Archive for September, 2015

28
Sep
15

oxford, Sept 2015

At the Ashmolean museum this week, looking through a collection of largely surface pottery from the Maldives.

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This collection was made in 1974 in Malé by J Carswell, who was working on Chinese porcelain from Syria and who, through the literature on trade routes and a conversation with a Maldivian student in Beirut, resolved to investigate the role of the Maldives’ role in the trade of Chinese ceramics. He donated his archives to the Ashmolean where they can now be visited; an annotated photo ledger shows who has been on the trail of this material before us.

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From the Chinese side, there were greenwares and various blue on white ceramics, made in China in the thirteenth century.

The relevance to Africa, you might ask? Similar Chinese wares occur on the East African coast and up the Red Sea; based on his analysis, Carswell suggested that the Maldives archipelago might be one of the entrepôts for East Africa. Chinese pottery was among the goods which were entering the medieval Maldives, at that time already famous as a producer of cowrie shells, which served as currency and adornment.

We also saw a set of pottery that was coarser, possible handmade. The fabric was coarser, and there was no glaze. Shapes were often sharply carinated, and there were some distinctive overhanging rims. Carswell notes that some of this resembles material which he excavated in northwest Sri Lanka (the Maldivians had no local source of clay, so all their pottery was imported).

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This visit took part in the context of my ongoing project on cowrie shells. The group consisted of Shiura J, who is doing her PhD with us on the medieval archaeology of the Maldives, Annalisa C, who has just joined the project team as postdoctoral researcher, and I.

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On a related note, thank you to those who have requested a return of the ‘Potsherd of the Day’ feature. It’s true, it’s been a while – but we have been powering through that material from Benin and should soon have some quite impressive numbers to crunch.

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08
Sep
15

Mungo Park’s cowries

At the British Museum today to see – in the Enlightenment Gallery – some cowries given to Mungo Park by the King of Bambara on 23 July 1796.

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Mungo Park was the first known European to travel to the central part of the Niger River, reaching it at Ségou (today in Mali). When he returned home to Scotland he was greeted with great enthusiasm as people had thought him dead.

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Mungo Park later embarked on a second trip to West Africa, in 1805-1806, during which he will have sailed through Dendi, perhaps past some of the towns where we have been working. He drowned in the rapids near Bussa, now in Nigeria, where there are some major rapids on the river. The whole area now lies underwater; Online Nigeria notes,

“The Kanji National Park also contains the Kainji Dam, an artificial lake which covers the town of Old Bussa. Here Mungo Park, the explorer, was said to have come to grief in 1805. Now the lake hides the scene of the accident. The lake is 136 km long and tours of the dam are available on request from the Nigeria Electric Power Authority. Boat trips on the lake can be arranged by the Borgu Game Reserve office at Wawa. To reduce the expense, it is better for several visitors to share the cost. Fishing is allowed on the lake”.

It sounds like quite a lovely place. Incidentally, the lake also covers some archaeological sites very relevant to our findings in Dendi. They include large mounds where excavations recovered grinding stones, stone beads and bracelets, iron points, hoes, jewellery, fish hooks, slag, glass crucible fragments, terracotta figurines and clay smoking pipes, as well as tens of thousands of pottery sherds and architectural structures such as granary foundations, collapsed house walls, potsherd pavements and other floors, mysterious burnt clay ditches, and burials with associated beads and jewellery. I came across publications on these sites when researching my 2007 book, and little did I know I would later be working at kind of similar sites just upriver from these.

06
Sep
15

migration

In the current climate, we are daily asked by our media to think about what is a migrant. I have had occasion in the past to write posts (for example here and here) alluding to the absurdly negative attitudes to people’s mobility which seem to prevail today amongst the political class.

Well. I am a migrant, and an economic one at that – from Canada to Switzerland to the UK. And a lot of migration in the family before then. Nothing exceptional there: according to some studies almost a quarter of academics in the UK are not from the UK, and some figures appear to place this as high as 40% for UCL, for example.

Migration is central to the history we’re trying to write of Dendi: kings from Gao, praise-singers from the Upper Niger, kola traders from Bornu, they all figure. Who knows – maybe your tin trader from Tripoli or your canoe-builder from the Niger Delta or your cowrie seller from Ari atoll. That’d be nice! Indeed, outsiders and immigrants are everywhere in the African past: rulers show off their foreign descent, traders migrate to new areas, potters and blacksmiths claim to be apart from society.

Migration is also absolutely central to archaeology generally speaking. 25 years ago it was argued that archaeologists were wrong to think that migration is a chaotic and poorly defined phenomenon (and thus a theme that just couldn’t be studied archaeologically). Rather, research in geography, social anthropology, demography, and statistics had shown that migration behaviour is governed by certain rules and therefore liable to be studied and predicted. With the exception of permanent migration, which appears to have in fact been quite rare historically (with some notable exceptions in our deep past), mobility seems to be organised around sustainable networks that can to some extent be predicted. Maybe it need not, therefore, seem so scary.




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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