african archaeology

The Rise and Fall of the Wassoulou (Mandinka) Empire, West Africa

The Wassoulou Empire was an African Empire that existed between 1294 and 1315 AH (1878-1898 CE) in modern Mali, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

The story of the rise and fall of the Wassoulou state is also the story of the rise and fall of its first and only ruler, a remarkable man named Samori Touré. Born to a Dyula Mandé family in the town of Mayambaladugu, in the year 1245 AH (1830 CE), he was the son of a fairly well-to-do merchant. Touré grew up in an African world that had long been aware of the European presence. Slave trading on the coasts had been going on for generations, though Europeans were yet to penetrate too far inland, and many still relied on their protectorates for extracting the wealth of Africa. Touré’s father probably had significant relationships with a variety of Europeans, both officials and civilians, as a merchant, and as a result, Touré had a familiarity with their ways of life, and particularly, their ways of bureaucracy, organization, and martial tradition, since many of the outposts and expeditions in the area would have been armed and defended by troops brought in from overseas.

In 1264 AH (1848 CE), an event happened that would change his life forever. At the time, Mayambaladugu and most of the surrounding Mandé and Fulani groups had just been subjugated by the authority of the Tocouleur Empire, often as client chiefdoms or states, and these vassal entities continued to fight intermittent wars with one another, often for loot, including slaves, and access to natural resources that could buy guns and equipment from Europeans, or influence at the new Tocouleur court. When he was eighteen, a man and probably taking some responsibility in his family’s mercantile business, his mother was seized in one of these raids by the powerful Cissé, another Mandé group. Determined to get her back, Samori Touré traveled deep into Cissé territory, to confront a man tradition names Séré-Burlay. In return for his mother’s safety, he struck an agreement with his mother’s captor: he would serve the Cissé as a warrior, so long as she remained safe. It is unkown how long Touré served in this capacity, though some traditions say for more than seven years, but however long he did, he was most likely an experienced veteran by the time he ended his service to the Cissé by escaping with his mother.

Seeking safety from the roused and potentially vengeful Cissé, Touré traveled to the towns of the Bérété Mandé, a group who had been longtime rivals of his former masters. There, again, he became a warrior, though now he began to rise through the ranks, charismatic and brave as he was, and with an extensive knowledge of his enemies and years of combat experience under his belt. By 1280 AH (1864 CE), he had a significant amount of men under his command, and was fighting for the Bérété somewhere along one of the Niger’s tributaries, probably the Milo River.

A final note on Touré’s early life, before the founding of the Wassoulou Empire is discussed: Touré was not born a Muslim, but converted sometime as a young man, possibly during his time with the Cissé, but it is impossible to be sure. Even African sources disagree on the exact dates, or how/why he converted. Regardless, by 1280 AH (1864 CE), he was a devout Sunni Muslim, and possibly a member of a Sufi brotherhood.

In 1280 AH (1864 CE), the Tocouleur Empire, which had conquered and subsumed the Mandé and Fulani states of Touré’s youth the year his mother had been kidnapped, collapsed. El Hadj Omar Tal, the Fulani founder and only ruler of the Tocouleur state, died, and though his heirs managed to hold onto some of the territory, their subjects proved entirely too powerful and eager for the potential spoils left by the great man’s death for their control. Dozens of factions broke off, and the region dissolved into chaos. As mentioned above, Touré was on what was probably the Milo River, and, as the Empire disintegrated around him, Touré took advantage of the situation to accomplish two things. The first was the testing of his warriors in serious battle. Trained with his own version of European military standards, adapted from the experiences and memories of his youth, and armed with firearms and the skill to use them, Touré was eager to see if his own theories about war would hold up in a conflict so much larger and more intense than the small-scale strife of his youth. The second goal was the creation of a new Sunni Muslim state, with Touré as the ruler.

