Posts Tagged ‘west-africa


port sudan, 5 feb 2020

So, those cowries. If they were coming from the Indian Ocean, and specifically the Maldives, how did they get to West Africa?

They could have been brought overland via Afghanistan and into the Mediterranean, then across the Sahara. They could have been transported across Africa from east to west. Or they might have been taken up the Red Sea and the Nile, along the Mediterranean and across the Sahara.

Would you believe that geographers and historians have tossed around the three possibilities for at least 400 years: Leo Africanus had reported that the people of Timbuktu, in West Africa, used coins “of gold without any stampe or superscription, but in matters of smal value they use certaine shels brought hither out of the Kingdome of Persia…”.

But let’s think about the Red Sea option for a while. We saw that at least one piece of evidence suggests that cowries were indeed a trade good transiting through Red Sea ports in the twelfth century. A route up the Red Sea and/or Nile, along the North African coast and across the Sahara was certainly in use throughout the eighteenth century for cowries, which by this time came from the Maldives to West Africa via European ports. We’re not really sure what the situation was in the medieval world.

Cowries were (despite – or perhaps because of – the huge quantities traded) among the commodities which were a bit too boring and humdrum to be mentioned by medieval historical sources. Pepper was a lot more exciting. The most commonly held view is that Cairo was a major market for cowries – there isn’t any real evidence for this, again because writers didn’t really write about cowries, but it makes sense given the economic importance of the city under the Fatimids and the Ayyubids. It’s been argued that the maritime trade of the Indian Ocean was increasingly routed to the Red Sea and Egypt became the most important link on this chief medieval trade route.

This is what the Red Sea coast of Sudan looks like:



call for applications from West African early career scholars

Bringing the past to print: Archaeology for and by West African scholars

Early career researchers are invited to apply to attend a writing workshop to be held 27-31 May 2019 in Cotonou, Bénin. This workshop, funded by the British Academy (UK), aims to further collaborative links between researchers in the UK and in the Global South, and to promote the uptake of research emanating from the Global South in academic journals.

Mentoring and advice will be provided to the attendees by journal editors and UK-based scholars who will work with the workshop participants to produce papers in preparation for publication, ready for submission by December 2019. This support will take the form of intensive face-to-face support throughout the workshop, as well as follow-up mentoring via email.

Five funded places are available to attend this workshop. Early career researchers based in West Africa, in the field of heritage and archaeology (including relevant topics within history, anthropology, tourism, development, environmental science and art history), whose PhD thesis was defended between January 2015 and December 2018, are eligible to apply.

Applicants are asked to supply a one-page CV, one-page description of the specific research which they hope to bring to publication, and a one-page skeleton structure of a proposed paper identifying the target journal/publisher. Criteria for assessment are (1) interest of the research presented; (2) coherence and articulation of its presentation; (3) past track record of the applicant.

Reasonable economy return travel, and accommodation and subsistence during the workshop, will be provided to successful candidates. Applicants need to be available the final week of May 2019 and already be in possession of all necessary travel documents (e.g. passport).

Please contact with any questions. The deadline for applications, to be received by email, is noon 23 April 2019. Successful applicants will be notified by 30 April to begin planning travel arrangements, assisted by administrative staff at the Sainsbury Research Unit (University of East Anglia, Norwich).



Atelier d’écriture / British Academy Writing Workshops 2019

Appel à candidatures


Les chercheurs en début de carrière sont invités à s’inscrire à un atelier d’écriture qui se tiendra du 27 au 31 mai 2019 à Cotonou, au Bénin. Cet atelier, financé par la British Academy (Royaume-Uni), a pour objectif de renforcer les liens de collaboration entre chercheurs du Royaume-Uni et des pays du Sud, et de promouvoir la publication des recherches émanant des pays du Sud dans des revues spécialisées.

Les participants bénéficieront de mentoring par des rédacteurs de revues et des universitaires, qui travailleront avec les participants au cours de l’atelier afin de préparer des documents en vue de leur publication, prêts à être soumis d’ici décembre 2019. Ce soutien prendra la forme de discussions intensives face à face pendant la durée de l’atelier, ainsi que d’un suivi par e-mail.

Cinq places financées sont disponibles pour assister à cet atelier. Les chercheurs en début de carrière basés en Afrique de l’Ouest, dans le domaine du patrimoine et de l’archéologie (y compris des sujets pertinents d’histoire, d’anthropologie, de tourisme, de développement, de science de l’environnement et d’histoire de l’art), dont la thèse a été soutenue entre janvier 2015 et décembre 2018, sont admissibles à appliquer.

