lockdown, 1

We are, at least here in the UK, coming to the end of one of the strangest times most of us will have encountered. For me, it meant waking up, it seemed every day, in impossibly bright sunshine, ahead a day with those I hold dearest within four walls, yet no prospect of seeing anyone else. Four people organising their work day over breakfast with seemingly endless berries from the yard (that sunshine!) and fortunate enough to have two professional laptops plus one.

The feeling of ease and comfort when it started is difficult to describe: it seemed that all was as it should be. We were all under the same roof! We were fortunate to be able to work at home! There were no complicated logistics to try and remember who should be where when! This was peace.

The world outside was very complicated, though. Everyone we knew, on three continents, was scared and following instructions. We were scared. Locally, shopping was a game of chance and we exchanged news of where specific goods might be found. Flour was very difficult to get. It felt like we were all under emergency measures.

I worked on easy boring jobs: checking bibliographies, footnotes. They were all useful, some long postponed,  necessary and well suited to the time: I couldn’t concentrate much.

I feel like I was in shock. My existence is normally structured by meeting new people, travel, new ideas… It all came to an abrupt end. We knew it was coming I guess, but then  it came very fast: a morning to collect books, files and all that we might need. This was Wednesday 18 March. There are dozens of colleagues and students whom I last saw that morning, and everybody was stockpiling books or hunched over the photocopier. I didn’t really realise that 100 days on I still would not have seen them.


goodbye Sudan, 17 feb

The end of another excellent trip was marked by a farewell lunch in a fish restaurant by the seafront in Port Sudan


and a detour, on the drive back to Khartoum, to the remarkable sites of Naqa and Musawwarat es-Sufra:

Finishing cleaning and photography for the finds


And of course the inevitable shopping. Bakri with Sudanese boomerangs:


And a lunchtime seminar at the Department of Archaeology





erkowit/arkaweet, 12 feb

Leaving the coastline and its high winds behind, we spend a day up in the Red Sea Hills, where are are once again confronted by some pretty amazing funerary monuments.


These drystone constructions, called locally ekratel, are thought to be medieval in date, and are quite distinctive to this region (read about them here).


At this elevation the temperature is quite cool and a resort was also developed by the British during the colonial era.



cowries,10-11 feb

We spent two days in and around Port Sudan and Suakin thinking about cowries and talking to the people who presently make items using shells. There is actually a big market in the production of shell-based souvenirs: below is the market in Port Sudan.


Interestingly (though a shame, from our point of view) the smaller cowries – moneta and annulus in particular, which were so popular in West Africa at given points in time – don’t really find favour with modern buyers. The larger ones are preferred.

Also, we didn’t find that many people who actually went fishing for cowries – mainly people who dealt in them, or who collected them (dead and rather faded) from the shoreline. It may be that these aspects are just characteristics of the present day. But whatever the case, it shows how local tastes and concepts to aesthetics and values ate totally contingent.


One really interesting ting we were told is that every type of cowrie has its preferred habitat. The sole cowrie collector we were able to find told us that he heads straight to specific parts of the shoreline depending on which type of cowrie he wants to source. This doesn’t really come as a surprise – cowries are picky little critters when it comes to their habitat – but it is nice to hear it articulated.

Another thing is that we are here at the wrong time… everybody agrees that cowries, including annulus and moneta (though the latter are rarer) are best seen during الصيف, sayf, summer.



agiq, 7-9 feb

Once again we roam the landscape, sometimes systematically, sometimes following local advice, sometimes seeking out previously published sites.


But the first step involves a community event and introduction.

Beginning the next day, we quickly confirm there are a range of impressive stone-built structures. Below is a wall running over some hundred metres across a hillside, associated with a range of smaller structures. Date unknown…


I am especially intrigued by those which combine stone, coral blocs (sometimes at quite a distance from the sea) and plastering. Some of these are called ‘Roman’ graves by locals, but again, there is no evidence as to their age.

On the island of Ibn Abbas, we encounter a rare and refreshing sight – some trees!


The work is fuelled by copious amounts of fuul, namely stewed beans, often served with tomatoes which are grown locally and bread.




cowries and pots

I think I mentioned that one focus of our enquiry is pottery. Well, we haven’t found huge amounts of archaeological material in the course of our surveys, but enough to start to recognise the large, chunky, sand-tempered sherds and the coffee-drinking apparatus which are both most likely modern.


So, we rule out those guys. There is actually a fair bit of pottery that is in use today. Most tea/coffee places have a few pots of cool water set out for public use. Half-buried in the sand, these function as natural refrigerators.