Touré quickly won victories. His men were well-disciplined, and, as the war progressed, more and more heavily armed. In addition to captured weapons and a variety of improvised and locally-manufactured equipment, Touré also began to deal with the British in Sierra Leone, where they refused to offer him status as a full protectorate kingdom, but agreed to supply him with weapons in exchange for a promise not to deal with other colonial powers, particularly the French. Though the British did not supply him with heavy weapons or artillery, they did provide breach-loading weapons, and the know-how to repair them, as well as an enormous supply of ammunition. So armed and now with a veteran army at his back, Touré seized the Buré gold mines, on the Malian border, and with the hard currency and extensive territory his victories had won him, proclaimed himself Faama (Emir, roughly), of a new Wassoulou Empire, named after region on the modern Guinea-Mali border. The capitol was moved to the large town of Bissandugu in 1294 AH (1878 CE).

The next chapter of the Wassoulou Empire was marked by wars of conquest against weaker neighbors, rather than the earlier wars for survival in the cutthroat political climate left behind by the Tocouleur collapse. A major success came in 1297 AH (1881 CE), when Kankan, a major Dyula trading post on the Milo River fell, and the Empire reached its geographical zenith. Smaller states, particularly animist/indigenous African states, fell as well in the same period, and though, like many African rulers, Touré allowed many indigenous civil customs to continue unmolested, he began to style himself with Islamic titles, and likely sought out more formal religious training from Sufi’s and Marabouts, local Sunni leaders, during this period. Finally, he managed to secure alliances, with himself as the power-brokering party, with the Fulani states to the North, where Islam was the state religion.

In 1299 AH (1882 CE), Samori Touré launched a new campaign, this time dispatching his troops South, toward Cote d’Ivoire. There, they besieged the city of Keriera, hoping to use it as the launching point for a campaign as far as the coast. However, another major imperial power was operating to the south, and moving northwards from the Ivory Coast: France. In fact, the first contact between the Wassoulou Empire and the French was a brief engagement outside of Keriera, where a French force drove off Touré’s surprised troops, and then effectively replaced them, occupying the city. Touré, concerned but not desperate, renewed relations with the British and sent new emissaries to Liberia, where he hoped to strike another arms deal. He got what he was looking for in 1300 AH (1882-3 CE), purchasing repeating rifles from the British and Liberians, and setting up a corridor on which to move supplies between the coast and his interior centers of power, should the emerging conflict with the French escalate.

They did escalate. Skirmishes and Wassoulou raiding colored the next few years, and French colonial authorities, disturbed by what they perceived as a grave threat to ventures in the area, dispatched a Colonel Combes with an expeditionary force to take Buré, one of the main sources of cash for Touré and his Empire. However, the force was too small, and Combés was unfamiliar with the terrain and his enemy, and they were soundly defeated by the crack African forces, many of the leaders veterans of decades of campaigning. In Shawwal, 1308 AH (1891 CE), another French force was dispatched, this time to Kankan and lead by Louis Archinárd, another French Colonel. Touré, realizing he could not hold the walls against heavy French artillery, abandoned the city, but took his men into the field, hoping to defeat the French in the open. Though Touré managed to drive a few French columns back in 1308 AH (1891 CE), he was unable to significantly halt their advances, especially as more and more French troops were assigned to the region, transferred for the campaigns organized to destroy Touré and his neighbors. Another blow had come with the signing of the Brussels Conference Act of 1890, in which Europeans agreed to stop selling weapons to African rulers or armies, cutting Touré off from a valuable source of weapons.

In 1309 AH (1892 CE), French Colonel Húmbért attacked, seized and occupied Bissandugu and Buré, though Touré and his troops were, again, in the field, and, though defeated, the Faama was able to keep his troops intact, retreating across the Niger. Along the path of his retreat, Touré burned crops and destroyed as much of the infrastructure as he could, hoping to stall the French and possibly allow African disease to have some weakining effect on the advancing columns, though this strategy only bought a few seasons. The clashes with the French, from the first engagement with Colonel Combés to the seizure of Buré and Touré’s capital at Bissandugu, constitute what is now known as the First and Second Mandingo Wars. The third, and the deciding moment for the Wassoulou Empire, loomed, though it was delayed by the French conflicts with rulers in Mali and back along their tenuous zones of control to the coast.

