favourite sherd of the day, 4; with a note on small finds

Today’s sherd isn’t just an ordinary sherd, but one which merits inclusion in a hallowed list known in archaeological parlance as the Small Finds List. As you might think, this is a list of all the things that were found that were small… but it gets more interesting than this, because the unstated implication is that they are more interesting (or special, unusual or unclassifiable) than the normal artefact. Typically they will include items such as glass beads, iron nails, cowrie shells and, as in this case, a roulette-decorated sherd that has been reworked and smoothed (note the rounded shape).


I’m also updating our small finds list today, to get it ready for the book, so this is good timing.

Quite why this potsherd has been reworked isn’t clear. It’s very smooth and shiny, so was clearly ground down and smoothed with some care. There is another, similar, one from the level just below. One traditional archaeological interpretation for such pieces is as gaming counters, but one other possibility is that they were parts of a potsherd pavement (as suggested e.g. by Graham Connah at Daima) or parts of decorative mosaics set into walls or columns (as was suggested by Peter Garlake at Woye Asiri), though in those two cases the numbers of such reworked sherds recovered were in the order of thousands.

Our item comes from 100-110cm depth at the site of Kozungu, which is one of our older contexts. So we think it’s over 3000 years old. Ali LS who excavated the site with Nicolas N and Daouda A, shown below, identified a stratigraphic hiatus at around 90cm. This observation has since been confirmed by our radiocarbon dates. After an occupation about 3000 years ago, the next evidence of occupation see here was just 700 years ago.



There’s another exciting thing about this particular sherd: the rouletting decoration on it looks unusual. The photo at the top of this page doesn’t show this that clearly, because the item is so small, but we have six other sherds with rouletting which looks like this. All seven are from Kozungu, and, wait for it, all of them occur in the levels below 90cm, that is, the really old stuff below the hiatus. Big excitement, so this item will be making its way over to Ali LS to try to determine (see chapter two of our roulette book) how it might have been made.

See previous Favourite sherd of the day entries here, here and here.


british museum, london

Fiona S and I spent a happy day in the British Museum storerooms as part of our cowrie-related work. Fiona was leading this particular visit, having selected objects from Ghana – many of them Asante – which feature cowrie shells.


We went through the objects, carefully documenting how the cowries had been used – whether they were pierced, strung, sewn, threaded… – and what other objects they were associated with.



We also tried wherever possible to determine whether they were cypraea moneta or cypraea annulus. This is important because some have argued that moneta was the first cowrie into Ghana, brought along trans-Saharan routes, while annulus was brought in after AD 1800, with the opening of European trade with East Africa. This is one of the hypotheses that we are testing. In terms of Fiona’s work specifically, she is interested in seeing whether certain types of cowrie were selected to use in certain objects, and why.


The objects we saw covered a range of periods, some as old as 1850 AD. Many were ritual or protective objects, that is to say commissioned by people to solve particular problems they were having, or used in ceremonies.


london, october 2015

At UCL today talking archaeobotany with Louis C and his PhD supervisor Dorian F.

In the course of his participation in the Crossroads fieldwork, Louis took samples from 12 sites and 28 test pits and he has been looking for pieces of charred plants within them; see a report by Sam here. Below, sampling trench IV at Birnin Lafiya in February 2012.


Now all these samples are being examined in lab conditions here in the UK. Louis is looking at changes in the archaeobotanical remains across time, seeking to characterise what people grew and to identify shifts in the plant assemblages. Today we talked about maize, bananas, sorghum, shea butter nut, wild grasses, millet, tomatoes and mangoes. Each of these likely entered this part of Benin at a different time.


oxford, Sept 2015

At the Ashmolean museum this week, looking through a collection of largely surface pottery from the Maldives.


This collection was made in 1974 in Malé by J Carswell, who was working on Chinese porcelain from Syria and who, through the literature on trade routes and a conversation with a Maldivian student in Beirut, resolved to investigate the role of the Maldives’ role in the trade of Chinese ceramics. He donated his archives to the Ashmolean where they can now be visited; an annotated photo ledger shows who has been on the trail of this material before us.


From the Chinese side, there were greenwares and various blue on white ceramics, made in China in the thirteenth century.

The relevance to Africa, you might ask? Similar Chinese wares occur on the East African coast and up the Red Sea; based on his analysis, Carswell suggested that the Maldives archipelago might be one of the entrepôts for East Africa. Chinese pottery was among the goods which were entering the medieval Maldives, at that time already famous as a producer of cowrie shells, which served as currency and adornment.

