SETTLEMENT ARCHAEOLOGY IN NIGERIA: A SHORT NOTE
Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
The history of scientific archaeological research in Nigeria, is a relatively recent development. This dates back to the 1940's when a rock-shelter named "Rop" was investigated, in addition to the limited excavations embarked upon by Bernard Fagg, in the Nok Valley area of Central Nigeria. Similarly, rescue excavations were carried out in Igbo-Ukwu located in the eastern part of the country by Thurstan Shaw and his team in the latter part of the 1950's. Since then, several archaeological efforts have been made in few locations such as Ile-Ife, Old-Oyo, Benin and Daima all situated in the western and northern parts of Nigeria respectively.
In all these archaeological excavations, the objectives were mainly to retrieve artifacts and describe them with a view to reconstructing the cultural history of the region in question. Archaeological researches during this period, were basically artifact-oriented, and not unexpectedly, classifications based on stratigraphic evidence, occupied a central position in the scheme of things. This research orientation is with a view to gaining some insights about sequences of events and chronologies. It is important to note that apart from the fact that these archaeological works were scattered (i.e. few and far between), there were no well formulated strategies and/or research designs aimed at clarifying our understanding of the spatial dimension of the culture(s) being studied, both at the intra- and inter-site levels. Indeed, lateral-oriented activities involving mapping and excavations were not considered vital to the operationalization of research works until in the 1980's. Some of the concomitant effects of this development are as follows:
1. Artifacts retrieved from excavations appear to remain isolated, without any significant connections between them and a given geographical configuration, thus making it impossible to recreate the extent to which a people had exploited the resources within their environment.
2. Establishment of the nature and pattern(s) of inter-group relations among the peoples in different parts of the country in prehistoric and proto-historic or historic periods remains a far cry.
PROBLEMS AND PERSPECTIVES
Since the archaeologist is concerned with the reconstruction of palaeo-cultures, space or environment is one of the indispensable variables (Ogundele 1989; 1990; 1994). However, in having an over-view of the works of pioneers of archaeology in Nigeria and to some extent the present crop of experts in the field, efforts should be made to take into consideration several problems that faced them or are still facing some of them. Given this situation, my assessonent of their works is done here with great respect and caution. Indeed one major objective of this piece of work, is to attempts to promote a new appreciation of available or potential archaeological data especially settlement finds and features, with a view to broadening our horizon of archaeological scholarship in Nigeria and West Africa as a whole.
Until very recently, all the archaeologists working in Nigeria were mainly Europeans and they did not often stay long enough to embark upon systematic and long-term archaeological surveys. In other words, Nigerian archaeologists are still disappointingly few and largely as a result, some systematic archaeological investigations of the entire country is still a far cry. Closely related to the problem listed above, is the fact that Nigeria is a vast country, too large for a handful of archaeologists to manage. In addition, the geographical character of the region is extremely complex. Thus for example, the major vegetational zones (especially the thick forests and swamps in the south, and the very desert area to the north), constitute in themselves, distinct obstacles to archaeological field-work.
Another major difficulty has to do with the fact that Nigeria is situated in the humid tropics and as with other humid tropical regions, the soils are acidic and erosion is generally very pronounced. These have adversely affected the preservation of archaeological remains especially fragile items like bones and wooden objects of great time-depth. However, there are still some depositional cases such as deltaic conditions, rock-shelters and caves, where archaeological materials are relatively better preserved. Overall however, the archaeologist working in Nigeria is left with just the imperishables such as stone tools and potsherds and little else in the way of human occupation to analyze, reconstruct and interpret.
The lack and in places paucity of data has tended to encourage unrestrained speculation which in fact largely accounts for some insupportable hypotheses being put forward by many early or pioneer archaeologists, concerning the nature of culture change in Nigeria. One of such hypotheses was that the peopling of the forest region (southern Nigeria and indeed, all of the Guinea zone of West Africa) was a much later development than that of the northern open savanna area. Recent archaeological research has shown that people were already living in south-western Nigeria (specifically Iwo-Eleru) as early as 9000 BC and perhaps earlier at Ugwuelle-Uturu (Okigwe) in south-eastern Nigeria (Shaw and Daniels 1984: 7-100).
Lack of adequate funding and dating facilities has also caused a lag in archaeological research in Nigeria and indeed, all of West Africa. Many sites threatened by construction work such as bridges, roads, houses and dams are not normally rescued because there are no sources of funding. The governments of West African countries have not been supportive enough of archaeological work, partly because both the leaders and the peoples do not recognize the role a sound knowledge of the past can play in nation-building.
There is up to now, no well-equipped dating laboratory either to process charcoal samples or potsherds. The only laboratory in West Africa is in Senegal and it is far from being well equipped. Consequently, it is restricted mostly to processing charcoal samples collected from sites in Senegal. Given this problem, samples collected from archaeological excavations have to be sent abroad for processing. This delays the rate at which archaeological information is put into its proper time perspective.
