Communities, economies, and exchange networks along the caravan routes of pre-Saharan North Africa


The primary focus of the fieldseason was the ruins of the early Islamic trans-Saharan trading town and mining centre of Tamdult and its immediate surroundings (Fig. 1). Fieldwork took place in January-February 2019. Following on from the pilot season in 2018, this season was the first of a projected three-season fieldwork project. A number of excavations were carried out at the Tamdult ruins (Fig. 2). This included excavation of the newly located mosque, as well as excavations in the fortified hilltop area of the site hypothesised to be the location of the towns’ mint, and continued excavations in the lower town below the mosque. Further detailed surface surveys and collections were also carried out across the town ruins, as well as within the metal working zones immediately surrounding the site related to the key silver and copper industries of Tamdult. The excavations and survey revealed a rich range of material culture, including carved and decorated plaster, fired bricks, further important collections of coins and glass weights, as well as extensive further finds of moulds for producing silver coins. This material is already undergoing detailed analysis, including a sophisticated analytical programme on the metallurgical remains conducted by the Cyprus Institute. Alongside the foot survey of the site, we also undertook a survey using a drone. This enabled both image and video capture at the main site, as well as detailed survey within the surrounding landscape. Not only will this aid the further study of the site and enable detailed mapping of the site’s surface, it will also lead to the development of a 3D model of the site. In addition to the study of the main Tamdult site we also undertook targeted research within the surrounding region. This included study of the nearby ruined mosque and settlement at Akka, as well as the identification of new sites. A key element of the season was also cultural heritage preservation work. Importantly, the fieldseason included a visit from the Governor of the Tata region with whom we are now developing a cultural heritage plan for the Tamdult site. Other activities undertaken within the year have included archival visits, including to the Institut Géographique National Paris to source historic maps and photos.

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Fig. 1: aerial photograph of Tamdult ruins taken with drone.

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Fig. 2: drone image of central area of Tamdult showing the three excavation zones of the 2019 season (mosque area: upper area of image; fortified hilltop area: base of image; lower town: right side of image).

2019 Season

Timing, personnel, and permits

Fieldwork took place between 23 January and 22 February 2019. The fieldwork team firstly consisted of the project Co-Directors, Dr Sam Nixon (British Museum) and Dr Mabrouk Seghir (INSAP, Rabat), as well as the following other archaeologists: Dr Youssef Bokbot (INSAP, Rabat); Dr Jennifer Wexler (British Museum); Rabia El Mehdaoui (INSAP, Rabat); and Zayd Ouakrim (INSAP, Rabat). We were also joined by two local project co-ordinators from Akka, Abdelkader Oulaich and Ibrahim Oulaich. Professor Thilo Rehren from the Cyprus Institute was programmed to take part in the fieldwork but had to withdraw from this fieldseason – clear instructions were however provided by Professor Rehren for sampling the metallurgy remains and conference calls were made from the field regarding the developing finds. Professor Rehren will be involved in forthcoming fieldseasons. Additionally, ten workmen were recruited from the nearby town of Tizunin (*full details of the names and days of work of each individual are on file with Dr Sam Nixon). Fieldwork took place on site six days a week, with the seventh day reserved for rest and planning. The fieldwork team stayed at the nearby town of Akka, 10 kilometres from Tamdult. Permits for the fieldwork season were issued in advance of the start of the campaign by the Ministry of Culture, in accordance with Moroccan cultural heritage protocols. An additional permit was also attained for the use of a drone at Tamdult and in the surrounding region.



