Archive for July, 2013


old but good (2)

Another in the series of materials excavated from the archives…

Here are some stamps I bought in Zinder, Niger, for the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford. Originally in their ‘Recycling’ exhibition, they have now found a permanent home in the Body Arts collection.

These stamps, used for printing a design on the skin, were made out of old rubber flip-flops. I remember very clearly negotiating with the stallholder. He was there to sell impressions from these stamps, not the stamps themselves. It was summer 1999 when I spent three and a half months in Niger, mainly in Zinder but culminating in a memorable trip through the Ténéré and Aïr with the then minister for tourism and about 30 representatives of (mainly French) tour agencies.

Since 1999, when I bought the stamp, I’ve been back to Zinder four times. I was obviously lucky to have chanced upon the stamp seller that first time: I never saw him again, although I looked for him (I remembered quite clearly his spot close to the market). Since 2005 I have been unable to go back to Zinder, largely because of travel restrictions. But you may recall last year’s project with Lycée Amadou Kourandaga which aimed to confront the often negative perceptions that UK pupils hold about Africa and Islam, and to create a teaching resource that can be used in classrooms across the UK to do the same. There we connected with Zinder by Skype.




cat scan

One evening a couple of weeks ago, Sam and I took one of our semi-intact pots from Birnin Lafiya’s Trench X to our local hospital.

This particular pot had been excavated on the final day of our field season, and we had left it filled with its original sediment, thinking there might be something interesting inside (such as someone’s spear points, trousseau or perhaps even an ancestor).

2013-07-10 20.04.06ed

Radiologists ran the pot through a CT scanner, and took the pictures you see on this page. A CT (computed tomography) scan is basically an imaging method that uses X-rays to create pictures of cross-sections of the body, based on the fact that various bodily structures block X-ray beams to differing degrees. The idea is that what works in humans also works in pots; we knew from an earlier classic X-ray that there were areas of different density within the vessel, and we though that the CT scan would tell us what they were.

2013-07-10 20.03.36ed

Unfortunately, although the CT scan did demonstrate the existence of chunks and crevasses within the vessel (see, for instance, the white roundish shadow on the image, below), it showed their shape so clearly that we are quite certain now that they are just rocks, pebbles and cracked clay.

That’s a bit of a shame, but there are still things we can learn. Most particularly, the image can show the uneven thickness of the vessel walls, and thus perhaps indicate how it was made (there exist several pottery-shaping techniques, all of which leave reasonably identifiable micro-traces). It can’t have been easy to shape such a narrow, elongated cylinder.


Also, the manner in which the various layers settled within the vessel can suggest how the remains we’re excavating came to be: did the pot fill quickly, with large chunks of fired earth and charcoal (the collapsing roof and walls of a house in fire)? Or did it become filled with earth over the passage of time, through a natural process of sedimentation, indicating that the vessel lay intact and empty for some period of time?


interview 2

Here is my Radio New Zealand interview. In preparing for it I was reminded that New Zealand was settled in the 13th century – at the same time as Birnin Lafiya was abandoned. No connection, of course.


liminal people in the West African past

My book on liminal people is almost out. A preview is available on Google Books, where you can read part of chapter 1 (and, somewhat oddly, the last page of the index, which runs from ‘trade diasporas’ to ‘Zuwa Alayman, ‘Yemenite’  immigrant ruler and killer of a monster fish-god in the Niger River. With a ring in its nose).


Basically the book is about people who don’t fit in. Archaeologists are increasingly trying to identify individuals in the material record of the past – a tough job but one which I argue might be easier if we try to look not at what people are, but what they aren’t. When a person is of, but not in, society – with thanks to John M for that phrase.

The fact is that outsiders and immigrants can be found everywhere in the West African past: rulers show off their foreign descent, traders migrate  new areas, potters and blacksmiths claim to be apart from society.

I talk a bit about this too in my Afriques paper which is largely about migrants. I started thinking about these sorts of things maybe about 17 years ago and then it all came together one day in March 2009 when I was on a bus from Comacchio then Schiphol Airport. I have posted several things in the past two years about outsiders and about how writing was going. So, it’s nice to see the process come full circle. Only very short-sighted political thinking would fail to realise the importance of immigrants’ skills and know-how.

But anyway, now I want to think a bit more about cin rani – dry season migration in the Hausa world – and worlds of experience, in the hope that this is the angle which will help us archaeologists ‘see’ the individual’s experience in the material record. Ali, Olivier and I have been talking about writing something about this together and our first challenge is definitely to see how we can make the ethnography significant to the archaeology; and vice-versa. Work in progress.



Here is a recent interview I did which deals with lessons which I believe modern society might be able to learn from the information we’re unearthing about medieval West African cultures. 

Previous post on related topic: this, linking to this.

I’m also doing an interview on Monday for  Radio New Zealand’s show Nights,  which bills itself as ‘Unfurling fresh ideas and sounds along with the best radio documentaries and features from here and overseas’. Among things we’ll discuss are what happened to the people who lived in the Niger Valley a thousand years ago, how medieval life in Africa compared with life in Europe at the same time, and the role of large trees. Tune in Monday 21.10 New Zealand time (10.10 in UK, 11.10 continental Europe).


Crossroads textiles in the Horniman

Textile fans amongst our readers will remember that as part of the fieldwork this year we commissioned a cloth – see earlier posts on this subject here, here, and here.

The textile in question is a ‘wedding blanket’ (Babbagi), which was made by Tanda Hamani, a retired weaver from Mamassi Peulh, who also made the loom to produce it. The piece was commissioned by Sam and the supervising researchers were Lucie and Romuald.

Read all about it, and see the whole process unfold, on the website of London’s Horniman Museum, where the textile now resides.

Speaking of museums, don’t forget you will be able to see a lot of the Crossroads material next year in an exhibition at the SCVA.


new publication on our work

Delighted to announce that the following paper, mentioned as an embryo a while back, is now out

Mobilité et archéologie le long de l’arc oriental du Niger : pavements et percuteurs
Mobility and archaeology along the eastern bend of the Niger River: pottery pavements and pounders

This is where you’ll find the most up-to-date summary of the Birnin Lafiya chronology, as well as some musings on the role of mobility and cin rani in the past


Malé, 8 july

Despite spending a lot of time in the ocean in the past week or so (at depths of between 1 and 18 m) I have not succeeded in seeing a live Cypraea moneta cowrie: apparently, they feed at night, are masters of camouflage, and have been depleted by the Maldives’ long history as a cowrie trading nation.


I did learn that these molluscs were often caught using rafts of coconut fibres to which they would attach themselves – and that although dead cowries wash up onto the beach (I saw some of these), those which had been fished alive were considered more valuable, as they were shinier.

Marion Johnson’s 1970 paper describes the cowrie trade from the West African perspective – but meanwhile I had a valuable opportunity to discuss the cowrie trade from a Maldivian perspective, by meeting yesterday with archaeologist and historian colleagues at the National Museum and the National Centre for Historical and Linguistic Research (meetings kindly facilitated by our holiday resort manager!). I return loaded with books and offprints…  Thus, some interesting things to think about in an island nation I have hoped to visit for over 25 years.

aaaDSC00318top left is a cypraea moneta

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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July 2013