Posts Tagged ‘cowries


cowries,10-11 feb

We spent two days in and around Port Sudan and Suakin thinking about cowries and talking to the people who presently make items using shells. There is actually a big market in the production of shell-based souvenirs: below is the market in Port Sudan.


Interestingly (though a shame, from our point of view) the smaller cowries – moneta and annulus in particular, which were so popular in West Africa at given points in time – don’t really find favour with modern buyers. The larger ones are preferred.

Also, we didn’t find that many people who actually went fishing for cowries – mainly people who dealt in them, or who collected them (dead and rather faded) from the shoreline. It may be that these aspects are just characteristics of the present day. But whatever the case, it shows how local tastes and concepts to aesthetics and values ate totally contingent.


One really interesting ting we were told is that every type of cowrie has its preferred habitat. The sole cowrie collector we were able to find told us that he heads straight to specific parts of the shoreline depending on which type of cowrie he wants to source. This doesn’t really come as a surprise – cowries are picky little critters when it comes to their habitat – but it is nice to hear it articulated.

Another thing is that we are here at the wrong time… everybody agrees that cowries, including annulus and moneta (though the latter are rarer) are best seen during الصيف, sayf, summer.



cowries and pots

I think I mentioned that one focus of our enquiry is pottery. Well, we haven’t found huge amounts of archaeological material in the course of our surveys, but enough to start to recognise the large, chunky, sand-tempered sherds and the coffee-drinking apparatus which are both most likely modern.


So, we rule out those guys. There is actually a fair bit of pottery that is in use today. Most tea/coffee places have a few pots of cool water set out for public use. Half-buried in the sand, these function as natural refrigerators.

Another focus is cowrie shells. We take advice on the use of, and knowledge about, these shells nowadays.



port sudan, 5 feb 2020

So, those cowries. If they were coming from the Indian Ocean, and specifically the Maldives, how did they get to West Africa?

They could have been brought overland via Afghanistan and into the Mediterranean, then across the Sahara. They could have been transported across Africa from east to west. Or they might have been taken up the Red Sea and the Nile, along the Mediterranean and across the Sahara.

Would you believe that geographers and historians have tossed around the three possibilities for at least 400 years: Leo Africanus had reported that the people of Timbuktu, in West Africa, used coins “of gold without any stampe or superscription, but in matters of smal value they use certaine shels brought hither out of the Kingdome of Persia…”.

But let’s think about the Red Sea option for a while. We saw that at least one piece of evidence suggests that cowries were indeed a trade good transiting through Red Sea ports in the twelfth century. A route up the Red Sea and/or Nile, along the North African coast and across the Sahara was certainly in use throughout the eighteenth century for cowries, which by this time came from the Maldives to West Africa via European ports. We’re not really sure what the situation was in the medieval world.

Cowries were (despite – or perhaps because of – the huge quantities traded) among the commodities which were a bit too boring and humdrum to be mentioned by medieval historical sources. Pepper was a lot more exciting. The most commonly held view is that Cairo was a major market for cowries – there isn’t any real evidence for this, again because writers didn’t really write about cowries, but it makes sense given the economic importance of the city under the Fatimids and the Ayyubids. It’s been argued that the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean was increasingly routed to the Red Sea and Egypt became the most important link on this chief medieval trade route.

This is what the Red Sea coast of Sudan looks like:



norwich 26 january 2020

I have written here many times about the trade which brought cowrie shells (Monetaria moneta and annulus) from the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean to West Africa. As far as I am concerned, this is one of the most intriguing stories of early global networks. We know that historical sources – murky from the ninth century onwards, much clearer from the thirteenth – suggest that the Maldives were a key fishing ground for these molluscs. Readers will know that, following three seasons of fieldwork on various islands of the Maldives, we have identified a number of sites dating to between AD 1100 and 1600, with plentiful cowries and both low-fired and glazed ceramics. So the archaeological data do not contradict the historical data.

But where to next? According to historical sources, the medieval trade network extending west from the Maldives reached Arabia. We rely here on ibn Battuta and on a few explicit mentions of the involvement of Yemeni vessels and of the presence of Maldivians in Hormuz in 1442. In a letter written in one of the Red Sea ports in AD 1141, one trader, on his way to India, informed his family in Alexandria of his plans. Among the goods he was forwarding to Fustat (Old Cairo) were ‘two bales of cowrie shells’. This is one of the rare specific mentions of cowries in medieval records – they are not otherwise that helpful on the question of medieval trade routes between the Indian Ocean and West Africa. There is definitely a good archaeological project there!


kinolhas, 26 june

A few last walks on Kinolhas before boarding the speedboat.

Quick look back at the archaeology we investigated in 2017.

Left image: the tall light green tree on the left is a bodhi tree, identified by locals as marking a former Buddhist site. (The Bodhi tree (Sanskrit: बोधि), was a large and ancient sacred fig tree (Ficus religiosa) at Bodh Gaya under which Buddha obtained enlightenment). On this image, it is guarded by a thicket of screwpines (kashikeo) which are quite impassable when they gang up on you (but you can make cakes and juice from its fruits), and a sea almond tree (Terminalia catappa) (the nuts make great cakes).

Right image: the sandstone structures we cleaned and measured are now covered by leaves and soil again – the safest way for them to be – sitting quite nicely.



These are some cowries collected on the shore. These larger species typically live a bit deeper than annulus and moneta, so are less available to the casual collector. These guys on the left are, I think, tiger cowries.

An invitation to tea, and excited children as the coast guards pay a visit.

And finally, the obligatory sunset shot. I am now off to Male’, and Shiura remains on Kinolhas to continue her work on the pottery of ibn Battuta’s island.



male’, 12 June

A day of catching up in the capital of Maldives. Lunch with Dr Shazla, Dean at Maldives National University, Mauroof Jameel, and Shiura. We talked about surveys of traditional house forms, cowries on banknotes, nitrogen pollution, mangas, yams and coral mining among other things.


In the Twittersphere, Shiura seems to be welcomed back with open arms. There’s definitely a lot to be done here in the Maldives. Here’s a chance to say a virtual hello to colleagues in Oxford and London whose research is underway on the archipelago. And plenty (again, on Twitter) by local stakeholders on a number of recent archaeological discoveries made during the development of new resorts. Some of these we hope to visit in coming weeks.

There’s a new section in the National Museum which highlights recent traditional crafts – primarily basketry and woodworking, but there is also a section on pottery storage jars by which we were quite enthralled. All pots had to be imported to this clay-less archipelago so I am assuming they were brought both for their own sake and as containers for something else…? Something to figure out through the material from Kinolhas.



male’, 11 june 2019

Happy to be in Maldives once again! This is my fourth visit to Male’ and the place certainly does not stand still. You can now drive from the airport to the city, for a start, thanks to a new bridge. The PM of India was here last week. And it’s a busy time for culture too, with renewed calls to preserve Maldivian heritage both tangible and intangible.

Before leaving Norwich I made the obligatory stop to buy fieldwork supplies, and this time I travel not with potsherds but with several kilos of cowries (which caused me to be stopped by Customs). These are part of the hoard recovered by locals in Utheemu as they built a football field which we later studied (the cowries of course, not the football field). I’m also travelling with some of the pottery, metal and clay finds from Kinolhas. These are all returning to the Maldives after being on temporary loan to us in the UK.





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.



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.







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