Mosque area

One of the principal areas of excavations at Tamdult was the mosque, situated on the hilltop between the two fortified zones (Fig. 3). A mosque had previously been identified in this zone (by Patrice Cressier ca 30 years previously) though only limited publication of the structure was made and its precise location was not recorded. After careful survey of the area the likely position of the mosque was established and test excavations confirmed this. Following exposure of the mihrab, a wider study of the mosque was undertaken, envisaged as the first stage of the recording of this important structure over a three-year period. The full structure of the building was traced and measured. The structure features stone walls with a rubble fill, with white plaster used both on the walls and floor of the building. Initial excavations established the depth of the stratigraphy (ca 0.5-1metre) and indicated a single building phase, though likely with multiple occupations. In addition to the mihrab, the excavations revealed two lines of pillars parallel to the qibla wall, individual pillars often having a cruciform shape. Other structural remains were also explored at the opposite end of the building. Importantly, decorative carved plaster work was recorded, in association with the presumed entrance to the mosque (Fig. 4) – this has very close parallels with plaster work recorded at the Moroccan site of Sijilmasa, as well indeed as at Sedrata in Algeria. Further plasterwork features included niches for the placement of lamps either side of the mihrab. The further investigation in particular of this decorative plasterwork (*fragments were also recorded elsewhere at the site) has significant potential to illuminate the previously completely unknown early Islamic regional decorative architectural traditions. Other key finds to highlight were a silver coin, potentially of pre-Almoravid date (i.e. pre-mid-11th century) as well as a piece of decorative matting. Based upon the finds, and particularly the plasterwork, the working hypothesis is that the mosque is at least pre-12th century in date.

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Fig. 3: aerial photograph of Tamdult mosque under excavation (note pillars, plaster floor and mihrab under excavation).Fig. 3: aerial photograph of Tamdult mosque under excavation (note pillars, plaster floor and mihrab under excavation).

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Fig. 4: fragments of carved plaster from the mosque at Tamdult (showing floral and recurring geometric patterns).


Fortified hilltop area

Another significant focus of excavations was the fortified hilltop area of Tamdult. In addition to seeking to understand the nature of the urban deposits in this clearly important area of the site, this was also seen to be an important area to establish the stratigraphy of the site more widely. An additional motivation for excavating in this area was the recovery of numerous coin-pellet mould fragments on the surface in this area of the site (Fig. 5), leading to the obvious assumption that this was the location of a mint; the detection of which would be of huge significance both in terms of understanding Tamdult and more widely in terms of broader understanding of early Islamic mints. A 10 x 5 metre area was excavated in the northern fortified area, located in relation to clear evidence of structural remains seen on the site surface (Fig. 6). This revealed a portion of an extensive complex of buildings. Preservation of structural remains and associated deposits was excellent. We recorded three construction levels across the excavation area, found over a depth of 1.5 metres. The excavations appeared to reveal multiple levels of buildings located either side of an alleyway running down the centre of the fortified area. The buildings featured both stone and mud-brick walls, while an interesting feature throughout the buildings was the presence of mud-brick floors (Fig. 7). Across the excavations significant evidence of metal-working was found, including a large quantity of a glassy slag previously recorded on the surface in the pilot season and noted as of interest. No coin-pellet moulds were found in the excavation, however, and the production phase associated with them therefore likely relates to a part of the building complex not yet excavated. Further significant finds included very well-preserved basketry, as well as fragments of decorated plasterwork with close affinities to the plasterwork recorded in the mosque. Soil samples were also taken for the purposes of archaeobotanical analysis.

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Fig. 5: surface collection of coin-pellet mould fragments within and around fortified area, recorded in abundance during the 2019 fieldseason.

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Fig. 6: aerial image of building complex under excavation (within fortified area on top of Tamdult mound).

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Fig. 7: detail of excavation within the fortified hilltop area of Tamdult – section through room with mud-brick floor.


Lower town area

Another area of excavations was developed in the lower town (Fig. 2, 8). Given the close presence of this area to the mosque and the clear surface traces of streetways and buildings leading up to the mosque, this was seen to be an interesting area of the urban structure to understand. An additional feature making this an interesting area for excavations was the surface traces of a range of structural remains using both stone and a mortar fill. These were believed to be either associated with high-firing industrial activities or with activities associated with water, including potentially a hammam complex. The excavations were located in relation to surface traces of structural remains and upon investigation this area revealed a series of small cell-like rooms (Fig. 8). The structures revealed were partly in stone and partly in mud-brick. The excavations recorded three layers of occupation associated with these buildings recorded over ca 1metre, closely paralleling the stratigraphic picture seen in the hilltop area. The excavations also recorded clear evidence of in situ metal working. This included clear evidence of silver ore (galena) processing, not previously recorded at the site. Remains of burnt brick were also recovered, potentially relating to a nearby structure yet to be revealed (Fig. 9). Soil samples were also taken with a view to recovering botanical remains.

