, since we could organise it by theme, disciplinary specialism, or chronology.
Another thesis to add to the few I mentioned a short time ago, issuing directly or indirectly from our Crossroads fieldwork:
La filière artisanale du coton dans le Dendi et le Borgou (Nord Bénin). Un fait ethnographique et historique by Lucie Smolderen, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Here at UEA we are these days kept busy with a range of academic and cultural delights. This week sees Europe-based members of the Crossroads team descend on us for our yearly steering meeting. Olivier is going to talk about the long 19th century, Ali about stratigraphy, Didier (if his visa comes through) about northern Benin archaeology, Sam about mud bricks, Paul about soil elemental analysis, Victor about modern house building, Caroline about distinct ironworking traditions, Lucie about hunting, spinning and fishing and Nadia about site clustering; and I will talk about how our progress so far fits the goals set out in the initial application. Priorities for this meeting are to set out the specific plans for the 2014 field season and to decide on our publications.
In the context of this meeting we’re unpacking pots, fine-tuning the project database, making an inventory of the small finds and many other cataloguing jobs. We’re also in the process of applying for funding to run some radiocarbon dates on the exceptional ‘burnt house’ of Birnin Lafiya, and of course thinking ahead to the 2014 fieldwork.
This week we’ve taken delivery of several short films by filmmaker Alan McL, who came with us for the 2013 field season; these films will help give substance to our forthcoming Crossroads exhibition at the SCVA. We have also received 5 new dates for Trench IX, the ‘deep pit’.
On the 18th of this month we welcome a visiting speaker from Montreal, Sarah Guérin, for our regular Centre for African Art & Archaeology event; she will speak about ivory trade through the Sahara AD 900-1300. On 1-2 November we host the yearly African Archaeology Research Day at which we expect 100 delegates.
To cap it all, the Sainsbury Research Unit celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, which has seen us appoint a postdoctoral researcher – Fiona S, formerly Curator of West African collections at the British Museum – and will involve a conference next spring. Tomorrow Norman Foster, architect of the SCVA, delivers the annual Robert Sainsbury lecture followed by a dinner.
We have therefore plenty to keep us happily engaged.
I have received and am reading four Masters theses, supervised by colleagues from various institutions, by students who took part in the 2012 and 2013 fieldwork…
Première approche du système morphologique, ornemental et technique de la céramique du site de « Tintin » au Bénin by Louis Champion, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier
Study of a collection of archaeological beads from Birnin Lafiya, northern Benin by Héloïse Meziani, University of East Anglia
Birni Lafia, un village Dendi : Tentative d’application de la méthode d’analyse typomorphologique au regard du contexte rural africain by Jean-François Pinet, Faculté d’architecture La Cambre-Horta, Université Libre de Bruxelles
Des arbres et des hommes : La végétation comme indicateur archéologique lors des prospections pédestres en Afrique, apport des connaissances botaniques des habitants de l’agglomération de Birni Lafia (République du Bénin, commune de Karimama) à l’archéologie by Julien Jourand, Université Libre de Bruxelles.
Congratulations to all and for those who wish to find out more, most of this work will be presented at African Archaeology Research Day in a few weeks’ time, so please come along to that.
I’m in Newcastle at my second meeting of the Defining the Global Middle Ages network (see here for the one I attended last year in Oxford). The theme this time was ‘networks’ , resonating well with my current preoccupations, which revolve around connections and what people knew about the wider world about them – the world of experience in a deep-time perspective, if you like.
So, my paper at the workshop ranged gaily from Viking Age Europe to contemporary potters in Niger, drawing from a series of papers I have been reading lately and hope to apply in Crossroads. All are underlain by a common concern with networks and their actors: more precisely, with viewing networks from their actors upwards. From then, the question is how archaeology can hope to track connections in the past and, in particular, the movement of people and objects through trading activities and the diffusion of technical processes. I am compelled by the thought that in medieval times travel may have been commonplace amongst a small, specialised subset of the population (an example here) – their minds’-eye ranged widely over long distances, but their mental map was like that of a constellation or a Tube map: disconnected from its background, including political entities which have traditionally structured our narratives.
However Crossroads may develop these ideas, being at the Newcastle workshop has been a stimulating opportunity to learn more about China and India, among others. In each case, historians have precise ideas about what periods constituted the ‘heyday’ of civilisation. Needless to say, these ideas are prone to frequent rewritings and increasing debate. Given China’s current economic strength I was curious to hear that the medieval Song Dynasty was a time of huge economic development.
Yesterday I finished the analysis of the Kompa Dune material.
Since practically nothing is known of archaeological ceramic types from this part of the world – a situation in stark contrast with other sites I’ve worked, such as Maya Belize or Roman Geneva, where a handful of sherds can give you an instant clue about chronology – we are working from scratch. Some potsherds were eroded or undecorated, and tell us relatively little without further, expensive and time-consuming, analysis such as clay characterisation; we call them ‘Category 4′. Others were good-sized rim sherds, from which we can infer the shape and size of the vessel they came from; we call those Category 1.
Now the hard graft of analysing these is done, I shall be putting down my Sharpie and callipers and dusting myself off to start looking for patterns and characteristics. This is essentially a question of playing with Access and Excel to see whether, for example, certain types of decoration only occur in certain stratigraphic layers.
Kompa has yielded five dates – three were from our main trench, roughly eighth to late twelfth centuries, and the other two from a furnace operating just the other site of a stream, early tenth to mid-twelfth century. Read more here about our work back in January.
