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Sam Nixon Ph.D. (University College London)


Excavations at Essouk-Tadmakka (Republic of Mali): new archaeological investigations of Early Islamic trans-Saharan trade.

View across the central area of town ruins at Essouk-Tadmakka
Figure 1. View across the central area of town ruins at Essouk-Tadmakka.

Research context and objectives.

The research at Essouk-Tadmakka (see figs. 1 and 2), a site in the north of Mali, was developed to provide new archaeological perspectives on the early Islamic era of trans-Saharan trade (AD 650-1500), an era which saw the limited trans-Saharan connections established in Carthaginian and Roman times develop into a flourishing commercial system as West African gold, slaves and ivory were exchanged in huge quantities for North African market products. The research was conducted as the core element of a PhD thesis at UCL (see Nixon 2008). This research was motivated by the recognition that historical sources, while offering useful insights into Early Islamic trans-Saharan commerce (see e.g. Levtzion & Hopkins 2000), are unable to answer certain key questions concerning Early Islamic trans-Saharan trade due to inherent limitations in source material. Additionally, although previous archaeology has provided useful data, its analytical application has been limited. This is largely because most relevant archaeological work was done 30 or more years ago (see e.g. Berthier 1997 on the site of Koumbi Saleh, associated with ancient Ghana; Insoll 1996 and 2000 on Gao; and Devisse 1983 on Tegdaoust, associated with ancient Awdaghust – see fig. 2) and was technologically or methodologically limited in aspects of artefactual analysis and radiometric dating. Having assessed previous scholarly investigations, it was decided that improved understanding of Early Islamic trans-Saharan trade would be best served by a new field project. Accordingly, excavations were undertaken at the previously untested entrepot site of Essouk-Tadmakka, one of the major Early Islamic trade centres referred to within Early Arabic historical sources, situated within the key exchange zone of the trade, the West African Sahel.

Developed by reference to the key areas of research inadequately dealt with by previous scholarly work, the research objectives for the Essouk project were as follows:

1) to improve our understanding of the changing scale of Early Islamic trans-Saharan trade over time and space, with particular reference to the earliest period of this trade (c.650-1000AD).

2) to use a combination of archaeological and historical sources to analyse the changing socio-economic and cultural situation of the entrepot site of Essouk-Tadmakka and relate this to broader shifts in the organization and functioning of the entrepot system.

3) to further understanding of the movement of trans-Saharan commodities and their possible archaeological correlates.

Essouk-Tadmakka’s location within West Africa and Mali
Figure 2. Map illustrating Essouk-Tadmakka’s location within West Africa and Mali,
and its position within the Early Islamic trans-Saharan system.

The site of Essouk, its previous study and social context.

The site of Essouk is located 45 kilometres North-West of Kidal in the semi-autonomous Tuareg region in the north of Mali (see fig. 2). Essouk is the current toponym for Tadmakka, a major trans-Saharan trading entrepot and important Berber political centre described in Arabic geographical texts from the 10th to the 15th centuries AD (see Levtzion & Hopkins 2000), situated on trade routes running from Tunisia and Libya to the Niger Bend (see fig. 2). It was said the treasure houses of Tadmakka were filled with sacks of gold likened to ‘puppies piled one on another’ (Levtzion & Hopkins 2000: 91) and it is references such as these which have led to Tadmakka being seen as one of the greatest West African trans-Saharan trading cities in the era before Timbuktu (Mauny 1961; Insoll 2003).

Essouk is located at a point on the Wadi Essouk where it runs through a dense area of cliffs and rocky hills (see fig. 3). The Essouk town ruins, consisting of the remains of stone structures, are located either side of the wadi and on an island within the wadi. The town ruins cover an area of approximately 50 hectares. The surface remains, stone-built structures standing up to two metres high in places, for the most part consist of commercial/housing compounds, caravanserai and livestock enclosures, and some mosques are also evidenced. Essouk is also well known for the extensive body of Arabic inscriptions found in the cemeteries which surround the central area of town ruins (see e.g. fig.4) and in the cliffs around the site, these including the earliest dated inscription in West Africa, dated to 1013-14 AD (Moraes Farias 2003). Numerous petroglyphs depicting peoples and fauna dating from the Iron Age and earlier can also be found in the immediate environs of the site (see e.g. fig. 5).

Map showing the Essouk ruins
Figure 3. Map showing the Essouk ruins in relation to the Wadi Essouk and
surrounding cliffs, and also illustrating excavation locations (adapted from
Mauny 1961 and Moraes Farias 2003).