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Fig. 8: excavation of a complex of buildings in the lower town below the mosque area.

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Fig. 9: examples of fragments of fired brick excavated at Tamdult.

Wider Tamdult surface studies and drone survey

Alongside the excavations we undertook careful surface surveys of the site and the surrounding area, building on the preliminary studies in the 2018 pilot season. One important element of this survey involved surface collection around the fortified hilltop area where the highly important finds of coin-pellet moulds had previously been identified in greatest number. Systematic survey was undertaken here targeting particularly such coin-pellet mould fragments. Over 100 coin-pellet fragments were recorded and plotted here, with representative samples selected for analysis (Fig. 5). The careful plotting of these surface finds and their analysis is designed to inform the evolving sub-surface research of this area (see above), designed to help better understand the mint complex which is likely located in this area. Further surface survey involved documenting the nature of surface remains across other key areas of the site, both in order to improve understanding of their nature as well as identifying areas for future focused research and excavations. Amongst the important further finds recorded during the surface surveys were further examples of early Islamic coins (both Almoravid and Almohad), as well as coin weights (Fig. 10, 11). This provides another very important contribution to the evolving sample of these key categories of evidence which were already collected in the pilot season.

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Fig. 10: Almoravid and Almohad silver coins recorded during 2019 fieldseason.

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Fig. 11: coin weights recorded during 2019 fieldseason at Tamdult.

A further key element of the survey involved recording and systematic sampling of various further metal working sites in the surroundings of the main Tamdult site. In addition to the large zones of metal-working already visited and sampled in the 2018 pilot season, we visited a further five large zones of metal working in a 2km range of the main site (e.g. Fig. 12). In each zone careful surface observation and recording was undertaken and representative samples of the material remains were collected for laboratory analysis.

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Fig. 12: survey of one of the metal working zones of furnaces and associated slag fields found up to 2kms from the Tamdult ruins.

Alongside the foot survey of the site, we conducted further survey and recording with a drone (a DJI Mavic Air). Using the drone we recorded a range of aerial images and video of the main site and of the surrounding archaeology (Fig. 1, 2, 13). In addition to providing detailed imagery of the main site at a much higher resolution than attainable with satellite imagery, we also documented the fortified ‘kasbah’ structures and fossil agricultural systems found throughout the surrounding valley (summarised and illustrated in the initial funding application) (e.g. Fig. 13). In addition to the use of this material for providing straightforward photographic and videographic illustration and documentation of the site, the drone footage is being used to develop a 3D model of the site. This work is being undertaken in collaboration with Soluis Heritage (Glasgow, UK).

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 Fig. 13: aerial image from drone survey of fortified ‘kasbah’ structures and associated fossil agricultural systems (approximate 250 x 150 metre area shown).

Material culture and ecofactual recovery and study

A wide range of important material culture was recovered during the work at Tamdult, certain of which has been referred to above. A key element of the material recovered inevitably relates to metallurgy, in line with this very important role of the Tamdult site. This included further evidence for primary metal working, both from the main site and from surrounding metal working zones, informing us about the site’s crucial silver production industry as well as its copper-working industry. As detailed above, an extensive range of evidence of the very important category of coin-pellet moulds was also recovered for study. This now represents the best documented collection of this artefact type yet known from an Islamic site. As detailed above, further examples of silver coins were also recovered, as well as glass coin weights. A range of silver jewellery was also recorded, adding to the material recorded during the pilot season. All of this material has been carefully sampled and the samples sent for analysis to the Cyprus Institute, our research partners engaged in the metallurgy study and the associated critical question of the coin production industries. The Cyprus Institute have already made significant advances in studying both the silver and copper industries from the site based on the material collected during the pilot season and this new material now forms the second phase of this detailed scientific analysis programme.

