As followers of this blog will know, our European Research Council-funded team is engaged in clarifying the history and archaeology of northern Benin, in West Africa. Although the project’s core is archaeological, it integrates throughout art historians, anthropologists, geoarchaeologists and historians. Team members undertake fieldwork together, and there is a continuous feedback process throughout the field season, so we keep on track.
We’re halfway through: how are we doing?
So far, we’ve undertaken three field seasons, of which the largest, earlier this year, involved fifteen researchers, sixteen students, several research assistants and 40 workmen. At the moment we are engaged in desk-, museum- and laboratory- based work until the next field season in early 2014.
Our archaeological work has focused on a site called Birnin Lafiya, where we have worked for three field seasons now – a total of perhaps 80 days. We have uncovered parts of floors made of broken potsherds and evidence of fired earth architecture, which is not so common an occurrence in the West African Sahel. We have also carried out geophysical prospection to get a better sense of the extent of the site and to identify buried features; our work is one of just a handful of examples of the application of the technique in sub-Saharan Africa.
Birnin Lafiya has yielded varied and diagnostic pottery, and good preservation of fauna and charcoal. We have so far recovered no occupation post-dating the thirteenth century, while the earliest remains date to the fourth century AD.
We’ve also carried out test pits at four other sites throughout the valley, and very limited sampling at two further sites. These sites have yielded varied and diagnostic pottery and all fall within the same rough time range as Birnin Lafiya. At least two of the sites – Pekinga and Tin Tin Kanza – show evidence of the same tradition of pottery pavement; Tin Tin Kanza, in particular, revealed a close succession of pavements, wall bases and floor areas. At other sites, we recovered no architectural features, but the pottery analysis, which is ongoing, will allow us to suggest whether there is a degree of cultural similarity in parallel to the broad chronological simultaneity.
So far we have run 40 radiocarbon dates (16 from Birnin Lafiya) for sites of the area, and through survey we have identified, then described, about 800 up to now totally unknown archaeological sites. These are gradually building up the archaeological map of northern Benin.
From the ethnographic side, we have carried out interviews with hundreds of potters, blacksmiths, weavers and dyers within the valley and the wider region. We also carried out intensive interviews as regards the political history of the area and the traditions relating to the abandoned sites near modern villages. Contemporary textile production has constituted an important element of our research, and one of the highlights of the 2013 field season was the commissioning of a local cloth, an operation set in motion and followed by one of the masters students associated with the project from its start (cutting the wood to make the loom) to its finish (the final textile, now part of the permanent collection of both the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the Horniman Museum of London).
Thus far the evidence recovered through fieldwork offers good prospects to answer the questions set out by the research project, namely the degree to which areas of cultural and political evidence might be visible on the ground.
The pottery, aerial imagery, and soils analysis are all in progress. The pottery analysis has also involved three students (as well as further students in the field). To date 42000 sherds of the have been placed on the database while we are also continuing manual recording. The aerial imagery analysis is being carried out by the project doctoral student; at this stage, it involves mapping the data of field survey, generating a digital elevation model (to seek correlations between terrain and site location), and using remote sensing imagery to locate sites from the air. The soils analysis aims primarily to recognise land use; to that end, samples have been taken both from archaeological trenches and from field systems and are being subjected to multi-element analysis. We’re also testing whether micromorphological analyses can provide clues as to the nature of the architectural structures recognised at Birnin Lafiya, and trialling the effectiveness of a dating technique called optically-stimulated luminescence.
A book and four papers deal with aspects of all of this, and we’re planning a book for 2016 and some more papers.