Posts Tagged ‘science


More radiocarbon dates

We have just received back the result of a fourth date on our main trench at BLaf, complementing the three run earlier this autumn. This fourth date was  from a collection of charcoal fragments, pooled from within the 75-100 cm layers, and it is in good agreement with the other three: after calibration all four dates fall in the seventh to early ninth centuries AD.

This isn’t a time period for which we have much information yet, although we are gtting to know it better thanks to archaeological work in the last 15 years at places such as Marandet, Essouk or Bura (to name just a few). So it is interesting to have this (earlier than expected) result for our site; and we look forward to further work there.



Being and becoming Hausa

As an aside to the Crossroads project, I am really happy to say that the two UK research councils running the Religion and Society project – the ESRC and the AHRC, namely Economic & Social Research and Arts & Humanities - are funding our new project to engage with schoolchildren in Norwich and Zinder, building on the findings of a project Dr Benedetta R and I ran in 2008, called Being and becoming Hausa.

The idea back in 2008 was to bring researchers together to discuss what it means to be Hausa today, and how this sense of identity and belonging has emerged over time (read it all here). Now, with the aid of teachers at City Academy Norwich and the Lycée Ahmadou Kourandaga in Zinder (Niger), we will be discussing ideas of religion and identity with pupils aged 11-15. We’ll encourage pupils to reflect on two fronts: the way in which their identity is historically constructed, and whether their notions of West Africa are shaped by stereotypes of changeless societies and radical Islamism, often promoted by the media. Specifically, we will think with them about what it means to be Hausa, from the North Earlham estate, from Norwich, from Birni; Muslim, Anglican, atheist – how they feel the media portray them, and what factors shape their sense of self. We want to have a strong historical dimension to all of this, because although today religion plays a major role in defining, and often dividing, communities, the Being and becoming Hausa project showed this is not an historical inevitability.

Ultimately there will be a blog charting our collective learning process, and a teaching resource that we will disseminate to other schools and place on the ESRC’s Social Science for Schools website. The aim is to make a wider impact on the cultural awareness of UK youth by breaking down stereotypes about identity and religion, both in West Africa and in the UK, and to improve pupils’ thinking skills and creative output. Through its cross-curricular slant linked into Key Stage 3 of the recently revised National Curriculum, the project will also support UK schools in implementing an integrated project which will enable students to make links between different subject areas.

This project is part of the efforts by the AHRC and the ESRC to publicise the undeniable impact that research in those fields makes to society today and its contribution to wider knowledge beyond academia.



Things have been progressing well with the desk-based and management aspects of the project. We have now hired a new postdoctoral researcher and are in the process of purchasing a car for the project. We are gearing up for our first steering meeting for European team members, here at UEA in two weeks’ time. Ali has been preparing maps of the survey sites sampled in our last field season, Carlos is setting his mind to the geophysical analysis of potsherd pavements, Veerle and Paul are turning their minds to the faunal and soils analysis of the Niger Valley sites, Didier is writing about the previous archaeological knowledge of the region, and Olivier has been pondering Sorko fishermen.

The pottery analysis is going well – thank you for the compliments I have received on ‘Sherd of the day’. The simple reason I have not been able to keep up with this lately is that I have been working on the plain sherds, which, all apologies to them, are rather boring. You can look forward to more exciting sherds in the coming weeks when I begin the analysis of the folded strip, twisted cord, incised, appliqué and (always with a frisson of excitement) ‘Other’ categories.


babies and research excellence

Some disturbing news from our masters at HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Every 5-6 years, all UK higher education institutions are assessed by HEFCE in a process called the Research Excellence Framework, known to friends as the REF. Each institution has to show how good it has been in producing ground-breaking research, looking after postgraduate students who will produce the ground-breaking research of the future, and making society a better place.

To evaluate their ground-breaking-ness, each academic member of staff has to present up to four ‘outputs’ they produced in the past 5-6 years (book, article, exhibition); these are assessed by a devoted panel of fellow academics, who then grade them, between zero (work that falls  that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work) and four (world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour).  Most people have to produce four such outputs, but people who work part-time or have only just joined the university (early career researchers) are allowed to submit fewer items, given that they are (quite reasonably) assumed to have had less time than their colleagues to research, write and curate exhibits.

