Posts Tagged ‘trade


rabat, 13 sept

Sam Nixon, Mabrouk Saghir, Youssouf Bokbot and I convened a session on trans-Saharan trade which brought together researchers having worked north and south of the Sahara. This returned to the long-standing questions of exchanges across the desert in the medieval and early modern periods.

We heard papers dealing with archaeological, historical and geographical studies of towns on either sides of the Sahara, specific commodities (gold, beads, cowries…) and ideas of technology transfer and religious change. It’s interesting in that context to note that modern Morocco is increasingly positing itself as an entry point to sub-Saharan Africa and a major investor in countries such as Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Gabon.








norwich 11 may

Over the past two days, we have been hosting colleagues for a workshop on the Western Indian Ocean. It’s been very exciting to hear papers ranging from Madagascar to the Maldives via Tanzania, Ethiopia, Iran and Mauritius.

We’ve been thinking about how communities from around the Western Indian Ocean lived and connected between 1500 and 200 years ago.


With a strong representation from the Maldives, both scholarly and diplomatic.

Framed by a dinner in the evening sunshine.

There is more on Twitter.



In Durham, travelling with potsherds – as usual. I am calling on Prof Derek K and Dr Ran Z to talk about the finds we excavated last year at Kinolhas in the Maldives.


Well, our Maldivians certainly had wide-ranging connections. We already knew a bit about their Chinese imported pottery. Now, sherds which likely came from Iraq, India, Iran, and parts of South-east Asia have also been identified.

I am particularly intrigued by the so-called Martaban pottery, of which we appear to have a range of examples. The fabric is grey or pink, with a brown, black or olive glaze. We saw similar examples in resorts in the Maldives, where they are used for decorative purposes. However, this group is poorly-defined and we don’t know for a fact where these pots were made and how many different productions there were.

Durham was very scenic under a dusting of snow.


bahrain, 13 april

I am in Bahrain for the Islamic Archaeology in Global Perspective conference.


We have been hearing papers outlining the nature of the Islamic occupations from Brunei to Morocco via Turkmenistan, Yemen, Saudi and many others. In some areas such as the Levant, these rather late, medieval, levels were dug straight through to get to the older, Classical or Biblical-era, levels that were of more interest to the excavators. I will be talking about West Africa later today; there the problem has sometimes been the opposite, where sites were excavated down to Islamic levels – enough to try and show that a site mentioned in Arabic written records had been identified – and no further. Neither approach is considered acceptable today, by the way!




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.



society of africanist archaeologists, 2

At the recent SAfA conference, the team on the Cowries: an early global commodity research project presented work within the ‘Trans-Saharan trade’ session. You can see our Powerpoint here:

HaourChristieJaufar_session 17


global trust

Today I have been plunged in the narratives written by al-Yaqubi, al-Bakri and ibn Said, medieval geographers who described the Sahara and Sahel. These accounts are standard fare for West African history but this time I look at them with a new eye, looking for indications of standards of trust and trustwortiness. This is in the context of collaborations on the Defining the Global Middle Ages project.

Ibn Hawqal is particularly impressed with the people of Sijilmasa, whom he thinks have learnt probity from their long distance contacts and their time away from home.



pots but no potters

What archaeological work has been carried out on the Maldives – for example the by Carswell at the old palace in Malé or the analysis by Mikkelsen of pottery from excavations by Thor Heyerdahl’s team at Nilandu – has documented the evidence of  brown pottery decorated with incisions, thought to have been in use for a long period (and thus not that useful for dating), and apparently coming from southern India and Sri Lanka. Carswell specifically linked some of the material to pottery from a site in NW Sri Lanka, suggesting a connection between it and Malé. As he notes, Sri Lanka would be the Maldives’ nearest source of clay.

We are now seeing similar sherds in the collections of the National Museum here in Malé. They also have here intact pots of the same type though nobody knows much about them.


For his part, Ibn Battuta says a cooking pot was bartered for five or six chickens.

I was just wondering whether they ever imported clay and made the pots here.


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.


African connections

Back now from Cambridge where the African Archaeology Group put on an exciting and fun conference. My remit was to open up the session on connections. There were six papers with a wide geographical spread and a general aim to show how African communities were connected to other parts of the continent or other parts of the world.

