Archive for April, 2012


Searching for ancient plants… and making progress with the bigger picture


Sam Nixon reports.

We have been making good progress with the analysis of the material brought back from the recent fieldseason.

The archaeobotanical finds (see previous postings on this) have been transferred to Dr Dorian Fuller of UCL for analysis and he has already started making a provisional assessment with exciting preliminary results.

Particularly noteworthy is the finding of evidence for rice in a number of samples, mainly processing remains (quite significant amounts recovered). Rice is an important crop in the area today (see photo for an idea of the modern cultivation environment close to the river) and so it is very exciting that the archaeology is going to allow us to start tracing its cultivation back in time. More broadly this can also contribute to the very sparse data on early rice in West Africa. Sorghum is also confirmed within the samples, and amongst the other initial finds are other interesting small grasses and sedges.

Following the very preliminary initial sorting through of the archaeobotanical samples, a systematic study will be conducted which will give us a good first look at the plant remains from Birni Lafia and Pekinga. This will also include analysis of the phytolith samples collected (very small samples of soil collected to study minute remains of plants which do not show up simply by looking at carbonized remains recovered by flotation – for instance bananas).

Looking beyond the archaeobotany, we have now also made the first submission of radiocarbon samples from the 2012 season. Charcoal recovered both from Birni Lafia and Pekinga has been sent off and we hope to get these results back in a couple of months. While some samples were dated from the 2011 season this should really firm up our idea of the chronology of the site.

The studies on the other materials we brought back from Benin will also commence shortly and so some good initial results will be available for Anne’s presentation at SAfA (Society of African Archaeologists conference in Toronto in June).

Other than analysing the excavated material, we are beginning to make good headway with the background historical and archaeological literature. In addition to looking at important works written by historians (such as for instance ‘Muslim’s and chiefs in West Africa’ by Levtzion, 1968), we have also been looking at archaeology done at sites which were part of the same larger regional networks that we are studying in northern Benin. The work carried out at Begho in Ghana by Merrick Posnansky is of particular interest as a comparative study.

The complexity of the historical literature (see for instance the multiple names for Muslim traders throughout the region in Chp 1 Levtzion 1968), and the sparsity of archaeological work done mean that we have a challenging task ahead of us – but it is very rewarding when new data and insights are found!

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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April 2012