accra, 8 july

There are only a few species of cowrie shell that live off the West African coast, and as pointed out by Johnson almost fifty years ago they don’t look anything like the two species which have been most used, namely annulus and moneta. In the image below, from archaeological work by colleagues in Ghana, the two West African cowries, second row left, stand out by their size and shape. They would also stand out by their colour if they hadn’t lain buried in the archaeological record for a period of time.


So that one is relatively easy to figure out. One other, troublesome, question is what the relative popularity of annulus versus moneta (ring versus money) cowries might be able to tell us about date. One of the wild dreams of all archaeologists is to identify a specific artefact or type of remain which immediately gives an idea of a site’s age, without having to resort to expensive radiocarbon dating. Imports such as glassware, pottery and cowries figure amongst such objects.


The specific story about cowries in West Africa is that it is usually assumed that moneta arrived earlier, annulus only once the Europeans got onto the game in the sixteenth century. The collections here in Accra, like those we saw in Dakar, have an important story to tell about this. So this is what the next days will be devoted to, as well as conference attendance!


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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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