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UCL Qatar’s first visiting researcher publishes article on early West African Gold Trade

7 December 2011

Sam Nixon

Gold has consistently interested scholars, collectors and the general public through the ages. Within the history of Islamic trade, West Africa occupies a crucial position as it was the most important source of gold for the Islamic world for practically the entire early Islamic period. Dr Sam Nixon, currently working at UCL Qatar as its first visiting researcher, has published an article in the December issue of the prestigious archaeological journal Antiquity that sheds new light on the early Islamic gold trade with West Africa. This article is being published together with UCL Qatar’s Director, Professor Thilo Rehren, whose expertise lies in the area of archaeometallurgy, as well as in collaboration with Dr Maria Filomena Guerra of CNRS Paris, an expert in early gold chemistry.



Since 2004 Sam has been the director of an archaeological excavation focused on the site of the West African trading town of Tadmekka, known within Arabic sources from the 9th to the 14th centuries AD, and located today in the Republic of Mali. During these excavations a series of artefacts related to the gold trade were recovered, including moulds used for producing a gold coinage dating from the 9th -10th centuries AD. In the eleventh century the historian Al-Bakri provided a description of Tadmekka which included the assertion that ‘their dinars are called “bald” because they are of pure gold without any stamp’. This statement has often been disbelieved as there has never been any material evidence of any form of coinage in West Africa. The new research has now shown that Tadmekka’s gold coinage has been a reality. What is more, it has been possible from the  traces of gold attached to the moulds to show that this coinage was of an extremely high purity of gold (98%). As detailed in the Antiquity publication, as well as bringing back to life what must have been one of the first real icons of the West African gold trade, the evidence provides the basis for reconsidering other neglected references to early Islamic coinages amongst the West African gold trading towns and states.

Sam, who is soon to start as a Post-Doctoral researcher in African archaeology at the University of East Anglia in the UK, is currently writing up a wider account of the excavations at Tadmekka to be published next year in the Journal of African Archaeology Monograph Series. To enable him to collaborate with UCL Qatar staff and to have a focused period of writing in order to complete his book,  Sam was invited to UCL Qatar as its first visiting researcher. He will be in based in Doha until mid-December 2011.

Sam is the first of a series of visiting researchers who will come to UCL Qatar as part of its expansive and inclusive program of research and teaching into the archaeology and cultural heritage of the Islamic and Arab world. Research to be conducted by future visiting scholars will include a focus on some of UCL’s existing research projects, for example on Bronze Age Egypt, on the capital of Ramses II, which has run for more than 30 years. UCL staff are looking domestically too, with one particular interest being the Zubara project, where collaboration in terms of conservation is to be explored. UCL Qatar have developed progressive Masters degree programmes in Archaeology of the Arab and Islamic World, and in Conservation and Museum Studies. These courses will commence in September 2012. PhD opportunities are also available in related fields. In addition to teaching, academic staff at UCL Qatar are developing a wide-ranging program of field and desk based research.