Posts Tagged ‘potsherd pavements


favourite sherd of the day, 4; with a note on small finds

Today’s sherd isn’t just an ordinary sherd, but one which merits inclusion in a hallowed list known in archaeological parlance as the Small Finds List. As you might think, this is a list of all the things that were found that were small… but it gets more interesting than this, because the unstated implication is that they are more interesting (or special, unusual or unclassifiable) than the normal artefact. Typically they will include items such as glass beads, iron nails, cowrie shells and, as in this case, a roulette-decorated sherd that has been reworked and smoothed (note the rounded shape).


I’m also updating our small finds list today, to get it ready for the book, so this is good timing.

Quite why this potsherd has been reworked isn’t clear. It’s very smooth and shiny, so was clearly ground down and smoothed with some care. There is another, similar, one from the level just below. One traditional archaeological interpretation for such pieces is as gaming counters, but one other possibility is that they were parts of a potsherd pavement (as suggested e.g. by Graham Connah at Daima) or parts of decorative mosaics set into walls or columns (as was suggested by Peter Garlake at Woye Asiri), though in those two cases the numbers of such reworked sherds recovered were in the order of thousands.

Our item comes from 100-110cm depth at the site of Kozungu, which is one of our older contexts. So we think it’s over 3000 years old. Ali LS who excavated the site with Nicolas N and Daouda A, shown below, identified a stratigraphic hiatus at around 90cm. This observation has since been confirmed by our radiocarbon dates. After an occupation about 3000 years ago, the next evidence of occupation see here was just 700 years ago.



There’s another exciting thing about this particular sherd: the rouletting decoration on it looks unusual. The photo at the top of this page doesn’t show this that clearly, because the item is so small, but we have six other sherds with rouletting which looks like this. All seven are from Kozungu, and, wait for it, all of them occur in the levels below 90cm, that is, the really old stuff below the hiatus. Big excitement, so this item will be making its way over to Ali LS to try to determine (see chapter two of our roulette book) how it might have been made.

See previous Favourite sherd of the day entries here, here and here.


new publication

Just out: Abubakar Sani Sule & Anne Haour, The archaeology of northern Nigeria: trade, people and polities, 1500 BP onwards. Abubakar and I here aim to offer an overview of archaeological work that has been carried out in the northern part of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and dealing with sites of the past 1500 years, selecting case studies involving both well-published and less well-published evidence.

Writing this paper with Abubakar offered me the chance to revisit some of the archaeology of northern Nigeria on which I had touched on briefly in earlier publications… particularly the Sokoto valley and the remains now under Kainji Lake, both of which are of renewed interest to me now as they deal with sites geographically and chronologically close to those of our current Crossroads work. Pottery pavements (and cowrie shells) galore!! Abubakar and I call for much more sustained post-excavation analyses, including revisiting material, such as pottery, that is currently languishing in the archives of Nigerian institutions.


Exhibition private view

Whilst the European members of the Crossroads team were in Norwich they were treated to a preview of the exhibition. For most it was quite a surprise to see how clean and good-looking the objects, last seen at the bottom of dusty trenches, have turned out to be.


Louis and Nicolas extracted this pavement piece by piece and now it’s whole again.


The textile, commissioned by Sam and documented by Lucie, made by one of Dendi’s renowned craftsmen


This pot was last seen in close to 200 pieces smashed onto a floor at Tin Tin Kanza. How was it made?



Filming podcasts to go onto the Sainsbury Centre education resources pages


Again, how was it made?


The column of soil on the table was last seen in the side of a trench at Tin Tin Kanza.



The exhibition opens in five days.


Two and a half years on

As followers of this blog will know, our European Research Council-funded team is engaged in clarifying the history and archaeology of northern Benin, in West Africa. Although the project’s core is archaeological, it integrates throughout art historians, anthropologists, geoarchaeologists and historians. Team members undertake fieldwork together, and there is a continuous feedback process throughout the field season, so we keep on track.

We’re halfway through: how are we doing?

So far, we’ve undertaken three field seasons, of which the largest, earlier this year, involved fifteen researchers, sixteen students, several research assistants and 40 workmen. At the moment we are engaged in desk-, museum- and laboratory- based work until the next field season in early 2014.

Our archaeological work has focused on a site called Birnin Lafiya, where we have worked for three field seasons now – a total of perhaps 80 days. We have uncovered parts of floors made of broken potsherds and evidence of fired earth architecture, which is not so common an occurrence in the West African Sahel. We have also carried out geophysical prospection to get a better sense of the extent of the site and to identify buried features; our work is one of just a handful of examples of the application of the technique in sub-Saharan Africa.


Birnin Lafiya has yielded varied and diagnostic pottery, and good preservation of fauna and charcoal. We have so far recovered no occupation post-dating the thirteenth century, while the earliest remains date to the fourth century AD.

We’ve also carried out test pits at four other sites throughout the valley, and very limited sampling at two further sites. These sites have yielded varied and diagnostic pottery and all fall within the same rough time range as Birnin Lafiya. At least two of the sites – Pekinga and Tin Tin Kanza – show evidence of the same tradition of pottery pavement; Tin Tin Kanza, in particular, revealed a close succession of pavements, wall bases and floor areas. At other sites, we recovered no architectural features, but the pottery analysis, which is ongoing, will allow us to suggest whether there is a degree of cultural similarity in parallel to the broad chronological simultaneity.


