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).


Cambridge 1 July

Trip to Cambridge’s McDonald Institute and Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies yesterday, to talk to Dr Ronika P about the work she has been doing on some of the Crossroads material.

Ronika, a biocultural archaeologist, has a set of human remains (mainly teeth, but also some bone) from our excavations. These samples come from the two burials we uncovered during our work, but also include fragments recovered during excavation. The latter were usually mixed up with other items, such as animal bone, and weren’t identified until much after the fieldwork; typically, Veerle L found these during her lab work. Such fragments testify to graves that were disturbed long ago, through the successive occupations of the site; the working hypothesis is that the dead were buried close to the living.


We discussed the results obtained so far, their meaning, and plans to publish them. Almost nothing is known of the past occupants of this part of West Africa, and the isotope (oxygen and nitrogen) and morphological analyses which Ronika and her colleagues are undertaking will give us some first insights into the diet and geographical origin of the peoples of Dendi.

Next week, the focus will be pottery again. David K and I will be travelling to Brussels (with a suitcase of pottery, as ever – plus a lot of papers) to meet with Ali LS and go through all our data. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with the various members of the ‘ethno-team’ based in Brussels, and we’ll talk about the progress of our book.


the earlier people

We have by now over a hundred radiocarbon dates from our various sites. The majority – about three quarters – date to between  500 and 1300 AD, which appears to be a key period for the settlement of the area. However, we have inklings of earlier occupation, too. Until now, indications for this early phase, of the first millennium BC, came just from one site, Alibori Site 2, excavated by Didier N’D in 2014: as its name indicates this was close to the Alibori river, and not too far from Birnin Lafiya. There, two samples from Trench III (below) indicated occupation sometimes between the eighth and fifth centuries BC.


Now, with some new radiocarbon dates just received, we have confirmation of another early occupation, nearly 3000 years old, at a site called Kozungu, on a mound just outside modern Birni Lafia (photo below). It was visited by the architects and ethnographers in our team, then subjected to test pitting by Ali LS, Nicolas N and Daouda A.


These excavators had suspected there was an early occupation at this place, based on a discontinuity in the stratigraphy. That impression was confirmed later, during pottery analysis, when we found that the material from the lower part of the trench looked really different.

Now we can suggest thanks to the radiocarbon dates that people apparently lived at Kozungu 3000 years ago then the site was abandoned and reoccupied at a much later date (13th century AD).

It’s a nice result because it sheds a bit more light on the earlier inhabitants of Dendi, who preceded the people building pavements and using huge numbers of pots and who for that reason are much easier to spot in the archaeological record.

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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