Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology

10) Trade, Urbanism, and Religion on the Saharan Frontier. Gao (1993-1996).

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Gao was the capital of the Songhai empire, the last and greatest of the ‘medieval’ West African empires that flourished between the fifteenth and late sixteenth centuries AD, famous historically, but neglected archaeologically. The fieldwork were completed, first, as a PhD (1993), and subsequently, post-doctoral (1996) research project (see Publications). The fieldwork was funded by the British Academy, the UAC of Nigeria Fund, and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge. The research was completed in co-operation with the Malian Institut des Sciences Humaines, and their representatives Mr Nafogo Coulibaly, Mr Sekou Berte, the late Dr Tereba Togola, and Mr Elmoctar Toure of the Musee in Gao.

Two seasons of excavations (and an initial preliminary reconnaissance survey) were targetted at letting the archaeology ‘speak’ rather than reconstructing it based upon an already predetermined historical ‘blueprint’. To achieve this excavations were completed in the area of Gao known via oral tradition to have been linked with its ‘medieval’ heyday, Gao Ancien. Further excavations were focussed upon other sites likewise locally deemed significant in this respect, including Koima on the opposite bank of the River Niger, the Gadei quarter of Gao, and Gao-Saney with its cemetery and twelfth century imported Spanish marble Islamic grave stones and associated tell site. The excavations uncovered structural remains including part of a possible mosque, a rich merchants’ house or palace, and a dry-stone defensive wall with an associated gatehouse in Gao Ancien all dating from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries AD (see Mali Gao 1). In Gadei the architectural traditions were found to differ, as part of a collapsed mud roundhouse was recorded, an architectural form not found in Gao Ancien. At Gao-Saney large-scale looting to obtain objects for the antiquities market meant less architecture survived (see Mali Gao 1).

Archaeological materials recovered included items of trade; glazed ceramics from North Africa and Spain, glass from Egypt and Palestine, alabaster possibly from Yemen, as well as numerous beads including, again, putative Gujarati carnelians (see above) (see Mali Gao 2 and Publications). Locally produced ceramics were also recovered which far outweighed imported pottery in quantity. The faunal remains recorded indicated that the inhabitants of Gao consumed both domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats, as well as fish such as Nile perch. They also hunted animals, for example reedbuck inhabiting the river bank environment, and a species that are absent in the region today due to over-hunting. Botanical evidence indicated that rice and pearl millet were present, and hence in all probability consumed, and cotton was also grown as represented by cotton seeds recovered (see Mali Gao 2 and Publications). The most spectacular faunal material was not related to diet but to trade. This consisted of a cache of some sixty hippopotamus tusks which had been placed within a pit and laid on wooden beams below the rich merchants’ house or palace in Gao Ancien. This cache was radiocarbon dated to the late ninth – early tenth centuries AD and provides evidence for trade, probably trans-Saharan, in hippopotamus ivory (see Mali Gao 3 and Publications). Epigraphic evidence also indicated that the process of Islamisation was slow and did not apply to all the population, and was not achieved by conquest and colonisation by Arabs from North Africa as was once thought. Instead, local Songhai names, rather than Arab ones, were found on Muslim tombstones indicating early indigenous conversion to Islam, dating from the twelfth to thirteenth centuries AD.

The results of the excavations in Gao indicated the indigenous nature of Gao and by implication the Songhai empire (though missing in the excavated units were deposits actually associated with the period of the Songhai empire itself). They also indicated the complexity inherent in conversion to Islam and its long drawn out and syncretic nature. Supplementary to the excavations ethnographic data on a rare survival of a type of sewn boat was collected and an example brought back to the UK (see Mali Gao 3 and Publications).