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Looting the antiquities of Mali: the story continues at Gao.

A further report on what is being snatched away of the antiquities of Mali. The usual story the world over is of export to cash-rich western collectors, and this is something different, the archaeological site as quarry of recycled materials that are treated by another scale of values.

This note is a sad postscript to the article in ANTIQUITY by Dembele & van der Waals (1991) on the looting of antiquities from the toguere sites (dwelling mounds) in the Inland Niger Delta (FIGURE 1).


The following information was collected during an archaeological survey, conducted with the permission of the Malian Institut des Sciences Humaines, in the Gao region in January 1993 and forms part of a larger research project, The archaeological recognition of the acceptance of Islam in the Western Sahel, c. 800--1200 AD. This will assess the spread of Islam using a multi-disciplinary approach involving survey and surface collection, limited excavation in the Gao and Ansongo areas, the study of oral and written historical sources and the collection of ethnographic data.

The location of Gao and Saney and their historical importance

The city of Gao is located on the Niger bend, within the sixth region of the republic of Mali, approximately 1100 km from the capital, Bamako (De Moraes Farias 1990). Although Gao developed as a terminus for trans-Saharan trade prior to 1000 AD, it is famous historically as the capital of the Songhai empire which was at its height between the mid 15th and late 16th centuries. The Songhai empire was the last of the three great medieval West African empires and was preceded by the empire of Ghana which flourished from the 9th to the 11th centuries, and by the empire of Mali which reached its peak in the early 14th century (Levtzion 1985). These empires derived their wealth from control of the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in commodities such as gold and ivory.

The site of Saney is situated roughly 4 km to the east of the modern city of Gao, in the Tilemsi valley (Flight 1975a) (FIGURE 1). Saney is the site of the first Muslim Songhai capital. It consists of a low mound rising to 8 m above the surrounding terrain and covers 30--40 ha (Flight 1979). The mound is associated with a Muslim cemetery, 100 m to the east. The discovery of several marble grave stelae of Andalusian origin in the early 1940s, subsequently dated to the early 12th century, alerted the then colonial authorities to the importance of Saney in the medieval history of West Africa. Since then several small-scale excavations have been carried out at Saney, although none has been fully published (Mauny 1951; Flight 1975a; 1975b; 1979).

The process of destruction

The site of Saney was visited unannounced in the company of officials from the Division du Patrimoine Culturel in Gao in late January 1993. The sight which met our eyes was most distressing. Treasure-hunters have systematically worked their way across the central portion of the site, sinking 4-m deep test pits into the archaeological deposits. Typically the robbers work in two-man teams; one man on the surface sieves the soil passed up by his colleague from the bottom of the pit, in a sack or bucket on the end of a length of rope (FIGURE 2). In some places only half a metre separates one hole from another, so the site looks like a Swiss cheese (FIGURE 3). The surface of the site is scattered with discarded pot sherds and complete vessels, bones (both human and animal), bricks and fragments of metalwork (FIGURE 4). The objects of the robbers' attentions are glass and stone beads. Transported to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, they fetch relatively high prices and are re-used in jewellery and charm production.


The reasons for destruction

Dembele & van der Waals (1991: 905) say that the sites of Islamic cemeteries between Mopti and Djenne in the Inland Niger Delta are left untouched. Unfortunately in Gao this has not been the case and Flight (1975a: 83) recounts how he put a stop to illicit digging in the cemetery at Saney in 1971. This is not as unusual as it would appear. Monsieur Maiga, our landlord in Gao, informed us that when he was a boy in the 1950s people would not even set foot in cemeteries; they were places which were feared and commanded respect. Gradually these ideas have changed, and as Gao has expanded dramatically in recent years to accommodate refugees from the Sahel droughts, the cemeteries which were once outside the urban area are now being absorbed and built upon.

A variety of reasons contribute to the neglect and pillaging of archaeological sites such as Saney in the Gao region. The government and regional authorities responsible for the maintenance and surveillance of these sites, fully aware of their importance and doing what they can, are on the whole rendered impotent by a lack of resources. This situation is exacerbated by the insecure situation resulting from the aftermath of the Tuareg (Tamasheq) rebellion. During our visit to Saney two teams were at work digging for beads. They were very frank about what they were doing, and there was little our accompanying officials could do to stop them. In the end a complete vessel was confiscated from the men and presented to the excellent Museum of the Sahel in Gao. It is difficult not to sympathize with the robbers; they are supplementing their very meagre incomes dangerously to supply eager, distant (often very distant) markets.

Possible solutions?

Several courses of action present themselves as partial solutions to the situation at Saney. Beginning in September 1993, a four-month field season will take place in the Gao region. The northwestern area of the Saney mound has so far escaped the attentions of the treasure-hunters, and permission has been given to excavate this area. Arrangements have been made to protect this corner of the mound in the immediate future. For the rest of the site, a collection programme will be initiated to salvage the archaeological debris littering the robbed area, which will be stored and in part displayed in the Museum of the Sahel. The majority of the material is of course without context, but will be of use as a reference collection and educational aid. Furthermore, collecting up the artefacts places them beyond the reach of the market.

It would be tragic if the site of Saney was completely lost due to the activities of treasure-hunters, for it is of great importance in reconstructing the events and history of medieval West Africa. Saney is relatively accessible. Have important sites in more remote areas, such as Ansongo, remained unscathed, or are they also in the process of being destroyed?

Acknowledgements. I an very grateful to Dr Klena Sanogo, the director and Dr Mamadi Dembele, the assistant director of the Institut des Sciences Humaines, and Dr Mamadou Diallo Iam, the director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique et Technologique in Bamako for allowing me to conduct my research. I am also grateful to Monsieur Berti Sekou for accompanying me in the field and to Monsieur Mohamed Elmokhtar Toure, Chef de Division du Patrimoine Culturel, for practical assistance in Gao.


DEMBELE, M. & J.D. VAN DER WAALS. 1991. Looting the antiquities of Mali, Antiquity 65: 904--5.

DE MORAES FARIAS, P.F. 1990. The oldest extant writing in West Africa, Journal des Africanistes 60: 65: 113.

FLIGHT, C. 1975a. Gao 1972: First interim report: a preliminary investigation of the cemetery at Sane, West African Journal of Archaeology 5: 81--90. 1975b. Excavations at Gao (Republic of Mali) in 1974, Nyame Akuma 7: 28--9. 1979. Gao 1978: Third interim report: further excavations at Sane. Unpublished paper. Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham.

LEVTZION, N. 1985. The early states of the Western Sudan to 1500, in J.F.A. Ajayi & M. Crowder (ed.), History of West Africa: 129--66. Harlow: Longmans.

MAUNY, R. 1951. Notes d'archeologie au sujet de Gao, Bulletin de l'Institut d'Afrique Noire 13: 837--52.
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Author:Insoll, Timothy
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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