Posts Tagged ‘cowries


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.








york, 26 nov

This year’s African Archaeology Research Day attracted close to 60 attendees, with a very rich programme and gracious hosts. Good to see colleagues and catch up with news and gossip. In terms of papers,  I particularly enjoyed hearing about colleagues’ work in Somaliland and Ethiopia – medieval trade and craft centres abound – and about new research along the coast of Tanzania.

Our cowrie team presented two – and I fitted in a bit of Crossroads information too, referring back to the cowrie pond there. We are starting to really get a sense of how these shells came to be distributed across the West African landscape. Below is a map by Annalisa which shows the locations from which we have studied cowrie assemblages.


Plenty more impressions of the day can be found on Twitter: here and here



copenhagen, 28 october

Day 2 in Copenhagen. No conference trip is complete these days without a complex exchange of goods. I receive cowries from Abomey in southern Benin and return glass, metalwork and terracottas from our Crossroads work in northern Benin.

Today’s sessions span the identification of Homer’s Ithaca, Chinese bronzes, the Peruvian Andes, Cypriot pottery, Jamaica and of course Africa. My paper is the final one.

Last night we were hosted at the Carslberg Academy, once the home of Niels Bohr.


This is the hall known as “Pompeii” and it was completed in the last quarter of the 19th century.


accra, 11 july

Busy but productive times here at the University of Ghana.


Attending talks. Here, insights into the disastrous effect of jihadi occupation on the heritage and tourist industry in Timbuktu, and in Mali more generally. Malian colleagues outlined the work done to investigate, study and repair the mosque and mausolea torn down in 2012.


Catching up with friends and colleagues; trading books, cowries and pots.



And still scouring the storerooms for shells!




accra, 9 july

A week-end in Accra…

There is one cowrie on the image below


I travelled to Accra with many of the Crossroads pots: they will be handed over to Benin colleagues for return to Benin. Feels like the end of an era…



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!


accra, 6 july

Visit to the Museum of Archaeology at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies.

There is a focus on current research undertaken by members of the department and collaborators, and there are plenty of cowries on show.


Some have been the object of research publications. Other items are brought out from the storeroom, and we will have to seek out details on their provenance and context.

In a nutshell, (spoiler warning) the question here in Ghana is about how much the money cowries were used versus the ring cowries, and how big a role local West African cowries might have played.

Other trade goods to West Africa are of course outlined in the museum.


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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