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Tellem or Dogon Headrest from Mali

Tellem or Dogon Headrest from Mali

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Tellem or Dogon Headrest from Mali - History

An example made specifically for the collecting market which is no longer in my collection.

"In the Bandiagara cliffs, above the villages now occupied by the Dogon people, carved wooden headrests have been found in burial caves. The Dogon,
who do not now use headrests, attribute them to the Tellem, former inhabitants of the region from the 11th to the 16th centuries. Rogier Bedaux, who has
excavated in the burial caves, asserts that headrests "do not occur in Dogon contexts."

Tellem headrests that have been excavated from documented cave sites have elegant silhouettes but minimal decoration. Although unusual, some
headrests have animal heads projecting from either end of the curved upper platform. The heads resemble those found on trough-like containers and
benches of the contemporary Dogon."

Source: National Museum of African Art

In their original context, headrests such as this from the Tellem, as mentioned above, were used as burial gifts or quite possibly the headrests used by the
deceased was buried with the deceased as it is done in some other parts of Africa. I don't know much about Tellem burial practices, but from what I have
read, various substances were added to the bodies and the burial gifts that were buried with the deceased (not "buried" literally since they were placed in
caves in the cliffs, photos of Tellem burial caves can be seen by clicking here ). The addition of these substances may have given the objects found in
these caves a very encrusted surface.

Burial caves contained many objects that were offered as gifts for the dead : bowls, potteries, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and iron staffs.
Headrests may have been objects of high status, because only a few caves contained them.

On December 12th I posted a message to several African Art Discussion Groups inviting people from them, and people who visited my
website, to take part in an interactive sort of exercise on this headrest and another one on my website. I simple asked people if they
thought the headrests were authentic and to post comments as to why they thought they way they did. The results have been posted for
this headrest underneath all of the photos. There is also a link to the results for the other headrest on this page as well.

Authenticity = Made to look old

Participant location when submitted: (Rhode Island)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Unsure/Not enough data

Comments: = Its form is aesthetically persuasive, the
"feel" is right. But I say that based only on instinct, and
without the necessary review of many comparable authenticated
items. The patina is also quite convincing, but my first
question would be why it doesn't seem to match that of the
other Tellum pieces I know about. I'm not saying the patina
is wrong, just that it doesn't have either the classic
"cracked-mud" encrustation or the look of "ancient-bare-wood".
As for the weathering, again its persuasive (but I'm saying
this without knowing anything about the type or at least
weight of the wood). I do wonder about the blackish bits
that seem to be visible under the encrustation. Could they be
from the object being burned before being encrusted, thus
achieving an artificial weathering?

Participant location when submitted: (unknown)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Made to look old

Comments: = Hmm. Gut feel is that this is wrong, despite
heavy erosion. Looks too fussy and fragile, plus doesn't look
like it would stand well. Overall shape feels wrong.

Participant location when submitted: (London, England)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Unsure/Not enough data

Comments: = both look the same, age.

Participant location when submitted: (Santa Cruz, California)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Unsure/Not enough data

Comments: = IMO, the upper and lower levels conflict. Lower
level wear pattern/carving inconsistant with the upper.

Participant location when submitted: (Virginia Beach, Virginia)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Participant location when submitted: (unknown)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Unsure/Not enough data

Comments: = this is probably not an old, authentic Tellem
piece. The difference between a Tellem and a Dogon sculpture
isn´t easy to verify, because it depends of the
circumstances, where the object was stored. A more or less recent
piece can look old, if it was posted outside for several years.
A Tellem piece, which was stored in a dark cavern can have
only little signs of age. I wouldn´t buy this piece,
because authentic Tellem pieces are looking different. If
somebody wants be 100 percent sure, he should make a C14 test. I
wouldn´t spend money for a test like this.
Paolo Paretti

Participant location when submitted: (Antalya, Turkey)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Comments: = Very intersting and I have never seen anything
of this sort.

Participant location when submitted: (unknown)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Made to look old

Comments: = Boulanger François
Bruxelles, Belgium

Il n'est probablement pas vieux
et d'un style trop compliqué avec une patine fabriquée .
Il faudrait les avoir en main et encore, c'est très
compliqué !

Rough translation : It is not probably vieuxet (?) of a style too complicated with a fabricated patina.
UNSURE. It would be necessary to have them in hand and again, this is very complicated!

Participant location when submitted: (Bruxelles, Belgium)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Comments: = Its ugly enough to look authentic

Participant location when submitted: (Asheville, North Carolina)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Made to look old

Comments: = Usually I do not comment on questions like
these on the public internet. But in this case, as Rand
personally asked me to do so, you will find my remarks below. It
is important to note that there are a lot of data missing to
make a fair judgement. Because of that, I have to base
myself on a couple of presuppositions.

We cannot hold the headrest in our hands, but I am almost
sure that the wood of the pieces is too light (wrong wood).
Another problem is that we are not able to see the bottom
of the piece. Almost all fakes have the same patina all
over, including the bottom (wrong patina at the bottom). But
above that, the patina itself is wrong. Most of the Tellem
headrests do not have this kind of patina, and certainly they
do not have a crusty offering patina that Rand is referring
to in his text (wrong patina). If you do find some crusty
substance on it though, it is a residue from the corpse, and
you find it only on the top and only at some scattered
places. A good patina is caused by long-term use of the
headrest by its owner. Its colour runs from honey-coloured to
light-brown and dark-brown. There is always a difference in
colour at the bottom compared to the rest of the headrest. The
bottom always looks lighter, which is understandable,
because it touches the ground.

But be careful, some correct neckrests don’t have any
patina at all, and they look as if they were made yesterday.

It is impossible to smell the headrest. Because of the
disintegration of the corpse, many headrests have a very
penetrating, sweetish smell. But that does certainly not count
for all of them. But if they smell, you can almost be sure
your headrest is a genuine one. I am almost sure that the
examples we discuss here do not smell at all (no smell). Both
the headrests look very eroded. The wood of a genuine
headrest is so dense that an erosion like this is nearly
impossible. Moreover, the climate in the caves, where they
originate from, causes another kind of surface (wrong erosion).
For fakers, using very light wood, faking erosion is very
easy (probably with a sandblaster, or high-pressure spraying
pistol or whatsoever).

Most of the Tellem headrests have a very, very simple form.
A few of have a more complicated appearance, and of course
it are the headrests from the last category that are sought
after most by collectors. It is understandable therefore,
that fakers fake in the second category and even invent new
forms themselves, as the superimposed example which is
shown to us (I have nearly the same one in my own collection
of fakes*) (wrong form). Usually, a collector does not want
to pay approximately € 4000 to 7000 and more for a genuine
headrest of the second category. Our greed dazzles us and
against common sense we like to believe in our bargain. So,
if a headrest from the second category is offered to you
for let us say �, you should be warned. In that case you
have to do further investigation to be sure you don’t deal
with a fake (wrong price). The best thing to do in this
case is to analyse the wood with a C14 test (€ 500). It may
be worthwhile. Sad to say buying African art!
nowadays has become walking in a minefield.

Jan Baptist Bedaux

Participant location when submitted: (Amsterdam, Noord-Holland)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Comments: = seems natural to me

Participant location when submitted: (Antwerp, Belgium)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Made to look old

Comments: = A forensic surgeon cannot tell the reasons of
the death from a photo.
But, instinctively :
The part of an headrest being usually the most exposed to
deterioration is the base - here, the base seems too intact,
to me.
The upper part gives also the impression that the wood has
not only be manipulated, which is ok, but also weathered.
Apart from the fact that it does not rain so much in the
Dogon area, when it does the people do not sleep outside and
leave their headrest on the spot for so long that it could
be weathered. just my opinion.

