Posts Tagged ‘archaeobotany


three and a half weeks back

After the fieldwork, comes the post-excavation work. My network and I have not been idle: the slag has gone to France, the plant remains to Australia and the charcoal to London. We wait to see what all these objects can tell us…

The pottery will be examined in Norwich by Shiura and I, but we will definitely need help on some of the sherds, given their variety.

The shells and bone will also be examined here in Norwich, by Annalisa.


day 22, kinolhas

Why the enduring interest, during our excavations, in patches of dark sand, you ask? Well, largely because they might indicate rubbish pits, which typically contain a whole range of goodies (one man’s rubbish is another’s treasure, that sort of thing) – or because they might be postholes, perhaps the only surviving indication of ephemeral houses.

Their buildings are made of wood, and they arrange the floors of their houses high above the ground as a protection against damp, since the earth in their country is moist. The process of construction with them is as follows: they fashion blocks of stone two or three cubits long, place them in rows one above the other and lay upon them beams of coconut wood. Thereupon, they raise walls of wood – an art in which they are wonderfully skilled.

Ibn Battuta, writing in the 14th century about the Maldives: see here. (This comment also explains our obsession with spotting lines of stones).

Recording piles/lines of stones in the forest.


Getting complicated in Trench 631.


Meanwhile… mucho pots, bone…

Archaeobotanical samples in the breeze…



And yesterday we set some cowrie traps. Stay tuned to find out how they fare…


london, october 2015

At UCL today talking archaeobotany with Louis C and his PhD supervisor Dorian F.

In the course of his participation in the Crossroads fieldwork, Louis took samples from 12 sites and 28 test pits and he has been looking for pieces of charred plants within them; see a report by Sam here. Below, sampling trench IV at Birnin Lafiya in February 2012.


Now all these samples are being examined in lab conditions here in the UK. Louis is looking at changes in the archaeobotanical remains across time, seeking to characterise what people grew and to identify shifts in the plant assemblages. Today we talked about maize, bananas, sorghum, shea butter nut, wild grasses, millet, tomatoes and mangoes. Each of these likely entered this part of Benin at a different time.


studies continue

As we enter the final few months of the Crossroads project, we are reaching the end of our pottery analysis. 25 kilos of sherds returned to Cotonou just this week, thanks to our friend and colleague Joseph A.

Meanwhile, the animal bone is in Brussels, the human bone in Cambridge, the carnelian beads in Leicester, the metal objects and slag in Toulouse, the charcoal in Brussels and Miami, and the glass and shell beads in Frankfurt.

The challenge now is to pull of all of this together for the book.


Work ongoing by Ronika P at the at the Palaeoanthropology Laboratory of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies



An innovation this year is that we have had an embedded film-maker, Alan. His brief has been to create footage for the forthcoming project exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) – to help contextualise our work for the visitor, to show what it is like to have an archaeological project in the Sahel, the scientific process, and generally showcase the work of researchers from UEA and beyond. Below, Nadia and Alan filming the making of our sieve in Cotonou some weeks back.





Since then, Alan has filmed interviews with Ali, Sam and Richard on their trenches, me pointing out random blobs in the landscape, the survey team hunting for sites, Louis processing archaeobotanical samples, and Lucie and Romuald commissioning textiles and Sam receiving them. He’s also taken over the pole photography and this morning is helping Nadia hoover a potsherd and cobble pavement at site TTK (which might end up published in Nyame Akuma). The camera get us a lot of attention.






Searching for ancient plants… and making progress with the bigger picture


Sam Nixon reports.

We have been making good progress with the analysis of the material brought back from the recent fieldseason.

The archaeobotanical finds (see previous postings on this) have been transferred to Dr Dorian Fuller of UCL for analysis and he has already started making a provisional assessment with exciting preliminary results.

Particularly noteworthy is the finding of evidence for rice in a number of samples, mainly processing remains (quite significant amounts recovered). Rice is an important crop in the area today (see photo for an idea of the modern cultivation environment close to the river) and so it is very exciting that the archaeology is going to allow us to start tracing its cultivation back in time. More broadly this can also contribute to the very sparse data on early rice in West Africa. Sorghum is also confirmed within the samples, and amongst the other initial finds are other interesting small grasses and sedges.

Following the very preliminary initial sorting through of the archaeobotanical samples, a systematic study will be conducted which will give us a good first look at the plant remains from Birni Lafia and Pekinga. This will also include analysis of the phytolith samples collected (very small samples of soil collected to study minute remains of plants which do not show up simply by looking at carbonized remains recovered by flotation – for instance bananas).

Looking beyond the archaeobotany, we have now also made the first submission of radiocarbon samples from the 2012 season. Charcoal recovered both from Birni Lafia and Pekinga has been sent off and we hope to get these results back in a couple of months. While some samples were dated from the 2011 season this should really firm up our idea of the chronology of the site.

The studies on the other materials we brought back from Benin will also commence shortly and so some good initial results will be available for Anne’s presentation at SAfA (Society of African Archaeologists conference in Toronto in June).

Other than analysing the excavated material, we are beginning to make good headway with the background historical and archaeological literature. In addition to looking at important works written by historians (such as for instance ‘Muslim’s and chiefs in West Africa’ by Levtzion, 1968), we have also been looking at archaeology done at sites which were part of the same larger regional networks that we are studying in northern Benin. The work carried out at Begho in Ghana by Merrick Posnansky is of particular interest as a comparative study.

The complexity of the historical literature (see for instance the multiple names for Muslim traders throughout the region in Chp 1 Levtzion 1968), and the sparsity of archaeological work done mean that we have a challenging task ahead of us – but it is very rewarding when new data and insights are found!


birnin lafiya 17 feb 2012

A word from the base camp itself, again thanks to Didier and his roaming internet access ; he has found one corner of the Finds Room where there is a full mobile signal (when standing on a chair and allowing two hours).

The Finds Room consists of half a room with two tables covered un bags of pottery – washed on the right-hand side, unwashed on the left . There is a lot of it – Sam’s trench SIII and Nicolas’ trench SVI in particular have been generating huge amounts, the former largely as pottery pavement fill and the latter as occupation refuse, it seems. Folded strip roulette is prevalent, but we get guest appearances  by other motifs, and we’re particularly keen to untangle the role of the mat-impressed/’roulette de cordelette sur armature multiple’ sherds.

Also in the finds room are several fragmentary pots, bags of sand, and the various samples for archaeobotanical sampling (twenty-litre sacks of earth) ; hanging festively from a line like bunting are those samples which Louis has already processed.

The other half of the room is the kitchen, provisioned by purchases in Birnin Lafiya (tomatoes , onions, sugar, pasta, kola nuts, powdered milk), regular trips to Malanville (rice, gari, sardines, soft drinks, lemons, beer, oranges, bread), and the odd exciting addition from Cotonou or beyond (bananas, carrots, papayas, potatoes).

Our fleet of three cars spends its time taking people to field locations or to the main excavation site, dropping passengers off to catch buses in Malanville, buying food, getting repaired or fetching water.

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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