The lost caravan of Ma’den Ijafen, Mauritania, with its cargo of cowries and brass, is widely discussed in African archaeology, providing significant insight into the nature of long-distance trade in the medieval period. While the brass bars recovered by Théodore Monod during his expedition to the site in 1962 have received considerable attention, the cowrie shells described in his comprehensive publication of the assemblage in 1969 have received much less coverage. This issue was addressed during a recent visit to the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) in Dakar, Senegal in May 2017, when the authors re-examined the shells as part of a wider project which also involved archaeological and environmental surveys in the Maldives, the oft-assumed source of these shells. Examinations of natural history collections of cowries, ethnographic interviews in the Maldives, and environmental surveys in East Africa were also carried out. Drawing on insights from these surveys, we systematically compared the Ma’den Ijafen cowrie assemblage to three others from the Maldives, focussing on four criteria: species composition and diversity, shell size and evidence of modifications. This analysis enabled us to shed new light on the nature of the Ma’den Ijafen cowries and their wider significance to understanding the role of the shells in West African trade networks.
Projet SAHEL, a multidisciplinary project, was initiated to investigate long-term patterns of human occupation in the environmentally sensitive and archaeologically under- researched Sahel. This paper outlines an initial field survey carried out in this context in December 2004, in the Mékrou Valley, Parc W, Niger. This pilot study incorporated specialists in Palaeolithic and historic archaeology, and aimed to refine our understanding of the chronology and nature of the occupation of this area, an occupation already known from earlier work by other researchers to have been extensive. On the Palaeolithic front, Projet SAHEL carried out sampling aimed at assessing the potential for OSL dating of the Pleistocene sediments lining the Mékrou Valley — dating remains the major unknown in this sequence — and explored questions linked with raw materials procurement and the pattern of Pleistocene landscape use. On the historical front, Projet SAHEL carried out the first systematic collection of ceramic material, and obtained dates on an iron-working episode which allowed the cross-checking of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating and extends the known time-depth of iron-working in the area.