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CROSSROADS Report Summary

Project ID: 263747
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Final Report Summary - CROSSROADS (Crossroads of empires: archaeology, material culture and socio-political relationships in West Africa)

Before our work, nobody knew much about the history of this particular stretch of the Niger River in West Africa. The European explorers who described it in the nineteenth century talked of this region, which is today in the northern part of the Republic of Benin, as an empty, lawless area. Yet we had vague echoes, from texts written five hundred years earlier, that the zone may have been densely populated and involved in long-distance connections. We also had the maps of historians which suggested that it had been a crossroads of many of the empires known from medieval times. For these reasons we felt that the picture of an empty dangerous area might not have been entirely true. We thought that archaeology, which deals with the deep past, and interviews with elders, dealing with the recent history of villages, might help us uncover things we did not know previously.

We conducted archaeological excavations at over 30 sites and interviewed hundreds of living people who told us about the way that political and social groups used to be organised. At one large mound, we found evidence that people had lived there between 400-1300 CE and recovered the remains of a house with mosaic floors destroyed 700 years ago. From all of this we were able to better understand what this region looked like in the past. We can suggest it was a major centre of population 700 years ago. It may well have been the one that we hear about through the Moroccan writer ibn Batutta, but since forgotten.

These results are important not just to this region. That such an unsuspected archaeological landscape existed in this area has important ramifications for questions such as the rise of the medieval political entities of the Sahel, the connection between past and present ethnic groups, cultural exchange along the river and across the Sahara, or the role of slave trading. Through a better understanding of the past of one region, our work allows a fuller understanding of the role of West Africa in the human story.

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United Kingdom
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