Archive for June, 2012


SAfA, Toronto

During recent travels in New York and Colorado (thank you, Joanne, Mike, Sarah, and Bob et al) I have been thinking food and pots, in keeping with the session which I will be joining at SAfA.

I know a lot more about pots than about food (having written much about pots – perhaps the most heavily cited, yet mystifying to the non-specialist, is the book I co-edited with several colleagues of whom some are now on Crossroads). Your typical archaeologist as portrayed in the media will be quite obsessed with potsherds, and there is a good reason for that – pottery is durable and likely to convey some cultural information. But just what information it conveys, and why/how, has been the subject of continued debate. Most people now agree that pots are useful in telling us about past ways of life because they embody a set of cultural values and technological know-how:  the way they are made and the way that people learn to make them are cultural products. It makes sense then, as the panel organisers have done here, to combine pots with food – food preparation being a cultural product par excellence (this we can all agree with). Luckily enough, the past people of Birnin Lafiya had quite an interesting diet, so the site offers an interesting discussion point.

I had plenty of time to think about all this whilst travelling today. I made the trip to Toronto by train from Rochester in upstate New York. The crossing of the Niagara River was beautiful, but the crossing between the USA and Canada somewhat lengthy. We all had to come off the train and be checked with our bags. I don’t think I had been through anything like this since crossing from Slovenia to Serbia on the train in 1992 – and that had been much quicker (and I didn’t see anyone cry). It was inexplicably cumbersome. I wouldn’t mind so much, but being pro-public transport I do wonder: surely they don’t do this to people in cars?

Anyway. Glad to be back in my ville natale.

Will continue thinking about food and crafts.


eighteen months on

The project is now a year and a half old, which feels like a substantial landmark. The first thing to say is that the Niger-Bénin border area really is a fascinating one, very well suited to the themes of cultural crossroads, craft specialism and political expansion as put together in the proposal to the European Research Council in cold, dark December 2009. So far so good.

We have been getting good initial results from a range of sources – survey, pottery typologies, dates, food remains, craft practices, and oral traditions. The archaeological results from two sites we’ve investigated so far have been encouraging, as have the ethnographic enquiries all along the wider Niger River valley. We have a publication (an interim report in Nyame Akuma December 2011), we have a growing team (Sam Nixon as a postdoc for three years, and soon a PhD student – please get in touch to hear about other, future, opportunities) and we’re including a growing number of colleagues to help with those bits of the project which we don’t understand. The forthcoming Society of Africanist archaeologists meeting (the week after next in Toronto) will be an excellent opportunity to publicise the work of the team and to get feedback from colleagues.

Much remains to be done, obviously. There is a problematic time gap between the archaeological and the oral-historical sources: we will be trying to close through excavation at selected, relatively recent, places, and by squeezing to their utmost the oral historical, historical and linguistic records. The historical traditions are hugely confusing so far, citing a large number of groups who collide and bounce against one another like billiard balls. There is probably a grain of truth in most of them – but whether we can get to it through material culture is another question.

There are some wider questions about technical specialists and their archaeological visibility, and about the material manifestation of polities. On a theoretical level I have been writing about this in my forthcoming book for OUP. Concretely, it’s too early to expect clarity on these ideas in the soil of northern Bénin… but it’s obvious that to get near them we need to widen the geographical scope.  We need to look at more sites, surveying the wider area and getting a sense of changes in the past environment (course of the river, crops and rainfall, that sort of thing). On the menu for the 2013 season.

Welcome to the new followers of this blog who, increasingly, appear to not be African archaeologists. I’d love to hear your comments and likes. You have probably come across the apocryphal statement of Pliny’s ‘ex africa semper aliquid novum’. I hope you’ll be convinced of its truth.

writing from New York City this time

Previous round-ups: six months on, a year on.


Depicting Africa

Last week saw the conclusion of the ‘Depicting Africa’ project I had been working on for the past three months with Miss Hannah S from the secondary school City Academy (see previous post). The City Academy students designed tours of the Sainsbury Centre, section by section (Africa, Americas, Oceania, and Art Nouveau) and delivered it to their peers. Favoured objects included the Middle Kingdom hippo, Epstein’s baby head and the Luba-Hemba staff. Children also had an opportunity to talk to student ambassadors about life as university students.

Depicting Africa is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is a collaboration between UEA and City Academy. Over the weeks we have worked with one Year 7 class at City Academy (11-12 year olds) to try and challenge negative ideas they have about Africa and to think, more generally, about how stereotypes hinder people’s opportunities (including the chance of going to university for those able and willing).

The City Academy schoolchildren were paired with peers from the Lycée Ahmadou Kourandaga in Zinder, Niger. They exchanged emails, letters, and spoke on Skype. The City Academy schoolchildren presented news bulletins on the Egyptian cabinet, reflected on Hajj and Christian pilgrimage, researched Madagascar and Ethiopia, thought about what makes a person or an artefacts English, helped cook a Nigerian meal, reflected on angels and light in Christianity and Islam, wrote descriptions of British Museum artefacts from the Hausa area, discussed how one defines ethnic identity and visited the UEA mosque. They designed questionnaires for their Nigérien peers, conducted secondary and primary research, and began to look more critically at news reports which present only the glum from Africa.

At the beginning of the project, we had asked the children to give five words they associated with Africa. ‘Dirty water’, ‘Poor’ and ‘Hot’ came up a lot. At the end of the project we asked them the same question again and, unsurprisingly, the answers had changed (more on this later, after some number-crunching, but ‘polite’ and ‘middle class’ came up).

Over the coming months we will be designing a teaching resource (a DVD with lesson plans, Powerpoints etc.) which will be sent to other secondary schools in the UK.

It is of course never a one-way street. Perhaps it is not just the children who have changed outlook – all of us Africanists (and Africanist sympathisers) who took part have learnt much. Which was part of the point of the project. In terms of skills, responding to deep metaphysical questions in a single sentence for fear of losing your audience was certainly something for me to work on. The impact of the aid sector in shaping children’s images of Africa was also something to reflect upon…


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 2012