Culture of the Tallensi people of Northern Ghana

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The rich culture of the Tallensi people of Northern Ghana has been a honey pot for anthropologists. The archaeologists, however, have stayed away. That is until 2004, when a new project began exploring the archaeology of the Tallensi, and in particular their ritual sites. What have the archaeologists discovered? And how might their research help interpretations of our own Stonehenge? Timothy Insoll, Benjamin Kankpeyeng, and Rachel MacLean write.

Working in the Tongo Hills

Shrines and ritual sites are the very stuff of archaeology. Yet the archaeology of African traditional religions – variously labelled as earth and ancestral cults, animism, totemism, and shamanism (the latter irrelevant where we are working) – has been largely neglected in comparison to that of world religions, notably Islam and Christianity, in Africa south of the Sahara.

We launched this project – a collaboration between the Universities of Manchester (UK), Legon (Ghana), and the Upper East Regional Museum (Ghana) – to redress this imbalance.

We decided to investigate the traditional religious practices found in the Tongo Hills in Ghana’s Upper East Region. In August 2005 we dug our first one metre square test pit. Before this time, to the best of our knowledge, no previous (certainly legitimate) excavation had been completed in the area.

This is an astounding statistic as the region is inhabited by, according to Ghana census data, approximately 900,000 people. The Tongo Hills cover a relatively small area of roughly 7km by 3km. Despite this, when we came to look at the occupation sequences of the Hills we immediately ran into basic difficulties. For this is an intensively settled agricultural landscape, which means that sites are constantly reworked and occupation sequences are disturbed.

The exceptions are the granite outcrops that dot the plateau at the centre of the hills. These contain numerous rock shelters and caves, some with archaeological deposits. We carried out excavations in one, Hyenas Cave, which appears to have been occupied in the Late Stone Age. Besides the cave sites, we were pleased to discover that some archaeological deposits were also preserved in contemporary shrines.

There are numerous shrines in the hills ranging in size from small ancestral shrines through to large sacred groves. The larger shrines are often carefully protected by the Tallensi. Moreover, these shrines were frequently created through recursive relationships with aspects of the past – including archaeological materials. As we discovered, Tallensi religion has thus served to protect archaeology, especially in the larger shrines. Thus these larger shrines, such as Nyoo discussed below, have become the focus of our work.

The Tallensi today

Though we cannot project the present onto the past – even with so-called ‘traditional’ peoples such as the Tallensi – a great deal has been written about modern Tallensi thanks largely to the late great Cambridge anthropologist Meyer Fortes (1906-1983). Hence it was hoped, and subsequently proven correct, that our interpretations of aspects of the archaeological material would be supported by Fortes’ copious writings. Unfortunately for us archaeologists, kinship and to a lesser extent religion, rather than material culture and history were Fortes’ primary interests. However, we benefited from help and encouragement from the Tallensi themselves. We also agreed each stage of our archaeological work with the Tallensi who ensured that all their ritual obligations – such as sacrifices at the shrines -were completed prior to our investigations.

The Tallensi are divided into two groups: the Talis and the Namoos. According to oral tradition, the Talis are said to be the original inhabitants of the region, having ‘sprung from the earth itself’. While the Namoos, again according to tradition, are supposed to have arrived in the area perhaps some 350-400 years ago. Tallensi religion is composed of various elements including earth cults that are centred around continuing the fertility of the earth and ensuring rights to its use are clearly known, plus ancestral cults, totemic observances, and a further aspect usually ignored by colonial administrators and missionaries when considering African traditional religions: a belief in a high god.

Shrines are part of both the ancestral and ‘earth’ elements of their religion. The ancestral shrines take various forms. For example, some are composed of an earthen pillar built around important personal items such as hoes, knife blades, or bracelets, and associated with the enshrined ancestor. In others, the special items might be affixed to the exterior of an earthen cone or pillar. Sometimes, sacrificial remains, including skulls or jawbones, might be included in the shrine arrangement. These ancestral shrines tend to be found mainly inside or just outside the domestic compounds.

