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West African Pottery Research Network

Making a good impression:

5000 years of pottery of the Sahara-Sahel borderlands

Convener: Anne Haour

Funded by: The Leverhulme Trust

Participants: Kat Manning (SRU), Noemie Arazi (Heritage Management Services, Belgium), Olivier Gosselain (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium), Sokhna Gueye (Université Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal), Daouda Keita (Université de Bamako, Mali), Ali Livingstone Smith (Africamuseum Tervuren, Belgium), Kevin MacDonald (University College London, UK), Anne Mayor (Université de Genève, Switzerland), Susan McIntosh (Rice University, Texas, USA), and Robert Vernet (Université de Nouakchott, Mauritania).

This research network ran September 2007 - March 2010, linking 11 scholars from Europe, Africa and the USA. Its aim was to help improve our identification of different methods of decorating pottery and of the implements that produced them.

Improving potterty identifications requires a systematic approach, and is clearly important, since it is known that pottery styles can speak to notions of identity and social organisation, bear witness to questions of learning, innovation and transfer, and help date past settlements on stylistic grounds. Such pottery analysis is particularly important in West Africa, a huge geographical area whose archaeology, still relatively unknown, often takes the shape of enormous scatters of potsherds on the landscape.

The "Making a good impression" research network set out a solid typology and firm grounds for classification for one type of decoration, Rouletting, and developed ideas on the wider significance of pottery decoration for understanding past population movements and contacts. Longer-term aims involve building bridges between archaeologists, ethnographers/anthropologists, and curators of museum collections. Ultimately, we hope that by achieving standardisation in pottery analysis we can enable meaningful comparisons between different sites of West Africa, and thus guide further research on the West African past. Through our work, we also aim to inform pottery studies from different parts of the world and to showcase the often-neglected African contribution to world arts.

L-R: Sara Togo (University of Bamako, Mali), Malik Saako (University of Accra, Ghana), Kat Manning (“Making a good impression" network facilitator), Clement Bakinde (ABU University, Zaria, Nigeria), Dr Anne Haour (SRU), and Abas Iddrisu (University of Accra, Ghana) at the close of sessions, outside the Museum of African Art in Dakar

The research network met twice. During the first meeting, in April 2008 at the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford) and British Museum (London), the collections of pottery-decorating implements at the two museums were examined, and a public session organised at the Institute of Archaeology. The second meeting, held in December 2008 in Dakar, involved five students from Ghana, Mali and Nigeria, presentations of recent work on the themes of ceramic typologies and their wider meaning, and the examination of the collections of the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire.

The first published outcome of these meetings, which stems directly from the workshops held in the British Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, is now out. African pottery roulettes past and present:  techniques, identification and distribution (Haour, A., Manning, K., Arazi, N., Gosselain, O., Guèye, S., Keita, D., Livingstone Smith, A., MacDonald, K., Mayor, A. McIntosh, S., and Vernet, R. [eds]; Oxbow, 2010) is devoted to ethnographic, museological and archaeological approaches to roulettes. In keeping with the aims of the research network, it sets out a solid typology for the classification of African pottery decorated with such tools, and attempts to forge a consensus on common methodology and standards.

It contains the following material:


By Olivier Gosselain, Anne Haour, Kevin MacDonald and Kat Manning

A history of research into roulette decoration in Africa, and elsewhere – Jomon Japan, Neolithic Europe, Siberia, and New York among others.

English, with substantial French summary

Part I

Roulettes in sub-Saharan Africa today

By Alexandre Livingstone Smith, Olivier Gosselain, Anne Mayor and Sokhna Ndèye Guèye

This section surveys ethnographic examples of roulette fabrication and usage in sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Tanzania, and sets the initial foundations of a systematic classificatory framework for these tools.

Bilingual (French and English)

Part II

A method of identification for rolled impressed decorations

By Alexandre Livingstone Smith

This section proposes a methodology for the identification of roulette impressions on archaeological materials; building upon earlier descriptive methods, it expands them with the help of recent developments in image processing software. Thus decoration identification goes from impressionistic analysis to reasoned process.

Bilingual (French and English)

Part III

Archaeological roulette decorations

This section features entries focusing on six well-defined types of roulette-based decoration, as recognised archaeologically:

Twisted cord roulette – Noemie Arazi and Kat Manning

Cord-wrapped roulette – Kevin MacDonald and Kat Manning

Braided cord roulette – Susan McIntosh and Sokhna Ndèye Guèye

Folded strip roulette – Anne Haour and Daouda Keita

Knotted strip roulette – Anne Haour

Braided strip roulette – Anne Mayor

The book is supported by a glossary, maps, and over 90 images.

For all enquiries please email the project on the address at the top of this page.

The book can be purchased from Oxbow Books for £32.

Additional materials can be viewed on the Archaeology Data Service’s archive. This set of illustrations of roulette-decorated sherds, and accompanying descriptive text, were compiled by Anne Haour and Kat Manning, using material supplied by members of the “Making a good impression” research network.

Furthermore, a special issue of the journal Azania is planned for spring 2011, issuing from the research network. It will examine what insights can be gleaned on past population movements and contacts by using pottery analysis joined with the most recent theoretical advances on patterns of craft apprenticeship and learning.

The support of the Leverhulme Trust, in the form of an International Collaboration Network award, is gratefully acknowledged.