So far so good (?) but HEFCE’s latest consultation document throws up some considerable challenges for academics who have the temerity to have children.  It appears to suggest that no allowance will be made for maternity leave in deciding how many items should be submitted by a researcher, unless the leave lasted over 14 months.  See paragraphs 49-56 in the consultation document - especially Para 59 and table 2.
Bearing in mind that very few people are allowed to, want to, or can afford to, take 14 months maternity leave,  women who have had babies in the past 5-6 year REF cycle will have to submit four items like everyone else. The implication here is that they have been able to achieve the same research output as colleagues – which seems pretty ambitious to anyone who has been, or knows someone who has been, pregnant or the parent of infants.

As it stands, the draft proposal would seem to present a seriously discouraging picture to academics, or those who may be thinking of becoming academics. The HEFCE proposal is far out of line with our friends at the ERC, who extend the window of eligibility for their Starter Grants by 18 months per child born; this is thought to reflect the level of disruption to research. It also contrasts dismally with recent efforts made elsewhere, for example to bring in more women onto UK corporate boards, see the 30% club for example. Indeed, the HEFCE proposal is difficult to reconcile with HEFCE’s own aims to “support equality and diversity in research careers” and “encourage institutions to submit all their eligible staff who have produced excellent research” with fewer than four outputs if circumstances “have significantly constrained [staff's] ability to produce four outputs or to work productively throughout the assessment period” (paragraph 47).

The HEFCE document isn’t, however, entirely clear. It notes (paragraph 62) that an alternative approach could be adopted to take account of pregnancy and maternity: that staff who had periods of maternity leave during the REF assessment period may reduce the number of outputs by one for each discrete period of maternity leave, without penalty in the assessment. “This alternative approach is based on the view that each period of maternity leave, and any associated constraints on work, is generally sufficiently disruptive of an individual’s research work to merit the reduction of an output”. That sounds more like it.

My view is that the fairest way to take into account maternity leave would be to allow those who have taken it during the last REF cycle to submit a reduced number of inputs, in line with the reduction allowed to Early Career Researchers (reduction in inputs is in linear relation to  months away from work).

Let HEFCE know what you think of the proposal and its alternative. The consultation is open until 5 October 2011.


sorting charcoal

Today, sorting samples of charcoal to send off to lab for radiocarbon dating.

Our initial investigation at BLaf involved just small-scale test-pitting so it is only worth submitting 3-4 samples this time round, to keep costs down. It is anticipated that one date will tell us a little about when the flooring we uncovered was laid, while another suite of three dates will give us a time depth for the occupation of the site, and check that the sequence runs more or less coherently.

Results by late October.


2012 ERC starter grants

The European Research Council on 20 July opened its fifth call for proposals for the ERC Starting Grants, targeted at early-career (2 to 12 years of post-doctoral experience) researchers of any nationality, working in, or moving to work in, host institutions in Europe.
The total budget for this call amounts to €730 million, an increase of just over 10% from last year. The call will fund 500 to 600 outstanding researchers.
With up to €2 million per grant for up to five  years, the scheme targets researchers  - ERC grants are indeed one of the main EU instruments to address the “brain drain” and to attract and retain the best researchers of any nationality.
The three domain deadlines:
Physical Sciences and Engineering: 12 October 2011
Life Sciences: 9 November 2011
Social Sciences and Humanities: 24 November 2011

research in the sahel

The big topic and the big worry at the moment among West Africanist researchers is the security situation  in the Sahel, which has led many organisations and research institutions to cease activities there. The Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s have now been replaced by the threat of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM/AQMI), founded in 2007 and described as a franchise outfit of al Qaeda.

