Excavation of Jenne-Jeno (1974–1998)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013



The markets in Jenne-jeno c.1000 AD by Charles Santore.


American archaeologists Rod and Susan McIntosh significantly advanced our understanding of the archaeology of Iron Age Africa through their excavation of the mound at Jenne-Jeno, located on the upper Niger River Delta, in the modern African state of Mali. During the 1970s and 1980s, the impact of African political independence on archaeology was demonstrated by the initiation of numerous regional studies, which focused on local origins and developments. The sites of Jenne-Jeno (ancient Jenne) and Jenne itself spanned 2,000 years of occupation and, because of the archaeological work at the site, were subsequently inscribed on the World Heritage List. 

It was well known, and described in detail by Arab chroniclers, that between AD 800 and 1500 the wealthy and sophisticated Sudanese kingdoms of Ghana, Gao, Takrur, Tegdauost, and Mali dominated the western Sudan, between Lake Chad and the Atlantic Ocean, and the resources and trade routes farther south, and across central and west Africa. During the nineteenth century these Sudanic kingdoms became French colonies, and during the early twentieth century they were part of French West Sudan. Before the 1960s their historical significance was determined by their relationship with North Africa. 

This "Arabist perspective" meant that the cultural and political achievements of these Sudanic people were seen to be the direct result of their contact and trade with North Africa. French archaeologists and historians who worked in the region were responsible for this colonial attitude, but this does not diminish their contributions to its history and archaeology. The French identified, surveyed, and protected many of the major sites and compiled a detailed history of the region and its long relationship with the Arab/Berber world. They also began the rediscovery of the protohistory of western Africa and the Sudanic kingdoms and began to educate local African archaeologists after World War II. During the 1970s French archaeologist Raymond Mauny excavated the Sudanic kingdom sites of Koumbi Saleh and Gao. 

Nonetheless, until the 1970s the whole sub-Saharan nature of the Sudanic kingdoms was ignored. Instead, historians concentrated on its architecture, inscriptions, trans-Sahara trade, and imports, but rarely investigated the local context and content of these sites. Indeed, a rereading of Arab chronicles during this period reveals detailed descriptions of local pagan cults, fetishes, shrines, and sorcery, which were distinctly West African in provenance, but had neither been noticed nor investigated. It became obvious that if historical sources contained such different perspectives, then a scientific and thorough archaeological investigation and analysis of these sites was bound to come up with neglected evidence about the origins and development of complex societies in the Sudanic kingdoms before Arab contact. During the 1980s the consolidation of political independence in Africa impelled archaeological investigations to answer some important questions about the African past. 

Jenne-Jeno (or Djenne) was an important staging post on one of the wealthiest and most famous trade routes that operated across Africa over the past 500 years. Gold, mined to the south of Jenne, was transported to this river town, and then shipped in canoes to Timbuktu. From there it was sent via camel trains to North Africa, and then on to Europe. Jenne-Jeno also supplied the arid inland town of Timbuktu with most of its food in the form of cereals and dried fish. 

The excavation of the large, six-meter-deep occupation mound, and the analyis of data by the McIntoshes, revealed that the city of Jenne-Jeno was founded 2,250 years ago (ca. 250 BC) by iron-using people who herded stock; fished and hunted; grew rice, millet, and sorghum; and were also craftspeople and traders. The excavation of another two sites at Jenne-Jeno provided evidence that the city had grown rapidly throughout the first millennium AD until it covered, at its greatest extent, 76 acres in AD 850, when its population was estimated to be around 27,000 people. During this period Jenne-Jeno was surrounded by a 4-meter-high and 2-kilometer-long, mud brick defense wall. After AD 1200 Jenne-Jeno's population declined, and it was abandoned 200 years later. 

The excavation of Jenne-Jeno proved that urban settlement and a complex society (based on the creation of enough food surplus to trade for raw materials, such as iron and copper, via long distance and east-west trade in West Africa) had developed long before the trans-Saharan trade with the North African Arabs, which was documented as beginning after the ninth century AD. The idea that the Sudanic kingdoms were the result of contact with northern Africa was disproved, as was the idea that Black Africa was incapable of "civilization" without northern influences. Here was an indigenous, wealthy, Iron Age culture of great social, cultural, and political sophistication, in contact with and influencing the rest of West Africa a long time before the arrival of Arabs or Europeans.

Further Reading Connah, G. 2004. Forgotten Africa: an introduction to its archaeology. London: Routledge. MacIntosh, R. J. 2001. Africa, Francophone. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 21-35. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. MacIntosh, S. K. 2001. Africa, Sudanic Kingdoms. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 71-78. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. McIntosh, S. K., and R. J. McIntosh. 1980. Prehistoric investigations in the region of Jenne, Mali: A study in the development of urbanism in the Sahel. Oxford: BAR. Muzzolini, A. 2001. Africa, Sahara. In Encyclopedia of archaeology: History and discoveries, ed. T. Murray, 71-78. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

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