However, by 1315 AH (1898 CE), Babemba Traoré, the ruler of the collapsing Kénédougou Empire to the North in Mali proper, was defeated by the French, who proceeded to incorporate most of Mali into the expanding territory of French West Africa. Touré, cut off from supplies in Liberia and Sierra Leone, now found himself virtually alone against the French, who moved their victorious armies back toward Wassoulou and the border, preparing for a final offensive, across the Niger and into what had once been the far Eastern edge of Touré’s Empire, now its only remaining area. Within a few months of the outbreak of hostilities in the Third Mandingo War, Touré was captured when a French unit attacked his troops, and was imprisoned. The French quickly moved in to the remaining Wassoulou towns, and formally dissolved the Empire in the ensuing months. Touré remained imprisoned by local French troops until the 23rd of Jumada al-Ula, 1317 CE (29 September 1899), when he was moved to exile in Gabon. He died of pneumonia there, at 70, in Safar, 1318 AH (June 1900 CE), and was buried at the Grand Masjid in Conakry, Guinea. Touré’s great-grandson, Ahmed Sékou Touré, would later become Guinea’s first President, when the country became independent of France more than half a century later.

Prehistoric Massacre Site Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers

The remains of 27 individuals have been recovered along the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The remains are roughly 10,000 years old, and may be one of the first discovered instances of organized warfare and mass-slaughter in hunter-gathering society.

The remains showed unmistakable signs of violent deaths. Many of the skeletons had large blows to the back of the head and other parts of the body. Others had deep cuts to the forehead jaws and hands possibly caused by stone blades. The bones were scattered in no particular order and the positions of the bodies suggested that there was no effort at a burial. One individual was even positioned in a manner which suggests that their hands and feet might have been tied up. 

The origins of war is a topic that is highly debated among archaeologists. It is the consensus that warfare was a concept that came after the Neolithic period and the rise of agriculture and permanent settlement. The site at Lake Turkana has revealed no evidence for  fortifications, settlements in a defensible location, artistic depictions of war, or specialized weapons - all of which are classic signs of ancient warfare. The competition for territory, however, is a typical condition that leads to warfare. It is believed that the population of the area at the time was expanding, causing new conflict as newer groups arrived and sought territory. The stone remnants found among the remains were obsidian, a material that’s rare in the area, suggest that the attackers may have came from somewhere else.

If the massacre site was indeed the result of war, it could shatter the belief that warfare was a concept that emerged after the Neolithic period.

Excavations in Ghana Suggest Colonialism as Reason for Famines

Northwestern University archaeologist Amanda Logan, has spent eight years examining archaeological artifacts and charred grain remains from sites throughout the Banda District of Ghana. The Banda district of Ghana is an area that is today plagued with food shortage and long term droughts. However, Logan’s research has determined that the food shortage problem in the area was a result of colonialism rather than drought, and that before the mid-19th century, people usually had enough to eat — even when rains failed.

According to Logan’s findings, Banda was a thriving center for the production and trade of gold, ivory, and iron as early as the 11th century CE. Products from Afghanistan and other locations found on sites suggests that the area was established in long distance trading networks. This suggests that there was enough food to feed a significant number of people who weren’t farming, even when a two century long drought set in the middle of the 15th century.

It wasn’t until the mid to late 1800s, long after the drought ended, that Logan began to turn up evidence of food stress. Present-day residents of Banda still talk about ancestors around that time eating wild plants to survive, and the archaeological record backs them up. According to Logan, the beginning of the famines coincide with the incorporation of Banda into the British Empire. The British wanted to expand markets for their own industrial goods like iron and cloth, so they undercut local production of these items. This action weakened Banda’s economy, and consequently, crippled residents’ ability to survive drought and other disasters. 

According to anthropologist Scott MacEachern, Logan isn’t the first to highlight the role of colonialism on food shortage, but she among the first to do so using strong archaeological evidence. “It fits really well with the historical record,” says MacEachern. “We tend to think of colonization as a fairly dry process, as essentially changes in government. On the ground, they were fantastically disruptive processes to the patterns of everyday life.”