As a result, most European research institutions have stopped active fieldwork in the countries of the Sahel, most especially Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

Obviously, though, the cessation of international, collaborative research will make it difficult for Sahelian colleagues to bring to an international audience the past of their region – and thus the Sahel’s contribution to world history remains little known (see e.g these responses to an event a few years ago: blog and book). These are some of the points made in a recent petition, Non au gel des missions de recherche françaises au Sahel (unfortunately with just 741 signatures so far – add yours):

“[Ce gel] a surtout pour effet déplorable de mettre brutalement un terme aux collaborations engagées et aux relations patiemment construites avec les chercheurs et enseignants-chercheurs de ces pays, dans le cadre de différents programmes scientifiques innovants sur des questions de santé, de lutte contre la pauvreté, de développement durable, de migrations, etc. Elle pénalise avant tout les institutions et les enseignants-chercheurs des pays du Sud, dont l’implication dans ces programmes peut constituer une ouverture importante vers le reste de la communauté scientifique internationale. Elle fait enfin le jeu des groupuscules extrémistes”.

On this see also the interview by Dr Pierre B, director of the Centre d’études des mondes africains of the CNRS), and the report from our UEA colleague Dr Yvan G. So, as researchers from the West shift their research programmes out of the Sahel, local research institutions (here is one example) lose out on international profile and, thus, once again West Africa loses its chance for a say on the global scene. Ironically then AQIM plays into the hands of the eurocentrics.



In the next few weeks I will be improving the Bibliographic sources page. I have a list of items I want to add, but will always be glad to receive more. Thanks.

Dans les semaines à venir, je vais m’atteler à améliorer la page Ressources bibliographiques. J’ai déjà une liste de choses à ajouter (le PanAf et la note de Robert Vernet sont les prochains en projet), mais je serai toujours heureuse de recevoir des recommandations. Merci.



Outsiders, incomers and migrants feature heavily in the oral and written historical record for West Africa. There is, for instance, a whole tradition of rulers coming from afar (‘stranger-kings’ in the words of Marshall Sahlins who looked at this in a wider context), with power-sharing arrangements set up between autochthonous and incoming peoples. Such is the case for example for the rulers of the Hausa, the Songhay, or Borgou. That is all very intriguing in its own right, and I think interpreting such traditions as the consequence of Islamisation, and as efforts at ‘genealogical parasitism’, might be oversimplifying the story.  I gave a talk about this at SOAS last year. Then and since then, I have been wondering (in a chapter I am currently writing for a book for OUP) how it fits in with the anthropologists’ notion of rights-in-persons. Today I am (in theory at least) finishing piecing all of this together.


Hurrah for the ERC

Some very encouraging noises from The European Research Council in its recently-published position paper.

The ERC was established in 2007 to complement the funding of basic research at national level, which was thought to be insufficient to allow Europe to compete at a world level. It is now doing a sort of round-up of the successes and areas for improvement so far.

The position paper explains that the perceived dichotomy between “basic” and “applied” research has long been considered obsolete. Later, it notes that there very often exists “a tension exists between public expectations of short-term results with immediate benefits for society and the insistence of researchers that in frontier research the outcome cannot be predicted”. This all makes familiar reading for those of us who have been used to struggling with the composition of pages-long statements of impact.

There is more good news to readers based in a country whose government is intent on closing the door to international students. One of the two key goals of the ERC is to increase substantially the number of excellent researchers from outside Europe wanting to work here, whether they be of European origin or not. The other is to increase the number of women scientists among ERC awardees. There is still some way to go on the latter – see pages 4 and 7 of the Starter Grant 2010 statistics.

The paper ends with the remark that “while the ERC is currently covering a much wider area of frontier research than the US National Science Foundation (NSF), its current annual budget is less than half of the funds dispersed towards research grants by the latter in 2010, representing a small percentage of EU annual public research expenditure.” The report thus argues for a doubling of the ERC’s annual budget, to a level of around €4bn per year. of course, I write this on the day that the eurozone’s big banks meet to refine their plans for a second bailout of Greece, so maybe things are not looking too likely.

Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard notes that she has “moved from a degree of uncertainty about this Euro Research Enterprise to being a huge supporter of it. (Thank God for the EU whose reaction the recession is to plough money into research, not take money away from it.)”

About this blog

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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