Posts Tagged ‘birnin lafiya


dichroic beads

We’ve been finalising a chapter on the beads which came out of the Crossroads work.


Number 14 is a small dark blue drawn bead from Birnin Lafiya, #17 is something I picked up on the surface of a large mound here, while #16 and those shown as #18 all come from Birnin Lafiya and, luckily, are excavated rather than surface finds (= better idea of date). Thanks to our colleague Dr Sonja M, who arranged to have some of these analysed (and who created the image above), we now know that #14 and the one far right on image #18 are HLHA beads, which is pretty exciting given their date (11th-13th century).


HLHA beads are known as such because they are made of high alumina-high lime glass. This is a very particular chemistry; outside West Africa, the only known reported glass samples with such a high-lime, high-alumina composition are from Korea. The argument is therefore for a local production of the Yoruba region of southern Nigeria. I saw some of these beads when I visited the British Museum stores about four years ago; thought to be ancient and kept as heirlooms, they have been chemically shown to be made from HLHA glass:


This industry seems to have reached a mature stage in the first centuries of the second millennium AD but continued until recently. Some of these are known as segi (and, believe it or not, are confused with cowries in some early European sources, but that’s another story).

Their particular chemistry means that these beads have been identified on a range of West African archaeological sites. They seem to have been traded extensively over a long period, at least between the tenth and sixteenth centuries; see for example this paper for an overview. So, our beads represent a good addition to the meagre assemblage of HLHA beads known from dated contexts.


york, 25 nov

In York for this year’s African Archaeology Research Day.


Here is the group of attendees with SRU connections: past MA and PhD students, past and present postdoctoral researchers, and Visiting Fellow.


Reunion, too, of some members of the 2014 Crossroads field team.



aarhus, 26 april

I have been visiting the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, an archaeological research group which aims to compare the archaeology of urbanism from medieval Northern Europe to the Ancient Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean World. Integral to doing this is the use of various techniques (isotopes, XRF, statistical analyses of radiocarbon dates) which can allow a greater precision in chronologies but also determine the origin of objects.

It’s all about context, context, context.


I was speaking about our Crossroads work and the five-phase chronology developed to characterise our sites – underpinned by 120 radiocarbon dates but ultimately based on pottery styles and on small finds such as glass bracelets or cowries.

I was taken on a visit to the Moesgård Museum, with its very high-tech coverage of the archaeology of Bronze, Iron and Viking Age northern Europe as well as displays charting the evolution of the human species.

I was interested to learn that the Queen of Denmark is also an archaeologist.


I was taken on a great tour of the places of Viking and medieval significance in Aarhus – former city walls, two cathedrals of which one was outside the walls, locations of former excavations. Aarhus will be European Capital of Culture next year.

At the seminar, and dinner afterwards, we talked about… network theory, the relations between trans-Saharan traders and their host communities, elite items or not at Birnin Lafiya, cowries and the Merovingian trade, PhD and postdoctoral funding opportunities, the value of having anthropologists on the team to keep archaeologists in check, ERC videoconference interviews, and ways of advancing capital over long distances.

Back to Norwich now, and on the plane will be thinking about trust in the global Middle Ages.



Cambridge 1 July

Trip to Cambridge’s McDonald Institute and Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies yesterday, to talk to Dr Ronika P about the work she has been doing on some of the Crossroads material.

Ronika, a biocultural archaeologist, has a set of human remains (mainly teeth, but also some bone) from our excavations. These samples come from the two burials we uncovered during our work, but also include fragments recovered during excavation. The latter were usually mixed up with other items, such as animal bone, and weren’t identified until much after the fieldwork; typically, Veerle L found these during her lab work. Such fragments testify to graves that were disturbed long ago, through the successive occupations of the site; the working hypothesis is that the dead were buried close to the living.


We discussed the results obtained so far, their meaning, and plans to publish them. Almost nothing is known of the past occupants of this part of West Africa, and the isotope (oxygen and nitrogen) and morphological analyses which Ronika and her colleagues are undertaking will give us some first insights into the diet and geographical origin of the peoples of Dendi.

Next week, the focus will be pottery again. David K and I will be travelling to Brussels (with a suitcase of pottery, as ever – plus a lot of papers) to meet with Ali LS and go through all our data. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with the various members of the ‘ethno-team’ based in Brussels, and we’ll talk about the progress of our book.


the earlier people

We have by now over a hundred radiocarbon dates from our various sites. The majority – about three quarters – date to between  500 and 1300 AD, which appears to be a key period for the settlement of the area. However, we have inklings of earlier occupation, too. Until now, indications for this early phase, of the first millennium BC, came just from one site, Alibori Site 2, excavated by Didier N’D in 2014: as its name indicates this was close to the Alibori river, and not too far from Birnin Lafiya. There, two samples from Trench III (below) indicated occupation sometimes between the eighth and fifth centuries BC.


Now, with some new radiocarbon dates just received, we have confirmation of another early occupation, nearly 3000 years old, at a site called Kozungu, on a mound just outside modern Birni Lafia (photo below). It was visited by the architects and ethnographers in our team, then subjected to test pitting by Ali LS, Nicolas N and Daouda A.


These excavators had suspected there was an early occupation at this place, based on a discontinuity in the stratigraphy. That impression was confirmed later, during pottery analysis, when we found that the material from the lower part of the trench looked really different.

