Academic journal article Antiquity

The Settlement Mound of Birnin Lafiya: New Evidence from the Eastern Arc of the Niger River

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Settlement Mound of Birnin Lafiya: New Evidence from the Eastern Arc of the Niger River

Article excerpt


The lower half of the Niger River's course lies within one of the most archaeologically under-explored regions of the world. Yet this area includes first- and early second-millennium AD archaeological evidence of considerable significance. Lying downriver of the well-published site of Gao (Insoll 1996, 2000; Cisse et al. 2013), it includes, along some 500km, sites such as the necropolis of Bura, with its world-renowned figurative terracottas (Gado 1993); its better-published counterpart Kissi (Magnavita 2009, 2015); the tenth-century settlement of Oursi (Petit et al. 2011); and the mound sites of the Kainji area with their pottery pavements and figurines (Nzewunwa 1983; Sule & Haour 2014), all against a backdrop of densely distributed archaeological materials (Gado 1980; Haour et al. 2006).

Recent research is rebalancing the picture following decades of scholarly focus on the western Sahel, and is showing the importance of this eastern arc of the Niger, including relating to questions of trans-Saharan trade (Nixon et al. 2011; Magnavita 2013, 2015). For instance, the cemetery site of Kissi (Burkina Faso) demonstrates exchange of some kind with North Africa throughout the first millennium AD (Magnavita 2009, 2015), a scenario confirmed by recent results from the Republic of Niger (Magnavita 2013). The eastern arc of the Niger River was also central in the later development of large-scale polities such as the Songhai 'empire' along the Niger. Extensive debate has surrounded the routes travelled by North African and/or Indian beads recovered from contexts dated to the late first millennium AD at the southern Nigerian site of Igbo-Ukwu (Sutton 1991, 2001; Insoll & Shaw 1997); the part of the valley known as Dendi, at the border of the modern Republics of Niger and Benin, was already identified nearly two decades ago as a research priority in this regard (Insoll & Shaw 1997: 21). Yet, despite the regional, continental and international relevance of the eastern arc of the Niger River, no synthetic study has been attempted.

A five-year interdisciplinary research project, Crossroads of Empires, has carried out archaeological test pitting and survey, paired with oral-historical enquiries, to target this gap. The overall aim is to investigate how the large-scale polities described in historical sources are materialised archaeologically, and Dendi, a narrow region covering 150km x 15km, was chosen as our study area. Parallel to the Niger River and almost totally neglected archaeologically, Dendi lies at the edge of major historically documented polities such as Songhai, the Hausa city-states and the Gourmantche kingdoms. It sits not just on putative riverine routes, but also on routes that linked the Sahel to the forest in historical times and no doubt earlier (Kuba 2009). Today, Dendi is heterogeneous in terms of linguistic, ethnic and material identities, indicative of complicated population shifts.

The key site of Birnin Lafiya (Figure 1) is a large mound first identified in 2001 by N'Dah (2006), and investigated since 2011 by the Crossroads project. During 4 field seasons totalling over 15 weeks, 20 units (12 trenches and 8 smaller exploratory units) have been excavated, and extensive mapping and geophysical prospection has been carried out. Archaeological remains are dense over most parts of the mound, and our work has shown the existence of deep stratigraphies and architectural features--specifically mud walls and pavements made of broken pottery--of a quality rarely encountered in sub-Saharan Africa.

Investigating Birnin Lafiya

The settlement of Birnin Lafiya lies approximately 2km from the Niger River, close to the modern village of the same name and, as a seasonally cultivated tell mound, is unique among sites from this area. Among the 834 sites recorded by the team within the wider region, Birnin Lafiya stands out for its surface traces of well-preserved architectural features and its scale (at least 26ha in extent and on a mound rising 8m above the surrounding landscape; Figure 2). …

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