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Personal profile

Academic Background

D.Phil Archaeology; University of Oxford (2002)

Masters in Research Methods for the Humanities; University College London (1998)

B.A. Archaeology & Anthropology; University of Oxford (1995)

 

Biography

I am an Africanist focusing on the period AD 500-1500. I am an anthropologically trained archaeologist, and also rely on historical sources to explore how artefacts reflect political and cultural connections; how we can detect the way people categorised themselves and built trust with others; and how the ways in which people made things, lived, died, and ate, reflect their world of experience.

My early work was in the West African Sahel. I led field projects in several parts of Niger - from the Niger Valley to Lake Chad - and directed a five-year ERC Starter Grant (2011-2015; StG-263747), ‘Crossroads of Empires’, in northern Benin. My team was the first to carry out systematic research in this region, and we identified a previously unsuspected density of medieval settlement. This region was said to be the stomping ground of large polities such as Songhai, the Hausa city states, Kanem-Borno or Borgou; the way they influenced the patterning of settlement and material culture across the landscape, and the material signature of their specialised craftspeople, were the focus of our enquiry. These polities are described in historical records as controlling the land – but little is known of them in archaeological terms. Find out all about our results in the project volume, which I edited (Brill, 2018).

During that work, I became intrigued by a site in the Niger River that was said by local historians to be the source of imperial wealth in the form of cowries. Thinking about how we might understand medieval Sahelian connections - outside of the classical ‘Saharan’ or ‘Atlantic’ spheres - and about the cultural value of cowries, led to my next project (2015-2018), ‘A global commodity’, with funding from the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2014-359), exploring the medieval routes and actors by which cowries came into Africa. As part of this work, my team undertook archaeological and ethnographic work in the Maldives, environmental and ethnographic surveys along the East African coastline, and the study of museum collections across West Africa. We're writing up the results at the moment.

My main technical work on material culture has been on ceramics. Colleagues and I helped reshape the description and classification of impressed pottery in Africa, which has now expanded to include these wares in the Indian Ocean. A second focus of my research has been cowrie shells; two Indian Ocean species of this sea snail had immense cultural value in some parts of the African continent. My team and I have been thinking about how size, species and shaping differ between regions. Finally, I have also worked collaboratively on beads and metalworking. Through all this work, I use materials to think through issues of wider significance: the establishment and maintenance of boundaries, the creation of value by past communities, the role of trade and of religion, the impact of political and economic factors on material culture, and the interrelation of the different sources of information on the past. 

I have used my field studies as a springboard to expand my regional and disciplinary range with comparative work, helping to situate the African continent within studies of the medieval past. In two books and a number of journal articles and book chapters I have examined themes such as rulers’ status, migration and technological transfers, networks of trust, trade diasporas, or notions of incoming kings and blacksmiths. In my 2007 book ‘Rulers, warrior, traders, clerics’, I set side by side the central Sahel and northwest Europe to see what each region can teach us about the other. In 2013 (‘Outsiders and strangers’) I explored what happens when the primary label assigned to a person's identity is that of an outsider - when he or she is of, but not in, society. Such outsiders can be found everywhere in the West African past: rulers show off their foreign descent, traders migrate to new areas, potters and blacksmiths claim to be apart from society. This led me to look at other case studies from Melanesia, Mexico and Ireland among others.

In all of this work, I have found it essential to confront archaeological and historical data and I have aimed to situate myself within ‘world history’ scholarship. Together with my extensive regional reach (parts of Africa, Indian Ocean, Europe, China and south-east Asia), this has widened my audience to medieval historians working across the globe. This is a really exciting and challenging aspect of my work going forwards.

Career

Before joining the School of World Art Studies and the Sainsbury Research Unit, I was a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Newcastle.

Before that (2002-2005), I was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

External Activities

  • Member of editorial advisory board, Azania: archaeological research in Africa, Zaria Archaeological Papers and Journal of Development Studies.
  • Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.
  • Member of the panel of the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology, offered by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain.

Key Research Interests and Expertise

Archaeology, Africa, Indian Ocean, material culture, African archaeology, ceramic analysis, construction of value, coastlines, trade/traders, medieval empires, cowries

Past members of my research group include postdoctoral researchers Annalisa Christie (now University College Dublin; maritime and coastal archaeology, East Africa, cowries, Maldives), Sam Nixon (now British Museum; archaeology of northern Benin, architecture), Kat Manning (Wellcome Trust; Sahelian and Saharan pottery) - and doctoral students Joyce Dartey (archaeology of the Koma area of northern Ghana),  Shiura Jaufar (archaeology of the Maldives), Nadia Khalaf (University of Exeter) and Abubakar Sule Sani and Asma'u Ahmed Giade (Ahmadu Bello University Zaria). 

I am the current Director of the Centre for African Art & Archaeology, which was formed to bring together researchers and students who work on the arts & archaeology of Africa at the University of East Anglia. Our Twitter account highlights events, news, and job & funding opportunities.

Over the course of my career, I have raised over £2 million in grants, as Principal Investigator, to support my research.

My main recent research activity is detailed under the 'Overview' tab, but below are a few additional items.

 

Cowries in Eastern Africa

Having focused previously on the cultural uses of cowries in southern and western Africa respectively, Abigail Moffett and I have joined forces to focus on East Africa and the Red Sea. The most valued types of cowrie shell occur naturally along these coastlines - a major difference with some of the other regions we have previously studied. Ethnographic, museological, environmental, experimental and literature-based suveys will enable us to better understand the meanngs and functions of cowrie shells in eastern and northeastern Africa.

