Posts Tagged ‘survey


agiq, 7-9 feb

Once again we roam the landscape, sometimes systematically, sometimes following local advice, sometimes seeking out previously published sites.


But the first step involves a community event and introduction.

Beginning the next day, we quickly confirm there are a range of impressive stone-built structures. Below is a wall running over some hundred metres across a hillside, associated with a range of smaller structures. Date unknown…


I am especially intrigued by those which combine stone, coral blocs (sometimes at quite a distance from the sea) and plastering. Some of these are called ‘Roman’ graves by locals, but again, there is no evidence as to their age.

On the island of Ibn Abbas, we encounter a rare and refreshing sight – some trees!


The work is fuelled by copious amounts of fuul, namely stewed beans, often served with tomatoes which are grown locally and bread.




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.




day 31

In order to tie our seven trenches into the wider landscape, we go surveying and make a record of any stone features we encounter.

A square stone on its own and the floorplan of what looks like a house!

A large scale wall and a possible well .

All this is also an opportunity to learn more about the vegetation. Above right, the feature which we interpret as a well was shrouded by a thick cover of dhigga (Hibiscus tiliaceus). Screwpine trees (Pandanus tectorus) seem to appreciate archaeological features; they are often comfortably settled over ruined stone structures.

Elsewhere on the site… work is clearly coming to an end.


On an unrelated note, but something I really had to mention. We have been eating very well. Including screwpine cake..!



day 8, kinolhas

The day begins with a meeting with the local councillors. The purpose is to explain our aims and we have a lenghty set of discussions on historical mosques, cowries and the medieval maritime trade.


Another important aspect of the discussion is to clarify that we are here working on behalf of the Maldives Department of Heritage, and won’t be absconding with gold or ibn Battuta’s bones. The project is underpinned by a Memorandum of Understanding and by the University of East Anglia’s ethics code.

The Council are very supportive, keen for us to find something, and will issue a statement to the island’s residents.


Then back to survey. The western part of the island is largely occupied by kitchen gardens (watermelons, chillies…) and by forest. Where people have dug to cultivate, sherds litter the surface. What we are looking for in searching for a place to excavate is an area which has not been disturbed in living memory but also – for practical reasons – is not too densely vegetated.

For the next three days, then, we will be searching for this magical combination. We do this by asking the locals about the use of the land, and by testing the soil at regular intervals (to this effect we spent a while hacking through spiky trees and grass bearing compass and tape measure).


back in cotonou


The last few days of the 2014 field season. One car is due to leave Guene today to head south to Cotonou, another on Wednesday, a third is heading up to Niamey. For my part I returned to Cotonou late last Thursday with Didier, Sam, Edith, Jennifer, Mardjoua, Agathe, and Valere. Though it did take fifteen hours (!), it seems a short time considering the gulf that separates Birnin Lafiya and the urban comforts of Cotonou.


In Cotonou, the last few days have been spent packing boxes of sherds, in a meeting or two, and backing up all the data – over 11000 digital files and a pile of papers 15cm high, all duplicated and which will be kept in separate locations so nothing gets lost.

Up north, five teams were still active. Caroline and her group finally identified a site with iron-working furnaces (these had eluded us this year!), at Tombouto. Ali and his cohort completed test pits 26 to 29, ranging east towards Madekali and the Nigerian border. Oumarou and the rest of the Niger group began test pitting at the site of Katanga, which is on the left bank of the river and thus in Niger, and mentioned as an ancestral site by many of our informants. Olivier and the ethnoguys conducted enquiries in Guene then westwards, again towards the Nigerian border. Finally Nadia, based in Malanville and washing pots on the grounds of the grand mosque there, surveyed extensively along the road east. Thus, all of these are giving us invaluable new data points, in particular concerning the easternmost part of our research region, our key target for 2014.


