The Dia Archaeological Project: Rescuing Cultural Heritage in the Inland Niger Delta (Mali). (Special Section)

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Introduction

Mali is a country with a rich history and diverse cultures. Its cultural heritage is, however, threatened by both the pillage of archaeological sites and illicit trade (ICOM 1995; Bedaux & Rowlands, this volume). Looting has dramatically increased in recent years, especially in the Inland Delta of the Niger, and has obliged Malian authorities to take measures to counteract this destruction. Within the framework of a long-term Malian-Dutch cultural heritage programme, the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde at Leiden recently initiated large-scale excavations in the Inland Niger Delta at Dia, in close cooperation with the Universite du Mali, the Institut des Sciences Humaines and the Musee National du Mall in Bamako, the Mission Culturelle in Djenne, the Universities of Paris I and VI, the C.N.R.S., University College London and Leiden University. This excavation, financed principally by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, started in 1998 and will continue until 2004. It is a continuation of previous international programmes of site survey and documentation in the Inland Niger Delta, which the Institut des Sciences Humaines in Bamako has co-ordinated over the past two decades (e.g. Raimbault & Sanogo 1901; Dembele et al. 1993; Togola 1996). An initial season of prospection was carried out in 1998 in the Inland Delta, following which the vicinity of Dia was chosen as the principal research zone for the project. Dia is situated at the western edge of the Inland Delta floodplain near the Diaka, a tributary of the Niger (FIGURE 1). The Inland Niger Delta occupies a central place in the history of the `medieval' kingdoms and empires of West Africa and the region has been the focus of archaeological research for several decades. The archaeological remains at Dia comprise three huge settlement mounds of some 100 ha in total: Shoma (abandoned, 49 ha); Dia (the current town, 23 ha); and Mara (Dia's cemetery and football field, 28 ha). Nearby, in a 5-km radius around the principal settlement mounds, some 37 further sites have been identified by Haskell et al. (1988; see also McIntosh & McIntosh 1991).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The settlement mounds of Dia were chosen for a number of reasons:

1 The archaeological importance of Dia and its surroundings was already apparent from an initial survey in 1986-1987 by Haskell et al. (1988).

2 Dia is reputed by oral tradition to be one of the oldest cities of the vast plain of the Inland Niger Delta (Fay 1997; Sakai 1990), older even than the much better known cities of Djenne and Tombouctou. According to oral traditions some of the ancient inhabitants of Dia founded Djenne. This vast site thus offers the possibility of studying the beginnings of urbanization in this part of Africa and the spatial structure of an early West African city.

3 Dia is situated in the middle of a heavily looted area where most sites have been pillaged for terracotta statues. These pillaged statues are illegally exported to the West (for some particularly disturbing examples see De Grunne 1980; Schadler 1997; Bedaux 1998). Due to large-scale pillaging, the number of affected sites in the region has been rapidly increasing. In 1991, 45% of the archaeological sites in the southern Inland Delta were affected by pillage. In 1996 evidence of these illegal activities had increased by 20% (Dembele et al. 1993; Schmidt in preparation). The time had come to recover as much data as possible from a major site in the region before it was too late.

4 Our initial examination of the site showed that it was particularly suitable for the study of agricultural and metallurgical origins in the region. This is due to the abundant presence of Ceramic Late Stone Age (Ceramic LSA) material culture (pottery and lithics), coupled with evidence for metal working (iron slag).

Preliminary results

The research so far has been concentrated on one of the mounds, Shoma (FIGURE 1). …