Participant location when submitted: (Roslyn, New York)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Made to look old

Comments: = Same comments as for the other headrest.
The other one had a patina over the weathered surface -
which is not consistent with the explanation that the wood had
been staying in the ground.
This one does not have a weathered surface.
The base is too intact - while the top seems to have
experienced an accident. A pillow fight maybe ? (I love this comment - RAND)

Participant location when submitted: (Nigeria)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest

Authenticity = Unsure/Not enough data

Comments: = (comments the same as for the other headrest,
except for an additional thought at the end) Its form is
aesthetically persuasive, the "feel" is right. But I say that
based only on instinct, and without the necessary review of
many comparable authenticated items. The patina is also
quite convincing, but my first question would be why it
doesn't seem to match that of the other Tellum pieces I know
about. I'm not saying the patina is wrong, just that it
doesn't have either the classic "cracked-mud" encrustation or
the look of "ancient-bare-wood". As for the weathering,
again its persuasive (but I'm saying this without knowing
anything about the type or at least weight of the wood). I do
wonder about the blackish bits that seem to be visible under
the encrustation. Could they be from the object being
burned before being encrusted, thus achieving an artificial
weathering? One other thing I would wonder about is the area
on top of the base between the legs, forming
sort of a reddish stripe from end to end. Why does it
vary in color/texture so much from the rest of the top of
the base, almost as if an encrustation was applied and then
"weathered", with it being not so easy to "weather" it
between the legs? WK

Participant location when submitted: (unknown)
Double tiered headrest = Double tiered headrest
Authenticity = Made to look old

Dear Rand, unfortunately both headrests seem false. I get to see hundreds of them here in Ghana
and they all look like the ones exposed on your site. In headrests there must be a net difference in
patina between the part where the head rests and the base from where the owner holds it from to
transport it.

On December 15th I posted a message to several African Art Discussion Groups inviting people from them, along with people who visited my website, to
take part in an interactive sort of exercise on this headrest and another one on my website. I simply asked people if they thought the headrests were
authentic and to post comments as to why they thought they way they did. The purpose of this exercise is to show people how others look at the same type
of object and see what other people's thoughts are.

The choices for authenticity were - Authentic, Made to look old, and Unsure/Not enough data
Then I asked people to comment as to why they felt the way they did, the comments were anonymous unless people wished to sign their name to them.
I do this to encourage more people to participate since no one will be able to judge them for their thoughts. I think that lots of people have thoughts about
things, but are unwilling to voice them in a public fashion with their name attached to their comments.

The purpose of this exercise was to show people how other people look at the same object and it's perceived authenticity, and to show them what other
people thought about the object. When I go to Tribal Art Fairs I enjoy walking around with people and looking at different objects and having the ability to
share thoughts with each other about the objects. Sometimes you can learn from this and it's something I enjoy. Doing this sort of exercise on my website
is the next best thing to walking around with someone and looking at the objects in person.

There is one big drawback to this exercise, you don't get to look at the object in person.

You don't get to hold it, smell it, feel the weight of it and you don't really get a good look at it like you would at a Tribal Art Fair or gallery. So many times
though, people have to use the Internet to be able to have other people look at their objects from photographs to make judgements on them. Sometimes it
is easy to tell if an object is made specifically for the collecting market from a photograph, but to make a definitive determination about the authenticity of
an object from a photograph, at least in my opinion, is very challenging because you really need to have the object in your hand and get to smell it, feel
the weight of it and get a really close look at different areas of the object to made a good determination on authenticity.

Of course, if you collect objects that have not had tribal use and are objects that are representations of traditional objects (some refer to these as copies,
and depending on how they are represented, they could be called fakes) then authenticity will not matter to you and the important thing will be the quality
of the carving and how well the piece reflects the styles of known traditional and authentic examples. I collect authentic objects every chance I get, but I
also have no problems collecting nice representations of traditional objects as well.

Take for instance Tellem headrests, which happens to be the topic of this exercise. I am by no means an expert on the Tellem, I've only done some
reading, but from what I have read the "the Tellem inhabited the Bandiagara escarpment from the 11th to the 15th centuries, prior to the arrival of the
Dogon. They interred their dead in the grottoes, as do the Dogon today, with abundant funerary materials including textiles, votive neck supports made of
wood and iron, ceramic materials and wooden figurines. The grottoes have been systematically looted and their contents illegally exported leading to
unbridled depredation of the region. Pillage has left few archaeological sites intact resulting in the loss to science and history of an incalculable amount of
information." ( source ) I'm not really sure what happened to the Tellem people, everything I have read just states that they mysteriously disappeared. The
point is that this is a culture that pre-dated the Dogon, the Tellem is a culture that no longer inhabits the area, a culture that one could assume no longer
made objects sometime after the 16th Century. This culture may have migrated to other parts of Africa? This culture may have disseminated and become
part of other cultures along their migration paths. (I am assuming here, if anyone knows what happened to them I'd love to know). The thing is that objects
that were produced by the Tellem culture were only found in the burial caves that, to the best of my knowledge, weren't excavated and researched until the
20th Century, I don't know when the looting of these caves started.

"The rugged Bandiagara Cliffs where the animist Dogon tribe bury their dead in caves, also has been hammered by collectors. Virtually every one of the
tribe's old, ornately carved granary doors has been bought up and carted away to African art galleries in Europe and the United States. Local elders have
resorted to defacing what few original carvings remain in their villages to keep them from being stolen. Meanwhile, even more ancient art in the Dogon
area--headrests and statuettes left in high, inaccessible caves by the Tellem, a people who vanished mysteriously in the 16th Century-- are being mined
for money. Dogon youths hang from ropes to plunder the artifacts. "Little by little, it is all being taken away," said Mombalon dit Gol-fils Dolo, a Dogon
tourist guide. "It is not our fault. We are poor. Our millet harvest failed this year." Indeed, aware of the irresistible lure of outsiders offering pocketfuls of
cash in exchange for its dwindling art treasures, the Malian government has launched a unique education campaign to encourage villagers to protect their
past. President Alpha Oumar Konare, a trained archaeologist, has ordered that cultural missions be established in all of Mali's smaller towns to promote a
sense of pride and ownership in the country's artifacts." ( source )

It has been written by several scholars in several publications that headrests do not occur in Dogon contexts. It has also been written that Dogon people
often times reused Tellem headrests.

"Roy Sieber, noting that headrests may have a religious nature, quotes Igor de Garine's remarks (in Balandier and Maquet 1974:178) that "the heads of
some individuals in high authority (for example the Hogon, who is the high priest of the Dogon of Mali) must not touch the ground" (1980:107). Until more
definitive field work is done among the Dogon, the question will remain whether the Dogon really do make and use headrests or reuse Tellem ones."
(Sleeping Beauties)

So, how does this all apply to the headrest listed on this page that was part of this exercise?

Well, when I originally came across this headrest I was very taken in by it's unique form. I couldn't recall if I had ever come across a 2 tiered headrest such
as this from any African culture. I didn't really have much experience at all with Dogon or Tellem headrests, it was just an area that I hadn't explored much.
I had one other headrest in my collection at one point that I sold earlier this year, and after I sold it I guess in the back of my head I had been keeping an
eye out for other examples to collect.

