Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology

Trade, Urbanism, and Religion on the Saharan Frontier. Timbuktu (1996-1998)

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Timbuktu is a place, or at least a name, synonymous in many people’s imagination with the remote and exotic, and currently inaccessible because of the Ansar Dine Islamist occupation of Northern Mali. It is a city located on the River Niger in Mali where proximity to the river permits occupation very close to the edge of the Sahara desert, thus facilitating access to trans-Saharan trade routes. Hence considering its fame it is surprising that Timbuktu had never been the focus of systematic archaeological investigation until the programme of survey and test excavation completed between 1996 and 1998. The fieldwork aims included assessing the origins of the city and its role in local, inter-regional, and long distance trade. A further aim was to attempt to delimit the spatial extent of Timbuktu over time via survey, and also to evaluate the importance of the city in comparison to its now largely forgotten neighbour, Gao (see below). The research was completed in co-operation with the Malian Institut des Sciences Humaines, their representative Mr Nafogo Coulibaly, and Mr Ali Ould Sidi of the Bureau de Patrimoine Culturel in Timbuktu. The fieldwork was funded by the British Academy and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.

Initially a survey programme was completed, which was made difficult due to modern occupation, flooding, and shifting sands obscuring the archaeological deposits (see Mali Timbuktu). This meant that delimiting the primary areas of occupation based upon survey data alone was impossible for what were apparent were islands or snapshots of archaeology rising through the sands rather than a comprehensive archaeological overview (see Publications). The factor of sand accumulation was also of stratigraphic significance in the five test excavations dug at various locations in Timbuktu. These excavations were completed in areas which either the survey results, historical records, or oral testimony suggested might be of potential significance. Key in this respect were excavations completed adjacent to and in the vicinity of the extant Sankore mosque which was possibly founded in the fourteenth century AD (see Mali Timbuktu).  However, the removal of five metres of deposits only reached back to levels associated with the eighteenth century. A useful range of material was recovered; including clay tobacco pipes, mollusc shells, locally produced pottery, and beads and bracelet fragments (see Mali Timbuktu). Ultimately, this exploratory foray into the archaeology of Timbuktu indicated that further research is needed, and that Timbuktu might never have been as important as its neighbour Gao, except in western popular imagination.

Finally, as a postscript, it should also be noted that during the course of the fieldwork the existence of two British war graves which had been overlooked by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were recorded. These were the graves of the Merchant Navy seamen, Chief Engineer William Souter (died 28 May 1942, age 60) and Able Seaman John Turnbull Graham (died 2 May 1942, age 23). Both men had been prisoners of the Vichy French authorities and were kept in appalling conditions in Timbuktu. Our (re)discovery of their graves allowed the reinstatement of the stones in an upright position, their cleaning, and the rebuilding and painting of the wall surrounding the graves (see Mali Timbuktu).