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Centuries-old African structures have never been excavated
U of C-led team hopes to unlock mysteries of Cameroon’s granite strongholds
A University of Calgary archaeologist is leading the first expedition to excavate the so-called Strongholds of Cameroon, which are some of the most remarkable stone-built structures anywhere in Africa.
Located in the Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon, the strongholds range in size from small standalone structures, to complex, castle-sized fortresses with platforms, terraces and covered passageways. The curving walls on some of the larger strongholds are over six metres high and strong enough to serve as defensive barricades, although their exact function is still unknown. (To download print-quality photos, see http://www.fp.ucalgary.ca/unicomm/news/strongholds/camphotos.html. A slideshow is at http://www.mandaras.info/StrongholdsNCameroon/sld001.htm and includes detailed commentary.)
U of C archaeology professor Dr. Nicholas David and other team members completed a preliminary survey of the 10 previously known or suspected stronghold sites earlier this year, discovering an 11th on the last day of fieldwork. He and close to a dozen other researchers – including co-investigator Judy Sterner, other archaeologists, a U of C grad student, a German ethnologist, Cameroonian students, and a conservation architect from Rome – will begin their four-month project this September.
“We really don’t know much yet about these amazing structures,” David says. “One local story has it that they were used by groups who were almost constantly at war. People of the area also relate fantastic legends involving men with coppery skins, horses, cannibals and slaves, although the architecture of the strongholds seems quite unsuitable for trade in slaves. At present, my best guess is that they represent complexes of tombs.”
In 1823 Major Dixon Denham, a British explorer, met a group of chiefs on horseback from the area of the strongholds who were paying tribute to a local sultan. He described the chiefs as wearing animal skins, bone jewelry and “one to six strings of what I was assured were the teeth of the enemies they had slain in battle.” Those chiefs may have been the descendants of the people who built the strongholds.
Although they are likely over 300 years old, the strongholds have never before been the subjects of scholarly inquiry. “It’s a very curious thing how sometimes these plums remain unpicked,” David says. “The colonial period resulted in Africans being denied their history, but of course knowing that history is a vital part of nation-building. Archaeologists, by uncovering information, make a real contribution to the building of stable nation-states. These stone-built strongholds build Cameroonian identity.”
Cameroon is located in west Africa between Nigeria and Chad. It is slightly larger in area than California and has a population of nearly 16 million people.
The significance of the strongholds has been recognized by the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Culture Property, which is supporting Cameroon’s conservation efforts in its Africa 2009 program. (ICCROM was founded through UNESCO in the late 1950s.)
A sizable Cameroonian contingent will be involved in the archaeological project, including several conservation experts. Some of the other participants include Judith Sterner, an anthropologist who is co-principal investigator and an instructor at the Alberta College of Art and Design, Gerhard Müller-Kosack, an ethnologist from Johann-Wolfgang Goethe Universität in Germany, Frank Kense, an archaeologist who trained at the University of Calgary and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, Andrea Richardson, a U of C MA student in archaeology, and Owen Murray, an illustrator and former student of Sterner’s.
Work will begin first on one of the smaller strongholds, which David hopes will provide important information on how to excavate the larger ones without jeopardizing their structural integrity.
The project is being funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The University of Calgary has a world-renowned archaeology department that contributes to one of the institution’s overall strengths in understanding human behaviour, institutions and cultures.
Note to news editors: for print-quality photographs, please see the web site at http://www.fp.ucalgary.ca/unicomm/news/strongholds/camphotos.html. A slideshow is also at http://www.mandaras.info/StrongholdsNCameroon/sld001.htm and includes detailed commentary.
To speak with Dr. Nicholas David, phone (403) 220-5227 or (403) 932-6569, or contact Greg Harris, U of C media relations, at (403) 220-3506 or cell (403) 540-7306.
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