This example was very unusual to me and I liked that fact about it. The double tiered design with the heads on each end had great appeal to me but the
surface was a bit confusing, and so was the smell. When I was originally looking at the headrests I had a friend of mine with me that has lived and worked
in Africa for quite a number of years, and who has also been collecting for over 20 years. I showed him both headrests and asked his opinion on them. He
brought out his magnifying glass and sat down and studied each of them very carefully.

The 2 tiered headrest actually had one of the heads on the side broken off, so it gave us a chance to look more at the wood. The headrests aren't light,
but they aren't made of a really heavy wood either and the wood is medium density. From my experience with most African headrests, a well used headrest
will have a very worn, smooth surface, which is of course not the case with these headrests in this exercise. Both of these headrests have an interesting
surface to them. Underneath that surface "could" be a worn wood surface, but without removing the material on top of the wood, I don't know. The friend
that was with me commented about the surface and told me that traditionally when the Tellem placed the grave gifts in with the deceased that they applied
various substances to the bodies and also to the grave gifts, and he thought that the surface on the headrests could be caused by libations placed on the
bodies and the grave gifts. So I took this into account when looking at the surfaces and didn't look at them like I would look at the surfaces of any of my
other headrests.

He said if we were having this conversation 15 or 20 years ago there would be less doubt about the authenticity of the headrests. He found the surfaces to
be very convincing if they were indeed used as burial gifts, and wasn't aware of any methods they could of used to get them to look how they did, and he
thought the wood was genuinely old. The other thing was the smell of the headrests which confused both of us, they both had a very prominent sweetish
smell to them, something neither of us could put our fingers on. He couldn't however definitively say if the headrests were authentic or not.

So after all of this I decided that authentic or not, I enjoyed the headrests and bought them. I figured if they ended up being examples that were made to
look like original Tellem burial headrests I would still enjoy them and they would be good educational tools to show people. If they ended up being
authentic, then that would be great as well. Of course, what are the chances of an old authentic Tellem headrest coming into my hands that had not been
in a collection for many, many years that I hadn't paid many thousands of dollars for? Could the headrests be Dogon? Or were they examples that had
been crafted and made specifically for the collecting market?

Originally I sought out the advice/opinions of Ben Hunter with Tribalhunter Antique Tribal Art who is a friend of mine with good experience with a lot of
different headrests from different African cultures. He had some thoughts on them but referred the question to Jan Baptist Bedaux who he said had some
expertise with these headrests. Jan Baptist Bedaux originally gave me a simple answer by stating: "Both are fakes, absolutely! They make them look very
old these days. I bought one which looks just like the right one on this site, just to show people the difference between a real and a fake. How they do it, I
do not know." I was then happy to get him to participate in this exercise and elaborate on his thoughts which you will see in the responses below.

Then I thought to myself that using these headrests in an interactive exercise on my website might be a good thing to do. The headrests were unusual
enough that they could probably get a lot of different answers from people regarding their authenticity.

My thoughts: Well, if my headrests that were used for this exercise are supposed to be Tellem examples, that would mean they would have to most likely
date back to the 16th Century or earlier and they would be representative of grave gifts. What are the chances of me coming across 2 examples like this,
each very similar in surface appearance that were authentic examples? The likelihood isn't very good in my opinion, it would be like winning the lottery or
being struck by lightning, right?

Both of my headrests have very convincing features in my opinion, but I don't have the knowledge or experience to make a definitive judgement one way
or another. I would have to lean towards the thought that both of my examples were made specifically for the collecting market, but I enjoy both of them
very much regardless of that conclusion. I doubt that I'll ever get a C14 test done on them, that's expensive and probably not worth it to me. I'll just enjoy
them along with the other headrests in my collection.

Bedaux illustrates one headrest that is somewhat similar to the Joss examples (1974:fig. 16 and pl. 4). It was recovered from a
Tellem cave (eleventh-twelfth century A.D.) and has three rectangular columns supporting the curved upper platform from which an
appendage or handle extends at one end. It perhaps could be interpreted as an animal. The whole surface of that headrest is covered
with a dot-within-a-circle motif. Bedaux notes that two headrests from other collections, unexcavated and with no provenance information
are comparable (Davison 1966:163 the same headrest in Sotheby's 1987: no. 187, ex-Harold Rome collection and another headrest in
Tervuren's Musee Royal). He wonders if they are also Tellem but from a different regional tradition (1974:15). The surface decoration or
these is composed of lines and chevrons. Another example of almost the exact form and surface decoration, from the Richman collection
of Atlanta's High Museum of Art, is attributed to the Dogon (Mullen Kraemer 1986:27). Imperato illustrates two similar examples
(1978:66, figs. 82-3), but attributes them to the Tellem.

Kate Ezra has informed me that the Metropolitan Museum of Art also has three comparable examples. "They don't really correspond to
any of the types excavated by Bedaux, and the animal heads are very much like heads found on other types of Dogon objects, e.g. small
trough-like containers and benches. we've catalogued [these examples] as Dogon, notwithstanding Bedaux's statement. that the
Dogon don't use neckrests" (personal communication, July 1992).

One headrest, now in the Musee de I'Homme (illustrated in Falgayrettes 1989:47), has been documented as having been collected
among the Dogon. Louis Desplagnes found it in front of the tomb of a chief and called it the stool of a Hogon priest (1907:pl. 53, no.
113). It is very different in form from the headrests discussed thus far, but Bedaux nevertheless feels it must be a Tellem headrest,
reused and reinterpreted by the Dogon (1974:22). Falgayrettes (citing Dieterlen 1982:68-9) describes the use of a figurative headrest by
a Hogon priest (1989:102-3), which has unfortunately never been illustrated. Sieber, noting that headrests may have a religious nature,
quotes Igor de Garine's remarks (in Balandier and Maquet 1974:178) that "the heads of some individuals in high authority (for example
the Hogon, who is the high priest of the Dogon of Mali) must not touch the ground" (1980:107). Until headrests like these in the (Joss
collection are dated, and more definitive field work is done among the Dogon, the question will remain whether the Dogon really do make
and use headrests or reuse Tellem ones.

Looting Mali’s History

I'm sitting in the courtyard of a mud-walled compound in a village in central Mali, 40 miles east of the Niger River, waiting for a clandestine meeting to begin. Donkeys, sheep, goats, chickens and ducks wander around the courtyard a dozen women pound millet, chat in singsong voices and cast shy glances in my direction. My host, whom I'll call Ahmadou Oungoyba, is a slim, prosperous-looking man draped in a purple bubu, a traditional Malian gown. He disappears into a storage room, then emerges minutes later carrying several objects wrapped in white cloth. Oungoyba unfolds the first bundle to reveal a Giacometti-like human figure carved out of weathered blond wood. He says the piece, splintered and missing a leg, was found in a cave not far from this village. He gently turns the statuette in his hands. "It's at least 700 years old," he adds.

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Oungoyba runs a successful tourist hotel next door to his house he also does a brisk business selling factory-produced copies of ancient wooden statuettes and other objects to the Western package-tour groups that fill the hotel during the winter high season. But his real money, I've been told, comes from collectors—particularly Europeans—who may pay up to several hundred thousand dollars for antique pieces from villages in the region, in defiance of Malian law. My guide told Oungoyba that I was an American collector interested in purchasing "authentic" Dogon art.