It seems also that a great deal more time and attention are paid to the later phases of human settlement history than the earlier. Consequently, much more is known of iron age and historic settlements in Nigeria and West Africa as a whole. Some considerable amount of work has been done for these phases in Benin City in Nigeria, Niani in Niger Republic and Jenne-Jeno in Mali, among other places in West Africa. One reason for this interest in the later phase seems to rest in the fact that there is a meeting point between historic settlement archaeology and oral traditions in the region generally and the fact that people can identify much more easily with this phase because it is more recent and by this fact closer to our times.
It is pertinent to note that there is no settlement archaeology tradition(s) in Nigeria up to the early 1980's. Even at places like Ife, Old-Oyo, Benin and Zaria where some relatively limited archaeological work has been carried out, efforts were mainly concentrated on walls (Soper 1981: 61-81; Darling 1984: 498-504; Leggett 1969: 27). In Southern Nigeria, proto-historic settlements were generally composed of mud or sun-dried brick houses. Most if not all these house structures and defensive and/or demarcatory walls have either been destroyed or obliterated by erosion. The tradition(s) of constructing houses with stones in the pre colonial past was well reflected in many parts of Northern Nigeria. In fact, many hill-top settlements in this area of Nigeria were composed of stone houses - a direct response among other things, to opportunities offered by the immediate environment (Netting 1968: 18-28; Denyer 1978: 41-47). Despite the nature of the soil chemistry (acidic soil) stone buildings are still better preserved than mud houses.
Relics of ancient settlements are much fewer in the south than in the north, because of the different building materials as well as techniques of construction which are partly determined by diverse historical experiences among other things. Hill-tops and slopes offer abundant boulders which could be dressed for construction, while in the plains, it is much easier to obtain mud for building houses. For example, the dispersed mode of settlement of the present-day Tiv as opposed to the nucleated rural settlements on the hill-tops and slopes in ancient times, coupled with their shifting agricultural system, as well as the factor of refarming and/or resettlement of former sites by some daughter groups which hived off, from the original stock, make most ancient settlements and recently abandoned sites (made up of sun-dried brick houses) difficult to discover at least in a fairly well preserved state (Sokpo and Mbakighir 1990, Personal Communication).
This preservation problem among others further make the task of establishing stratigraphic sequences a little bit difficult. Nigeria is divisible into zones on the basis of techniques of construction as follows:
1. Mud construction techniques which are very common in most parts of southern Nigeria.
2. Stone construction techniques which are very common in most parts of Northern Nigeria; and
3. Combination of mud and stone construction techniques. This development is common in Tivland, where the ancient houses and protective walls on hill-tops were constructed of stones, while present-day houses in the plains are usually constructed of mud.
Given our experiences in Nigeria, the third category of construction is very useful for generating models. These are models derivable from oral traditional data and ethnographic resources. Such models, if carefully applied to archaeological situations, can greatly fill the gaps in our knowledge of the past of the Nigerian peoples.
Scientific studies of settlement archaeology of the different parts of Nigeria are be-devilled by a lot of problems ranging in nature from inadequate facilities to fewness of archaeologists on ground. Developments in recent years have however shown that these problems are now being turned into a source of strength by the indigenous archaeologists. Thus for example abundant oral traditional and ethnographic resources in Nigeria are being profitably harnessed. This is with a few to clarifying our understanding of aspects of the people's settlement heritage.
Darling, P. 1984. Archaeology & History In Southern Nigeria: The ancient
Linear Earthworks of Benin and Ishan. B. A. R. Series 215.
Denyer, S 1978. African traditional architecture. Heinemann, Ibadan.
Leggett, H. J. 1969 Former Hill and Inselberg Settlements In the Zaria District. West African Archaeology News-letter. No.11.
Mbakighir, N. 1990. Personal Communication.
Netting, R. M. 1968. Hill Farmers of Nigeria: Cultural Ecology of the Kofyar of The Jos Plateau, University of Washington, Press Seattle.
Ogundele, S. O. 1989. Settlement Archaeology In Tivland: A Preliminary Report. West African Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 19.
Ogundele, S.O. 1990. The Use of Ethno-archaeology In Tiv Culture History. African Notes. Vol. 14.
Ogundele, S.O. 1994. Notes On Ungwai Settlement Archaeology. Journal of Science Research. Vol. 1.
Shaw, T.& Daniells, S. G. H. 1984. Excavations At Iwo-Eleru, Ondo State,
Nigeria. West African Journal of Archaeology. Vol.14.
Soper, R. 1981. The Walls of Oyo Ile. West African Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 10/11.
Sokpo, A. 1990. Personal Communication.
[Note] This is a report sent with a letter of 18th December 1995 from Dr. Ogundele. This report shows the situation of archaeological activities in Nigeria. Appropriate support to the Nigerian archaeologists would inprove the difficult situation.
Department of Archaeology, Okayama University
NIIRO Izumi 20th Feb. 1996