Malanville, 24 January 2014

Day off for the team, which now numbers 27 people. Test pits are underway at Birnin Lafiya and another of the modern town’s satellites, the house complex is being further unveiled, a series of units across the site are exploring the build-up of the mound, we are emptying two dye pits in the former dyeing centre of Karimama (unearthing some interesting 20th century archaeology), while survey along the Alibori river is aiming to set the site within its wider regional context.

Continuing with this regional context, the flying team is about to begin its activities upriver from here, and its mission is to find sites to close the gap we have between AD 1300 and 1800. In hunting for these villages, we’re pursuing a theory that revolves around contour lines. We’ve noted for some time that sites occur on slight elevations so, now finally armed with 1:50,000 maps of the region, we are going to target our test pits based on topography, supposing that the height of the Niger river will have conditioned past settlement at various times. We also have the extensive information collected over the past 4 years by Olivier G and his team, which has identified which modern villages possess satellites which immediately preceded them.


two weeks to go

This year’s field season is looming; it will run from 2 January to 22 February, with, as last year, different teams on the ground at different times.

We have about 25 students this year (11 of whom undergraduates, the rest MA and PhD), we hope to involve a new geomorphologist team, and colleagues from Niamey will be extending our scope onto the Niger side of the river. Test pitting is going to be a big priority; we plan a dozen excavations planned throughout the region, with a particular aim of seeing whether we can close the chronological gap between our archaeological data (100-1300 AD) and the foundation date of modern settlements as stated by people today (1800-1960 AD). We will also be tying up loose ends at Birnin Lafiya, with a range of sampling and prospection, continued excavation on the ‘SX complex’, and a new test pit somewhere mid-slope.  Enquiries with informants will continue to explore the history of connections into and through the region, the actors, and the commodities involved.

This is the last data-generating field season so there are quite a few things to think about. It’s also going to be quite exciting hard work…

Meanwhile, in the past 2-3 months, we have secured funding to run a series of radiocarbon dates on the Birnin Lafiya SX complex, the pottery jigsaws and pottery recording have been continuing apace involving our MA students, we’ve been pondering survey strategies, we’re working on papers on the Kompa archaeometallurgy and on dyeing, we’re drawing up lists of the objects to go into the project exhibition next year, we finally got hold of some good maps of Dendi, and Didier was here at SRU as a visiting fellow for 7 weeks during which we discussed fieldwork, future research, and Crossroads publications.


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.




This week sees the departure of a  number of team members. The archaeometallurgy, survey and geoarchaeology teams have been particularly badly hit! 




Above are  Ali devastated at the rate of erosion of a mound site along the river, Caroline hunting for furnaces, Didier marking a possible site for excavation in 2014, and Paul sampling our deepest trench at BLaf, which was dug by Ali and Nicolas. However fear not, the bulk of the team will be remaining till the 13th, and we are still occupying two bases – Birnin Lafiya and Karimama.


day 21

We are very well, albeit sandy.

Our Niger and Direction du Patrimoine colleagues have now arrived, so the last few days have seen a lot of tour-guiding for me.



Work continues at Birnin Lafiya, with three trenches currently active.


Thanks to the Harmattan wind, Paul has been able to fly his kite, to give us images of the site.


Alan supplemented his footage of our work with images from the gani festival in Banikoara.

This week, we have been doing a lot of surveving, and one surprise has been  how many potsherd pavements are actually knocking around.



One wonders what degree of cultural continuity – if any – that indicates.

I write from a bar in Karimama (bars are good, as they have electricity), where people are watching a documentary on the destruction by erosion of archaeological sites in Tunisia. (Last time I was here they were showing the Swiss news and the burning of thew Timbuktu manuscripts so today is marginally more cheerful). Word from the Karimama street —

‘les jeunes sont dingues…’ re a story on illegal migrant across the Sahara

‘l’eau sale que les gens boivent là-bas en Somalie…’ re a story on pirates in Somalia

‘Le documentaire là est très riche… je préfère ça à des histoires de feuilleton’





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