Art & Artists / Exhibitions / Crossroads of Empires

Crossroads of Empires : Archaeology in West Africa

21 October - 1 February 2015

Exhibiting an archaeological process

Crossroads of Empires is a large-scale research project led by University of East Anglia archaeologist Anne Haour, which aims to help us better understand West Africa’s past during the last 1500 years.

Media depictions of Africa often focus on famine and environmental catastrophes: Anne Haour’s team wanted to show another side of the story.

The exhibition Crossroads of Empires shares the experience of pursuing research into the African past, both to communicate the rich history of Africa and to provide a window into the modern landscape and culture of Africa, as well as giving give a sense of what it is like to work there.

The exhibition is a unique opportunity to see the objects unearthed by Anne Haour’s team during their fieldwork in the Republic of Bénin, and to gain a first-hand sense of the process of archaeological discovery.

Crossroads of Empires also offers an insight into the work undertaken at the University of East Anglia and the archaeological process more generally: to help understand what kinds of questions archaeologists ask, and how archaeologists work to answer those questions.

The Niger River Valley, Bénin

What we know about this part of West Africa in the last two millennia is derived largely from historical sources, which tell us that many regions were under the rule of vast polities, such as Songhai, Kanem-Borno, or the Hausa ‘city-states’.

We know very little, however, about what these ‘empires’ actually looked like on the ground or about the lives of the people who lived within them and on their borders: how can the remains left by these people within the landscape help us understand this past?

Since 2011 Anne Haour and a team of researchers from various countries – Belgium, Bénin, Niger, and the United Kingdom among others – have been conducting yearly field trips to Bénin to excavate archaeological sites and collect historical traditions.

Their research focuses on the Niger River valley in the north of Bénin, a region which is part of the Sahel, the wide band of semi-arid land found across Africa just below the Sahara. Anne Haour and her colleagues chose this area because it is shown on historical maps as lying at an important point between many famous historical polities, and is also at the intersection of flows of east-west and north-south population movement: people, goods, states, and empires crossed this point, and the archaeological traces of these can allow us to understand the wider processes and histories of which they were once a part.

The exhibition Crossroads of empires is curated by Dr Sam Nixon and is set up in partnership with the Direction of Cultural Heritage and Université Abomey Calavi, Bénin.