Regarding academic study of Essouk, in the colonial era surface archaeological studies were carried out including epigraphic study (Gauthier 1907; de Gironcourt 1920) and superficial sub-surface prospections were also conducted (Mauny 1961). More recently extensive studies have been made of the site’s epigraphy (Moraes-Farias 2003), and good sampling of its petroglyphs has been carried out (Dupuy 1999). Prospective surface archaeology has also been conducted (Cressier 1988) but the proposed sub-surface archaeology that this was seen as a forerunner to was sidelined as a result of the Malian civil war that took place between the Tuareg and the Malian government from 1990 to 1996. In the 1980s local groups conducted furtive clandestine sub-surface investigations at the site (see below) but these were rapidly brought to a halt by government representatives. Prior to the excavations detailed here therefore no systematic sub-surface archaeology had been carried out.

One of the Essouk cemeteries
Figure 4. One of the cemeteries associated with the Essouk town ruins.

Petroglyph showing women of ancient Essouk
Figure 5. Petroglyph showing women of ancient Essouk.

In the aftermath of the civil war – which led to the Tuareg region of Kidal gaining semi-autonomy from the Malian government – the ‘Mission Culturelle Essouk’ was created (see website www.kidal.info for further information), working along the lines of the ‘Missions’ established in the south of the country (such as that at the famous medieval town of Djenne), addressing heritage and education issues related to the site. The creation of this ‘Mission’ was proposed as one of a series of ways in which the Malian government could attempt to include the Tuareg region within the national agenda. Essouk is also being proposed by the Malian government as a Unesco World Heritage site, another expression of the government’s willingness/desire to recognize the site as ‘Malian’ heritage. However, there is another movement afoot which focuses on the site of Essouk. The granting of semi-autonomy to the Tuareg has not completely satisfied those calling for a Tuareg nation state, a fact dramatically evidenced by the recent (May 2006) armed attacks on government army positions in the towns of Kidal and Menaka. Certain voices seek to use the site of Essouk as some form of historical precedent for a future Tuareg state, Tadmakka being imagined as the capital city of a powerful and glorious medieval Tuareg nation (see George Klute article on ‘kidal’ website listed above). One expression of this desire to recapture history to mobilize the contemporary Tuareg can be seen at the annual (since 2003) ‘Festival in the Desert’ (see Fig.6) that is held at the site (again see ‘kidal’ internet site). While the festival has organizational links with the Malian government, there is a distinct feeling that this celebration of the culture of the Tuareg at their ancestral site provides a platform for those wishing to continue the struggle for political independence. In line with this continuing desire for self-governance, there is clear opposition to the moves to see Essouk as part of a broader Malian heritage. Specifically, there is opposition to the government’s desire to establish the site on the Unesco World Heritage list as local people see it as part of their day to day environment, and any suggestion that the Malian government might be ‘interfering’ with it will be met with protest.

Camel display performance at Essouk festival
Figure 6. Camel display performance at Essouk festival, Dec. 2004-Jan. 2005

So, it was in this context that the archaeological research took place at the site in 2004-2005. While certain local groups had a degree of hostility to the linkage of the research to the Malian government, certain Tuareg political leaders were very keen to have subsurface archaeology conducted at the site in order to demonstrate the great and glorious past of Essouk. Indeed, there is a certain precedent for the recognition of archaeology’s usefulness for current political motives in that amateur excavations had actually taken place at the site in the 1980s as a local Tuareg group dug at one of the mosques on the site in order to demonstrate their ancestral links to Essouk (see Moraes Farias 2003).

The excavations.

Following a limited surface collection in December 2004 and January 2005 a 7 week excavation season was carried out at Essouk running through to March 2005.

Excavations were conducted at three locations on the site which proved to be of interest from the surface collection and survey (see fig. 3). Two excavation units were located in the eastern area of the site (units EKA and EKB) and one unit was located on the island (EKC). From the results of these excavations a solid initial archaeological sequence was established for the site, its dating based upon secure AMS radiocarbon dates. The following summarizes the sequence which was constructed from the excavated deposits (depth measurements relate to unit EKA, the only unit which evidenced all the periods referred to below and the main basis for constructing the excavated sequence):