From 1625 to 1900, 12 kings succeeded one another at the head of the powerful Kingdom of Abomey. (You might know it as the Kingdom of Dahomey.) Each king, upon ascension, built himself a new palace to demonstrate his power and magnificence. Each one was constructed in a similar style with the same materials. Spread out over 99 acres, the palaces are decorated with bas-reliefs which document the accomplishments and events during the reign of each king.With the exception of King Akaba, who had his own separate enclosure, they all had their palaces built within the same walled area.  The Royal Palaces of Abomey is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Benin. 

Military mondays: Ancient naval warfare

as suggested by: @dinosaurdoors

Mankind has waged for on the sea for 3 millenia. Any tribe or backwater nation can use canoes and rafts to an extent in warfare. Using them as landingcraft or has mobile archer emplacements to harrass the enemy. But only when ships became strong, sturdy and hard enough did the term “Naval warfare” come into use. 

Naval warfare as we know today can be traced back to the Phonecians, a trading nation of city states, situated along the north africa coastline. The Phonecians used long, single decked, sturdy warships with a battering ram on the bow. This battering ram was used for smashing into other ships. The long length of the ship was a structural weakness, so they made the ships fatter by adding another deck of oarsmen, the greeks adding a third deck. This triple decked warship would become the most common ship of the persian, greek and roman empires. The trieme

The first major war decided by naval warfare was the greco persian wars. At the battle of salamis the greeks had 378 triemes in their fleet, which would go up against the persian 600. Archers would stand on deck and fire flaming arrows across the water, ships shattered. Each ship carried around 10 hoplites who would leap to enemy ships and cut the sailors down with their sword. However if they fell into the water, their armour would weight them down and they would drown underneath the waves. 

The Trieme was fast and agile. But as the punic wars flared up in the mediterranean, newer, heavier, more powerful vessels such as the Quinquereme superceded the trieme. The Quinquereme had five banks of oars and could crush the lighter triemes. During the first punic war, carthage maintained an exstensive fleet, and according to ancient sources, the romans found a washed up Quinquereme and built their own vessels on that design. They fitted their ships with bronze battering rams and boarding planks with sharp beaks to plant into the deck of enemy ships, and hold it in place while the vastly superior roman legions could board and capture the carthaginian ships and slaughter the weaker carthaginian marines. These boarding planks won rome the first punic war, the sharp metal spikes that held the enemy vessels in place, led to the roman legions calling them “ravens”.

Rome abandoned the raven by the roman civil war. They placed catapults on their warships and large towers. Making the ship more or less, a mobile fortress. They attacked hooks to their catapults to drag enemy ships. They also mounted artillery such as the ballista on their towers, With a max range of 500 yards, these heavy crossbows where highly prized weapons, able to fling large stones or metal bolts to puncture pirate ships. 

However a much more unusual and spectacular form of naval combat was used after the fall of rome, during the late antiquity. During the siege of constantinople (674-678 AD) the byzantines used Dromons, which were a very light and fast ship. Emperor Constantine IV used greek fire to destroy the arab navy. This substance burned on water and roasted the arab fleet alive by using an early form of flamethrower. 

Remind you of a certain tv show?

If you have any ideas for what I should post for next military monday, it can be anything, a battle, a leader, an idea, a concept or tactic, a military unit or formation. Do not hesitate to send in your suggestions, either by message or comment.


African Atlantis and the Wonders of the Ife Sculptures

Around the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most academia in history, archaeology, and anthropology tended to look upon Africa as an unimportant backwater, inhabited by simple savages who have never been able to achieve any measure of advanced civilization.  In the late 19th century the German archaeologist Leo Frebonius discovered the first of a large series of cast metal sculptures in what is now modern day Ife, Nigeria.  Often called “bronze sculptures”, the pieces are actually made from a copper/zinc/lead alloy that is closer to brass than bronze, demonstrating that the people who made these sculptures obviously had very advanced knowledge and skills in metallurgy.  What was most incredible was the precise attention to detail each of the works displayed, giving the sculptures an almost lifelike appearance.   Such detail reminded Frebonius of sculptures originating from Ancient Greece and Rome.  Thus, it was then that Frebonius jumped to an incredible conclusion.  From his point of view the sculptures could not have been made by the local people, who he believed obviously could have never built a civilization capable of such works. Frebonius himself once remarked,

