Cultural Mapping in Sierra Leone

28 January 2014

Paul Basu mapping features of the cultural landscape with community members at Yanihun

Paul Basu and Nick Gestrich are undertaking a pilot cultural mapping project in Sierra Leone as part of Paul's British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship on ‘Archives, Histories, Landscapes: Surveying Sierra Leone’s Cultural Memoryscape’.

Paul and Nick are currently in the field and are combining anthropological and archaeological methods to collect oral histories and map the cultural and historical environment at a number of settlement sites throughout the West African country, including Falaba (Sulima Chiefdom), Yagala (Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom), Rotata (Libeisaygahun Chiefdom), Largo (Jiama Bongor Chiefdom), Yanihun (Wunde Chiefdom), Gbandi (Gbo Chiefdom), Rotifunk (Bumpe Chiefdom) and Gbangbama (Fakunya Chiefdom).

This cultural mapping project builds upon archival and ethnographic research on Sierra Leone’s ‘cultural memoryscape’ undertaken by Paul over several years.

Nick Gestrich and Francis Mansaray recording the ruins of a house at the deserted hilltop settlement of Old Yagala

Virtually no archaeological research has been undertaken in Sierra Leone and many historical sites are threatened with destruction through mining and logging. The pilot survey seeks to highlight the value of Sierra Leone’s cultural heritage and its potential for the development of sustainable cultural tourism, for example.

Paul Basu has recently been appointed as an official advisor to Sierra Leone’s Monuments and Relics Commission and the Government of Sierra Leone is beginning to recognize the need to professionalize the culture and heritage sector in order to better safeguard and manage these resources for the future.

Among the sites Paul and Nick are researching are examples of settlement defenses, known as ‘tatana’ in the north and ‘gwehsia’ in the Mende-speaking south. While many oral traditions survive regarding these ‘war towns’ and the warriors who occupied them, very little work has been done to examine the trace of these features in the landscape, which consist of often substantial earthworks and rows of large cotton trees that have grown from palisades. Before leaving Sierra Leone, Paul will be presenting the results of the pilot survey to the Sierra Leonean government, making recommendations regarding developing community heritage management plans, and outlining a methodology for a more extensive cultural mapping project.

Paul Basu, Reader in Material Culture and Museum Studies, recently curated the ‘Sowei Mask: Spirit of Sierra Leone’ exhibition at the British Museum and launched the www.sierraleoneheritage.org website, an output of his 3-year AHRC-funded ‘Reanimating Cultural Heritage’ project. Nick Gestrich is an Honorary Research Associate at the Institute, having recently completed a PhD on the archaeology of social organisation in first-millennium AD Mali.