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The archaeology of medicine shrines and substances in northern Ghana

December 15, 2010

By Timothy Insoll

The archaeology of medicine shrines and their associated substances in West Africa has been neglected. Yet shrine-based medicine continues to play an important role in indigenous medicine in the region. Since 2004, and funded since 2008 by the Wellcome Trust, a major archaeological research project has focused on northern Ghana with the aims of exploring the substance, materiality and chronology of medicine shrines.

Four seasons of fieldwork have been completed since March 2008, with three concentrating upon the Tong Hills, home of the Talensi people and site of hundreds of shrines. Excavations undertaken at one shrine, Tongnaab Yaane, indicated that while the rock shelter that is its focus has been used since at least late first millennium BCE, the shrine itself seems to be have been established considerably later: material suggests around the 17th century CE. Yaane is perceived as very powerful in, for example, curing women of infertility, and is a shrine functioning for good rather than evil. Its power has meant that an extensive demand exists for the right to operate offshoots, or ‘franchises’ of Yaane elsewhere.

This is achieved through the agency of the boarbii, literally ‘the Shrine’s child’, which is a cow horn filled with unspecified medicine that is obtained from Yaane and given to the franchisee, following the payment of a fee usually in the form of animals for sacrifice. Allied with the boarbii, ‘red’ medicine, clay from within Yaane, is also supplied in pellet form. This is also believed to be very powerful and is reflected in its name, Bagre Tan (‘God’s soil’). X-ray fluorescence analysis indicated that this clay had not been altered or mixed by anthropogenic action and contained no obvious pharmacological agents. The boarbii is then taken to its new home and can be operated independently for healing and other purposes on condition that the franchisee periodically revisits Yaane to fulfil further sacrificial obligations. Our research has recorded boarbii among most of the neighbouring ethno-linguistic groups in northern Ghana, and it is known that numerous Yaane boarbii exist in southern Ghana, and in adjacent countries such as Togo and the Ivory Coast.

Yaane is one, albeit the most successful, of several shrines competing for external revenues in the Tong Hills. These shrines are also used by the Talensi for healing and other purposes but most Talensi medicine would appear to be not directly linked with shrines, certainly as a source of medicines. In total 33 plant-based medicines and ten predominantly made from other substances were identified, with seven directly linked with shrines. As for indirect links, it is very difficult to divorce any aspect of Talensi medicine from a ritual dimension or a connection with shrines because diagnosis could relate to ritual and potentially also to shrines through the operation of divination.

Investigating the materiality of Talensi medicine shrines, substances, and practices in archaeological contexts has in general proved difficult. Much of the material, and its associated behaviours, is ephemeral and will elude archaeological identification. Medicine storage, for example, recorded in relation to 15 plant ingredients, would not be discernible archaeologically as the Tong Hills do not provide the theoretically ideal conditions of preservation required. More positively, the disposal of medicines and medicinal equipment has been evident archaeologically. A feature composed of multiple-layered broken potsherds was recorded deliberately inserted and thus hidden under a large granite boulder. This was dated to 1463–1553 CE and was interpreted by a Talensi colleague as a means of disposing of medicine pots, a mechanism for getting rid of vessels that one may not have wanted people to see.

More recently, however, as a further development of this project, significantly greater archaeological evidence for the potential disposal of medicine- or healing-related equipment was recorded in an area about 60 miles west of the Tong Hills. Excavations that I conducted in collaboration with Dr Benjamin Kankpeyeng of the University of Ghana, Legon, recovered an assemblage of 92 complete and fragmentary fired clay figurines of humans and animals, both real and fantastical. The mound, which was partially excavated in January 2010 at Yikpabongo, is one of hundreds of mounds recorded in the Koma Land region that were previously thought to be burial mounds.

Interpretations based on the recent fieldwork suggest that these mounds may have been shrines, perhaps related to traditional healing practices. Some of the figurines had deep holes incised in them, seemingly for offering libations, and were frequently found in association with grinding stones, stone pounders and numerous fragments of ceramic vessels. Perhaps, in part, these represent the residues of materials and equipment used in medicine preparation or for healing rituals, and interred or enshrined as powerful objects and substances, analogous in some ways to the Talensi medicine pot feature previously described. A disarticulated human skull was also recorded in the mound below a cluster of figurines, and radiocarbon-dated to 1010–1170 CE. This had been placed face down with the jaw removed and placed to the east in association with fragments of human long bones. The teeth had been snapped out and placed in a pile to the south. No other human remains were recorded.

Could this be the remains of a powerful healer or someone of ancestral status? The answer is not known, but what is apparent is that besides being challenging, research into the archaeology of medicine shrines and substances in northern Ghana is engrossing and the next field season in January 2011 is eagerly awaited.

Professor Timothy Insoll is a member of Archaeology, School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester, UK.

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