Les candidats sont priés de fournir un CV d’une page, une description de la recherche qu’ils souhaitent publier, ainsi qu’une ébauche d’une page de la structure du projet d’article, identifiant par ailleurs le journal visé. Les critères d’évaluation sont (1) l’intérêt de la recherche présentée; (2) la cohérence et l’articulation de sa présentation; (3) les antécédents du candidat.

Un voyage aller-retour en classe économique, ainsi que l’hébergement et la subsistance pendant l’atelier, seront fournis aux candidats retenus. Les candidats doivent être disponibles la dernière semaine de mai 2019 et être déjà en possession de tous les documents de voyage nécessaires (passeport).

Veuillez contacter pour toute question. La date limite des candidatures, qui sont à envoyer par e-mail, est le 23 avril 2019 à midi. Les candidats retenus seront informés avant le 30 avril de commencer à planifier leurs déplacements, avec l’aide du personnel administratif du Sainsbury Research Unit (University of East Anglia, Norwich).


accra, 11 july

Busy but productive times here at the University of Ghana.


Attending talks. Here, insights into the disastrous effect of jihadi occupation on the heritage and tourist industry in Timbuktu, and in Mali more generally. Malian colleagues outlined the work done to investigate, study and repair the mosque and mausolea torn down in 2012.


Catching up with friends and colleagues; trading books, cowries and pots.



And still scouring the storerooms for shells!




st andrews 24 october

Heading up to St Andrews to give a paper at the Medieval Studies seminar of the School of History there. The title indicates a focus on the cowrie shell, and I am going to add in a bit about the northern European finds of such shells in medieval graves (often those of women and/or children) (see here a recent story). Of course, I will also give a snapshot of our archaeological work in Benin, which situates where I am coming from. Even though we were not fortunate enough to recover medieval cowries there…

All of this is bringing me back to some of the West Africa/Europe comparative work I have done before, in my 2007 book and papers since, including one written recently with Ian F from Oxford.


Meanwhile in Norwich, we have been mapping out the next 6-8 months which will include fieldwork in the Maldives, research trips to West and East Africa, and hopefully a couple of nice papers reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of our team: we hope museums, archaeologists, anthropologists and marine biologists will all find something there. Stay tuned…


new publication

A new publication by team member Olivier G. The World Is Like a Beanstalk: Historicizing Potting Practice and Social Relations  in the Niger River Area. 


My interest in the history of  local pottery traditions in the Niger Valley was recently reactivated. As part of the “Crossroads of  Empires” European Research Council project (Haour et al. 2011), I made a systematic study of craft activities  along the Beninese bank of the Niger River and identified the southern boundary of the polychrome pottery production zone, as well as some two- or three-generations-old vessels whose shape and décor strongly evoked vessels illustrated in Y. Urvoy (1955). … The time had come to reconsider the data collected in Niger between 2002 and 2010, and to confront them with those collected in Benin since 2011.

This is also the time to thank Olivier who, while in Dendi with us, supplied the archaeologists’ base camp with two polychrome jars from Ouna which kept our drinks nicely chilled.




new publication

Our paper offering an overview of four years’ work in northern Bénin is now out in AntiquitySee some of our results and, later, read the project book where we develop and refine them.

And farewell to Florence who has helped see the book through the past eight months, and all best in the new job.


final stages of the Crossroads book, 1

discovered we had no definite lantana beads – a lowpoint of the day

changed ‘interesting’ to ‘extraordinary’ – a highpoint of the day

found out we were missing 68 drawings of potsherds – a lowpoint

realised the Hausa might just be usurping a lot of the earlier  traditions relating to trade  between the Niger River and forested areas – a highpoint

wondered about birane – a highpoint




opportunities to hear about our ongoing work

Fiona, on cowries, in Cambridge next week: here

Me, on Crossroads, in Norwich next week: here

Me, on Crossroads, in Aarhus the week after: here




Excavation of Unit 19, at Birnin Lafiya, directed by Frank N’Po Takpara



meanwhile, back at the ranch…

These past few days I have been looking through the various draft chapters of the volume which will present the Crossroads findings. Today I have been reading about cowries at nooru bangu, see here, a site we studied in Bénin; the folded strip roulettes from Kantoro; and charcoal.

There has been a lot of progress and Florence and I now have a substantial set of papers as well as some pretty nifty illustrations of our various finds and data on 42000 sherds or so.

It means looking back over the past 5 years and all we have learnt…





interview 2

Here is my Radio New Zealand interview. In preparing for it I was reminded that New Zealand was settled in the 13th century – at the same time as Birnin Lafiya was abandoned. No connection, of course.

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