At a Crossroads

    Photo by Nicolas Nikis, January 2013.

    Since 2011, researchers from UEA’s Sainsbury Research Unit have been conducting yearly archaeological field trips to the banks of the Niger River in Northern Benin, West Africa, as part of the Crossroads of Empires research project.

    This project, funded by the European Research Council, is led by a UEA team and involves partners in several European and West African countries.

    Professor Anne Haour from UEA has led this project alongside anthropologists, archaeologists and historians from a dozen countries in order to reveal a very different portrayal of Africa’s past over the last 1,500 years. Before the work of the Crossroads project, no extensive research had taken place in this area of the world. UEA has therefore played a vital role in helping to showcase a previously ignored region.

    Beyond wanting to understand the history of this region, why was Benin chosen as a focus by this major international research team? 

    On the map, this part of the Niger River Valley, called Dendi, sits at a crucial position. It is situated at the point where many past historical organisations intersected and where populations and goods would have moved both east-west and north-south. Through understanding such connections, the history of northern Benin and the wider region emerges. Exploring the expansion of states and empires during the medieval and early modern period also sheds light on comparable organisations in other parts of the world, and at other historical periods including the present. 

    One additional attraction of studying northern Benin was to help move public perceptions of West Africa away from the idea of a landscape of famines, political instability and environmental catastrophes, to reveal a more accurate picture of a resourceful and historically powerful region.  

    In March 2015, the research team travelled back to Benin to show the community what they had found over the last 4 years. An exhibition was also held at UEA’s Sainsbury Centre, reaching new audiences which spanned private and public sectors (including schoolteachers, NHS, charities), as well as academic beneficiaries across UEA and the wider Norwich Research Park. Panels from the exhibition were returned to Dendi and shared with local groups, highlighting the fact that people worldwide wanted to learn about Benin’s past. Visitors to the UEA exhibition commented on the historical depth and craftsmanship evidenced through the artefacts recovered by the team, broadening appreciation of this part of the world.

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    A question the team were keen to address was the way these empires actually looked. How did they function and who lived with them? 

    The researchers considered the material remains and historical traditions, not only to highlight the past empires, but to see the influence of Dendi’s past on its landscape today. The research team discovered artefacts including jewellery, pottery and figurines made from terracotta. They even found a clue to how far empires were trading with particular stone beads that would have very likely travelled a long way to reach Benin. 

    The team also drew conclusions about what the past people would have eaten from identifying the bones of a variety of species, like catfish, wild game, chicken or goats, and also by studying the plant remains which included cereals such as pearl millet and rice, and likely cash crops such as cotton or oil palm. Through interviews and artefacts they documented weaving, dyeing, ironworking, and potting.

    Professor Haour comments:

    “Historical sources talk about the vast empires that occupied this landscape, and archaeology is showing us that West Africa was tied into global networks much earlier than we once thought. The Niger River has played a major role in explorations and trade through the centuries. Despite all of this, nobody had yet looked at Dendi.

    Thanks to our work the physical traces of the people of the past, and the historical traditions held by the people of the present, have been documented. We now have a glimpse of what life was like on the shores of the Niger River hundreds of years ago.”

    Another crucial outcome of the project has been to highlight the issues of heritage destruction in Benin. With people unaware of the importance of Benin’s rich archaeology and history, the landscape is often simply hacked through to build roads and expand settlements.

    Project members are currently lobbying so that contactors are made aware of their own responsibility towards cultural heritage. Dr Didier N’Dah, project partner from the Université Abomey-Calavi in Benin, speaking in a radio interview during a workshop concluding the project, drew attention to the fact that many types of sites are destroyed during public works and that preserving the cultural heritage is a considerable challenge in Benin. Recent comments by the Government of Benin highlight the importance of cultural heritage, for example in the context of the ‘Revealing Benin’ programme which aims to create an environment that embraces the talent and dynamism of the Beninese people in order to revive the country’s development on a long-term basis. 

    Archaeology still being a fairly young discipline in Benin, the Crossroads of Empires research project has helped make others aware of the need for further excavations and the importance of collaborative research within this area. 

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