The Dogon, subsistence farmers who hold ancient animist beliefs, are one of central Mali's ethnic groups. In the 15th century, or even earlier, perhaps fleeing a wave of Islamization, they settled along the 100-mile-long Bandiagara Cliffs, which rise just above this village. The Dogon displaced the indigenous Tellem people, who had used caves and cliff dwellings as granaries and burial chambers, a practice the Dogon adopted. They built their villages on the rocky slopes below. Today, the majority of the estimated 500,000 Dogon remain purely animist (the rest are Muslims and Christians), their ancient culture based on a triumvirate of gods. Ritual art—used to connect with the spiritual world through prayer and supplication—can still be found in caves and shrines. Dogon doors and shutters, distinctively carved and embellished with images of crocodiles, bats and sticklike human figures, adorn important village structures.

On the porch of his private compound, Oungoyba, a Dogon, unwraps a few additional objects: a pair of ebony statuettes, male and female, that, he says, date back 80 years, which he offers to sell for $16,000 a slender figurine more than 500 years old, available for $20,000. "Check with any one of my clients," he says. "They'll tell you I sell only the real antiquities."

Two days earlier, in the village of Hombori, I had met an elderly man who told me that a young Dogon from the village had been cursed by the elders and died suddenly after stealing ancient artifacts from a cave and selling them to a dealer. But endemic poverty, the spread of Islam and cash-bearing dealers such as Oungoyba have persuaded many Dogon to part with their relics. Indeed, Oungoyba says he purchased the 700-year-old human figure, which he offers to me for $9,000, from a committee of village elders, who needed money to make improvements to the local schoolhouse. "There are always people in the villages who want to sell," Oungoyba says. "It's just a question of how much money."

The villages of Dogon Country are among hundreds of sites across Mali that local people have plundered for cash. The pillaging feeds an insatiable overseas market for Malian antiquities, considered by European, American and Japanese art collectors to be among the finest in Africa. The objects range from the Inland Niger Delta's delicate terra-cotta statuettes—vestiges of three empires that controlled Saharan trade routes to Europe and the Middle East for some 600 years—to Neolithic pottery to the carved wooden doors and human figurines made by the Dogon.

According to Malian officials, skyrocketing prices for West African art and artifacts, along with the emergence of sophisticated smuggling networks, threaten to wipe out one of Africa's greatest cultural heritages. "These [antiquities dealers] are like narcotraffickers in Mexico," says Ali Kampo, a cultural official in Mopti, a trading town in the Inland Niger Delta. "They're running illegal networks from the poorest villages to the European buyers, and we don't have the resources to stop them."

Mali's antiquities are protected—in principle. The 1970 Unesco Convention signed in Paris obligated member nations to cooperate in "preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property." Fifteen years later, Mali passed legislation banning export of what is designated broadly as its cultural patrimony. But the laws have proved easy to circumvent. It's not just poor villagers who have succumbed to temptation. About a decade ago, according to unconfirmed reports, thieves made off with the central door of the Great Mosque of Djenné, a market town in the Inland Niger Delta. The centuries-old wooden door, inlaid with gold, allegedly disappeared while it was being replaced with a facsimile to thwart a plot to steal it. The door, which may well have fetched millions of dollars, was likely smuggled out of the country overland, across the porous border with Burkina Faso.

Antiquity thefts since then have continued apace. In November 2005, officials at France's Montpellier-Méditerranée Airport intercepted 9,500 artifacts from Mali. Days later, French customs agents outside Arles stopped a Moroccan truck bound for Germany packed with fossils from Morocco and statues, pottery and jewels from Mali. In January 2007, authorities at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris opened nine suspicious-looking packages marked "hand­crafted objects" from Bamako, Mali's capital: inside they found more than 650 bracelets, ax heads, flint stones and stone rings, excavated from Neolithic settlement sites around Ménaka in eastern Mali. Some of these sites date back 8,000 years, when the Sahara was a vast savanna populated by hunter-gatherers. "When you tear these objects out of the ground, that's the end of any story we can reconstruct about that site in the past, what it was used for, who used it," says Susan Keech McIntosh, an archaeologist at Rice University in Houston and a leading authority on ancient West African civilizations. "It's a great loss."

I met up with McIntosh in Gao, a parched Niger River town of mud-walled houses and domed tents. The sun was setting over the Sahara when I arrived after a two-day drive across the desert from Timbuktu. McIntosh was there to look in on the excavation of a brick-and-stone complex being conducted by her graduate student, Mamadou Cissé. Locals believe that the site, constructed on top of more ancient structures, was built in the 14th century by Kankou Moussa, ruler of the Mali Empire. I found her seated on the concrete floor of an adobe-and-stucco guesthouse owned by Mali's culture ministry, adjacent to the municipal soccer grounds. With a 40-watt bulb providing the only illumination, she was studying some of the thousands of pottery fragments found at the site. "We've gone down nearly 12 feet, and the pottery appears to go back to around 2,000 years ago," she said, fingering a delicate pale blue shard.

In 1977, McIntosh and her then-husband, Roderick McIntosh, both graduate students in archaeology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, carried out excavations at a 20-foot-high mound that marked the site of Jenne-Jeno, a roughly 2,000-year-old commercial center along the ancient gold-trade route from Ghana and one of the oldest urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa, near present-day Djenné. The couple found pottery and terra-cotta sculptures embedded in clay, along with glass beads from as far away as Southeast Asia. The find was highly publicized: a Times of London correspondent reported on the excavations, and the McIntoshes documented their findings in the journal Archaeology. Meanwhile, the archaeologists also published a monograph on their work, illustrated by photographs of terra-cotta treasures they uncovered in 1977 and 1980, including a headless torso now on display at Mali's National Museum. A demand for figurines of similar quality was one factor in increased looting in the region, which had begun as far back as the 1960s.

From the 1980s on, she says, thieves ransacked hundreds of archaeological mounds in the Inland Niger Delta and elsewhere. The objects from these sites fetched extraordinary prices: in New York City in 1991, Sotheby's auctioned a 31 1/4- inch-tall Malian terra-cotta ram, from 600 to 1,000 years old, for $275,000—one of the highest prices commanded to that date for Malian statuary. (A Belgian journalist, Michel Brent, later reported that a Malian counterfeiter had added a fake body and hind legs to the ram, deceiving the world's African art experts. Brent also charged that the piece had been pillaged from the village of Dary in 1986.) In another notorious case, in 1997, then French President Jacques Chirac returned a terra-cotta ram he had received as a gift after Mali provided evidence that it had been looted from the Tenenkou region.

With a fierce wind blowing from the desert, I venture beyond Gao to observe examples of the systematic looting in the region. Mamadou Cissé, McIntosh's graduate student, leads me across an archaeological mound known as Gao-Saney. Grains of sand nip at our faces as we trudge across the 25- to 30-foot-high mound, crunching shards of ancient pottery beneath our feet. Below us, on the flood plain, I can make out the long dry bed of the Telemsi River, which likely drew settlers to this site 1,400 years ago. What commands my attention, however, are hundreds of holes, as deep as ten feet, that pockmark this mound. "Watch out," says Cissé, hopscotching past a trough gouged out of the sand. "The looters have dug everywhere."

Between A.D. 610 and 1200, Gao-Saney served as a trading center controlled by the Dia dynasty. A decade ago, Western and Malian archaeologists began digging in the sandy soil and uncovered fine pottery, copper bracelets and bead necklaces strung with glass and semiprecious stones. Looters, however, had already burrowed into the soft ground and sold what they found to international dealers in Niger. Several years ago, Mali's culture ministry hired a guard to watch the site around the clock. "By then it was too late," Cissé told me, surveying the moonscape. "Les pilleurs had stripped it clean."

