Author Archive for Anne Haour


cowries project

Our research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, has now formally closed. We’ve definitely learnt a lot in 3.5 years! We now have a much better idea of the role played by cowrie shells in the medieval economy. We have shown that they were important in the medieval Maldives, and that these islands offered an ideal habitat for the living animals to thrive. We demonstrated that archaeology sheds important new light on this remote archipelago’s trade connections: our excavations yielded items from China, India, Sri Lanka, Europe and central Asia. We have seen tens of thousands of cowrie shells in museums across three continents, and developed reliable criteria to differentiate the various species. Thanks to this, we can identify the shells encountered by archaeologists in West Africa, and understand much more clearly the routes by which they came into the African continent.

We have published four academic papers and two briefings for UNESCO, and been featured in several news stories. We have talked about our work to dozens of schoolchildren, university students and ambassadors. We have presented conference papers in the UK, the Maldives, France, Sweden, Tanzania, Ghana, Denmark, Canada, Turkey and Morocco. We put together a small exhibition showcasing our findings. Thanks to our project, the first ever PhD thesis has been written by a Maldivian archaeologist.

Now the hard work begins! We are writing a book outlining our findings from our excavations at the Maldivian island which the famed medieval traveller ibn Battuta described as ‘a fine island’.




last few weeks

This has been a busy time, with the book launch for 2000 years in Dendi last Friday,


which celebrates the book getting from this:


to this:


swiftly followed by African Archaeology Research Day in Cambridge.

These past weeks, and in weeks to come…: Thinking about the possibilities and ideas behind the return of museum artefacts to sub-Saharan Africa, pottery in southern Benin today, whether medieval traders acted in a manner which economists would consider rational, responding to climate change, potsherds from the medieval at Kinolhas in the Maldives, Chinese archaeology, and how cowries speak to notions of value.



new publication

… and it is a behemoth of a publication, weighing in at over 3 kilos and 800 pages – of luscious, informative, tangible and intangible material culture-based discussion of seven years of work in northern Benin and beyond.


Last time I saw it, it looked like this

— so it is rather lovely to see its finished form.

We’ll be having a small gathering on November 23rd to wet its head. Likely, too, to raise a glass to the European Research Council who made this research possible.


conference excursions

Once the formal conference proceedings were completed we were taken on a tour of several historical and archaeological delights, both around Rabat and near Casablanca.

A trip to the Museum of History and Civilizations and to an exhibition at Bank al-Maghrib Museum, devoted to Moroccan medieval traveller ibn Battuta. No prizes of guessing what was amongst the most prized commodities he encountered – cowries, of course.


Ibn Battuta’s presumed route across West Africa


Then off to Casablanca for a visit of several former quarries that were mainly exploited in the early 20th century when Casablanca’s port was developing and which led to the discovered of some very early human, hominin and animal remains.


Above is a panel at the Sidi Abderrahmane archaeological park, outlining the region’s importance. The particular geomorphology of the region means there is a high density of Pleistocene sites.

The sequence from these various caves, which spans over 5 million years, offers data for comparison with those from other African areas where hominids appeared and it feeds into the debate on the earliest occupation of Europe.





PanAfrican congress

The 15th Congress of PanAfrican Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies (PanAf) has just concluded. 350 people took part, of 36 different nationalities. Here are some further scenes taken from the meeting.

It was also a chance for us to return cowries to the people who had generously lent them to us over the past couple years.

Cowries packages by Annalisa, ready for return


The next meeting of the PanAf is set for Zanzibar —- already looking forward to it!


rabat, 13 sept

Sam Nixon, Mabrouk Saghir, Youssouf Bokbot and I convened a session on trans-Saharan trade which brought together researchers having worked north and south of the Sahara. This returned to the long-standing questions of exchanges across the desert in the medieval and early modern periods.

We heard papers dealing with archaeological, historical and geographical studies of towns on either sides of the Sahara, specific commodities (gold, beads, cowries…) and ideas of technology transfer and religious change. It’s interesting in that context to note that modern Morocco is increasingly positing itself as an entry point to sub-Saharan Africa and a major investor in countries such as Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Gabon.








rabat, 10 sept

In Rabat for the 15th Congress of the PanAfrican Association.


The overall theme is ‘Valorisation of African Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development’. We are hosted by The Sciences Faculty of Mohammed V University and the National Institute of Archaeology and Heritage Sciences in Rabat, Mohammed I University in Oujda, and Moulay Ismaïl university in Meknès. The last meeting of this association was in Johannesburg: when I wrote about it then, we were in the midst of trying to process and understand all of the data we had gleaned through Crossroads, so it does seem a while back. Great to see colleagues and friends again.


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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