Now we can suggest thanks to the radiocarbon dates that people apparently lived at Kozungu 3000 years ago then the site was abandoned and reoccupied at a much later date (13th century AD).

It’s a nice result because it sheds a bit more light on the earlier inhabitants of Dendi, who preceded the people building pavements and using huge numbers of pots and who for that reason are much easier to spot in the archaeological record.


and otherwise

It hasn’t been sessions in dusty meeting rooms, of course.

An impromptu roadside discussion about cowrie shells and other shells


We took the opportunity, along the Monsey Dendi to Karimama road, to take a pirogue trip along the Niger



Here is the site of Tin Tin Kanza, cut by the road, and now we’re wondering whether it was ever a shell midden


Gorouberi, with copious and large pieces of pottery in an erosion gully.


Three test pits were done here over 2013 and 2014 and it turns out that it is our second-oldest site. The modern settlement, just visible in the trees in far distance, was tested by Ali’s team last year and on the evidence obtained is 800 years younger than the mound in its vicinity.

We ended the day in a venue that regular readers will recognise, the bar in Karimama.




Steering meeting 2014

Last week, 13 of the Europe-based Crossroads team members gathered in Norwich for the yearly project meeting. We heard four powerpoints, and most participants had submitted papers beforehand, and the major focus was on discussion. In particular, we had a list of twenty questions to chew over. Below are a few… We are now thinking quite concretely about the project book which will come out of our five-year collaboration, and which we aim to publish in 2016 with the Journal of African Archaeology Monograph Series.


In archaeology, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of global history and global connections, and an increasing concern with the movement of practices rather than just objects (Arguably, developments driven by history and anthropology). How optimistic can we be about the chances of recovering practices through the material from Birnin Lafiya and other sites sampled by the team?


Does the nature of the subsurface evidence (stratigraphy, geophysics) offer us any clues about whether the entirety of Birnin Lafiya was occupied at one time?


Are there apparent ruptures in the occupation or creation of the settlements between the 4th and 14th centuries? Is there an evolution in settlement strategies ? In food practices? (What was the ratio of fish and game in diets throughout time?)


What can we say about the ecological evolution of the area during the last two millenia ? Is there evidence of flooding or drought episodes ? Do historical studies carried out in adjacent and more remote regions point toward ‘natural disasters’?


Birnin Lafiya 7 feb

It is early morning with the sun yet to rise, the stars are stunning and the local muezzin and roosters in full force. Most days we are up at 5.30 and on the site by 7 but today, Friday, is rest day.

In terms of Birnin Lafiya work, we are beginning to wrap up, as we will depart early on the 13th. Jennifer’s trench is done and reached the unexpected depth of 3m90 – doing the section drawings will be challenging. Paul’s soil pits are done and Paul is on his way back to Europe. Sam is at the photographing stage.We are treating the pottery from the Birnin Lafiya sites and also the 19 test pits executed so far by the flying team – the latest two at the villages of Tombutto and Molla, excavated by Beninois students Carolin and Pascal. The welcome there was very warm. Didier is examining sites along the Alibori where both pottery pavements and flaked quartz occur.

Olivier dropped by with his team in high spirits after a successful interview with one of the kings of Kandi who gave a southern perspective on the historical events within our region.

Caroline arrived from Togo with two Togolese students in archaeometallurgy. We still await the Niger team delayed in Niamey by administrative issues. But otherwise all are present and accounted for.

The flying team and the ethno team are continuing for the next two weeks.


birnin lafiya work

I’ve mentioned that we have been trying, this year, to close the chronological gap between our archaeological and our etyhnographic data. However needless to say we have also been continuing work at our favourite site, Birnin lafiya, the large mound outside the modern town of Birni Lafia, and about which I have written a lot in the past.

Paul, Mardjoua, Edith and Agathe have been digging 1x1m test pits up and down the mound to try and understand better how it came to be formed. Where, on the mound, was past settlement concentrated, and how much of the material we see on the surface a product of more recent erosion and redeposition? Contributing to this same question is the ongoing test pit led by Jennifer and the geophysical survey led by Carlos and his team.

Sam has been continuing work on the main house at Birnin Lafiya, this time on a vastly expanded area (still focusing on the horizontal). The achievement here has been to locate patches of architecture that is very similar to that from the main house, although, it must be admitted, far less well preserved. (Basically, it seems we see things best when materials were baked by fire, and this was, obviously, not the case everywhere on the site). Other areas of very nicely preserved pavement, and one possible furnace feature (but full of beans! literally!) are also being examined.


Birnin Lafiya, 29 January

Things have speeded up lately. As well as the various activities at the main site of Birnin Lafiya (which we have been investigating since 2011) we have started test pitting other sites of the region which are said by oral tradition to fall in the 1300-1800AD bracket. We’ve now worked at a handful of sites, including two locations in or near to modern Birnin Lafiya. Except at Kompa, where the sheer materiality of archaeological data unnerved the audience, we were made very welcome. For some sites, oral tradition tells a very specific story, such as the destruction by fire wrought on the town of Boyeri, and this is a story which we seem to corroborate archaeologically by recovering a thick layer of ash and charcoal. Such contexts are nineteenth century and feel very different to the material from the Birnin Lafiya old site. The ceramics are dissimilar and objects such as cowries and metal points are relatively common.

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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August 2020