Archive for December, 2011


mobile, marginal and technically specialist

Over the quiet Christmas season, I have been re-reading Guy-Jean Michel’s excellent Verriers et verreries en Franche-Comté au XVIIIe siècle (Erti, 1989).  The workers in these glass-blowing factories of northeastern France, who had come around AD  1700 from areas of Germany and Switzerland, were craftspeople who show interesting commonalities with the West African blacksmiths and other technical specialists whom I have been considering in the book I’m writing on the role of outsiders in the West African past.

The glass-blowing factory worked on a different rythm to that of surrounding society – not structured by the religious calendar, the seasons and by day and night but by whether the furnace was firing or not – “tiendra-t-il trois ou trente semaines? on ne peut le prévoir” (Michel 1989: 135). This firing demanded vast quantities of wood and placed the factories in remote wooded areas, away from the bulk of society – a marginal position that a different language (they still spoke German for two generations – Michel 1989: 389) and high degrees of mobility and endogamy tended to foster. This wasn’t, however, an community that was turned inwards, but one which created links – employment, last rites, wine, wheat, godfathering – with the surrounding communities.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, the glassblowers started moving southwards to the Lyon area, where coal was becoming available to power their furnaces. I spent quite some time in the 1990s researching in geneaological archives the Haour family, and was able to go back to a Jean Haour born around 1700 who probably worked at the Miellin factory and whom I am pretty sure is a direct ancestor. The trail goes cold then – the family’s origin may well be in the Black Forest or the Swiss Jura, as was that of the better-known families, but the documents stay mute on this (and see Michel 1989: 388-9).

If I can find a good way to, I will put these verriers into the book.


favourite sherd of the day, 3

Here is another sherd. A very fine twisted cord roulette underlies seven incised lines. The people of BLaf seem to have been very fond of combining rouletting – most often, folded strip rouletting rather than the twisted cord shown here – with incisions. This combination occurs commonly on the 640-plus sherds analysed as a pilot-study.

As the analysis of this material is now complete, it will be returned to Bénin when we next go.




2011 turns to 2012

We have just completed our first research paper on the outcomes of our 2011 field season in the Niger River Valley at the Niger-Bénin border, and have sent it to the Editor of the journal Nyame Akuma. In it, we first briefly outline the archaeological and historical background to the area. All that is known is that there was probably a succession of population groups in the area, but who, why, and when remains unclear. We then present the preliminary results of our ethnographic interviews with with former craft specialists or their descendants (weavers, dyers, blacksmiths, woodcarvers), as well as the findings of our archaeological investigations which involved both test pitting at BLaf, and survey.

Our 2011 fieldwork was designed to allow for a large-scale cultural overview of the area; the idea was that coarse-grained cultural variations would show up more easily at such a scale. The aims of the 2012 season are, on the whole, to start getting an in-depth view of some of the places identified in 2011. So we will:

–  continue the identification and localisation of archaeological sites in the valley, working to refine the spacing of the survey grid used in 2011;

– start to build up a chronological and cultural sequence by conducting large-scale excavations at BLaf and exploratory test pitting at 2-3 other  localities, sieving all sediment;

– conduct investigations of the geomorphology of the Niger River and its affluents with an aim to gaining a sense of any shifts in time;

–  carry out oral investigations allowing us to shed light on the settlement of the current populations;

– undertake geophysical prospections with a view to determining the extent of various sites;

–  continue interviews with craft practitioners, extending geographically in a first phase southwards into Borgou, then eastwards into Nigeria and ultimately into the Gourmantche area of Burkina Faso.

In the longer term, we are continuing our survey of the literature relating to West African craft specialists and we plan to begin an examination, through museum holdings and historical sources, of the nature and extent of trade in textiles up the Niger River from the Atlantic. A PhD studentship will be advertised in the course of 2012 to consider those areas of research.


More radiocarbon dates

We have just received back the result of a fourth date on our main trench at BLaf, complementing the three run earlier this autumn. This fourth date was  from a collection of charcoal fragments, pooled from within the 75-100 cm layers, and it is in good agreement with the other three: after calibration all four dates fall in the seventh to early ninth centuries AD.

This isn’t a time period for which we have much information yet, although we are gtting to know it better thanks to archaeological work in the last 15 years at places such as Marandet, Essouk or Bura (to name just a few). So it is interesting to have this (earlier than expected) result for our site; and we look forward to further work there.


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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December 2011
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