Archaeological Expeditions and the Mystery of Medieval Cowrie Shells in the Maldives

Guido Donati 08 Nov 2023

We invite you to embark on an exciting journey into the world of recent archaeological discoveries as we explore a captivating study conducted in the enchanting Maldives, known as "Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives, 2016." This research, spearheaded by a team of experts comprising Anne Haour, Annalisa Christie, and Shiura Jaufar from the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, in collaboration with the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, has unearthed buried secrets from the Maldives' past.

At the heart of this archaeological adventure was the quest to identify sites that could potentially date back to the medieval Islamic period. This endeavor was part of a captivating research project aimed at unraveling the mystery surrounding the distribution and chronology of Monetaria moneta (Linnaeus, 1758) cowrie shells in West Africa between 1150 and 1900 A.D. These shells, known as cowries, were often regarded as treasures in West Africa, used as hair ornaments, currency, and culturally significant items.

But what was the connection between the Maldives and cowries? Medieval historians and travelers like al-Bakri and Ibn Battuta mentioned the Maldives as possible sources of these shells, yet there was little concrete evidence to support this claim. This is where this fascinating archaeological expedition came into play.
The team of researchers embarked on their journey to the Maldives in 2016 in collaboration with the Maldives Heritage Department. They focused their efforts on three islands: Utheemu, Malé, and Veyvah. Each of these locations, with its unique history and characteristics, proved pivotal to the success of the investigation.


In Utheemu, situated at the northernmost point of the archipelago, researchers uncovered intriguing artifacts in the vicinity of the 16th-century historical palace, once the residence of leader Mohammed Thakurufaanu, who had resisted Portuguese occupation. Meticulous excavations and artifact analyses revealed that cowries and objects related to medieval trade were buried in front of the palace's northeast and southeast gates. In the heart of the Maldives' capital, Malé, research centered on Sultans' Park, an area that once housed the sultan's palace. In 1974, Carswell had conducted excavations here, but the results were limited. The team of archaeologists dug once more, revealing remnants of ancient walls, fragments of Chinese ceramics, and a significant number of cowries.

The area appeared to be a repository of ruins and destruction, a sign that it had much to tell about the region's history. On Veyvah, located in the central-southern part of the archipelago, researchers focused on a remote coral stone mosque. The site was fascinating because it seemed to have remained largely untouched. Here, artifacts emerged that differed significantly from those found on the other islands, shedding light on the diversity of cowries across different regions. This incredible expedition allowed for the collection of a vast array of objects, including ceramic fragments, cowries, metal artifacts, animal remains, and carbon samples earmarked for dating. The challenge now is to unveil the secrets held by these artifacts. In a world where ancient civilizations and medieval trade interweave into a complex tapestry of lost stories, this study represents a significant step in the investigation of global connections and the significance of cowries in ancient West Africa. Research continues, and further excavations may yet reveal new details and unravel age-old mysteries, casting fresh light on the history of these fascinating shells.

Tracking the Cowrie Shell: Excavations in the Maldives, 2016

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Scienzaonline con sottotitolo Sciencenew  - Periodico
Autorizzazioni del Tribunale di Roma – diffusioni:
telematica quotidiana 229/2006 del 08/06/2006
mensile per mezzo stampa 293/2003 del 07/07/2003
Scienceonline, Autorizzazione del Tribunale di Roma 228/2006 del 29/05/06
Pubblicato a Roma – Via A. De Viti de Marco, 50 – Direttore Responsabile Guido Donati

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