• Period 1 (pre-AD 750; c.670–510cms below surface): evidence for semi-permanent structures (post-hole evidence) associated with relatively intensive occupation; no evidence for trans-Saharan or long-distance trade;
• Period 2 (AD 750-950; 510–290cms below surface): commences with first permanent architecture evidenced (stone and pisé) which is associated with trans-Saharan trade goods including glass and imported grain (wheat); multiple following occupations see rebuilding of permanent architecture and continued presence of trade goods including evidence of gold coin production and large quantities of vessel and bead glass; site expansion evidenced;
• Period 3a (AD 950-1100; 290-230cms below surface): continued rebuilding of permanent architectural structures and evidence for trans-Saharan trade goods including large quantities of vessel and bead glass and glazed ceramics; continued site expansion;
• Period 3b (AD 1100-1300; 230-190cms): evidence for construction of elaborate permanent structures and evidence for trade goods including large quantities of sub-Saharan imported pottery and also some imported grain (wheat); noticeable changes include limited imported North African material culture, evidence for some site retraction and other material culture and faunal changes;
• Period 4 (AD 1300 -1400; 190cms below surface – surface): continued evidence for permanent architectural occupation, seen by reference to surface remains to be over a wide area, but limited artefactual evidence for trade; radical changes seen in the recovered remains including changes in architecture, material culture, faunal remains and archaeobotany.

The following images from unit EKA (Figs. 7 – 9) give an idea of the deposits encountered during the sequence:

Excavated abandoned room space
Figure 7. Excavated abandoned room space (c.14th century).

Tea-break in excavated ante-chamber
Figure 8. Tea-break in excavated ante-chamber
containing red-ochre seating platform (c.13th century).

Looking into unit EKA to the base of the walls
Figure 9. Looking into unit EKA to the base of the walls (base of walls c.8th century).

Excavated material culture and ecofacts and their analysis.

The following is a summary of the material culture and ecofacts recovered during excavations and their analysis:

• West African pottery (19,723 specimens). Dominated by Berber tradition ware having the following broad attributes: chaff-tempered (c.96%); low-decorated (9-15%); little wheel throwing (c.7%); limited slipping (11-24%); rare painting (0.4-3.7%); simple rim forms but also collared and thickened rim vessels; rim diameter average 10-20cms; handles minimal presence (except late period); cord décor dominant. Some significant minority assemblages include early Mande tradition pottery and long-distance imports from the Niger River zone. Consultation, Kevin MacDonald (UCL). Petrographic and SEM examination, Kevin MacDonald and Dorian Fuller (UCL).
• Glass beads (389). Mainly small-medium (3-9.5mm) drawn monochrome beads; also wound beads (13 identified) and polychrome beads (13) including a dichroic bead. Consultation, James Lankton (UCL). Chemical analysis using SEM by James Lankton and LA-ICP-MS by Laure Dussubieux (Chicago Field Museum) and Peter Robertshaw (California State University).
• Vessel glass (168). Mainly sherds of mass-produced blown glass of a good quality, untreated for colour. Notable items include de-colorized glass and a rare red sherd. This glass could be ‘cullet’ shipped for reuse rather than remains of whole vessels. Consultation, St John Simpson (British Museum). Chemical analysis, Dussubieux as above.
• Glazed ceramics (30): Seemingly common North African wares but one Chinese piece (Quingbai). Formal consultation, Derek Kennet (Durham University), Venetia Porter (British Museum) & Regina Krahl (Sothebys).
• Textiles (2 ): 1 silk and 1 cotton/silk. Physical and microscopic analysis, Sandra Bond (UCL).
• Metal objects (291 – form of vessels only preliminarily studied so far): Iron (211), copper (80) and silver (1). Many common utilitarian items but also a key, jewellery and coins. Lead isotope analysis, Thomas Fenn (University of Arizona), microprobe analysis, Laure Dussubieux.
• Archaeometallugical debris (38): mainly remains of iron-working but also copper-working and 3 gold coin mould fragments evidenced. Consultation: Thilo Rehren (UCL). XRF and microscopic analyses, Thilo Rehren. Lead isotope analysis, Thomas Fenn. PIXE analysis (of gold droplets) Maria Filomena Guerra (C.R.R.M., Paris).
• Stone/lithics (27): semi-precious stones/debris, flint tools and debris, colourants, stone bowl and bracelet. Consultation: Thilo Rehren and Elizabeth Bloxom (UCL)
• Non-glass beads (11): beads of semi-precious stone, fossil, shell and ivory. Consultation: Kevin MacDonald.
• Other ceramic objects (10): including a gold weight and spindle whorls.
• Faunal remains (723 NISP identified – a highly communated assemblage): 94% bovids, sheep/goat dominant with domestic cattle an important minority; other domesticates (equids, camel, dog and fowl) and wild animals. Analysis, Kevin MacDonald.
• Shell remains (36): Mainly eggshell (principally ostrich) but also cowries (8). Consultation, Ken Thomas (UCL); consultation and microscopic analysis Jane Siddell (UCL).
• Archaeobotanical remains (452 specimens– sampling only from EKA): including good quantities of cereals (including wheat), legumes, fruits, and wild/weed taxa and also some oil/fibre plants. Analysis by Mary Anne Murray (UCL) and Dorian Fuller (UCL) using comparative collections and SEM.

