Archive for June, 2011


Postdoctoral Researcher in African Archaeology sought




The project is seeking to recruit a postdoctoral researcher, for three years, starting January 2012.

We welcome applications from candidates who hold, or are near to completing, a doctorate in archaeology (or have equivalent qualifications or experience) and have experience of archaeological fieldwork in Africa. A good knowledge of French is desirable, as is competency in additional skills such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) or ceramic analysis.

The closing date is 12 noon on 15 August 2011. Please see for more details.


Le projet cherche à engage un chercheur postdoctoral, pendant trois ans, à débuter janvier 2012.

Nous invitons les candidatures de personnes qui détiennent, ou sont près de terminer, un doctorat en archéologie et qui ont expérience du travail archéologique en Afrique. La connaissance du français, ainsi que des compétences en analyse céramique et en SIG, seraient des atouts désirables.

Les dossiers sont à soumettre avant le 15 août 2011 à midi. Voir svp pour la procédure.


African roulettes

A very prevalent and highly characteristic method by which African pottery has been and still is decorated is through the use of twisted, knotted, braided lengths of straw or cord, rolled over the surface of the pot before it was fired. Carved wood cylinders, sea shells, crenelated discs, or hair curlers can also be used, in fact practically anything that can roll…

The method has been used for several thousands of years, worldwide. The best known examples are from Japan, Africa, and Europe. The famous Jomon pottery – the first pottery in the world – was decorated using twisted pieces of cord 9500 years ago, as were some types of Bronze Age and Neolithic pottery later on in northern and central Europe. The Romans seem to have used crenellated discs. And, by the way, some of the corn dollies which are one of the ‘specialities’ of East Anglia were made using similar principles (obviously for different reasons though – in that case, to celebrate the harvest festivals, not to decorate pots). This was, thus, a widely used technique, arrived at independently (we assume!) in various parts of the world.

As for the African material, here are some examples of roulettes from the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford: the top one is from Sudan, and is an example of a ‘roulette on multiple indpendent cores’: here one (or several) cords have been interlaced around four thin sticks. Find out more about its context of collection on the Pitt Rivers Museum online catalogue entry for this object. The three at the bottom are from Katsina, Nigeria; they are made by braiding at least five strands or reeds. Find out more about their context of collection on the Pitt Rivers Museum online catalogue entry for this object.

Sudanese and Nigerian Roulettes from Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (PRM accession numbers: 1979.20.27, 1930.43.25-28). Photo: ach, © PRM

Such tools are rolled or impressed over the surface of the pot before it is fired, resulting in a pattern of convex or concave shapes running in rows. It’s often quite difficult to picture without actually seeing a real example. Here is an experimental item, made by rolling a roulette from the British Museum over a blob of clay.

Knotted strip roulette (British Museum, Accession number Af1946.18.176). Photo: Julie H

This was a roulette made of four strands of grass, gathered at one end and interlaced to produce a knotted roulette. Here is a real-life pot from Cameroon, decorated with another type of knotted strip roulette, involving just a single fibre:

Storage pot decorated with a fine graphite glaze and a knotted strip roulette (British Museum Ethno 1969.Af35.84). Photo: ach

The sorts of evidence that archaeologists discover are less impressive since we never find the roulettes, and very rarely the whole pots, just the (often heavily eroded) potsherds. Below is an example of the sort of thing one might find archaeologically (and bear in mind that the one shown here would be classed as a beautifully-preserved specimen):

Potsherd (right) recovered from excavations at Birifoh (SiLayiri), northern Ghana (Malik Saako Mahmoud, University of Ghana-Legon); and its impression in plasticine (left). Photo: ach

This sherd was once part of a vessel decorated using a braided strip roulette.

You can see many more of these examples on our Archaeology Data Service archive, which was put together by a number of colleagues including several of the Crossroads team. In fact, we think roulettes are so nifty that we wrote a book about the things. See also on this blog the separate page Africanist bibliographic resources.


Global university rankings

Here are an interesting  set of thoughts, with thanks to Dr Margit T for mentioning this paper to me.

Don’t Look to the Ivy League – Howard Hotson. London Review of Books 33(10): 20-22

The paper begins with the statement that

“At the heart of the Browne Report and the government’s higher education policy is a simple notion allegedly grounded in economics: that the introduction of market forces into the higher education sector will simultaneously drive up standards and drive down prices.”

It then goes on to discuss the basis on which university standards are usually discussed: the world university rankings, in which the US typically dominates over half the top 20 positions. However, Hotson unpicks these data, calibrating for population, GDP and investment in tertiary education. He thus comes to the following proposition:

“The UK has somehow managed to maintain top-ranked universities for only about a fifth of the US price”

Thus, he concludes,- “The natural interpretation of the World University Rankings flies in the face of the key assumption underpinning current British government policy … In terms of value for money, the British system is far better, and probably the best in the world. Willetts should follow the example of the health secretary, take advantage of a ‘natural break in the legislative process’, and go back to the drawing board.”



