Posts Tagged ‘niger valley


empty triangle / rain

I start writing posts in my head, and this is why the present post has a split title. I was all set to write about our survey south of Tombouto (yes, it is named after Timbuktu), which has yielded 25 new sites in an area I was sure we would find none, and at least one pottery pavement. We have been walking through the landscape for the past two days recording these sites. It is part of this year’s determination to better understand the empty triangle of the Guene-Molla-Malanville area, by all accounts of craft practices collected by our team a crossroads of cultural traditions.

But then it was overcast and there were bats gliding above us a dinner time and lightning visible in the distance, and then it started raining, which is extremely unusual for this season. That seemed well worth a mention too.


Steering meeting 2013

Most of last week was taken up with our yearly steering meeting or with its preparations.

Eight of the Europe-based team members gathered in Norwich to discuss two main things – on the one hand, progress so far and what that means we still need to do in the 2014 fieldwork; and on the other, plans for publications.

Generally speaking, pieces of the jigsaw are really starting to come together since we started our first, initial, foray into the Dendi past almost three years ago. Matters are certainly making more sense than they did then. In particular – and fantastic news, given our focus on the spatial patterning of material culture – we are seeing emerge a real division of ‘our’ region into distinct zones of material and technical practices. Weaving, ironworking, recent pottery techniques, surface ceramics, settlement foundation, all see a hiatus in the area around Guene. That area will form a particular focus of the 2014 work, partly through test pitting and partly through survey.

Another focus will be truing to close the five-century gap we currently have between our latest archaeological data (the radiocarbon dates keep coming in, and still don’t break past AD 1300) and the oral-historical information on settlement dates. This will, unavoidably, mean more test pits.

Finally, we have our job to finish at Birnin Lafiya and will be continuing soils sampling, excavation, geophysical survey, and if all goes well ground-penetrating-radar investigations.


As regards plans for publication it is now agreed that, as well as specialised journal articles, we are aiming to have a Crossroads volume as a Journal of African Archaeology monograph in 2016. The layout of the book is what we are discussing now, since we could organise it by theme, disciplinary specialism, or chronology.


We need an extra hand

We’re looking for an experienced field archaeologist to join the team in January and February 2013. This is an excellent opportunity to work with an international, friendly team on an interesting site! We are looking for someone able to supervise an excavation unit and to make decisions concerning the excavation strategy – so they need to have a high level of competency in archaeological recording (taking levels, developing detailed fieldwork record sheets, drawing plans etc). It is expected that field notes will be of a good enough standard they can be easily adapted for publication. We are seeking someone with experience of digging in arid (ideally, Sahelian) environments and urban settlements. And whoever takes up this role must be happy to deal with fairly basic living conditions!

The project can cover all costs associated with the research, including airfare and other travel, subsistence costs while in Bénin, and visa/vaccinations prior to travel.

If you are interested, then please get in touch by posting a comment here. We will stop looking on 16 November.


eighteen months on

The project is now a year and a half old, which feels like a substantial landmark. The first thing to say is that the Niger-Bénin border area really is a fascinating one, very well suited to the themes of cultural crossroads, craft specialism and political expansion as put together in the proposal to the European Research Council in cold, dark December 2009. So far so good.

We have been getting good initial results from a range of sources – survey, pottery typologies, dates, food remains, craft practices, and oral traditions. The archaeological results from two sites we’ve investigated so far have been encouraging, as have the ethnographic enquiries all along the wider Niger River valley. We have a publication (an interim report in Nyame Akuma December 2011), we have a growing team (Sam Nixon as a postdoc for three years, and soon a PhD student – please get in touch to hear about other, future, opportunities) and we’re including a growing number of colleagues to help with those bits of the project which we don’t understand. The forthcoming Society of Africanist archaeologists meeting (the week after next in Toronto) will be an excellent opportunity to publicise the work of the team and to get feedback from colleagues.

Much remains to be done, obviously. There is a problematic time gap between the archaeological and the oral-historical sources: we will be trying to close through excavation at selected, relatively recent, places, and by squeezing to their utmost the oral historical, historical and linguistic records. The historical traditions are hugely confusing so far, citing a large number of groups who collide and bounce against one another like billiard balls. There is probably a grain of truth in most of them – but whether we can get to it through material culture is another question.

There are some wider questions about technical specialists and their archaeological visibility, and about the material manifestation of polities. On a theoretical level I have been writing about this in my forthcoming book for OUP. Concretely, it’s too early to expect clarity on these ideas in the soil of northern Bénin… but it’s obvious that to get near them we need to widen the geographical scope.  We need to look at more sites, surveying the wider area and getting a sense of changes in the past environment (course of the river, crops and rainfall, that sort of thing). On the menu for the 2013 season.

Welcome to the new followers of this blog who, increasingly, appear to not be African archaeologists. I’d love to hear your comments and likes. You have probably come across the apocryphal statement of Pliny’s ‘ex africa semper aliquid novum’. I hope you’ll be convinced of its truth.

writing from New York City this time

Previous round-ups: six months on, a year on.


student contribution encore

My name is MARDJOUA Barpougouni. I’m student in 4 years at department of history and archaeology at University of Abomey-Calavi (R. Benin). I was very happy to participe at the fieldwork in the valley of Niger. It was one occasion which help me to do the fieldwork and to change with the neigbours who have been come to Europe. I have best wishes for the moment.

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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