The trench itself was not that informative in terms of past people’s habitat. We seem to have hit a trash heap: there were no discernible structures and nor did we recover any small finds such as beads or metalwork. However, the fauna and plant remains, and the pottery, will tell us quite a lot about how people lived. Archaeology is, after all, about the day-to-day discards.
Finally, Kompa is unusual in one way: it’s not that common to find settlement and ironworking evidence side by side, as they were here. Partly because of this, Caroline RB and I will, over the coming months, be writing a paper with colleagues of hers concerning this site.
As we gear up for a new academic term and wave good-bye to the warm Norfolk summer, in Crossroads terms we start to think about the project steering meeting next October, and the 2014 field season just after Christmas.
On our target list for test pitting in 2014 are the following two lovely sites -
The finds from the 2012 and 2013 field seasons are with various labs and experts – in York, Cotonou, Miami, Bristol, Brussels, Paris, Cologne, Cambridge and of course Norwich, where the pottery analysis is proceeding as usual. I have nearly completed the analysis of the material from Kompa, so further posts might tell you whether or not they all make sense.
Next week I am going to the British Museum to see whether any of their holdings of so-called ‘aggrey’ and Igbo Ukwu beads resemble our Birnin Lafiya beads – back to the question of lantana which I posted about last year (here and here).
Over the past month, I have also been thinking about cowrie shells, trans-Saharan trade, the archaeology of northern Nigeria and African connections.
As followers of this blog will know, our European Research Council-funded team is engaged in clarifying the history and archaeology of northern Benin, in West Africa. Although the project’s core is archaeological, it integrates throughout art historians, anthropologists, geoarchaeologists and historians. Team members undertake fieldwork together, and there is a continuous feedback process throughout the field season, so we keep on track.
We’re halfway through: how are we doing?
So far, we’ve undertaken three field seasons, of which the largest, earlier this year, involved fifteen researchers, sixteen students, several research assistants and 40 workmen. At the moment we are engaged in desk-, museum- and laboratory- based work until the next field season in early 2014.
Our archaeological work has focused on a site called Birnin Lafiya, where we have worked for three field seasons now – a total of perhaps 80 days. We have uncovered parts of floors made of broken potsherds and evidence of fired earth architecture, which is not so common an occurrence in the West African Sahel. We have also carried out geophysical prospection to get a better sense of the extent of the site and to identify buried features; our work is one of just a handful of examples of the application of the technique in sub-Saharan Africa.
Birnin Lafiya has yielded varied and diagnostic pottery, and good preservation of fauna and charcoal. We have so far recovered no occupation post-dating the thirteenth century, while the earliest remains date to the fourth century AD.
We’ve also carried out test pits at four other sites throughout the valley, and very limited sampling at two further sites. These sites have yielded varied and diagnostic pottery and all fall within the same rough time range as Birnin Lafiya. At least two of the sites – Pekinga and Tin Tin Kanza – show evidence of the same tradition of pottery pavement; Tin Tin Kanza, in particular, revealed a close succession of pavements, wall bases and floor areas. At other sites, we recovered no architectural features, but the pottery analysis, which is ongoing, will allow us to suggest whether there is a degree of cultural similarity in parallel to the broad chronological simultaneity.
So far we have run 40 radiocarbon dates (16 from Birnin Lafiya) for sites of the area, and through survey we have identified, then described, about 800 up to now totally unknown archaeological sites. These are gradually building up the archaeological map of northern Benin.
From the ethnographic side, we have carried out interviews with hundreds of potters, blacksmiths, weavers and dyers within the valley and the wider region. We also carried out intensive interviews as regards the political history of the area and the traditions relating to the abandoned sites near modern villages. Contemporary textile production has constituted an important element of our research, and one of the highlights of the 2013 field season was the commissioning of a local cloth, an operation set in motion and followed by one of the masters students associated with the project from its start (cutting the wood to make the loom) to its finish (the final textile, now part of the permanent collection of both the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the Horniman Museum of London).
Thus far the evidence recovered through fieldwork offers good prospects to answer the questions set out by the research project, namely the degree to which areas of cultural and political evidence might be visible on the ground.
The pottery, aerial imagery, and soils analysis are all in progress. The pottery analysis has also involved three students (as well as further students in the field). To date 42000 sherds of the have been placed on the database while we are also continuing manual recording. The aerial imagery analysis is being carried out by the project doctoral student; at this stage, it involves mapping the data of field survey, generating a digital elevation model (to seek correlations between terrain and site location), and using remote sensing imagery to locate sites from the air. The soils analysis aims primarily to recognise land use; to that end, samples have been taken both from archaeological trenches and from field systems and are being subjected to multi-element analysis. We’re also testing whether micromorphological analyses can provide clues as to the nature of the architectural structures recognised at Birnin Lafiya, and trialling the effectiveness of a dating technique called optically-stimulated luminescence.
A book and four papers deal with aspects of all of this, and we’re planning a book for 2016 and some more papers.
We are a team of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists studying the Niger Valley where it borders Niger and Bénin (West Africa). We are carrying out new excavations and research to shed more light on the people that inhabited the area in the past 1500 years.
This blog will tell you all about it.
This investigation is funded by the European Research Council as part of the Starting Independent Researcher Programme (Seventh Framework Programme – FP7); it is led by Dr Anne Haour of the University of East Anglia, UK. The opinions posted here are however her own!
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