Project conclusions.

The project has demonstrated archaeology’s ability to further our understanding of the core research issues of trans-Saharan trade. In addition to this, the Essouk project has provided a well-dated occupational sequence for this key site, and has enabled the activation of a wide range of specialist analyses on materials stemming from the site.

Research into the changing scale of trade over time and space.

The excavated archaeological remains from Essouk provide fundamentally new perspectives on the pacing of Early Islamic trans-Saharan trade in its earliest stages, demonstrating the existence of a significant trans-Saharan trade with West Africa as far back as the 8th century AD, a full 200 years or so before the date when major trans-Saharan trade is traditionally seen to have begun (see e.g. Devisse 1988). In addition to simply providing an ‘earlier date,’ this finding has shown potential for reopening debates surrounding the cultural systems operating in the earliest years of the Early Islamic trade which have fallen by the wayside in recent years, namely those concerning the Ibadi trading groups (see e.g. Savage 1992). In addition, the wider implications of this early date provides the potential for injecting new life into the archaeological investigation of the earliest years of the Early Islamic trade, both in terms of reassessing past work and in terms of stimulating interest in pursuing work at new sites.

The Essouk project has also provided new ideas on the 10th century explosion of trade. It has clearly demonstrated that this ‘trade boom’ was not confined to the far western route leading from Morocco to Mauritania as has been maintained by previous archaeological and historical research (see Devisse 1988). The important finding of a parallel ‘trade boom’ in the trade corridors from Algeria/Tunisia/Libya to Essouk not only provides another clear rewriting of the account of the pacing and development of the Early Islamic trade, but also provides stimulus for thinking differently about the socio-economic developments in these trade corridors to Essouk in the 10th to 11th centuries.

Research into the organization and culture of the entrepot system.

The Essouk data provides clear new perspectives on the organization and culture of the entrepot system. The utility of the Essouk data for investigating this issue is firstly seen when it is combined with data from previous archaeologies to show that major discontinuities appeared to take place within the entrepot system from the 11th century during the height of the trade. This 11th century point in the trade has up until now been perceived as being part of a period of relative continuity within the entrepot system stretching from the 10th to the 13th centuries (see e.g. Insoll 2003). The shift seen to take place is broadly speaking a growth of trading centres further south from this period, in greater proximity to the Sudanic powers of Ghana and Gao, and an associated reduction in the market role of the older more established centres of Tadmakka and Awdaghust, despite the continued existence of these centres as important stopover and entrepot points within the trade. In addition to simply highlighting the evidence for discontinuity, suggestions are made as to the significance of this (see Nixon in press), it being demonstrated how this appears to be a sign of a power shift brought about by Sahelian groups who became allied with the Almoravid movement which occurred at this time.

The excavated evidence also shows how in Essouk’s later stages (14th century) the site appeared to experience an invasion, one which has not been recounted in Arabic documents; this appears to have been an invasion by Saharan Berber groups. This introduces new ideas into our understanding of the organization and culture of the entrepot system at the height of Mali’s power as the infiltration of the trading entrepot system by Saharan Berber groups is traditionally not seen to have taken place until the 15th century, when Mali had already begun to decline (see Levtzion 1992).

In addition to the above new perspectives, the Essouk data –both excavation and surface collection data – provides a good account of the chronology and cultural life of Essouk in its terminal occupation (c.1400AD), essential data for a broad understanding of the later shifts in the functioning of the entrepot system.

Research into the movement of Trans-Saharan commodities and their archaeological correlates.

The excavations provide a good account of the range of North African material culture imports arriving at Essouk during the Early Islamic period (e.g. glass beads, vessel glass, glazed ceramics, textiles and wheat), data which has previously been unavailable. The Essouk project has thereby provided a strong data set to stand alongside those of the other major Early Islamic entrepot sites in the Western Sahel. Rare individual items were also evidenced, such as red glass, silk and a Qingbai pot, thereby diversifying our understanding of the commodities moving within the trade system. More important than these findings however was the evidencing of 9th/10th century gold coin moulds which provide the basis for a rethinking of certain fundamental ideas about the gold trade, including when it started, the extent and nature of gold-working south of the Sahara, as well as notions about where gold was coming from in the earliest era of the trade. The Essouk findings have also demonstrated, hopefully once and for all, the methodological fallacy of substantiating the presence or absence of trans-Saharan trade activity according to the presence or absence of the archaeologically recoverable durable material culture items of glass-beads, non-bead glass and glazed ceramics, a fallacy hinted at previously (Insoll 2003) but not clearly demonstrated archaeologically. The evidence for gold coin production at Essouk in stratigraphic levels before glass-beads, non-bead glass and glazed ceramics are present in any quantity clearly demonstrates that we can no longer rely on this category of material culture as a means of tracking the trade.

