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Anthropology Unit

Anthropology Unit | University of Geneva

Gonja Project – The Archaeology of Gonja and the Islamisation of Northern Ghana

Project scope

The Gonja Project is a collaborative project between the University of Geneva (Laboratoire Archéologie et Peuplement de l’Afrique, Unité d’Anthropologie) and the University of Ghana (Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies). It is co-directed by Dr Denis Genequand, Dr Wazi Apoh and Prof. Kodzo Gavua. The project is supported by the Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation for Archaeological Research Abroad (SLSA, Zürich).

The state or kingdom of Gonja emerged in the mid-16th century in the savannah area extending to the north of the tropical forest in modern Ghana. According to historical and oral traditions, its origins go back to the arrival of Mande conquerors who came from the area of Djenne to take control of the gold trade from the mines situated around Buna and Beghu. Following their successful raid, instead of going back to Mali, these conquerors crossed the Black Volta once again and, after a series of military conquests towards the east, established themselves in the area known as Gonja.

Excavations in Old Buipe
Excavations in Old Buipe
Mosque of Banda Nkwanta
Mosque of Banda Nkwanta

Due to its geographical position, the kingdom essentially became a cross-roads at the southern extremity of the sub-Saharan trade routes between the Niger and the tropical forest area. The towns of Gonja progressively took over the markets of Beghu and other towns to the south and west of the Black Volta.

The islamisation of the region was one consequence of the conquest and of the creation of a new kingdom involved with the Niger trade. It was probably also helped by an alliance between the Ngbanya (royal clan or family of Gonja) and Muslim Wangaras. At its greatest extent, Gonja covered all the area between the loop of the Black Volta and the White Volta, as well as a very large area to the west of the White Volta. Though historians generally accept the Malian (Mande) origin of the first conquerors because it is corroborated by the textual sources and oral traditions, other scholars reject it and are more prone to see in Gonja a group with Akan origins, for linguistic reasons in particular.

The general aims of the project are the study of the islamisation of Northern Ghana from the 16th century onwards through the archaeological study of the Gonja state. Two research branches were defined. The first and the most important is the detailed study of Old Buipe (Northern Region), one of the major archaeological sites of Gonja. It includes topographic survey, soundings and extensive excavations to document the ancient phases of the town (15th to 18th-19th centuries) as thoroughly as possible. The second branch, of somewhat lesser importance but complementary to the first, is a renewed inquiry into the architecture and the date of construction of some of the last surviving traditional mosques of Northern Ghana, the majority of which are situated in the territory of Gonja and the origins of which are still uncertain (mosques of Bole, Larabanga, Banda Nkwanta, etc.).

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A research project funded by the Swiss Liechtenstein Foundation for Archaeological Research Abroad (Applicant Dr Denis Genequand)

Internal collaborators

External collaborators

  • Wazi Apoh (University of Ghana, Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies)
  • Kodzo Gavua (University of Ghana, Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies)
  • Hugo Amoroso (Site et musée romain d'Avenches)
  • Irka Hajdas (ETH Zürich, Laboratory for Ion Beam Physics)
  • Fabien Maret (Tera, Sion)
  • Christian de Reynier (Office du patrimoine et de l'archéologie, Neuchâtel)
University of Geneva
Dpt. of Genetic & Evolution
Anthropology Unit
Quai Ernest-Ansermet 30
1205 Genève
Switzerland
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