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Title: Djenné-djenno  
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Subject: Iron Age, Djenné, Villanovan culture, Iron Age China, Neo-Assyrian Empire
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Djenné-Djenno is located in Mali
Archaeological Site of Djenné-Djenno
Location Djenné Cercle, Mali
Official name: Old Towns of Djenné
Type Cultural
Criteria iii, iv
Designated 1988 [1]
Reference no. 116-01 [1]
State Mali
Region List of World Heritage Sites in Africa
Occupation Phase I 250 B.C.-A.D. 50
Occupation Phase II A.D. 50-A.D. 300
Occupation Phase III A.D. 300-A.D. 900
Archaeologists Susan and Roderick McIntosh
Area over 82 acres

Djenné-Djenno (also Jenne-Jeno) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Niger River Valley in the country of Mali. Literally translated to "ancient Djenné", it is the original site of Djenné, Mali and considered to be among the oldest urbanized centers and best known archaeology site in sub-Saharan Africa.[2][3] This archaeological site is located about 3 Kilometers away from the modern town, and is believed to have been involved in long distance trade and possibly the domestication of African rice.[3] The site is believed to exceed 82 acres; however this has been yet to be confirmed with extensive survey work. [3] With the help of archaeological excavations mainly by Susan and Roderick McIntosh, the site is known to be occupied from 250 B.C. to 900 A.D. The city is believed to have been abandoned and moved where the current city is located due to the spread of Islam and the building of the the Great Mosque of Djenné. Previously, it was assumed that advanced trade networks and complex societies did not exist in the region until the arrival of traders from Southwest Asia, However sites such as Djenné-Djenno prove that is was not the case and these traditions in West Africa flourished long before [4]


With the help of archaeological excavations, Radiocarbon dates have been collected showing that people first settled here permanently in about 250 B.C. This first occupation of the site (which lasted from 250 B.C. to A.D. 50) is known as Phase I and is some of the earliest evidence for iron production is sub-Saharan Africa.[5] This initial phase is not associated with the Later Stone Age, and there has never been an occupation from this period at the site, or evidence for it has never been found. Until 250 B.C., the area surrounding Djenné-Djenno was either uninhabited or visited by nomadic groups that stayed for short periods.[6] Geomorphological data shows that the region consisted mostly of swampland at this time. Groups only began permanently occupying the area after a dry episode in which annual flooding receded and decreased the size of the swamps.[6] Faunal remains at the site from this occupation have included catfish and Nile perch but mostly cow, leading to the assumption that this first phase might be associated with Hunter-Gatherer or Pastoral modes of subsistence. During this period there is no evidence for rice production, however it is believed that these people might haves been rice producers, even though no definitive evidence has been discovered yet.[5] Phase II is defined by a larger population and definitive evidence for the mass production of rice.[5] We also see the borders of the site expand during this period (possibly covering 100,000 square meters or more), as well as the presence of permanent mud brick architecture.[3] It is inferred from this that rice domestication might have lead to higher population, or higher populations lead to the domestication of rice in this period. Phase III dates from about A.D. 300 to A.D. 900 and is believed to have an even higher population based on crowded cemeteries.[3] The site also has evidence for a more intensive occupation through deep house deposits, possibly from multiple generations.[5] Since there is no evidence for a fourth phase, it is expected that towards the end of phase III, the city experienced a slow decline in population and eventually a total abandonment.[5] However, very little is known about why this decline happened, and more research is needed.

At the end of the sites occupation stood as a large tear-shaped mound (also known as a Tell) consisting of layer upon layer of occupation that had built up over time. This Tell was surrounded by 69 hillocks, and created by its people through the building and rebuilding of their houses.[7] Throughout the sites occupations, pottery fragments are abundant. We see some of the more interesting clay artifacts beginning in Phase II with the terra-cotta statuettes and representations of humans and animals on pottery.[8] These statuettes are important to the understanding of Phase II because along with this art, we see the first evidence for large scale rice cultivation and population rise. All of these attributes are commonly associated with complex, state-level societies. It is believed that these artifacts posed ritual function as apposed to a domestic function. Some of these clay figurines are similar to those made by modern Fulani pastoralists for children, which might be evidence for the importance of domesticated cows at the site.[5] One human statuette in particular has been the cause of much debate. It was found on a house floor around small bowls full of suspected offerings.[3] Two others have been found in similar context 11 kilometers away from the site of Djenné-Djenno and it is hypothesized that they are the representations of a household spirit, as ancestral cults are known to have flourished in the area as late as the 20th century.[3]

