Almost seven hundred years ago, North African traveler ibn Battuta described the use of cowrie shells as adornment and currency in both the Maldives and Mali. Though these regions were a quarter of a world apart, they were linked by networks that moved people, things and ideas over long distances. This talk will draw on archaeological and museological work in the Maldives and West Africa that aimed to explore the chronology and channels of the distribution of cowrie shells. One big question mark here surrounds the routes along the Red Sea. Although the Red Sea has long linked the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean, and its ports tied into terrestrial routes into the interior of Africa and Arabia, its role in the medieval period is only patchily known. An examination of the evidence on cowrie trading networks naturally involves a consideration of other items which may have moved along these routes, most particularly low-fired cooking wares and high-status metals. In the final part of the talk, I will propose general ideas on the overlapping cultural worlds and processes of global connectivity which moved cowries and other items in the medieval period.
Anne Haour is a Professor in the Arts and Archaeology of Africa and Director of the Centre for African Art and Archaeology at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. Her research broadly construed consists of unravelling the complexities of the relationship between people, objects and political entities, with a focus on the medieval period. As an anthropologically trained archaeologist, she also relies on historical sources to explore how artefacts reflect political and cultural connections; how we can detect the way people categorized themselves and built trust with others; and how the ways in which people made things, lived, died, and ate, reflect their world of experience (encompassing both internal processes and connections with outside communities).
Her early work was in the West African Sahel, and she led field projects in several parts of Niger and in northern Benin. In the latter region, working over five years (2011-2016), her team was the first to carry out systematic research and a previously unsuspected density of medieval settlement was identified. An intriguing site said by local historians to be the source of imperial wealth in the form of cowries led her to her next project, exploring the medieval routes and actors by which cowries came into Africa, and the cultural construction of value of these shells.
Beyond her specialist work, Professor Haour has expanded her regional and disciplinary range with comparative work, using her field studies as a springboard for broader themes such as rulership, war, trade and religion, with the aim to help situate the African continent within studies of the medieval past. Her work has examined topics such as rulers’ status, migration and technological transfers, networks of trust, trade diasporas, and notions of incoming kings and blacksmiths, widening her audience to medieval historians and archaeologists working across the globe. She has published over 80 works, including seven books.
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