Archive for June, 2013


pottery jigsaw puzzles

Sam Nixon reports.

Continuing on with our pottery story, which we have posted about a few times (for example here), we have been busily engaged in reconstructing pottery, both in order to illustrate it and to include it in next year’s exhibition at the SCVA. We previously showed a couple of images of pots which were recovered intact from the excavations, but there are also a whole range of pots which are broken but can be pieced back together with care and attention.

This process is being coordinated by Stefka Bargazova of the SCVA conservation laboratory and has also involved others on the project, including Louis Champion who was working away at this throughout April and May as part of his MA thesis.



Refitting pots often involves using some fairly common sense approaches and basic materials (including masking tape!), but Stefka’s skills as a trained ceramicist have proved invaluable in the reconstruction process which is not always so simple. The procedure becomes particularly complicated when the pieces of pottery being put back together are very small and worn – not exactly like working on a jigsaw puzzle, but similar!


Some of the pots can only be partially reconstructed; it’s likely they were already broken when they were included in the archaeological record. Below is Louis’ ‘Pot 11’ from Tin Tin Kanza. It is 22 cm in diameter and decorated with burnishing, incision and folded strip roulette (like this sherd from Jenné-jeno in Mali).

2419 V (9)


Other examples, on the other hand, are wholly reconstructable, indicating that they were whole at the time when they entered the archaeological record. Such pots mainly appear to have been broken during the collapse or destruction of houses: that is to say they were complete vessels sitting inside the house which were crushed when it collapsed.

None of these ‘complete’ pots to show you yet, but more anon!


in praise of… Cypraea moneta

Anybody dealing with West African archaeology and history is well used to the idea of cowries. In historical sources, cowrie shells are  central to transactions on the subcontinent; they are also recovered relatively routinely in excavations, albeit typically in small numbers. And cowries loom large in the oral history of Crossroads’ field of inquiry, since nooru bangu, the cowry shell pond, lies within our landscape. There,  the shells which kept the Songhai polity wealthy were said to have been collected. _IGP4106 Here’s the thing, though: whatever oral history in Dendi may have to say, the fact is that cowrie shells per se, Cypraea moneta, originate from the Indian Ocean and in particular from the Maldives where this herbivore gastropod can be collected on rocks. Ibn Battuta, who spent nine months in the Maldives in the fourteenth century, and who was later to visit what is now Mali, described cowries being used in both places. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the English were shipping  some 100 tons of cowries a year to Africa (Johnson, 1970: 22 citing Mungo Park). Johnson comments that “The cowries of the trans-Saharan trade must have been almost exclusively small ones of Maldive origin; heavier cowries would have been at a great disadvantage in the long and costly journey over the desert”. The traveller Giovanni D’Anania appears to refer to them being used in the sixteenth century in the Hausa city of Katsina.

How did cowries become a major item of trade in West Africa? Who fished for these shells in the Maldives, who took them across the Indian Ocean and the Sahara, and how did a whole system of value become constructed around them thousands of kilometres from their place of origin? Having seen plenty of dead cowries in my time, I am aiming to see a live one in the Maldives, even if I cannot answer all the above questions.



One unfortunate side-effect of the fact that archaeological fieldwork is undoubtedly sexy is that the post-excavation phase gets rather overlooked.

Not so many stories, not so many snakes, not so many blog posts.

But the reality is that for every week the archaeologist spends digging up stuff another ten weeks (at least) are spent analysing it, or figuring out what specialist to palm the stuff on to analyse.

So trust us, we’ve been hard at work. I am just waiting until something becomes concrete before posting here.



a map

People have been asking for a map showing exactly where we work. Here is one, with thanks to mapmaker extraordinaire Nadia K:


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 2013