The late Boubou Gassama, director of cultural affairs in the Gao region, had told me that looting had spread up the Telemsi Valley to remote sites virtually impossible to protect. In October 2004, local tipsters told him about a gang of pilleurs who were active in a desert area outside Gao Gassama brought in the gendarmerie and conducted a predawn sting operation that netted 17 looters, who were making off with beads, arrowheads, vases and other objects from the Neolithic era and later. "They were mostly looking for glass beads, which they can sell in Morocco and Mauritania for as much as $3,000 apiece," Gassama had said. The men, all of them Tuareg nomads from around Timbuktu, served six months in the Gao prison. Since then, Cissé reports, locals have created "brigades of surveillance" to help protect the sites.

The Malian government has made modest progress combating antiquities theft. Former President Alpha Oumar Konaré, an archaeologist who held office between 1992 and 2002, established a network of cultural missions across the Inland Niger Delta, responsible for policing sites and raising awareness of the need to preserve Mali's heritage. The government also beefed up security at important mounds. McIntosh, who usually returns to Mali every couple of years, says Konaré's program has almost eliminated looting in Jenne-Jeno and the surrounding area.

Samuel Sidibé, director of Mali's National Museum in Bamako, has helped Mali's customs officials prevent cultural heritage material from leaving the country. Regulations require anyone seeking to export Malian art to submit the objects themselves—as well as a set of photographs—to museum officials. Sidibé and other experts issue export certificates only if they determine that the objects are not, in fact, cultural patrimony. Only two months earlier, Sidibé told me, he had been able to block a shipment of centuries-old terra cottas. Shady exporters are furious about the regulations, he adds, because they make it more difficult for them to pass off copies as authentic artifacts, and prices have nose-dived.

Oungoyba, the illegal antiquities dealer, scoffs at the regulations. I asked him if I would be able to smuggle Dogon sculptures out of the country. "Pas de problème," he says, flashing a small smile. Oungoyba says that he'll pack up whatever I purchase in a secured wood crate, and he instructs me to undervalue the purchase by 95 percent. Bamako International Airport, he says, can be tricky he advises his clients to carry their purchases overland to Niger. Malian customs officials at the border usually can't be bothered to open the crate. "Just tell them that you spent $100 on it as a gift for your family, and nobody will ask questions," he assures me, adding that suspicious officials can be bought off. Once I've crossed into Niger, he continues, I'll be home free. The Niger government has been lax about enforcing the Unesco treaty obliging signatories to cooperate in combating antiquities theft. Oungoyba insists that his black-market trade helps the economy of the destitute Dogon region. But others say dealers and buyers hide behind such arguments to justify the damage they're inflicting on the culture. "They claim they're doing good things—building hospitals, spreading money around," Ali Kampo, the cultural official in Mopti, tells me. "But in the end, they're doing a disservice to humanity."

Writer Joshua Hammer lives in Berlin. Photographer Aaron Huey works from his base in Seattle, Washington.

The trade in African art in Mali: the case of ‘Satimbé’

While more attention than ever is given to the Western history of African art these days, the African part of these objects voyage to the West still remains largely ignored. Recent books on topics as Dogon art or Djenne terracottas once more graciously evaded the question of the featured objects’ provenance – it remains a very sensitive subject. However, my curiosity was met when I recently discovered a very enlightening (& scientific) article by Cristiana Panella in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research. “Looters or Heroes? Production of Illegality and Memories of ‘Looting’ in Mali” explores the clandestine trade in antiquities in Mali by showing on one side the social organization (techniques, hierarchies, trade chains) of farmers-diggers on the other side, by analyzing the rhetorics of illegality driven by official cultural heritage policies.

Exemplifying the diggers active in the Inland Niger Delta from the 1970s to the 1990s was Satimbé (a pseudonym), a key contact for Panella’s PhD fieldwork in Mali. From 1970 to 1990, Satimbé was digging throughout almost the entirety of the ancient habitat of the Mopti region, through most of the Djenne area and some of the San area. During his long career, he worked as cliff-climber robber, farmer-digger, team-chief and middleman. He was one of the rare diggers who received large sums of money cash-in-hand after undertaking digs for European collectors and who would haggle over the price of statuettes with Malian urban dealers. Panella writes:

At the end of the 1950s, Satimbé was a farmer in his village in the Dogon countryside. Around 1958, when he was in his 30s, he started work as a prospector for a Sarakole dealer to whom he would sell wooden objects for between 100 and 500 FCFA each (the price of a goat), that the dealer would then export to Burkina Faso. The first object Satimbé sold the dealer for 500 FCFA was a wooden Dogon horseman. When the Sarakole dealer came back from Burkina, he offered Satimbé a commission for 5000 FCFA. Satimbé used to go to the rock wall with scaffolding and a rope allowing him access to the inside of the cliff. Thanks to his mastery of the Bandiagara Cliffs as well as to his courage, he became an incomparable prospector of Tellem, and more generally, wooden objects. At a time where tourism was not so developed in the Dogon country, people feared Tellem objects, unlike Dogon sculpture), so that only a limited number of prospectors specialized in their collection. From 1958 to 1970, Satimbé prospected only ‘woods’. After 1970, however, he stated that very good wooden pieces started to become rare.

Satimbé saw ancient terracotta statuettes for the first time in 1968 at a stall in the Mopti Grand Marché. The owner of the stall was selling finds from surface collecting to visiting Europeans. It was at this time that Satimbé started collaborating with Drabo, a dealer who had just settled in Sevaré. In 1968, Satimbé went to Sevaré to sell a group of objects and met Drabo, who was very interested in buying them. Nevertheless, Drabo could not afford the 300.000 MF that Satimbé was asking and he proposed instead going to Bamako to sell them. Satimbé accepted this offer, and after Drabo’s return he received his requested price of 300.000 MF (which must mean that Drabo had sold the group for much more than 300.000 MF). At this time, Drabo was not familiar with the region and he was lacking prospectors, so he asked Satimbé to work with him, especially to obtain wooden sculptures from the Dogon cliffs. One of Drabo’s most important customers, a Belgian collector, was able to give Dolo (the most important dealer for Satimbé in the Mopti region) and Satimbé 50 million MF to fund the acquisition of high quality wooden pieces. Thus the demand for terracotta first developed within this wider and more prestigious market of wooden objects, and several rural middlemen shifted into the terracotta market. For instance Souleymane started as a wooden objects dealer in 1970, trading at Bankass, Sevaré and Bandiagara, where he was settled, especially supplying Mingali, Sangha, Dourou, Kendié and Kani Bozo. He sometimes bought new replica pieces that he would artificially age in order to sell them to urban dealers in Bamako. Starting in 1975, the first digging teams started to be established. Satimbé stated that some teams had already appeared in 1968 but that he himself had only started to work as a digger of terracotta in 1970, when he dug a site between Sevaré and Mopti. He found his first terracotta on the second site he dug, in the area of Djemandaka.

Panella continues to explain how the diggers work and their techniques of exploiting archaeological sites (pp. 493-497) you can read the full article here.


