a day off


Views of Male’

Male’ has many narrow streets


and motorbikes

football and cricket


the tombs at the ancient Friday mosque

many ferries (and waiting rooms for ferries)


Sultan Park (plastic LED tree at the foreground – fittingly, a baobab, I think). The tape demarcating our excavation area just visible in the background


water play



archaeological excavation in sultan park

As we are tasked with investigating one part of the park, and we weren’t quite sure what we would find given that this area has seen so many episodes of destruction and construction, we decided our best bet would be to set out test pits along a core line.




In the past three days, we have been finding a range of evidence of the past inhabitants: shaped coralstone blocks, plaster, pottery, fragments of glass and metal (including copper nails), parts of what seem to be bracelets, one coin, and more cowrie shells than you can shake a stick at.

We have been receiving a fair degree of attention in this, one of the most popular public places in Male’. One or the other of us chats to people asking questions. Now we were on the news we noticed some tour guides seem to include us in their commentary (we’re not quite sure what they are saying…)


We also get a steady stream of visiting colleagues from the heritage and museum sectors.

A well appointed office.





global connections

Arab sailors were probably trading to the Maldives from the 9th century, but it is a little hazy. Five centuries later things are clearer when ibn Battuta writes,

“The inhabitants of these islands buy crockery, on being imported to them, in exchange for fowls so that a pot sells in their country for five or six fowls. The vessels take from these islands the fish which has been mentioned before, coconuts, waist-wrappers, wilyan and turbans made of cotton. And people take from there copper vessels which are abundant with the Maldivians as well as cowries and qanbar, that is the fibrous covering (coir) of the coconut.”

In 1405 the Chinese dispatched a large expedition to the Maldives, with whom they’d had trade relations for some while. The Mao K’un map gives sailing directions from Malé to Mogadishu.

A little later ibn Majid’s list of destinations and distances seems to refer to know islands along the eastern side of the Maldives chain.

A lot of what I have read concerning the early history of the Maldives and its links with the world concerns the string of atolls on the west side, running from Maamakunudhoo Atoll, route of the ancient sailors where many ships run aground on their way to Bengal (including the Persia Merchant shipwrecked in August 1658 carrying chests of silver, and probably gold from West Africa – truly the stuff of legends) to North and South Nilandhoo atolls, where archaeological sites are reported on several islands – including some mysterious mounds and a fine mosque at the capital island. Also along that 400-km long  stretch are the various islands of North Maalhossmadulu (also known as Raa), including Fainu and Hulhudhuffaru where trading ships moored. Kinolhas is where Ibn Battuta first stopped. Maalhossmadulu’s claim to fame was boatbuilding and it was known for its strong currents since the lagoon sea floor is some 20 metres shallower than at other atolls, according to my Lonely Planet diving guide.

Indeed the waters around the Maldives are treacherous. The currents were strong and continuous. Some traveled huge distances. “If the current carries [sailors] to the west, they are borne straight to the Arabian coast… but most often they are dead before they get there”, wrote François Pyrard who was shipwrecked in the Maldives in the early seventeenth century.


time for lunch

It is nice working in the centre of a major city and being part of its rythym.



Rush hour at the lunch break






So here we are back in Malé! At 192ha, all densely built, it feels busy. Only a few green spaces remain, and one of these is Sultan Park, around the National Museum. This is where we are digging this week.


It is a lovely green area with large trees and this is where the sultan’s palace used to be, until it was demolished in the 1970s. The stucture you see at the back of the photo above is the sole remaining building of the palace. It latterly served as the National Museum.

Development is planned of this area so it was urgent we had a look. Sultan Park is also one place Carswell excavated but the trenches he dug now lie below the Chinese-built new National Museum.

We were allowed to investigate one part of the park, about 30x20m, an area in which, at the time the palace stood, were several low buildings – seen here on a model kept in the museum. Let’s see what we find…




and finally

Our last job on this island was to investigate the palace, in which cowrie hoards have been recovered in the past. Thousands of them:


We decided to target the area just in front of the main door. Previous hoards had been recovered in a similar location – liminality, and all that.



We found a fair few cowries (kudi boli) and pottery. No cowrie hoard… but charcoal, which we’ll have dated, and then we hope to come back next year.

There is one final thing to report from this island, something which we did find very thrilling. We encountered our first live cowrie when our hostess (who used to fish for cowries in the 1980s) took us hunting for them on this scenic shoreline.


Much to our surprise though, they look pretty much the same alive as they do dead!


Heading home at the end of a long day



We move to Trench 3

We were getting a little nervous at this point, having found little on trenches 1 and 2. As we walked around the island, a clearing caught Annalisa’s eye.


It seemed undisturbed and our local guide confirmed that this area had never been under intensive use. We decided to excavate here, and to maximise my chances of locating the subsurface archaeology we carried out small test pits at regular intervals. It looked like this:


By the end of the work we had managed to expose quite a lot of pottery, charcoal, bone, a coarse gravelly layer full of coral debris, and the sandstone remains of a structure of a type known locally. The pottery was consistent with what we had found in the other two trenches, which gave a useful idea of date: probably our target period!



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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