The Future of Mali's Past

By Bedaux, R. M. A.; Rowlands, M. | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Future of Mali's Past


Bedaux, R. M. A., Rowlands, M., Antiquity


One of the greatest disasters for African archaeology is the systematic plundering of archaeological sites for the antiquities trade (e.g. Schmidt & McIntosh 1996; ICOM 1994). An eloquent proof of this plundering is the beautiful catalogue 'Earth and ore', published in 1997 by Schaedler. Of the 668 objects illustrated full-colour in this catalogue all come, except for a dozen objects and some forgeries, from recent looting of sites in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ghana and Nigeria.

Regions in Mali that are particularly rich in cultural heritage, such as the Niger Inner Delta and the Dogon country, are particularly shocking examples of this systematic plundering. Archaeological research in 1991 in the south of the Delta, undertaken within the framework of the Malian-Dutch `Toguere' project of the Institut des Sciences Humaines at Bamako, showed that 45% of the 830 visited sites exhibited traces of illicit excavations (Dembele et al. 1993). In 1996, a sample of 80 of these sites was revisited by Annette Schmidt. The percentage of plundered sites had increased by 20% (Annette Schmidt pers. comm.). One does not need much imagination to realize the scale of this disaster.

The Dogon country, widely known through the research of the Griaule-Dieterlen group, suffers from the systematic plundering of its cultural property. Of the 143 Dogon statues published by Leloup in her book `Statuaire Dogon' (1994), only six, from the collections of the Musee de l'Homme, have a more or less attested provenance. Many of the famous `togu na' published in 1976 by Tito & Sandra Spini no longer exist. The Dogon must either embed the carved wooden pillars of their `togu na' in concrete or remove the carved parts to protect them from increasingly insolent robbers (Ravenhill 1995). Grave goods have also been stolen from the Tellem burial caves, some of which were excavated in the 1960s and '70s by Utrecht University and the Institut des Sciences Humaines at Bamako (e.g. Bedaux 1988; 1991).

The cultural heritage of Mali is not only threatened by plundering. The architectural heritage is endangered by disinterest and lack of resources. The example of Djenne, one of the oldest cities of West Africa, excavated by Susan and Rod McIntosh (McIntosh 1995) is striking. This city played a major role in the development of the trans-Saharan trade and in the diffusion of Islam in West Africa. Its mud architecture, of which the mosque is a remarkable example, testifies to the past richness and vitality of the city (Maas & Mommersteeg 1992; Bedaux & Van der Waals 1994). The mud architecture which disseminated the reputation of Djenne so widely is threatened today, not because of the fragile material, but because of economic recession which prevents many of its inhabitants from maintaining their houses. Also, modernity and the aspirations of the people of Djenne for better conditions and for social change induce behaviours endangering the survival of the architecture. An inventory made in 1995 at the request of the Dutch Embassy in Bamako (Bedaux et al. 1996) revealed that of the 134 houses studied in 1984 by a team from Eindhoven University (Maas & Mommersteeg 1992), 40 had already disappeared completely and 34 new structures had been built following the complete destruction of important houses, some of which were several centuries old.

The plundering of archaeological sites, the destruction of classified sites and the illicit traffic of cultural goods has led the Malian authorities to implement several action plans intended to slow down these disturbing trends (Sidibe 1995). For example:

* the adoption of legislation, the organization of archaeological excavations and attempts to limit the plundering and illicit export of the national cultural heritage;

* the creation of Cultural Missions in order to control access to and protect archaeological sites, and to sensitize local populations to the importance of the three Malian sites included in the World Heritage List of UNESCO (Djenne, Bandiagara and Tombouctou);

* the promotion of archaeological survey projects by the Institut des Sciences Humaines at Bamako (for example in the region of the Lakes and the southern Inner Niger Delta);

* the engagement of the media in sensitizing local populations to the importance of their pasts (through television, radio and posters);

* the sensitization of the public through museum displays and by exhibitions such as `Vallees du Niger' and `Djenne: Cite du Patrimoine Mondial'.

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