In addition to simply exposing the problems inherent in previous treatments of the movement of trans-Saharan commodities, the Essouk project has provided clear methodological directives for establishing new archaeological ways of tracking the trade. Firstly, we argue that the establishment of permanent architectural settlements in the northern Sahel should be accepted as a significant indicator of the development of trade and accordingly it must be used as one of the fundamental archaeological correlates of trade. In addition to this the Essouk evidence asks us to consider other types of archaeological evidence as markers of trade. We show how such archaeologically recoverable material as couscousiere fragments, keys, North African botanical imports and ‘foreign’ sub-Saharan ceramic traditions can be used as a means of gaining insight into significant trade processes in the earliest era of trade (8th century). Again, in evidencing gold coin moulds we showed that major trade was occurring at Essouk in the 9th century: indeed, without the identification of these objects, if we were relying purely upon glass beads, vessel glass and glazed ceramics as a guide to the presence of trade, the definitive evidence for major 9th century trade at Essouk would not have been evidenced. Later in the sequence, after the boom of glass beads, vessel glass and glazed ceramics has passed, we showed how a careful study of Niger River basin pottery at the site was clear evidence for continuing north-south trade moving through the site in the 12th and 13th centuries. Once again, if we had relied purely on North African material culture to make our judgements concerning the scale of trade, we would have arrived at a different conclusion because North African material culture imports are barely present in the 12th and 13th century Essouk sequence.

It can be seen therefore that the project’s handling of material culture has led both to a fresh account of the trans-Saharan trade at Essouk, and has provided new methodological directives for moving beyond variably present North African material culture as the ‘tracker’ for trans-Saharan trade.

Further contributions of the project.

The first additional contribution of the excavation project beyond its immediate research aims is that the fieldwork project at Essouk recorded and absolutely dated a very well-preserved and therefore secure occupational and material culture sequence for the site of Essouk, recognized as one of the four key earliest Islamic sites of trans-Saharan trade in West Africa. It should be remembered that prior to this project this site was unexcavated. In providing a well-dated sequence the project has significantly added to the data set of Early Islamic archaeology in West Africa.

In addition to simply providing a descriptive data set of the artefactual evidence found at Essouk, the undertaking of expert level analysis on the material cultural and ecofactual evidence has meant that ‘expert standard’ data sets have been generated for the majority of Essouk materials. Importantly, much of this data has also been activated for site interpretation rather than leaving it in an amorphous state.

Further research deriving from the project is already in production, including work on the following: ‘sub-Saharan gold coin production 1000 years ago’; ‘gold chemistry and trans-Saharan trade’; ‘the movement of copper in the trans-Saharan system’; ‘the chemistry of Eary Islamic glass in the trans-Saharan trade’; ‘tracking long-distance trade of Niger Basin ceramics through petrography and SEM’; ‘plant usage within the Early Islamic West African Sahel’.

Final word.

It is hoped that the importance of these initial research findings from Essouk will generate further interest and future research at the site, as well as associated interest in the various forms of new archaeological data which this project has generated.

A publication is in press on the Essouk excavations with Azania: archaeological research in Africa, due to appear in July 2009 (see www.tandf.co.uk/journals/raza). This contains more extensive description and illustration of the excavations, greater detail on the material culture and ecofacts recovered and more in-depth discussion of the project conclusions.


The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, University College London Graduate School, the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the University of London Central Research Fund. Thanks are due to the Institut des Sciences Humaines and the Direction Nationale de la Patrimoine Culturelle in Mali for respectively authorizing and assisting in fieldwork at Essouk. In Mali particular thanks are due to Jean-Pierre Tita of the Mission Culturelle Essouk for his great help during the project. Huge thanks are due to Kevin MacDonald for his guidance of the project. Also thanks are due to Paulo de Moraes Farias for his insights into Essouk and research there. Additionally all other researchers mentioned above are greatly thanked for their efforts. And lastly thanks are due to my family for their wonderful support throughout the project.


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© 2007 Editor, Sada Mire, and the individual authors of these African Heritage and Archaeology webpages

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