I am an Africanist focusing on the period AD 500-1500. I am an anthropologically trained archaeologist, and also rely on historical sources. I am interested in how objects reflect political and cultural connections; how we can detect the way people categorised themselves and built trust with others; and how the ways in which people made things, lived, died, and ate, reflect their world of expericence.
My early work was in the West African Sahel. I led field projects in several parts of Niger- from the Niger Valley to Lake Chad - and directed a five-year ERC Starter Grant (2011-2015; StG-263747), 'Crossroads of Empires', in northern Benin. My team was the first to carry out systematic research in this region, and we identified a previously unsuspected density of medieval settlement. The way in which local 'empires' influenced the patterning of settlement and material culture across the landscape, and the material signature of their craftspeople, were the focus of our enquiry. During that work, I became intrigued by a site in the Niger River that was said by local historians to be the source of imperial wealth in the form of cowries. Thinking about how we might understand medieval Sahelian connections - outside of the classical 'Saharan' or 'Atlantic' spheres - and about the cultural value of cowries, led to my next project (2015-2018), 'A global commodity', with funding from the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2014-359), exploring the medieval routes and actors by which cowries came into Africa. As part of this work, my team undertook archaeological and ethnographic work in the Maldives, environmental and ethnographic surveys along the East African coastline, and the study of museum collections across West Africa.
My main technical work on material culture has been on ceramics and cowries and colleagues and I helped reshape the description and classification of these items; I have also worked collaboratively on beads and metalworking. I use these materials to think through bigger, on the face of it more interesting, questions such as the establishment and maintenance of boundaries, the creation of value by past communities, the role of trade and of religion, the impact of political and economic factors on material culture, and the interrelation of the different sources of information on the past.
I have used my field studies as a springboard to expand my regional and disciplinary range with comparative work, helping to situate the African continent within studies of the medieval past. in two books and a number of journal articles and book chapters I have examined themes such as rulers' status, migration and technological transfers, networks of trust, trade diasporas, or notions of incoming kings and blacksmiths. In my 2007 book 'Rulers, warrior, traders, clerics', I set side by side the central Sahel and northwest Europe to see what each region can teach us about the other. In 2013 ('Outsiders and strangers') I explored what happens when the primary label assigned to a person's identity is that of an outsider - when he or she is of, but not in, society. Such outsiders can be found everywhere in the West African past: rulers show off their foreign descent, traders migrate to new areas, potters and blacksmiths claim to be apart from society This led me to look at other case studies from Melanesia, Mexico and Ireland among others.
In all of this work I have found it essential to confront archaeological and historical data and I have aimed to situate myself within 'world history' scholarship. Together with my extensive regional reach (parts of Africa, Indian Ocean, Europe, China and south-east Asia), this has widened my audience to medieval historians working across the globe. This is a really exciting and challenging aspect of my work going forwards.
I am interested in supervising research students in all areas of African archaeology, especially but not exclusively West Africa and Indian Ocean networks; understandings of heritage; studies of ceramics, including Asian materials; study of archaeological and museological collections relating to material culture recovered on the African continent.