“I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness”

So he theorized that the sculptures were Greek in origin, produced by Greek artisans who lived in a long lost Greek colony.  Then Frebonius went once step further by proposing that an ancient white civilization had once dominated Africa long before settlement by non-white peoples.  This theory was called the “African Atlantis”, which proposed that an advanced white civilization once dominated Africa, and that traditional African civilization was merely a residue of that older, lost civilization.  The African Atlantis theory became an extremely popular theory, upheld by historians and academics throughout Europe and North America.  Further discoveries of other artifacts and relics of African civilization were likewise excused away, being cited as remnants of the lost African Atlantis

Of course today such a theory has been debunked a racist humbuggery, and modern scholars conclusively prove that the African Atlantis never existed.  The true artists behind the Ife sculptures were an advanced civilization called the Yoruba people, who managed a powerful empire which existed between the 12th and 17th centuries.  Similar pieces demonstrating equal or more sophisticated technology have been discovered all over West Africa, crafted by various different cultures.


The Bushmans Kloof rock art site in the Cederberg region of South Africa.

Recently awarded the status of a South African National Heritage Site, Bushmans Kloof contains over 130 rock art sites, some of which date to 10,000 years before present.

Stained with oxide pigments, these rocks depict the spiritual and cultural legacy of the San (also known as Bushmen), who have lived in these mountains for some 120,000 years. A particular point of interest about this rock art for some is the depictions of about 30 Cape mountain zebra, which are today endangered, with only about 1,200 remaining worldwide. Antelopes such as the eland, black wildebeest, and springbok are also depicted.

Recommended reading & food for thought: ‘Access to Rock Art Sites: A Right or a Qualification?’ By Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu in The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 189 (June 2009), pp. 61-68

Photos taken by mlaaker. The contrast and tone of the original images have been readjusted. 

Ezekiel’s Wheel Ties African Spiritual Traditions to Christianity

African-Americans have long been among the country’s most fervent Christians, from the choir to the pulpit to the affirming voices from every “amen corner.”

Their deep faith saw them through the trials of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow repression. Finally, it emboldened them to leave the sanctuary of their churches and join the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a quest, his “dream,” for their full freedom and equality.

Just when and how their ancestors broke with traditional African spirit practices and adopted Christianity has never been fully resolved. Now archaeologists in Maryland have announced the discovery of an intact set of objects that they interpret as religious symbols — traditional ones from Africa, mixed with what they believe to be a biblical image: a representation of Ezekiel’s Wheel. Read more.


Museum of the Roman Forum (Thessaloniki):

From the temporary exhibition “…young and in excellent health”, Aspects of youths’ life in Ancient Macedonia.

Attic head kantharos decorated with a woman’s and a black man’s faces. There is an inscised inscription on the lid: “Τίμυλλος καλός hoς τό[δε τ]ό πρόσοπον/ Ερόνασσα ειμί καλέ πάνυ”/ “I am Timyllos as handsome as this face/ I am Eronassa, very beautiful”

From Ancient Akanthos (480-470 B.C)


Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which existed from approximately 1100 to 1400 during the country’s Late Iron Age. The monument, which first began to be constructed in the 11th century and which continued to be built until the 14th century, spanned an area of 722 hectares (1,784 acres) and at its peak could have housed up to 18,000 people. Great Zimbabwe acted as a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch and would have been used as the seat of their political power. One of its most prominent features were its walls, some of which were over five metres high and which were constructed without mortar. Eventually the city was largely abandoned and fell into ruin.

The ruins were first encountered by Europeans in the late 19th century with investigation of the site starting in 1871. The monument caused great controversy amongst the archaeological world, with political pressure being put upon archaeologists by the government of Rhodesia to deny its African origins. Great Zimbabwe has since been adopted as a national monument by the Zimbabwean government, with the modern state being named after it. The word “Great” distinguishes the site from the many hundreds of small ruins, known as Zimbabwes, spread across the Zimbabwe Highveld.