 

The missing link..?

My most recent fieldwork was just before the Covid-19 lockdown. Funded by UEA and the British Institute in Eastern Africa, it involved a survey in the Agiq and Port Sudan regions (Sudan), collaborating with Dr Ahmed Adam, University of Khartoum, with a team of 11. Thematically, our interests were informed by questions relating to the nature of medieval trade networks, given that the Sudanese coast of the Red Sea appears to have played an important role in linking the Western Indian Ocean and Mediterranean trade networks. One of the commodities which likely transited through here were cowries although historical sources (including the documents of the Cairo geniza) say little about these and the natural distribution of cowries within the Red Sea today isn’t entirely clear. Ceramics are another class of artefact bearing witness to long-distance connections. Some coarse cooking pots with everted rims and low-fired, often paddle-impressed and/or carinated earthenwares, probably originating from the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka, have been much discussed in the literature. Such material formed a visually very distinctive, and sizeable, portion of the ceramic assemblage my team recovered during three seasons of excavations in the Maldives and variants also appear to have been recovered on the Sudanese coast.

 

Sustainable tourism and heritage

Through 2018 and 2019, with support from the University of East Anglia’s Quality-related Global Challenges Research Fund, I worked with colleagues in the Maldives and Benin to explore how archaeological and historical heritage can be developed for tourism. These are two very different countries, of course. But in both instances we wanted to argue a strong case for the value of tangible and intangible heritage, and the importance of considering local notions of landscape and resilience to climate change. This involved conversations across academic disciplines and with governmental and NGO partners, as well as survey, archaeological work and interviews with the aim of contributing to local capacity building and training in heritage skills.

The Maldives, for example, has a rich cultural, historical and archaeological heritage and once lay at the heart of medieval trading systems – but this has been largely ignored in the country’s tourism offer.  In Benin, coastal communities have long laid at the interface of sea and land, linked into global trading systems that cannot be summarised to the single story of the Atlantic slave trade.

In both cases, heritage can help provide a sustainable and more inclusive model in line with broader shifts throughout the industry.

Read more here
 

Depicting Hausa

'Depicting Africa' took place in spring 2012 at City Academy, a secondary school in Norwich, involving 26 children in a new sort of project to challenge the ideas they held about Africa. The project aimed to integrate learning in geography, history, religious education and citizenship as well as reinforcing personal, learning and thinking skills. Students at City Academy Norwich explored perceptions of Africa and Islam while also developing a deeper understanding of themselves. The pupils took part in an exchange with Lycée Amadou Kouran Daga Zinder, a secondary school in Niger. The students were taught simultaneously via Skype and had the opportunity to communicate by writing letters, contributing to shared documents and email exchanges.

The City Academy students also experienced the challenges of university life, taking part in seminars and using library resources at the University of East Anglia. As a final assessment piece they created a learning tour around the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts for their peers in Year 7, which showcased what they learned throughout the project. 

The project was funded by an Arts and Humanities/Economic and Social Research Council ‘Religion and Society’ 'Youth Impact' grant.

A website with teaching resources can be seen here

 

The site of Garumele, Niger

Thanks to grants from the British Academy and the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Boubé Gado (Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Niamey) conducted excavations near Lake Chad in 2005 and analysed the artefacts uncovered. These include beads from Europe, which apparently came to the site via the trans-Saharan trade, as well as large amounts of pottery and fish bone. Results are published in Haour and Gado (2009), Linseele and Haour (2010), and Haour (2008). I revisited them recently (April 2019) in a workshop in Frankfurt in a discussion of different architectural styles (fired versus mud brick) in Kanem-Borno.

 

West African pottery

Thinking about pottery on a West African scale, I managed an International Academic Network funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Regrouping colleagues and students from Belgium, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom, this network met in Oxford in April 2008 and in Dakar in December 2008. Two resulting co-edited publications improve our understanding and description of the pottery so common on archaeological sites, and so fundamental to our understanding of the West African past. The first, a co-edited book African Pottery Roulettes, was published summer 2010 by Oxbow. The second, a special issue of the journal Azania, came out in 2011.

 

History of the Hausa

Benedetta Rossi (at the time at the University of Liverpool) and I convened an international meeting and museum workshop, focusing on the history, identity and material culture of the Hausa, a major group of Nigeria and Niger. The conference, held 6-8 November 2008 in Liverpool, followed on from a successful first meeting of the group at the SRU in July of that year. Both gatherings were funded by the Arts and Humanities/Economic and Social Research Council ‘Religion and Society’ initiative. The resulting book, Being and Becoming Hausa (Brill, 2010), summarises the state of current knowledge on the history of Hausa identity, reigniting a debate left dormant for twenty years, and aims also to extend beyond the realm of Hausa studies, with theoretical insights on religion and identity.  

 

Teaching Interests

  • African archaeology
  • Political boundaries and the articulation of power
  • Representations of the African past and material heritage
  • Creation of value
  • Ceramics, cowries and other lovely things

     

Research supervision 

I am interested in supervising research students in all areas of African archaeology, especially but not exclusively West Africa and Indian Ocean networks; understandings of heritage; studies of ceramics, including Asian materials; study of archaeological and museological collections relating to material culture recovered on the African continent
 

Examples of modules taught 

  • A myth of timeless Africa?
  • The arts and archaeology of Africa

 

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Devlopment Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action