We also saw a set of pottery that was coarser, possible handmade. The fabric was coarser, and there was no glaze. Shapes were often sharply carinated, and there were some distinctive overhanging rims. Carswell notes that some of this resembles material which he excavated in northwest Sri Lanka (the Maldivians had no local source of clay, so all their pottery was imported).


This visit took part in the context of my ongoing project on cowrie shells. The group consisted of Shiura J, who is doing her PhD with us on the medieval archaeology of the Maldives, Annalisa C, who has just joined the project team as postdoctoral researcher, and I.


On a related note, thank you to those who have requested a return of the ‘Potsherd of the Day’ feature. It’s true, it’s been a while – but we have been powering through that material from Benin and should soon have some quite impressive numbers to crunch.


Mungo Park’s cowries

At the British Museum today to see – in the Enlightenment Gallery – some cowries given to Mungo Park by the King of Bambara on 23 July 1796.


Mungo Park was the first known European to travel to the central part of the Niger River, reaching it at Ségou (today in Mali). When he returned home to Scotland he was greeted with great enthusiasm as people had thought him dead.


Mungo Park later embarked on a second trip to West Africa, in 1805-1806, during which he will have sailed through Dendi, perhaps past some of the towns where we have been working. He drowned in the rapids near Bussa, now in Nigeria, where there are some major rapids on the river. The whole area now lies underwater; Online Nigeria notes,

“The Kanji National Park also contains the Kainji Dam, an artificial lake which covers the town of Old Bussa. Here Mungo Park, the explorer, was said to have come to grief in 1805. Now the lake hides the scene of the accident. The lake is 136 km long and tours of the dam are available on request from the Nigeria Electric Power Authority. Boat trips on the lake can be arranged by the Borgu Game Reserve office at Wawa. To reduce the expense, it is better for several visitors to share the cost. Fishing is allowed on the lake”.

It sounds like quite a lovely place. Incidentally, the lake also covers some archaeological sites very relevant to our findings in Dendi. They include large mounds where excavations recovered grinding stones, stone beads and bracelets, iron points, hoes, jewellery, fish hooks, slag, glass crucible fragments, terracotta figurines and clay smoking pipes, as well as tens of thousands of pottery sherds and architectural structures such as granary foundations, collapsed house walls, potsherd pavements and other floors, mysterious burnt clay ditches, and burials with associated beads and jewellery. I came across publications on these sites when researching my 2007 book, and little did I know I would later be working at kind of similar sites just upriver from these.



In the current climate, we are daily asked by our media to think about what is a migrant. I have had occasion in the past to write posts (for example here and here) alluding to the absurdly negative attitudes to people’s mobility which seem to prevail today amongst the political class.

Well. I am a migrant, and an economic one at that – from Canada to Switzerland to the UK. And a lot of migration in the family before then. Nothing exceptional there: according to some studies almost a quarter of academics in the UK are not from the UK, and some figures appear to place this as high as 40% for UCL, for example.

Migration is central to the history we’re trying to write of Dendi: kings from Gao, praise-singers from the Upper Niger, kola traders from Bornu, they all figure. Who knows – maybe your tin trader from Tripoli or your canoe-builder from the Niger Delta or your cowrie seller from Ari atoll. That’d be nice! Indeed, outsiders and immigrants are everywhere in the African past: rulers show off their foreign descent, traders migrate to new areas, potters and blacksmiths claim to be apart from society.

Migration is also absolutely central to archaeology generally speaking. 25 years ago it was argued that archaeologists were wrong to think that migration is a chaotic and poorly defined phenomenon (and thus a theme that just couldn’t be studied archaeologically). Rather, research in geography, social anthropology, demography, and statistics had shown that migration behaviour is governed by certain rules and therefore liable to be studied and predicted. With the exception of permanent migration, which appears to have in fact been quite rare historically (with some notable exceptions in our deep past), mobility seems to be organised around sustainable networks that can to some extent be predicted. Maybe it need not, therefore, seem so scary.


brussels july 2015


My main project in the next months, and for which I am on research leave, is to bring together the Crossroads monograph which will present some of the results of our five-year research in Benin. There are 30 contributors to this volume and it will contain a whole range of types of information, so it is quite a complicated endeavour.  Ali LS, Olivier G and I spent four days earlier this month moving the process forward. We were surrounded by the amazing collection of ethnographic pots which they have accumulated over the years (you can see some of them looming on the top shelf).

For variety I’m also spending time thinking about shells, cowrie shells specifically, for my new project which will take me into the Indian Ocean. I’ll be writing about this too on this blog as the project develops (see here for a brief note of its launch).

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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