The emergence and evolution of social complexity remains a major topic in African later prehistory. This paper aims to examine this question in the Dogon Country in Mali by reassessing the chronocultural sequence of Toloy-Tellem-Dogon that was defined 40 years ago. Our discovery of two new sites on the Bandiagara Escarpment with coiled clay tombs (Dourou-Boro and Yawa-vaches), the systematic dating of these structures, the re-analysis of similar buildings in Pégué, as well as the establishment of a typology of architectural techniques, led us to propose a continuous chronocultural evolution for these structures, now considered to be primary burials and not granaries, over about 1800 years. Detailed study of the ceramics also indicates the evolution of local traditions, progressively integrating new elements following many contacts with neighboring regions during the 1st millennium AD. Finally, the chemical analysis of the glass beads discovered in Dourou-Boro shows that these societies were using beads made in the Middle East at least from the last quarter of the 1st millennium AD on. The new data presented in this article highlight, on one hand, the originality, antiquity, and longevity of burial practices indicating a strong local cultural identity, and, on the other hand, the participation of pre-Dogon populations (long reputed for being isolated from the outside world) in broader African socioeconomic dynamics.

Tellem or Dogon Headrest from Mali - History

Except in the biggest cities like Bamako, most buildings are mud brick construction. Mud built buildings have to be re-plastered every year after the rainy season ends. The wooden pegs that you see on a lot of mud buildings are used to climb up the building during the annual mud plastering.

The mud bricks are usually made right where they are needed. Villages usually have a mud hole next to them where the bricks for the village are made. These bricks have to be renewed constantly, especially after the rainy season.

Since I couldn't come up with a better ordering, I put the towns in the order in which I visited them.

Especially Tombouctou (Timbuktu), but also the other Dogon towns are examples of the many sites of Ancient Civilizations that I visited during my travels.

All pictures are © Dr. Günther Eichhorn, unless otherwise noted.

The Dogon town Koro is close to the border with Burkina Faso. It is a sleepy little town, but has a beautiful mud built mosque.

The mud brick mosque in Koro. (889k)

The mosque in Koro. (795k)

The mosque in Koro. (803k)

Closer view of the mosque in Koro. (927k)

Street in Koro. (1009k)


Songho is the area where, according to legend, the first Dogon settled. There were four couples that were looking for a place to settle, but couldn't find water. A crocodile showed them the way to water, so they settled here. Since then, the crocodile is sacred for the Dogon. The Dogon all descend from these first four families. The Dogon found the area inhabited by the Tellem people, who lived in the cliffs of the escarpment. According to Dogon legend, the Tellem left voluntarily, when the Dogon started cultivating the land in the plains below the cliffs. The Tellem where thought to be able to fly or be wizards, since it seemed impossible to get to the cliff dwellings otherwise.

According to archaeological evidence, the Dogon settled here probably in the 13 th or 14 th century. They came from the area of Kangaba in eastern Mali , where they left because of overcrowding and approaching Islamic Fulani.

View of Songho. (749k)

In Songho. (847k)

Mosque in Songho. (724k)

Circumcision grotto. Women are not allowed to go there. New paintings are added every two years when the circumcision rites are performed. They are the signs for the different Dogon families. (931k)

Wall painting of signs of the original Dogon families in the circumcision grotto. (985k)

Crocodile painting. The crocodile is sacred for the Dogon. (890k)

Wall painting in the circumcision grotto. (903k)

Wall painting in the circumcision grotto. (948k)

Music instruments that are played after the circumcision rite. There are over 1000 of these instruments in this cave. They are used only once. (825k)


Sangha is a nice Dogon village on the plateau, close to the Bandiagara escarpment. It has a Muslim section, a Christian section, and an animist section. The three different religions seem to be getting along with each other (according to my guide).

On the way down to Ireli, we walked past the fox tables. These are sand beds surrounded with stones. During the night, the fox, an important Dogon spirit, walks across the sand. In the morning the wise men interpret the tracks and predict the future.

View of Sangha from across the valley. (801k)

View over Sangha. (795k)

In Sangha. (992k)

Council place. The roof is so low that you cannot stand in there. If somebody gets angry during a meeting and stands up, they bang their head, which brings them back from their fury. (739k)

House in Sangha. (758k)

House of the shaman/healer in the animist section of Sangha. (939k)

Village chief of Sangha and his wife. This position is hereditary. The chief basically spends his whole life in his house. The village people bring him food, and everything he needs. (1038k)

Village chief of Sangha. (758k)

Village well in Sangha. (834k)

Huge African Baobab ( Adansonia digitata, german: Afrikanischer Affenbrotbaum , french: Baobab africain ) in Sangha. (905k)

Sangha in the morning mist. (720k)

Tellem buildings

The Tellem lived in this area before the Dogon came in the 13 th or 14 th century. They lived in the cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment, in seemingly impossible locations.

Tellem cliff dwellings above Ireli. (1076k)

Closer view of Tellem cliff dwellings. (709k)

Closeup of Tellem building. (696k)

Tellem cliff dwellings above Banani. (1153k)

I really wondered how the Tellem got up there. (940k)


Not much to say about this sleepy little town.

Market in Douentza. (659k)

Bela huts in Douentza. (676k)

Main street in Douentza with small mosque. (641k)

Meeting place in Douentza. (1242k)

Street scene in Douentza with street vendor grilling meat. (774k)

Tombouctou (Timbuktu)

Legend has it that the name Tombouctou comes from "Tom" place of a well, and "Bouctou", the name of the woman who found the first well, sometime in the 10 th century. The city became an important trading post, especially for salt, on the way from the Sahara Desert into central Mali . It was also an important scholarly city with a university as early as the 13 th century. In the 16 th century, there were 100,000 people in Tombouctou, including 25,000 students of the university and some 180 Koranic schools.

At the end of the 16 th century, Tombouctou was conquered by Morocco, and lost its autonomy, and soon its university. This led to the decline of Tombouctou. Europeans discovered Tombouctou in the first half of the 19 th century. Toward the end of the 19 th century, it was annexed by France.

Touareg hut on the outskirts of Tombouctou. (643k)

Nomad tents on around Tombouctou. (539k)

View of the outside of Tombouctou with Nomad tents during my camel ride. (569k)

The moon over Touareg tents on the fringe of Tombouctou. (475k)

Market in Tombouctou. (954k)

Leather Touareg tent in a small museum in Tombouctou. (644k)

According to legend, this is the first well in Tombouctou. (851k)

House in Tombouctou. (899k)

Beautifully decorated entrance door. (897k)

Window detail. (1085k)

Mud brick construction in Tombouctou. (997k)

Bela tents in Tombouctou. (730k)

Street view with bread oven. People from Tombouctou say that if there is no sand in the bread, you are not in Tombouctou. I can attest to that, there definitely will be sand in the bread if you are in Tombouctou. (722k)

Bread oven in the street. (795k)

Old Koran documents. (639k)

Old Koran documents. (625k)

The Djingarey Ber mosque (oldest mosque in Tombouctou from 1325). A few days after my visit during a religious celebration at this mosque, there was a stampede and 26 people were killed. (561k)

Close-up of the Djingarey Ber mosque in Tombouctou. (497k)

Sidi Yahiya mosque (from

1400). (777k)

Sidi Yahiya mosque. (881k)

Sanikore mosque, the largest mosque in Tombouctou. (618k)

Closer view of the Sanikore mosque. (531k)

Closer view of the Sanikore mosque. (641k)

Sunset over the sand dunes on the outskirts of Tombouctou. (402k)


Mopti was not overly interesting. The mosque is nice, the market was not very big. The most interesting part was the harbor and its surroundings. There are drainage ditches in most parts of the town, but they are almost all full of garbage.