So far we have run 40 radiocarbon dates (16 from Birnin Lafiya) for sites of the area, and through survey we have identified, then described, about 800 up to now totally unknown archaeological sites. These are gradually building up the archaeological map of northern Benin.

From the ethnographic side, we have carried out interviews with hundreds of potters, blacksmiths, weavers and dyers within the valley and the wider region. We also carried out intensive interviews as regards the political history of the area and the traditions relating to the abandoned sites near modern villages. Contemporary textile production has constituted an important element of our research, and one of the highlights of the 2013 field season was the commissioning of a local cloth, an operation set in motion and followed by one of the masters students associated with the project from its start (cutting the wood to make the loom) to its finish (the final textile, now part of the permanent collection of both the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the Horniman Museum of London).


Thus far the evidence recovered through fieldwork offers good prospects to answer the questions set out by the research project, namely the degree to which areas of cultural and political evidence might be visible on the ground.

The pottery, aerial imagery, and soils analysis are all in progress. The pottery analysis has also involved three students (as well as further students in the field). To date 42000 sherds of the have been placed on the database while we are also continuing manual recording. The aerial imagery analysis is being carried out by the project doctoral student; at this stage, it involves mapping the data of field survey, generating a digital elevation model (to seek correlations between terrain and site location), and using remote sensing imagery to locate sites from the air. The soils analysis aims primarily to recognise land use; to that end, samples have been taken both from archaeological trenches and from field systems and are being subjected to multi-element analysis. We’re also testing whether micromorphological analyses can provide clues as to the nature of the architectural structures recognised at Birnin Lafiya, and trialling the effectiveness of a dating technique called optically-stimulated luminescence.


A book and four papers deal with aspects of all of this, and we’re planning a book for 2016 and some more papers.




An innovation this year is that we have had an embedded film-maker, Alan. His brief has been to create footage for the forthcoming project exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (SCVA) – to help contextualise our work for the visitor, to show what it is like to have an archaeological project in the Sahel, the scientific process, and generally showcase the work of researchers from UEA and beyond. Below, Nadia and Alan filming the making of our sieve in Cotonou some weeks back.





Since then, Alan has filmed interviews with Ali, Sam and Richard on their trenches, me pointing out random blobs in the landscape, the survey team hunting for sites, Louis processing archaeobotanical samples, and Lucie and Romuald commissioning textiles and Sam receiving them. He’s also taken over the pole photography and this morning is helping Nadia hoover a potsherd and cobble pavement at site TTK (which might end up published in Nyame Akuma). The camera get us a lot of attention.






Birnin lafiya, 23 january

Work at Birnin Lafiya has been proceeding well. There is a large team deployed there – researchers, students and workmen amount to about thirty. The place is a hive of activity, which should come out nicely on the timelapse camera which Alan has installed.

The core is the area around trenches S IX and SX, Ali and Sam’s trenches. The former is a deep square and the latter a shallow polygon, speaking roughly. Pits, potsherd pavements, weird red layers, and two intact pots are among the star cast. Following the structures built by the past people of Birnin Lafiya is fiddly work but Sam and his team have managed to link in several doorways/surfaces with each other. Next door Ali and his team are uncovering a complex series of pits which seems to be s complicated as last year’s ‘Chinese pit’ and will offer us a valuable sequence into the site: a surprise here, though, was that there were no more pavements under the three which we’d uncovered in 2011 and 2012.


About 600 metres away, Richard has started on his second trench, on top of a mound at the extremity of the site, close to two small hills which are absolutely covered in pottery. Thus far the surprise in this trench has been the recovery of a shovel at a metre’s depth. Quite truly an archaeologist’s joke!


the past week

This week, I have been thinking again about connections. New data has been sent to me indicating that some of the assemblage of beads Boubé Gado and I excavated at Garumele, Niger, in 2005 came from Europe, maybe Venice or Holland. On Tuesday, at the Cercle genevois d’archéologie, and today, at the African Archaeology Research Day, we heard again about the startling evidence that is accumulating from sites in Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya for a degree of pre-Islamic exchanges through, and within, the Sahara. And through the week I have been returning again to the question of links along the Niger River between Gao and the Atlantic: one of the key questions of Crossroads, obviously. That’s likely to provide the framework for a future paper in the journal Afriques.

Plans for next week’s field season are advancing. On the train back from Southampton, Nadia, Sam and I ran through what still needs to be done. The final polish of the plans will come in 3 weeks’ time when I meet with Bénin colleagues at the West African Archaeological Association. In the interim, it is full steam ahead on the pots, with the aim of devising the first pottery typology for this region. Louis, part of the field team in 2012 and 2013, has joined us from Montpellier for a few weeks to look through the material from SIII. The idea is for him to analyse part of the pottery material which had been used as a fill in-between two pottery floors (=’secondary context’). This can then be compared with the pottery from the deep trench SIV and the ‘king’s rubbish pit’ SV. Similarity or dissimilarity will give some clues as to how long a time gap elapsed between the making/discard of the potsherds, and their use as floor fill. My hunch is that there was an organised system at the site for disposing of rubbish (or at least of broken pots) and so builders knew immediately where to source the material when they needed it. The alternative, of course, is that they ‘mined’ older pottery pavements – possibly considerably older – to build up their new ones, as the ladies of Birnin Lafiya do today.

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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