An Ivory Cache from Botswana

By Reid, Andrew; Segobye, Alinah K. | Antiquity, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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An Ivory Cache from Botswana

Reid, Andrew, Segobye, Alinah K., Antiquity

Trade between the southern African interior and the Indian Ocean has been used to explain the appearance of extensive settlements and political elites at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, and along the Zimbabwe Plateau, in the early 2nd millennium AD. Evidence for this trade has come from Arabic and Chinese texts, the burgeoning archaeological trading centres of the coastline, epitomized by Kilwa, and the archaeological remains found on interior sites. Predominantly, archaeological evidence for this trade has been restricted to imported items such as glass and Chinese celadon. Evidence for the commodities moving in the opposite direction is less forthcoming. Gold is by far the best established, documented by written texts, occasional archaeological artefacts and by hundreds of ancient mine workings (Swan 1994). Texts suggest that ivory was also an important commodity in this return trade, particularly in the early centuries of its development, but evidence for ivory on archaeological sites has only sporadically been encountered. This note presents a new find of ivory from northern Botswana and discusses its implications for early aspects of the ivory trade.

Mosu I

Research has been undertaken at the southern end of Sowa Pan, the easternmost portion of the huge Makgadikgadi Pans, as part of Bob swana's contribution to the Swedish international development cooperation agency (Sida)-sponsored Human Responses and Contributions to Environmental Change in Eastern and Southern Africa and Sri Lanka project. This research has focused mostly on a series of late 1st- and early 2nd-millennium AD sites.

In 1997 excavations were conducted at Mosu I. This site is situated on a promontory of the main escarpment, which forms the southern boundary of the pan. The site covers an area of c. 24,000 sq. m and consists of compact deposits of ash, clung and other archaeological debris. Radiocarbon dates indicate that Mosu I was occupied between the 9th and the 13th centuries AD. Zhizo and Leopard's Kopje pottery (recovered at this and other sites in the area) was also used at the major trading settlements of the Limpopo-Shashe confluence. Mosu I and associated sites were clearly part of the broader trading system, since small snapped-cane glass beads were encountered in all excavations. However, these beads were present in considerably smaller quantities than at the major trading sites, indicating the control of trade in the southern African interior by the settlements of the Limpopo-Shashe confluence at this time.

At Mosu I, one excavation unit (A) was intended to investigate a surface concentration of fragments of burnt clay walling, with the possibility of encountering structural remains. Almost immediately it became clear that the underlying deposit was a nondescript grey ashy midden, with relatively high quantities of pottery and bone present and with no obvious features discernible. It was in this deposit that a tightly packed concentration of ivory bangles was encountered (FIGURE 1). The manner in which the bangles were intertwined indicates that the ivory was constrained by some form of bag or sack. Although no cut could be discerned in the deflated sediment, it is likely that the concentration of bangles was deliberately placed in the ground as a consignment. A radiocarbon reading on a charcoal sample taken from the surrounding deposit (Pta-7857: 1110(50), when calibrated, suggests a date from the 10th century AD.


On recovery, the ivory was found to be very friable and tended to fracture and exfoliate, greatly hampering the conservation and reconstruction of the bangles. The assemblage consists of three complete bangles, two near-complete bangles, three half bangles, and one shorter bangle segment (FIGURE 2). Each bangle consists of a short section of ivory, around 10 mm in length and less than 5 mm in thickness. The internal diameter of the bangles ranges from 65 to 80 mm.

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