A significant amount of other material was also recovered during the fieldwork, including large quantities of pottery (glazed and unglazed) of great importance for developing a typology and chronology of the site, as well as a range of other finds including glassware, beads, ivory, and basketry. We have already also mentioned the important examples of architectural remains, including the key findings of decorative plasterwork. Animal bones were also carefully collected, as well as soil samples for the study of archaeobotany. All of this material has been taken to the INSAP laboratories in Rabat for processing and Sam Nixon will visit Rabat in summer/autumn 2019 to undertake research on this material together with colleagues from INSAP ahead of the next fieldseason. This will include selection of material for illustration. Radiocarbon samples were also taken from all of the excavations and these are currently being prepared for submission for dating.


Wider regional survey and study

In addition to the study of the Tamdult site and its immediate surroundings we undertook a study of sites in the wider region, continuing from the work done in the 2018 pilot season. This study was partly informed by the study

of historic maps acquired by Sam Nixon from the Institut Géographique National in Paris during an autumn 2018 visit to their archives.

One particularly important additional site visited was the historic ruins in the nearby town of Akka, ca 10kms from Tamdult, including the ruins of a historic mosque believed to be potentially of an early Islamic date (Fig. 14, 15). While this mosque has seen some previous research, this has not been published and its wider occupational landscape has also not been explored. During this season we undertook a visit to this mosque and its surroundings to assess the potential for further work here, including careful study of the standing remains and associated sub-surface deposits (including sampling fired-bricks to compare with those recovered from Tamdult). We also made a preliminary assessment of a fortified site up on the cliffs overlooking the town of Akka and the ruined mosque. From our study of both the archaeology and associated historical records it appears that Akka was potentially a very important part of the early Islamic landscape and there is significant potential that Akka and Tamdult were part of one larger extended settlement landscape.

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Fig. 14: tower at the ruins of the historic mosque at Akka, near Tamdult.

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Fig. 15: detail of decoration on the tower of the ruined mosque at Akka, near Tamdult.

Further important sites recorded included a further fortified site overlooking Tamdult up on the Djebel Bani mountain range, some 8kms distant. Further sites were also identified both through discussions locally, as well as through the survey of the historic maps collected. These included several further settlement sites, located up to 20 kms south of Tamdult and believed to be stopover points related either to caravans journeying to and from the silver mines or on the long distance trans-Saharan caravan routes. While we did not revisit the silver and copper mines this season due to Professor Thilo Rehren not being present, we made further enquiries regarding these and attained additional useful information which will be used by Professor Rehren during his research next year.


Cultural heritage preservation work

Complementing the research at Tamdult the project also engaged in significant work regarding the protection of the site. At present the site is under significant threat of destruction from industrial agricultural development. Importantly the research we have been undertaking at the site has provided a context and additional incentive both to stop the immediate threat to the site and to begin plans for its long-term protection. My colleagues from INSAP are currently working on developing a clear plan of action with the Ministry of Culture to list the site on the Moroccan register of historic sites, as well as developing wider plans for the valorisation of the site. Of great importance in this respect, during the fieldseason the Governor of the Tata region (the administrative region in which Tamdult is located) came to visit the site to see the work we were undertaking (Fig. 16). We conducted an afternoon of site tours, as well as a demonstration of the drone work we were doing to record the site. During this visit the Governor announced his desire to support cultural heritage activity at the site. At the invitation of the Governor we are now developing a specific proposal for what a programme of cultural heritage at the site might look like, including a proposed tourist infrastructure and site guardians. Discussions regarding a new museum in the nearby town of Tata are also underway and it is anticipated that Tamdult and our research would represent a significant feature of the museum displays.

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Fig. 16: visit of the Governor of the Tata region to Tamdult (shown here observing the ongoing excavations of the mosque).

Dr. Sam Nixon
Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, British Museum, London
Research Associate at the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia