Posts Tagged ‘global-connections


red sea, 6 feb 2020

The Red Sea has long had a reputation as a difficult place to navigate. Two thousand years ago, the author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea wrote of part of this shore that “Navigation is dangerous along this whole coast… which is without harbors, with bad anchorages, foul, inaccessible because of breakers and rocks, and terrible in every way”. The coastline has long unbroken coral reefs which make access difficult, and the idea is that medieval ports such as Aidhab or Badi were situated on islands or in sheltered bays.

For the past two days, we have been stopping every 20km along the coastline north of Port Sudan and checking for archaeological evidence.

We’ve been systematic at stopping at regular intervals, but we’re also checking especially carefully any points on the coastline where there appears to be a break in the reef or some other feature which might indicate a sheltered place for boats. Google Earth is great for this, although you need to weed out modern developments (salt plants, oil refineries!).


The findings have been rather slim. A few potsherds, and plenty of burial tumuli (see the bumps on the image to left, below?), but in terms of the medieval archaeology, one kind of gets the sense we haven’t been looking in the right places…

Let’s see what coming days bring.




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!


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.


copenhagen, 27 october

I’m at the Crossroad Archaeology: Global Narratives of Local Encounters conference at the University of Copenhagen. It is a meeting in memory of archaeologist Klavs Randsborg, whose research included excavations, anthropological interviews and museum development in Ghana and Bénin.


chinese pottery

A good number of our pottery finds from Kinolhas are from China or southeast Asia. As mentioned earlier we have been thinking about where these came from and we were happy, earlier this month, to receive Dr Ran Z from Durham, expert in Chinese ceramics.


He was able to identify the likely time period and place of production of some of these sherds; a number are of the type known as Longquan celadon.

This little bowl, in the meantime, bears the annotation ‘Good Fortune’.



a dark hour

As an American citizen in the UK who, over the past 20 years, has been made a welcome and honoured guest in a range of predominantly Muslim countries – structuring my day around the call to prayer, and building my career with friends and colleagues there – this is a difficult time. The ineptitude of our governments is shaming.


sherd of the day


Two notable sherds of the day, in fact. Three hours ago, they were sleeping peacefully in the ground. We think they might help us understand Utheemu’s connections with other parts of the world.



north sea

Cowries again. This time, John M, artists Sarah Caputo and Brenda Unwin, and I, met to compare notes on the medieval transfer of practices and objects between the UK and Denmark. Particularly apposite in a post-Brexit context.


We talked about Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, the respective merits of the money and ring cowries over lynx, panther and other large cowries, Kopytoff and Appadurai and the lives of objects, Aarhus and the exhibition which Brenda and Sarah are preparing. They have been awarded a bursary to research and work with Danish and British museums, art groups and artists to follow artefacts between East Anglia and Denmark during the first millennium AD.



cowrie meetings

Much progress on the cowrie front. This week saw one of our regular team meetings, and this time we played with a lot of maps and tried to chart the global spread of these shells.


Then, today Annalisa gave a great paper at this year’s African Archaeology Research Day.



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