In the outskirts of Mopti. (671k)

Street in Mopti, with a drainage ditch full of garbage. (865k)

Market in Mopti. (935k)

Street scene in Mopti. (1038k)

Even in the city, people have their goats. (902k)

Young trees on a street in Mopti, protected from goats and sheep by a mud brick enclosure. (1117k)

Harbor in Mopti. (756k)

The mosque in Mopti. (830k)

View of the mosque in Mopti. (701k)

Close-up view of the mosque in Mopti. (970k)


Djenné is famous for its mosque, the largest mud brick structure in the world. It has interesting houses in the Moroccan part of the town.

Street in Djenné. (785k)

Street scene in Djenné. (773k)

On the street in Djenné. (778k)

Fetching water. (765k)

Another well in Djenné. (724k)

In the old part of Djenné. (701k)

Narrow lane in Djenné. The waste water running along the street was smelly in places. (809k)

Moroccan style house. (757k)

Large Moroccan style house. (655k)

Moroccan style house. (757k)

Vegetable gardens in Djenné along the river. (728k)

Street in Djenné with the mosque in the background. (778k)

The mosque in Djenné. (796k)

The mosque in Djenné. (731k)

Close-up of the mosque in Djenné. (1075k)

Ségou and Old Ségou

Ségou is the site of the Festival sur le Niger, an annual big music festival. It is one of the larger cities in Mali .

Old Ségou is the site of the palace of the Bambara King Biton Mamary Coulibaly. Old Ségou was first settled by Touaregs. In the 11 th century Bambara replaced the Touareg. The oldest mosque in Old Ségou was built by the Touareg. The other mosque was built by Biton Mamary Coulibaly for his mother. He himself was animist, but his mother was Muslim, and he dedicated the mosque to her.

Small mosque outside of Ségou. (735k)

Street scene in Ségou. (1084k)

Main stage of the Festival sur le Niger. (841k)

Sign against HIV (VIH in French) next to the main stage. (485k)

Car and cart caravan of festival participants driving through Ségou. (725k)

Street scene in Old Ségou. (1091k)

Street scene in Old Ségou. (1147k)

Granary in Old Ségou. (984k)

Inside the house of the village chief of Old Ségou. (846k)

Wood carved decorations in the house of the village chief. (585k)

Old Ségou. (1022k)

View over Old Ségou. (891k)

Palace of Biton Mamary Coulibaly. (616k)

Close-up of a house in Old Ségou. (987k)

Oldest mosque in Old Ségou. (537k)

Tree outside the old mosque. (1291k)

Mosque dedicated to the mother of Biton Mamary Coulibaly. (992k)

Youngest mosque in Old Ségou. (1016k)


Bamako is the capital of Mali . It is the site of the only university in Mali . It is much like any big city, lots of traffic congestion. It has a big market, and a nice museum about the history of Mali .

An endless string of big trucks heading into Bamako. (487k)

Street scene in Bamako. (951k)

The dining area of my hotel in Bamako was above the Niger River. (706k)

Morning mist on the Niger River in Bamako. (318k)


Kayes (pronounced Kai) is a little town in the far western parts of Mali . It has a bunch of French colonial buildings. Outside the city is the Fort de Médine, a fort from French colonial times on the Sénégal River, from 1855, with a nice old train station. The first school in the area is there, built in 1870. There is the site of a former slave market next to the fort. The French abolished slavery in 1848, but still practiced it in Mali . Slaves were sold to Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria.

The Tour de Guet near the fort is said to have held gold in World War II to hide it from the Germans.

A little further south is a series of waterfalls, the Chutes de Félou (see Mali Nature).

French colonial building in Kayes. (933k)

Market in Kayes. (794k)

Vegetable gardens in Kayes. (640k)

School next to the Fort de Médine. (785k)

Fort de Médine outside of Kayes. (797k)

Main building in the fort. (534k)

A machine gun in the fort. This gun and guns like it were the main reason the French could win against the Bambara. (683k)

Site of the former slave market. (595k)

Old train station. (666k)

Tour de Guet. (691k)

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara

From the first millennium, the western Sahel—a vast region in Africa just south of the Sahara Desert that spans what is today Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—was the birthplace of a succession of influential polities. Fueled by a network of global trade routes extending across the region, the empires of Ghana (300–1200), Mali (1230–1600), Songhay (1464–1591), and Segu (1640–1861) cultivated an enormously rich material culture.

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara is the first exhibition of its kind to trace the legacy of those mighty states and what they produced in the visual arts. The presentation brings into focus transformative developments—such as the rise and fall of political dynasties, and the arrival of Islam—through some two hundred objects, including sculptures in wood, stone, fired clay, and bronze objects in gold and cast metal woven and dyed textiles and illuminated manuscripts.

Highlights include loans from the region's national collections, such as a magnificent ancient terracotta equestrian figure (third through eleventh century) from the Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, University of Niamey, Niger and a dazzling twelfth-century gold pectoral that is a Senegalese national treasure, from the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, in Dakar.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue bring together an array of cross-disciplinary perspectives on the material, with contributions from historians specializing in oral traditions and Islam, archaeologists, philosophers, and art historians.

Watch the trailer for Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara.

Exploring Dogon Country, Djiguibombo to Enndé and the mysterious Tellem

If NASA is serious about sending humans to Mars, they could do worse than practice for it in the Dogon Country. It is an other-worldly landscape. The reddish soil and rocks are bleached by a ferocious sun, the occasional winds whip up dust devils and the Seno plain seems to extend to infinity.

If Dogon culture wasn’t alien enough, the landscape of this region could easily be the backdrop to a Hollywood movie about the Red Planet. Beautiful, yet so desolate that it is almost impossible to imagine how people have forged a society here and thrived for over a thousand years. Walking through this region under the vast, hulking Bandiagara plateau, makes for a journey into a world that belongs in the realms of Science Fiction.

A young girl in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Drying chillies, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

We drove to the village of Djiguibombo and said goodbye to our dust-encrusted 4ࡪ and, for the next three days, headed east on foot to explore Dogon Country. We spent some time wandering around Djiguibombo, where we came across women and children smashing small onions with rocks in one of the compounds. The photos don’t do it justice, the smell of onion was tremendous. Hopefully, by the time humans reach Mars, a camera will have been invented that can also record smell. My eyes were watering.

A woman in Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Crushing onions, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa The house of a village elder, Djiguibombo, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

By the time we arrived in the village of Teli, where we’d have lunch in the shade of a large tree, we’d started to spot unusual structures either high on the cliff face or at the base of the cliff. Over lunch, our guide, Ali, told us these were the only remaining evidence of the Tellem.

The Tellem were a distinctive people, which Dogon oral tradition recall as ‘small red people’, who inhabited this region before the Dogon arrived. It is thought they lived in the area until around the 14th century, and also that they were pigmies who possessed the power of flight. What is certain, is that they disappeared from history around the 15th century. Some suggest they were assimilated into the Dogon culture, others that they migrated to a more isolated region, others that they died out.

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Tellem grain stores, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Making use of what was already there, the Dogon continued to use Tellem structures – granaries and storehouses – and may even have incorporated Tellem traditions and rites into their own culture. The buildings are simple and profoundly moving symbols of a lost civilisation. Teli is one of the best paces to see these buildings.

Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Tellem dwellings, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Our ultimate destination for the evening would be Enndé, another small village, famed for its beautiful woven cloth and a fabulous mosque, which nestles underneath the overhanging cliffs of the Bandiagara Plateau. In Enndé we stayed at a family home where we were promised traditional food (either they invented pasta in Enndé or someone wasn’t telling the whole truth), and spent the night sleeping on the roof of one of the buildings.