The David Willetts mentioned in my previous post, the Minister for Universities and Science, holds a degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) from Oxford (as do David Cameron, Aung San Suu Kyi, both Miliband brothers, Ann Widdecombe, Danny Alexander, Ed Balls, and Benazir Bhutto, I am informed by the dedicated wikipedia page).

The course “brings together some of the most important approaches to understanding the social and human world around us”, says the Oxford Admissions blurb. That seems pretty majorly important and worthwhile. And the course outline provided looks really interesting; optional subjects include Post-Kantian Philosophy, Later Wittgenstein, Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa, Political thought: Plato to Rousseau, International Economics and Economics of Developing Countries.

Isn’t PPE  generally considered an Arts subject? As such, how is it going to be affected by the phasing out of teaching grants for degree courses in arts, humanities and social sciences at English universities under government plans?


No confidence

I write today from the beautiful Duke Humfrey’s reading room in the Bodleian Library (Oxford).  The reading room, which  is very The Name of the Rose (but with computers), is the oldest reading room in ‘the Bod’, the original section having been completed in 1487.

I have been reading about the activities of the Wangara in the Islamisation of Kano and Borgu, and wholly by chance came across some 1927 maps of Afrique Occidentale Française – one interesting thing being how much more detailed they seem to be for the Saharan regions than for the Sahel father south.

I’m in Oxford because I had been invited to deliver a talk to the Medieval Economic and Social History group, which I did last night and very much enjoyed. I spoke about trade diasporas in the medieval Sahel, one of the topics which Crossroads is investigating.

After the seminar, we went for a drink at The Bear and a curry. As well as gold/silver medieval currency, the impact of Islam in literacy, networks of trust, the place of world history in the curriculum, and the economic history of medieval southern Germany, we talked about the vote of no confidence passed a couple of weeks ago by Oxford lecturers and tutors. As a reminder, this was the story:

Dons at Oxford University have delivered a decisive “no confidence” vote in the Universities minister, David Willetts. There were cheers last night when the vote was announced in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre – the first time a “no confidence” motion had ever been issued in a government minister by the university’s Senate. It was carried by the massive margin of 283 votes to five. During the debate, Abdel Takriti, a tutor at St Edmund Hall, called the Government’s plans for further education – under which student fees would rise to up to £9,000 a year – “ill-articulated and incoherent”.

I learnt last night that following that vote, a website has now been created on the back of that vote to coordinate motions of no-confidence at higher education institutions across the country: “Campaigning for an alternative to the Higher Education policies of the coalition government”. Check it out.



Nobles sentiments au musée de Parakou



In Russia, it is common knowledge that the country’s greatest poet, Pushkin, was descended from an African who was raised to high rank by Czar Peter the Great. Research done by Beninese historian Dieudonné Gnammankou led him to conclude that this great-grandfather most likely began life as the son of a chief in the sultanate of Logone-Birni, Cameroon.

A 1,700-year-old skeleton shows that people of African descent have lived in Warwickshire for far longer than was previously thought. Archaeologists said they now believed the man may have been a Roman soldier who chose to retire in Stratford after serving in an African unit.


What is science?

Anthropologist A. M. Hocart used to say that science does not consist in accumulating facts, but in finding ways of sifting through the mass of facts. This maxim is probably going to serve us well in examining the archaeology of the Niger valley.

Here’s another piece of wisdom from Hocart, with thanks to Professor Steven H for unearthing it – “[I]f all hypothesis is withheld until the materials have been collected, we shall wait in vain, for materials will never be collected until it is realised that there are problems to be solved.” (1952, The Divinity of the Guest in: The Life-Giving Myth, Methuen, London, p. 86).


The archaeologists’ bread and butter

Most of you will probably know already what sorts of things make up the archaeological record: non-perishables that people discarded, lost, or deposited by people in the past.

Concretely, in the Sahelian context this means:

  • a lot of pottery
  • some stone
  • some iron
  • some bone

And the occasional glass bead. That’s pretty much it for most of us. Not much like Indiana Jones, then.

Abundant pottery scatter

Abundant pottery scatter at GBER


Bonjour à tous

This blog has been set up to chart the activities and research findings of an European Research Council-funded project led by Dr Anne Haour of the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.

The project is called ‘Crossroads of empires: archaeology, material culture and socio-political relationships in West Africa’.

Its aim is to provide information about the activities of the project and of the different aspects of the research being conducted within it. We are a team of archaeologists, historians and anthropologists who will be studying the Niger Valley where it borders Niger and Bénin, carrying out new excavations and research in order to shed more light on the people that inhabited the area between about 1250 and 1800 AD. We are hoping to find evidence of the activities of skilled craftspeople such as potters, blacksmiths and dyers and to explore how their work articulated with the various polities which the historical records tell us about: Songhai, Borgou, the Hausa cities.

On survey

Survey upriver of Karimama, Feb 2011.

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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June 2011