Terra-cotta figurines from the Inner Niger Delta region

Djenné-Djenno is famous for its astonishing terra-cotta figurines that depict humans and animals including snakes and horses. Before the sites excavation in 1977, many of these figurines were in circulation being sold as tourist souvenirs and fine art to the west on the black market.[4] During this time, Mail was experiencing famine and it was unlikely for many to be upset about any money that came into the country.[4] The sale of cultural antiquities has been illegal since 1970 with the creation of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, yet conflict between ownership and control of artifacts still remains a problem in the region as well as in many other parts of the world. [4] Other sculptures in West Africa have faced similar challenges. In Nigeria, Nok culture figurines dating back as far as 800 B.C. also became incredibly popular in black market trade in the 1990's.[4] Little scientific work has been done on these figurines as most of them are in circulation around the globe today. Recently, 200 miles from Djenné-Djenno, in Timbuktu cultural property has also been threatened. Ethical battles over antiquities are hard to define as "the conflicts are multifaced, questions of innocence and guilt often--through not always-- hard to pin down." [4] Art dealers and collectors depend on such trade while the looting of artifacts from archaeological sites destroys their historical context and integrity. It has been suggested by many to have a blackout of information on these figurines that were not excavated scientifically which primarily includes black market items as it is believed that drawing western attention to these items would increase their market value. This could also hurt art historians and dealers however, as it would be difficult for them to know how to distinguish artifacts from fakes.[4]

Agriculture and urban organization

Historically, the Inland Niger Delta has been an ideal location for the mass production of staples such as rice, millet and vegetables due to its predictable floods and summer rains.[5] Many believe this area was the leader in African rice domestication, however more research is needed. Along with this, evidence for domestic cow, sheep and goat cultivation is present at the site. The land surrounding Djenné-Djenno lent itself to such high-yielding crops due to its mixture of highland and floodplain soils at different elevations that allowed floodwater farming of rice. Moreover, the Djenné-Djenno site lies in close proximity to dune landscape, which allows for necessary recreation needed for keeping cattle in floodplain environments. Overall, the diversified sources of food provided food security that allowed for permanent settlement in a region of volatile climate.[6] It is believed that this food production, especially that of African rice, was one of the main contributors to population rise in the city of Djenné-Djenno and was widely exported to nearby centers (including Timbuktu).[5] Many believe that domestic rice was introduced from areas outside the Delta, but the idea that it could not have been manipulated all over the region should not be rejected without further evidence. It is hypothesized that after the decline in aquatic resources we see being exploited in phase I, people adapted by cultivating rice, causing this population explosion[5]

The Djenné-Djenno urban complex consists of 40 mounds within a 4 kilometer radius.[6] The configuration of the mounds helped “segmented” communities to surmount the ecological challenges caused by the volatile weather patters characteristic of the Middle Niger. The fact that the mounds were disjointed allowed communities to specialize their trade while the relative proximity of the mound facilitated the exchange of goods and services between these communities. Thus, this urban configuration incentivized peaceful reciprocity between the communities, which in turn caused the communities to specialize further leading to the prosperity of the community as a whole. These separate communities may come together into an urban complex through the burden of debt or fictive ties of kinship.[6]


It is suspected that Djenné-Djenno grew to such a vast size as a result of regional and local trade. [8] For many years, it was assumed that complex societies, art and long distance trade came to this region with the arab arrival in the seventh and eighth centuries.[4] Archaeological evidence however supports that Djenné-Djeno was part of a pre-Arab trans-Saharan trade network. It has been hypothesized that the city grew as a trade center due to its location on the southern portion of the agriculturally productive region of the delta. [8] It was likely that rice produced in this region would have been a valuable trade for saharan commodities such as salt, copper and dried fish. Djenné-Djenno would have been an excellent middle ground between traders from North Africa and the Mediterranean and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. No doubt the towns proximity to other large urban centers such as Timbuktu also helped this trade network thrive. Specifically, glass beads found at the site have been dated to as early as the third century BC and appear to originate from Asia to the Mediterranean Near East. Copper ornaments have also been found in early Phase II deposits, which shows these trade networks date to earlier than previously thought. [8] These discoveries lend support to the existence of sporadic contacts between West and North Africa throughout the first millennium AD.[9]


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ MacDonald, K.C. Before the Empire of Ghana: Pastoralism and the Origins of Cultural Complexity in the Sahel. pp. 71–103. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Mcintosh, Susan Keech; Mcintosh, Roderick J. (February 1980). "Jenne-Jeno: An Ancient African City". Archaeology 33 (1): 8–14. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Cotter, Holland (5 Aug 2012). "Imperiled Legacy" (Opposing Viewpoints in Context). New York Times. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mcintosh, Susan Keech; Mcintosh, Roderick J. (Oct 1979). "Initial Perspectives on Prehistoric Subsistence in the Inland Niger Delta (Mail)". World Archaeology 11 (2 Food and Nutrition): 227–243. 
  6. ^ a b c d e McIntosh & McIntosh 2003.
  7. ^ McIntosh & McIntosh 1981.
  8. ^ a b c d Mcintosh, Susan Keech; Mcintosh, Roderick J. (1981). "The Inland Niger Delta before the Empire of Mali: Evidence from Jenne-Jeno". The Journal of African History 22 (1): 1–22. 
  9. ^ Magnavita, Sonja (2013). "Initial Encounters: Seeking traces of ancient trade connections between West Africa and the wider world". Afriques 4. 

Further reading

External links

  • Archaeology of West Africa at Rice University
  • Old Towns of Djenné: UNESCO World Heritage Site
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