My first comment was that we’re really in good company with these themes. Moving with the times. There seems to be a lot of interest recently among historians and archaeologists to approach the study of the past globally. See recent posts on this by Sam and by me, and I am also aware of forthcoming ‘global history’-type things forthcoming in Winchester, Kalamazoo and at the Courtauld.

The theme of globalisation was explicitly set out in some of yesterday’s papers, where authors drew on A. G. Frank and Bayly, and the theme clearly feeds through each paper. Together they help discredit the idea that sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from the principal flow of human cultural development. Peter Mitchell’s 2005 African Connections was, as far as I am aware, the first to set this idea out comprehensively – other earlier works which speak of large-scale socio-economic factors in the making and telling of the past, such as those by Abu-Lughod, Braudel, Wolf or Horden & Purcell only dealt tangentially with Africa, at best. In 2007 I wrote Rulers, warriors, traders, clerics which suggested there were parallels in the medieval past of both the central Sahel and northwest Europe, and actual connections too. In the papers presented yesterday we see a deliberate effort to move forward the agenda and to highlight Africa’s role in global history (I use the term history broadly here).

Partly this move forward is driven by increasing data. Knowledge of sites in southern Libya and the northern Sahel is rewriting the history of contacts across the Sahara. In both cases we can only hope that political conditions will rapidly improve: at the moment these areas are largely closed to research.

Partly, this move forward is driven by theoretical and methodological advances. More and more we’re looking at the way ideas and ways of doing things moved, rather than objects. The focus on practices rather than objects is surely a good thing. Freed from the constraints of looking for the elusive trade good or exotic potsherd  (especially since we well know that many goods were simply archaeologically invisible), we can look instead at changes in the manners in which people made things, lived, died and ate, and suggest whether these changes came around through a greater degree of contact with outside communities. Pots for example are a reasonable proxy for practices – new culinary practices, new foods, new ways of shaping.

The idea of focusing on practices is not new – Garrard’s suggestion thirty years ago for an opening up of West African trade routes in late Roman times, using the evidence of measuring systems, is still widely cited. It seems then that we must pay attention to as many aspects of the archaeological assemblage as is possible, since we do not know a priori which might serve as evidence of outside contacts, or, more precisely, the presence of outsider goods, practices or individuals. Things like diet or burial are more reliable indicators of the presence of stranger communities than are imported goods on their own. The Indian Ocean system is a useful contributor here, for scholarship has tended to consider a whole range of markers of contacts, including texts, linguistics and genetics. Madagascar is an excellent example here – contacts with southeast Asia have been proposed on linguistic, ethnographic, technological and genetic data as well as evidence from plants and animals.

One question we keep coming back to is – how much did the various partners in these connections know about each other? I am told that early Arab authors wrote treaties advising Muslims on how to be a good Muslim in the lands of unbelievers and that to them such lessons were valid just as much in China as in Africa. In this, maybe we see simply the old trope of Us versus the Other, as evidenced in Ibh Khaldun’s comment that North Europeans and West Africans were similarly uncivilised as they lived at comparable remove from the temperate Mediterranean. We are limited here to what we are told about the elites, but they are intriguing nonetheless. One wonders why the monk Bede in northwestern England gave away pepper on his deathbed in AD 735 and why Offa of Mercia minted a gold coin in imitation of an Abbasid dinar. To get a sense of what the more menial elements of the exchange chain thought – how they envisaged the boundaries of their known world and the unknown beyond – we probably have to fall back on work by our colleagues who are historians, epigraphers and art historians. There is a growing body of anthropological and sociological work on ‘worlds/spaces of experience’ (see e.g. Gosselain 2008), which I have recently trying to get the grips with in archaeological terms. That literature essentially tried to differentiate the world in which people act and live and learn how to do things and the world of which they know without any first-hand experience. It seems to have obvious relevance to African archaeology but we still need to figure out how to integrate it into our toolkit. This is something I am puzzling over at this point in time, and I am grateful to be able to bounce ideas off Olivier.

Another vote of thanks to the European Research Council, which funds several of the scholars in the Cambridge Connections session, and which is thus playing a major part in improving our understanding of Africa.

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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July 2020