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- PhD student (University of Oxford)
The Lower Tilemsi Valley Project
The Lower Tilemsi Valley in northeastern Mali has long been cited as a key region in the development of sedentism and food production in sub-Saharan West Africa (Smith 1974a, MacDonald 1994, Neumann 2005). Yet, reference to this region has long been out of date. This research project is funded by a full AHRC doctoral award, and aims to address some of fundamental, but as yet, unanswered questions about cultural development in the Lower Tilemsi Valley. Fieldwork has been funded by the AHRC, and subsequent grants from the University of Oxford, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and the Royal Anthropological Institute. Excavation was carried out by myself, in collaboration with the Directional National du Patrimoine Culturelle, Bamako (Soumaila Coulibaly), and the Direction Regionale de la Jeunesse, Gao (Mouktarde Touré).
The aims of this research are;
- To refine the archaeological chronology of Karkarichinkat and clarify its significance in regards to the later prehistory of sub-Saharan West Africa.
- To test contemporaneity and typological diversity between neighbouring sites
- To date the introduction of domesticated livestock and millet (Pennisetum glaucum) into Sub-Saharan West Africa.
- To date the ironworking occupation of the valley, and assess its temporal and spatial relationship to the LSA phase of occupation.
This project follows only a handful of prior investigations, undertaken in the 1970’s, and 1980’s. Mauny first highlighted the region in 1954, obtaining a C14 date of 1360 cal BC from surface material at Karkarichinkat Nord (Mauny 1955). More recently, Andrew Smith’s (1974a;b, 1975) excavations at Karkarichinkat Nord, and the neighbouring site of Karkarichinkat Sud, revealed evidence for a developed agro-pastoral economy, in the form of domesticated millet and livestock, which he suggests date to the end of the 3 rd millennium BC.
Beyond Karkarichinkat, little excavation work has been undertaken. The Gaussens (1988) published a detailed report of the surface materials collected during their survey of the 700km long Tilemsi Valley. They suggest that three principal cultural Facies represent the LSA phase of occupation. The site of Asselar, located 230km north from Gao, is the type site of Facies “A” for the Upper Tilemsi, representing a Saharan pastoral component dating from the mid-sixth millennium bp. Further south, the sites of Karkarichinkat Nord and Sud characterise the 4 th millennium bp Facies “K”. And stylistically similar to the Facies “K”, but undated, the Gaussens have described a further Facies “B” from the nearby sites of In Begouen and Tin Aoukert. The successive timing, and broad stylistic parallels between these cultural Facies and those found to the south in the Middle Niger, and Sahelian regions have often been cited as evidence that the Tilemsi Valley acted as a human corridor during the later Holocene.
However, due to political instability in the region, archaeological work has been at a complete standstill since the mid 1980s. In 2005, we began first of a two part excavation programme at the site of Karkarichinkat Nord, opening three 2x2m trenches, reaching basal deposits at 2.50m. A further four 2x2m trenches did not reach basal deposits due to time constraints and were excavated to c.1.50m. Nine additional trenches were located over eroding burial features, revealing eleven human skeletons, which were excavated and analysed by Brian Finucane from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, University of Oxford (Finucane, Manning and Touré, In press).
In April 2006, I returned to the Tilemsi Valley, marking out a survey area, 20km in radius around the site of Karkarichinkat Nord. Over a period of two weeks with the help of Souleymane Ag Kiyou (Chef du Village) and Ayouba Ag Moussilim, we identified 86 multi period sites.
In January 2007 I returned to the Tilemsi Valley for a second field season, focusing test excavations on a sample of seven sites that had been identified the preceding year. With a reduced team of only 5 local workmen, myself and Mouktarde Touré, and later Soumaila Coulibaly, a total of 7 3x3 m trenches, and two furnace structures were excavated to basal deposits. I am sincerely grateful to all the team members for their support and hard work. I am especially grateful to Klessigue Sanogo, Mouktarde Touré, Ayouba Ag Moussilim, Moussa Ag Idwal, Souleymane Ag Kiyou, and Sedou and Maimouna Diouara.
Over two seasons of excavation, we collected an enormous amount of data. At present I am occupied with a detailed analysis of the ceramic, lithic, faunal, archaeobotanical and small find materials, which will contribute a significant assemblage to an otherwise under-studied region.
The results of these analyses, as well as details on the chronology, and individual features of the 2006/2007 excavations will be presented in my thesis, which I hope to complete by April 2008.
But, for now, here are a few of the best bits...
Figure 1 shows a complete articulated cow skeleton, found within a burial feature, 2.45m below the surface of Karkarichinkat, and cut into the primary occupation levels. Surrounding the pit were a set of post-holes, suggestive of a protective wooden structure. This feature has been dated to 2580 – 2459 cal BC, and offers fascinating comparison to the earlier cow burials found in the Ténére region to the north east (Brass 2007; Paris 2000).
Figure 2 illustrates the modified incisor and canine teeth of one of the female skeletons from Karkarichinkat Nord. This individual has been dated to 2479 – 2292 cal BC, and represents the earliest securely dated evidence for dental mutilation.
Figures 3-7 show a collection of small finds retrieved during the first field season at Karkarichinkat Nord. Form the two seasons of excavation more than 500 similar small finds were recovered.
Figure 8 shows a pre-excavation shot of one of the furnace structures excavated in 2007. OSL dating of these structures, currently being done by the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, University of Oxford, will help in beginning to understand the Iron Age occupation of this region.
The Lower Tilemsi Valley is an undeniably wealthy region in terms of archaeology, and the history of Sub-Saharan West Africa. But, due to political and environmental hostility, the area has remained a relative terra incognita. This project hopes to revive that interest, first sparked by Andrew Smith, and Jean and Michel Gaussen, and establish a premise for future investigations.
© 2007 Editor, Sada Mire, and the individual authors of these African Heritage and Archaeology webpages
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