Weavings, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Painting cloth, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa The village well, Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

As I sat on my rooftop and watched the sun set and the stars come out, a quite amazing thing happened. Outside every home in the area, people started to light wood fires and cook their evening food. The air filled with wood smoke and the smell of cooking, while the chattering of adults and the shouts and laughter of children rang around the village. It was an evening to remember.

A room with a view, Teli, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa Night time fires in Ennde, Dogon Country, Mali, Africa

Dogon Cliffs of Bandiagara, Mali

We arrived in Bandiagara, at the edge of the region, before dawn in the dusty lot of the bus station. We had been on the bus from Bamako, Mali’s capital, for twelve hours. Around us, men were dispersing and the families with children were settling down to rest in the dusty terrain of the bus depot until morning. We looked around us, more than a little clueless. The night was pitch black.

A motorcycle came roaring up out of the dark. Its light was blinding, but it honed in on us and approached swiftly. A man descended from it and approached us. Mamadou Traore would be our guide in Dogon Country.

Dogon Country denotes a region of roughly 400,000 hectares, following the Bandiagara Escarpment, an astonishing line of cliffs which climbs up to 500m at its highest points in 150 km. The stunning views from the top went for miles. Savannah went all the way to the horizon, or sand, or rock. The area felt at times impossibly remote, but it was one of Mali’s first tourist groups. Mamadou was one of a few dozen guides who led Americans and Germans and French tourists along the Dogon cliffs each year.

Mamadou had been leading groups through Dogon country for 15 years. Two years ago, he led at Italian on a hike who was so grateful that after he returned home he made Mamadou a website to help other tourists find him. Mamadou checks it every time he comes back to Bandiagara. A town of more than 10,000 people, it has one internet café a mile from the bus station where we’d arrived.

Mamadou would lead us across the expanses of desert and rock and take us up and down the traditional Dogon stairways, cascades of stone down crevices in the cliff face. Dogon women climbed right past us with buckets of water on their head. One woman had a basket on her head and a baby on her breast. Mamadou did all the climbing in a pair of blue flip flops.

The region’s inhabitants mostly belong to the Dogon and Peul ethnic groups, but is identified exclusively with the Dogon, who began arriving from elsewhere in the 15th century. Before the Dogon, the Tellem lived in the Bandiagara cliffs from the 11th century, constructing the top line of shelters bored into the cliffs. In Dogon stories, Tellem may figure in, sneaking back to the Bandiagara escarpment, though no one sees them. A thorough archaeological exploration from the years 1964 to 1971 definitively found evidence of the presence of this Dogon myth.

The Tellem were agriculturalists, traditionally believed to be unusually small, who stored their food and buried their dead in caves high up the face of the cliffs. Caves have been discovered with the remains of up to 3000 people. One theory, ascribed to by our guide, suggests the Tellem ascended the cliffs on vines back when the valley was greener.

Today, Dogon country is dry. The average in 1994 was only 600mm of rain, and droughts generally last 8 months of the year. Desertification has only worsened with scrub clearance. The temperature nears 120 in the summer, when Mamadou takes a few months off. It’s too hot for the hike.

The Tellem disappeared gradually from the valley after the 15th century, forced out by raids, and perhaps by a change in climate. The Dogon are believed to have migrated from the east—their oral history says from the land of Mandé —to this extreme region to escape the spread of Islam, which threatened animist traditions. The Dogon were agriculturalists from the start and arrived and settled in small groups, often isolated from each other. They often constructed their original villages some ways up the cliff walls. The buildings they erected on the sides of the Bandiagara cliffs were built of stones and mortar. The Dogon constructed mainly houses, but also granaries.

The Dogon cultivate rice, millet and sorghum. We would come upon fields of green onions for export to Bamako, a startlingly brilliant green in all that desert. The villages halfway up the cliffs had been gradually abandoned for more accessible terrain below closer to the crops and to available water supplies.

Today the Dogon villages are arrayed along the tops and bottoms of the cliffs. The villages are small and often long distances from each other. There are at least 15 dialects of Dogon today, some of which defy the comprehension of other Dogon speakers beyond the basic, rhythmic greetings.

Above certain villages on the cliff tops, Mamadou showed us crevices in the rocks where masks are stored. The Dogon would fascinate colonial anthropologists and archaeologists, the first European travelers to write accounts of Dogon Country, most of all intrigued by Dogon ritual and exquisitely carved masks. The Sigui ceremony, held every sixty years, is best-known of these rituals and occasion for some of the most elaborate masks. Researchers suggest Dogon culture is fluid and “accumulative” and these festivals could have changed over the many years of their continuation.

Mamadou told us the first tourists to Dogon Country arrived in the 1970s. The interest in Malian antiques began during the same period and the leakage of the country’s national heritage to foreign parts worsened. The head of Mali’s national museum, Samuel Sidibe, has decried the systematic looting of the Bandiagara caves for tellem artifacts for resale to foreign antiquities dealers. Efforts have been made to organize and educate local populations and outlaw the export of Malian artifacts, but the fight is a difficult one in a very poor region in one of the world’s poorest countries.

We were told that the Dogon guides had been put in place to control the influence of the tourists on the Dogon villages. What’s mentioned most often is that the tourists gave the children things, candy and toys, and that their elders fear what will happen to the children’s work ethic.

Granting the validity of their parent’s concern, Dogon Country was also one of the most visibly suffering regions I saw in West Africa: villages where there were more children than not had distended bellies, others where there was only well water, and one village where the well water was such a dark, muddy yellow color that not even the bravest of our group would try to drink it with only our chlorine tablets.

The Cliffs of Bandiagara were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989, but the most obvious benefit this seems to bring is more tourists. Our guide helped us climb up to the lowest level of Dogon homes embedded in the cliffs. Walking though the abandoned villages, the structures date back centuries, but still appear virtually untouched. We passed through certain of the doorways and stood inside. At one point, our guide pointed us to a burial site, where a hole had been punctured through the walls. There were bones inside. Bowls and shards of pottery lay abandoned in the rooms of the homes.

Mamadou mentioned with pride the restorations of the cliff dwellings taking place with funding from UNESCO. Some of the buildings on the cliffs have undergone retouching. A man with a clipboard would approach us back in Bandiagara at the end of the week with a survey on sustainable tourism. Mamadou seemed unimpressed. Tourists have been coming to this region for thirty years, he told us. The region didn’t need that study.

When the World Heritage program made its case for the significance of the Cliffs of Bandiagara back in the late 󈨔s, its report cited the cliff cemeteries and Dogon stairways, but the writer of the essay go on to cite the living Dogon cultural history embedded in this region. You can feel it just beneath the surface, an accumulation of many years of tradition and change.

If You Go:

The Lonely Planet Guide to Mali is an essential on this trip. Visitors usually arrive in Mali’s capital, Bamako. From there, the bus ride to Dogon Country takes about 12 hours. Travelers willing to spend a little more can purchase the services of a vehicle and driver. In Dogon Country, guides can be hired in one of the larger towns you will arrive in. Once you’ve worked out an agreement, they’ll help find your meals and lodging at one of the many encampments scattered throughout the area villages. Hikes cease during the hottest months, beginning around April or May.

About the author:
Emma Jacobs is a student and mostly radio journalist currently based in New York City. She’s finishing up a degree in history and planning her next trip overseas.

Photo Credits:
Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali by Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland / CC BY-SA
All other photos are by Emma Jacobs.

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Watch the video: MALI - Africa - Dogon Dance (August 2022).