Posts Tagged ‘soil-science


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.



who they all are (2)

Here is another way of looking at it; we have ten archaeologists (including an archaeometallurgist and a geoarchaeologist), two historians, two anthropologists, an architect, a film-maker and an art historian; and eleven students.



Some recent photos


Malanville, 7 feb 2012

Malanville is the border town between Bénin and Niger, sitting on the shore of the majestic Niger River and the major settlement in these parts.

For the past two and a half weeks, the team has been intensively crisscrossing and excavating the area upriver from here. Olivier, Doulla, Mardjoua and Lucie have been talking to blacksmiths, dyers, potters and weavers and learning about immigrants from Mali, rites and trade in fish. Abubakar and Wahabou dug a test pit near Pékinga and uncovered a potsherd pavement, hinting to some degree of kinship with Birnin Lafiya. Paul and Emma have (despite the best efforts of the Air France handlers) sampled sites up and down the valley to track use of resources by past inhabitants and the way the river influences settlement now and before.

Most of the work has focused at Birnin Lafiya (where we have been wondefully welcomed, lodged in the local administrative offices and kept supplied in cool drinks and ice by the police). Adamu, Aminou and Simon, on what was supposed to be an easy student training pit, are puzzling over a deep trench with some eight interlocking pit features, including one containing several toys. Ali worked through an ashy midden with lots of fish bone and then started surveying the wider area arund the site. Sam is patiently piecing together a succession of postherd pavements, plaster-faced walls and fired brick. Carlos is carrying out a geophysics survey, systematically working over the surface of the site in 30x30m squares yet far from exhausting this extensive settlement. Nicolas and Louis are preparing to begin their own, 3x3m, trench, which will be called SVI. Julien is learning from village elders about history and past tree usage.

We are just over halfway through so await further discoveries. It’s a complex and fascinating historical landscape.


2011 turns to 2012

We have just completed our first research paper on the outcomes of our 2011 field season in the Niger River Valley at the Niger-Bénin border, and have sent it to the Editor of the journal Nyame Akuma. In it, we first briefly outline the archaeological and historical background to the area. All that is known is that there was probably a succession of population groups in the area, but who, why, and when remains unclear. We then present the preliminary results of our ethnographic interviews with with former craft specialists or their descendants (weavers, dyers, blacksmiths, woodcarvers), as well as the findings of our archaeological investigations which involved both test pitting at BLaf, and survey.

Our 2011 fieldwork was designed to allow for a large-scale cultural overview of the area; the idea was that coarse-grained cultural variations would show up more easily at such a scale. The aims of the 2012 season are, on the whole, to start getting an in-depth view of some of the places identified in 2011. So we will:

–  continue the identification and localisation of archaeological sites in the valley, working to refine the spacing of the survey grid used in 2011;

– start to build up a chronological and cultural sequence by conducting large-scale excavations at BLaf and exploratory test pitting at 2-3 other  localities, sieving all sediment;

– conduct investigations of the geomorphology of the Niger River and its affluents with an aim to gaining a sense of any shifts in time;

–  carry out oral investigations allowing us to shed light on the settlement of the current populations;

– undertake geophysical prospections with a view to determining the extent of various sites;

–  continue interviews with craft practitioners, extending geographically in a first phase southwards into Borgou, then eastwards into Nigeria and ultimately into the Gourmantche area of Burkina Faso.

In the longer term, we are continuing our survey of the literature relating to West African craft specialists and we plan to begin an examination, through museum holdings and historical sources, of the nature and extent of trade in textiles up the Niger River from the Atlantic. A PhD studentship will be advertised in the course of 2012 to consider those areas of research.


first project meeting, UEA, 27-28 October

The first project meeting of the European side of the team has been held at UEA for the past two days. It has proved a fruitful and enjoyable meeting of minds (I hope I do not speak just for myself…!).

We have talked a lot about scale: which scale is the most appropriate to reach a good understanding of the past of this part of West Africa.  A 4x4m trench at a single site? A series of test pits at several sites? Survey over 20x20km? Enquiries in each household over 100km?

Much depends of your disciplinary slant, too.

However, in order to answer the questions that Crossroads was set up to explore – boundaries, technical know-how, the effect of political change – it seems imperative we operate both on a very fine-grained scale – getting a sense of how space was used within an individual settlement or even an individual structure – and the broad-scale – how, over a region (the entire valley, and its affluents), material culture changes.

More to follow, after these first impressions hot off the press.

The meeting now concludes with a talk at the Centre for African Art and Archaeology and a farewell dinner, till Benin.



Welcome to our new contributor, Dr Paul Adderley from the University of Stirling, UK!

Paul is a soil scientist based at the School of Natural Sciences there. His work considers the long-term sustainability of past and present agrarian societies through their interaction with the natural environment, a theme he has developed both in the Chad Basin (Nigeria), where he devised and perfected methods for the micromorphological analysis of sediments, in East Africa, and in the North Atlantic region.

Paul is soon to take  over the Directorship of the Research Centre for Environmental History and Policy at the University of  Stirling.  A centre that is focussed upon developing interdisciplinary understandings of the past and preserving cultural heritage. He brings to the Crossroads project particular expertise in the analysis of Sahelian land usage, an interest in interrelating soil-derived and archaeological data.

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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