Archive for January, 2016


where we moved on to

We didn’t find much in our second trench either. We placed it at a location which seemed promising; close to the former landing place for ships, and on a mound with possible stone structures.


Well, we did find some pottery, of course. Mainly the dark brown coarse ware with incisions.

And several different colours of sand.


The grey sand did contain occupation evidence, but we quickly reached the yellow sand which has no artefacts, it’s sterile.

Time to move on.



what they did in the football field

We had been very interested to see this football field since reports had reached us that thousands of cowries had been uncovered here, as well as glass vessels and Chinese pottery.

We saw the Chinese pottery when we met with the council members.


However, that meeting also made it clear that we were not going to be able to do much archaeological work on this site. The construction of the football field involved a mechanical digger stripping off the top 2 feet of soil (which will have been the past settlement layer). Sand dredged from the lagoon was then used to fill the field to create a stable playing surface, and then a layer of the removed archaeological soil put back on top of this. All fair enough in order to play football, but the worst possible case for the archaeologist.

Actually no, the worst case would have been if nobody remembered this had happened and we went on to blithely dig and try to interpret the stratigraphy. Because the stratigraphy, which we exposed when we did a quick check and excavated to 90cm depth, looked like this:


The white dredged lagoon sand stands out vividly. On either side of it is the archaeological layer, the remains of the past site: above, greyish brown, the stuff displaced by the digger (note the perfect straight line between the two layers, always a clue that something major has happened); and below, dark brown, all that remains of the archaeological layer in its correct place (and below it the yellowish sand with no artefacts in it). The dark brown layer was too thin for us to do much with.


We described the layers and moved on elsewhere to dig.



Travel to Island 1

We had an uneventful trip to our first field site, about 300km away from Malé.






Our team consists of Shiura J, Annalisa C, and Ikram, a Maldivian archaeology student.

Upon arriving we met with members of the local council.



We talked through with them the history of use of the various parts of the island. This is a crucial step, as it allowed us to determine which areas had been least disturbed. For example it emerged that the football field in which delicate glass vessels, Chinese pots and thousands of cowries were found – and which we had therefore pined our hopes on!) has been thoroughly worked over by a mechanical digger.



Heading to field site 1

Always the same question: will it all fit? And though loading a Land Cruiser at 6am to drive 700km (my experience in Niger and Bénin) was hairy, having to charter a ferry to the airport is something else!



pots but no potters

What archaeological work has been carried out on the Maldives – for example the by Carswell at the old palace in Malé or the analysis by Mikkelsen of pottery from excavations by Thor Heyerdahl’s team at Nilandu – has documented the evidence of  brown pottery decorated with incisions, thought to have been in use for a long period (and thus not that useful for dating), and apparently coming from southern India and Sri Lanka. Carswell specifically linked some of the material to pottery from a site in NW Sri Lanka, suggesting a connection between it and Malé. As he notes, Sri Lanka would be the Maldives’ nearest source of clay.

We are now seeing similar sherds in the collections of the National Museum here in Malé. They also have here intact pots of the same type though nobody knows much about them.


For his part, Ibn Battuta says a cooking pot was bartered for five or six chickens.

I was just wondering whether they ever imported clay and made the pots here.


fish but no shells


Tuna is prominent everywhere, and cypraea moneta can be found in small quantities in souvenir shops, glued onto frames or within little glass bottles. We aim to find a live one during our travels.


Malé, 19 january

In Malé, capital of the Republic of Maldives. I spent most of the day yesterday at, and close to, the National Museum with Shiura J – amazing to see how far we have got since a largely chance meeting two and a half years ago. We spent some time in the museum stores, which contain quite a lot of pottery, including intact vessels – a very useful exercise to complement the sherds we had seen in Oxford back in the autumn. A cowrie-shell filled casket recently recovered on an island in Alif Dhaalu atoll 70 km from here is also in the museum stores.

We visited the Friday mosque again, currently closed for repairs, and were lucky enough to be able to climb the minaret and see the ongoing works, which utilise lime plaster made from (ethically sourced) coral ash to be as close as possible to the materials of the time (17th century).


Last month the remains of a mosque were discovered by chance at Thinadhoo, in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll about 90 km south of here.

Today, meetings, administration, and procuring equipment.



fieldwork – 2

We’re about to embark on the first field season of our ‘Cowrie shells: an early global commodity’ project. A broad presentation of the remit of this research project can be seen here. In the immediate, what we’re hoping to achieve is fourfold: survey, excavation, interviews and research on museum collections. Here are the kinds of things we are aiming to find out:

What were the main sites of the medieval period and what standing remains still subsist relating to them? What can their typology tell us of the chronology and connections of the Maldives trade network? What is the impact of environmental factors on this heritage? we’ll be partly on ibn Battuta’s footsteps here (a great describer of cowrie commerce).

What does the material culture of the medieval period look like? In particular, what are the characteristics of the pottery? Can shell processing sites be identified? What can artefacts tell us about the connections of the Maldives medieval network, and about past lifeways generally?

Were certain atolls specialised in specific crafts or maritime practices, such as boat building or shell collecting? What environmental factors determined these specialisms? How was the landscape perceived and negotiated?

How does the material recovered by previous archaeological teams, which relates to the Buddhist period, compare with material from later periods? What species of cowrie are represented in the middens uncovered by previous development work?

We’ll aim to update this as we go along, so stay tuned for further thoughts.




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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January 2016