Another focus is cowrie shells. We take advice on the use of, and knowledge about, these shells nowadays.



heading south


Leaving Port Sudan. Fisherman in front of large container ship sailing under the flag of Liberia, arrived from Kandla in Gujarat.

So, we headed southwards from Port Sudan, on increasingly difficult roads – made worse by recent rain. Our goal was the large Gulf of Agiq which, as well as being a RAMSAR site due to its variety of  forms of wetlands (sand flats, coral reefs, lagoons, sand shores…), has also been the subject of a number of reports, over the past 100+ years, of sites of archaeological significance.

The drive is long, punctuated by minor events such as an inquisitive camel which caused much amusement at one of the coffee stops.

We finally arrive at Aqig by night.



red sea, 6 feb 2020

The Red Sea has long had a reputation as a difficult place to navigate. Two thousand years ago, the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea wrote of part of this shore that “Navigation is dangerous along this whole coast… which is without harbors, with bad anchorages, foul, inaccessible because of breakers and rocks, and terrible in every way”. The coastline has long unbroken coral reefs which make access difficult, and the idea is that medieval ports such as Aidhab or Badi were situated on islands or in sheltered bays.

For the past two days, we have been stopping every 20km along the coastline north of Port Sudan and checking for archaeological evidence.

We’ve been systematic at stopping at regular intervals, but we’re also checking especially carefully any points on the coastline where there appears to be a break in the reef or some other feature which might indicate a sheltered place for boats. Google Earth is great for this, although you need to weed out modern developments (salt plants, oil refineries!).


The findings have been rather slim. A few potsherds, and plenty of burial tumuli (see the bumps on the image to left, below?), but in terms of the medieval archaeology, one kind of gets the sense we haven’t been looking in the right places…

Let’s see what coming days bring.




port sudan, 5 feb 2020

So, those cowries. If they were coming from the Indian Ocean, and specifically the Maldives, how did they get to West Africa?

They could have been brought overland via Afghanistan and into the Mediterranean, then across the Sahara. They could have been transported across Africa from east to west. Or they might have been taken up the Red Sea and the Nile, along the Mediterranean and across the Sahara.

Would you believe that geographers and historians have tossed around the three possibilities for at least 400 years: Leo Africanus had reported that the people of Timbuktu, in West Africa, used coins “of gold without any stampe or superscription, but in matters of smal value they use certaine shels brought hither out of the Kingdome of Persia…”.

But let’s think about the Red Sea option for a while. We saw that at least one piece of evidence suggests that cowries were indeed a trade good transiting through Red Sea ports in the twelfth century. A route up the Red Sea and/or Nile, along the North African coast and across the Sahara was certainly in use throughout the eighteenth century for cowries, which by this time came from the Maldives to West Africa via European ports. We’re not really sure what the situation was in the medieval world.

Cowries were (despite – or perhaps because of – the huge quantities traded) among the commodities which were a bit too boring and humdrum to be mentioned by medieval historical sources. Pepper was a lot more exciting. The most commonly held view is that Cairo was a major market for cowries – there isn’t any real evidence for this, again because writers didn’t really write about cowries, but it makes sense given the economic importance of the city under the Fatimids and the Ayyubids. It’s been argued that the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean was increasingly routed to the Red Sea and Egypt became the most important link on this chief medieval trade route.

This is what the Red Sea coast of Sudan looks like:



port sudan, 4 feb

So here we are in Port Sudan, having driven over from Khartoum – down the Nile, peeking at the famed Pyramids of Meroe; across the ochre, flat plain east of Atbara; through the Red Sea Hills, past Suakin and along the Red Sea.

A stop in Shendi; water storage in Shendi; cowries decorating a coffee stall at Atbara

Meroitic pyramids at sunset, and a quick selfie 

Onwards to the Red Sea

About this blog

This blog has been set up to chart the activities and research findings of two projects led by Anne Haour, an archaeologist from the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.

The first project, called Crossroads, brings together a team of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists studying the Niger Valley where it borders Niger and Bénin (West Africa). We are hoping to shed more light on the people that inhabited the area in the past 1500 years and to understand how population movements and craft techniques shaped the area's past.

The second project, called Cowries, examines the money cowrie, a shell which served as currency, ritual object and ornament across the world for millennia, and in medieval times most especially in the Maldive Islands of the Indian Ocean and the Sahelian regions of West Africa. We hope to understand how this shell was sourced and used in those two areas.

These investigations are funded by the European Research Council as part of the Starting Independent Researcher Programme (Seventh Framework Programme – FP7) and by the Leverhulme Trust as a Research Project Grant. The opinions posted here are however Anne Haour's own!

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March 2023