Tracing history in Dia, in the Inland Niger Delta of Mali : archaeology, oral traditions and written sources
The three settlement mounds of Dia, located at the western edge of the Inland Niger Delta of Mali, are known from oral and written sources to represent one of the oldest urban sites in the region, older even than the much better known cities of Djenne and Timbuktu. Archaeological excavations at the earliest mound Dia-Shoma have confirmed that notion, as radiocarbon dates have established that its occupational history extends back to the 9th century BC. Meanwhile at the neighbouring mound of Dia-Mara, occupation does not begin until the sixth century AD, with the occupation of the Dia mound complex seemingly reaching its peak in the tenth century. However, oral and written sources portray conflicting pasts, as Dia's multiethnic communities support multiple versions of its cultural history and the arrival of Islam. The latter issue is particularly complex, as Dia prides itself on its Islamic traditions, which some claim extend to the fourteenth century. Our archaeological excavations, however, have revealed evidence for relatively recent non-Islamic religious practices, diet, and ritual. As a result, I will argue for an alternative view of Dia, whose occupation until the eighteenth century seems to have been characterised by local religious customs. I also focus on the issue of ethnicity as Dia's occupational history is characterised by the usurpation of local power by a series of 'incoming' groups, including the Soninke, the Malinke, and the Peulh. Although, recent ethnographic studies of contemporary potters of the Inland Niger Delta suggest that ceramics mirror the ethnic identity of the artisans, Dia's material culture record is surprisingly stable, particularly during the last 800 years. This might be explained in the light of conformity to a broader 'state-level' identity during this period. Alternatively, it could be rooted in the stability of female population as reflected in pottery production systems, with strict endogamous castes of female potters being the regional norm both today and historically. It will be shown that the archaeological record constitutes an effective tool in elucidating alternative versions of the past, which would otherwise remain silent by the oral traditions and written sources.