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jenne-jeno1Jenne-jeno, an ancient African city

Susan Keech McIntosh and Roderick J. McIntosh

Roderick and Susan McIntosh excavated at Jenne-jeno and neighboring sites in 1977 and 1981 and returned in 1994 for coring and more survey, with funding from the National Science Foundation of the United States, the American Association of University Women, and the National Geographic Society (1994). This research formed the basis of their Ph.D. dissertations at Cambridge University and the University of California at Santa Barbara, respectively. The McIntoshes have published two monographs and numerous articles on their archaeological research in the Middle Niger. They are professors of anthropology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and they continue to collaborate with Malian colleagues from the Institut des Sciences Humaines on research along the Middle Niger.

For centuries, the upper Inland Niger Delta of the Middle Niger between modern Mopti and Segou has been a vital crossroads for trade. Historical sources, such as the 1828 account of the French explorer Rene Caillié, as well as local Tarikhs (histories written in Arabic) detail for us the central role that Jenne played in the commercial activities of the Western Sudan during the last 500 years. The seventeenth century author of the Tarikh es-Sudan, al-Sadi, wrote that "it is because of this blessed town that camel caravans come to Timbuktu from all points of the horizon". In the famous "Golden Trade of the Moors", gold from mines far to the south was transported overland to Jenne, then trans-shipped on broad-bottom canoes (pirogues) to Timbuktu, and thence by camel to markets in North Africa and Europe. Leo Africanus reported in 1512 that the extensive boat trade on the Middle Niger involved massive amounts of cereals and dried fish shipped from Jenne to provision arid Timbuktu. Today, the stunning mud architecture of Jenne in distinctive Sudanic style is a legacy of its early trade ties with North Africa. Three kilometers to the southeast, the large mound called Jenne-jeno (ancient Jenne) or Djoboro (Pl. 1)  is claimed by oral traditions as the original settlement of Jenne. Barren and carpeted by a thick layer of broken pottery, Jenne-jeno lay mute for decades, its history and significance totally unknown. Scientific excavations in the 1970's and 1980's revealed that the mound is composed of over five meters of debris accumulated during sixteen centuries of occupation that began c. 200 B.C.E. These excavations, in addition to more than doubling the period of known history for this region, provided some surprises regarding the local development of society. The results indicated that earlier assumptions about the emergence of complex social organization in urban settlements and the development of long-distance trade as innovations appearing only after the arrival of the Arabs in North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries were incorrect. The archaeology of Jenne- jeno and the surrounding area clearly showed an early, indigenous growth of trade and social complexity. The importance of this discovery has resulted in the entry of Jenne- jeno, along with Jenne, on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.


The early settlement at Jenne-jeno.

It appears that permanent settlement first became possible in the upper Inland Niger Delta in about the third century B.C.E. Prior to that time, the flood regime of the Niger was apparently much more active, meaning that the annual floodwaters rose higher and perhaps stayed longer than they do today, such that there was no high land that regularly escaped inundation. Under these wetter circumstances, diseases carried by insects, especially tsetse fly, would have discouraged occupation. Between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E., the Sahel experienced significant dry episodes, that were part of the general drying trend seriously underway since 1000 B.C.E. Prior to that time, significant numbers of herders and farmers lived in what is today the southern Sahara desert, where they raised cattle, sheep and goat, grew millet, hunted, and fished in an environment of shallow lakes and grassy plains. As the environment became markedly drier after 1000 B.C.E., these populations moved southward with their stock in search of more reliable water sources. Oral traditions of groups from the Serer and Wolof of Senegal to the Soninke of Mali trace their origins back to regions of southern Mauritania that are now desert. As these stone-tool-using populations slowly moved along southward-draining river systems, they found various more congenial environments. One of these was the great interior floodplain of the Middle Niger, with its rich alluvial soil and a flood regime that was well-suited to the cultivation of rice. The earliest deposits, nearly six meters deep at Jenne- jeno  (Pl. 2)  have yielded the hulls of domesticated rice, sorghum, millet, and various wild swamp grasses. The population that settled at Jenne-jeno used and worked iron, fashioning the metal into both jewelry and tools. This is interesting , since there are no sources of iron ore in the floodplain. The earliest inhabitants of Jenne-jeno were already trading with areas outside the region. They also imported stone grinders and beads. The presence of two Roman or Hellenistic beads in the early levels suggests that a few very small trade goods were reaching West Africa, probably after changing hands through many intermediaries. We have not detected any evidence of influences from the Mediterranean world on the local societies at this time.
The original settlement appears to have occurred on a small patch of relatively high ground, and was probably restricted to a few circular huts of straw coated with mud daub. We find many pieces of burnt daub with mat impressions on them in the earliest levels. The pottery associated with this early material is from small, finely-made vessels with thin walls. Artifacts and housing material of this kind persist until c. 450 C.E., occurring over progressive larger area of Jenne-jeno. This indicates that the site was growing larger. In fact, by 450 C.E., the settlement had expanded to at least 25 hectares (over 60 acres).


Jenne-jeno's floruit: 450-1100 C.E.

In the deposits dated from the fifth century, there are definite indications that the organization of society is changing. We find organized cemeteries, with interments in large burial urns (Pl. 3)   as well as inhumations outside of urns in simple pits, on the edge of the settlement. From an excavation unit on the western edge of Jenne-jeno, we found evidence that the site was enlarged by quarrying clay from the floodplain and mounding it at the edge of the site New trade items appear, such as copper, imported from sources a minimum of several hundred kilometers away, and gold from even more distance mines. A smithy was installed near one of our central excavation units around 800 C.E. to mold copper and bronze into ornaments, and to forge iron. Smithing continued in this locale for the next 600 years, suggesting that craftsmen had become organized in castes and operated in specific locales, much as we see in Jenne today.
The round houses at Jenne-jeno were constructed with tauf, or puddled mud, foundations, from the fifth to the ninth century. During this time, the settlement continued to grow, reaching its maximum area of 33 hectares by 850 C.E. We know that this is so because sherds of the distinctive painted pottery that was produced at Jenne-jeno only between 450-850 C.E. are present in all our excavation units, even those near the edge of the mound. And we find them at the neighboring mound of Hambarketolo, too, suggesting that these two connected sites totaling 41 hectares (100 acres) functioned as part of a single town complex (Pl. 4)  .
In the ninth century, two noticeable changes occur (Pl. 5)  : tauf house foundations are replaced by cylindrical brick architecture, and painted pottery is replaced by pottery with impressed and stamped decoration. The source of these novelties is unknown, although we can say that they did not involve any fundamental shift in the form or general layout of either houses or pottery. So it is unlikely that any major change in the ethnic composition of Jenne-jeno was associated with the changes. Change with continuity was the prevailing pattern. One of the earliest structures built using the new cylindrical brick technology (Pl. 6)  was apparently the city wall, which was 3.7 meters wide at its base and ran almost two kilometers around the town. All these indications of increasingly complex social organization are particularly important in helping us understand the indigenous context of the Empire of Ghana, an influential confederation that consolidated power within large areas to the north and west of the Inland Niger Delta sometime after 500 C.E.. To date, Jenne-jeno provides our only insight into the nature of change and complexity in the Sahel prior to the establishment of the trans-Saharan trade. Although some excavations have been conducted at the presumed capital of Ghana, Kumbi Saleh (in southeastern Mauritania), these focused on the stone-built ruins dating to the period of the trans-Saharan trade.
As we currently understand the archaeology of the entire Jenne region, where over 60 archaeological sites rise from the floodplain within a 4 kilometer radius of the modern town (Pl. 7)   , many of these sites were occupied at the time of Jenne-jeno's floruit between 800-1000 C.E.. We have suggested that this extraordinary settlement clustering resulted from a clumping of population around a rare conjunction of highly desirable features (Pl. 8)  : excellent rice-growing soils, levees for pasture in the flood season, deep basin for pasture in the dry season and access to both major river channels and the entire inland system of secondary and tertiary marigots from communication and trade.


Decline: C.E. 1200-1400

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the first unambiguous evidence of North African or Islamic influences appears at Jenne-jeno in the form of brass, spindle whorls, and rectilinear houses. This occurs within a century of the traditional date of 1180 C.E. for the conversion of Jenne's king (Koi) Konboro to Islam, according to the Tarikh es-Sudan. After this point, Jenne-jeno begins a 200-year long period of decline and gradual abandonment, before it becomes a ghost town by 1400. We can speculate that Jenne-jeno declined at the expense of Jenne, perhaps related to the ascendancy of the new religion, Islam, over traditional practice. The continued practice of urn burial at Jenne-jeno through the fourteenth century tells us that many of the site's occupants did not convert to Islam. The production of terracotta statuettes in great numbers throughout the period and even into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries elsewhere in the Inland Niger Delta may mark loci of resistance, within the context of traditional religious practice, to Islam or the leaders who practiced it. Whatever the cause of Jenne-jeno's abandonment, it was part of a larger process whereby most of the settlements occupied around Jenne in 1000 C.E. lay deserted by 1400. What caused such a realignment of the local population? Again, we can only speculate. Some people likely converted to Islam and moved to Jenne, where wealth and commercial opportunities were increasingly concentrated. But there is also the fact that the climate grew increasingly dry from 1200 C.E., causing tremendous political upheavals further north, and prompting virtual abandonment of whole regions (e.g., the Mema, studied by Malian archaeologist Tereba Togola) that could no longer sustain herds and agriculture. Some, if not all, of these factors were probably implicated in the decline of Jenne-jeno.

 jjbackmapJenne-jeno is easy to reach from Jenne, and its surface traces of ancient houses and pottery are evocative of its rich history. Peering into the deep erosion gullies that scar the surface, one literally looks backward in time over 1000 years. But please remember, only a small part of the puzzle of the history of Jenne-jeno has been put together so far. All the artifacts you see are clues for the archaeologists who will work in future years to complete the puzzle. Help us safeguard Mali's rich heritage for all people by observing the following rules when you visit the site:


PLEASE DO NOT BUY OR COLLECT ARTIFACTS OR STATUETTES REMOVED FROM ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES. These materials are obtained by illegal digging at local sites, involving the destruction of irreplaceable information about Mali's heritage.

BE AWARE THAT ARTIFACTS AND STATUETTES ARE PROTECTED UNDER MALI'S ANTIQUITIES LAWS. There are severe penalties for removing and attempting to export artifacts and statuettes without official permission.