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