In contrast, the ‘earth’ element of their religion tends to be venerated through prominent natural features such as caves, springs, or sacred groves.

The Tallensi shrine of Nyoo: sacred stones and ritual pots

To date, a great deal of our work has been on the earth shrine of Nyoo, a sacred and somewhat denuded grove. Nyoo is one of the most important earth shrines currently used by the Tallensi. It is the focal point of the final ceremonies associated with the annual preagricultural season Golib festival. Unlike much of the other woodland and bush in the area that is cleared for agricultural purposes, the shrine is carefully preserved as if ‘in nature’. Since the Talis provide the earth priests, the earth shrine of Nyoo is under their jurisdiction. And since the Tongo Hills are thought to belong to the Talis, their original inhabitants, the Talis can impose strict regulations upon who may enter. The shrine is constantly watched to prevent accidental or other intrusions within its boundaries. This too has ensured the shrine’s preservation.

Sacred stones

At Nyoo we mapped three primary areas. The first contained standing and recumbent stones. The second was marked by stone arrangements surrounded by large spreads of pottery that worshippers must have deliberately deposited between – and in some instances within – the stone arrangements. Finally, the third is an active ritual and sacrificial area lacking overt archaeological remains.

In June 2005 and 2006 we excavated the first two areas. But what was going on? What were the stones used for? How to explain the many complete vessels broken in situ around the arrangements of stone? What of the 13 complete and one partially complete examples of pots found associated with the standing stones? And how about the groups of iron bracelets and other artefacts such as iron points, stone rubbers and pounders were also found in association with the pots and the standing stones? What was the reason, or reasons, for arranging the pottery and other articles around the stones?

Standing stones are apparently no longer erected by the Tallensi, so whatever ritual gave rise to the stones is obviously no longer in existence. However, stone arrangements akin to those at Nyoo are still used as seats for elders during important ceremonies associated with the Golib festival. Perhaps the stones from Nyoo were once similarly used? The Nyoo stones may also have been chosen and arranged for their colour significance since they seem to be placed in patterns of redwhite-black, a triumvirate of symbolic significance frequently noted in other contexts in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although the precise meaning of the material has been lost, our Tallensi colleagues seemed to understand the generic importance of the items. Thus they associated many of the archaeological objects with the earth and with ancestral supplication and commemoration (but not ancestor ‘worship’ which is the wrong term to use). For example, they explained that pots can still serve as important ritual containers associated with ancestral veneration, while iron bracelets similar to those we recovered might still be worn following the instructions of diviners.

Whatever the original meaning(s), the standing stones and stone arrangements, the pot spread, the iron bracelets, and the complete pots associated with the standing stones all add up to a ‘ritual’ nature of the deposits in Nyoo. This was further confirmed by the discovery of two pear-shaped clay objects each pierced with a hole, broken, but still conjoining, found in association with one of the complete pots. Though it was again impossible to provide a precise interpretation for its use, consensus existed among the Tallensi community members that we consulted. They said it was either (a) A ritual object; (b) Probably offered libation and/or sacrifice (hence the holes); or © Functioned as a ‘Personal God’.

Because of the generic understandings of the archaeological items, we expected them to be relatively recent in date. We were in for a surprise.

The OSL dates (or Optically Stimulated Luminescence dates) received from the Oxford Laboratory provided dates between the mid 3rd to late 8th centuries AD for the standing stone site, while the area of stone arrangements dates from the mid 11th century AD. Although these dates need supplementing with further samples, they feasibly indicate that Nyoo has functioned as a shrine, albeit with altered meanings, over some considerable time.

Our excavations also soon dissolved the image of the ‘natural’ sacred grove that Nyoo initially seemed to present. Instead we realised it was very much manufactured. We even discovered that the trees and shrubs were there because humans wanted them to be there, rather than reflecting the ‘natural’ vegetation of the region.

But Nyoo was not the only shrine to hold surprises…

Franchising shrines: clues to Stonehenge?

Nyoo, despite its archaeological interest, is neither the most famous nor the most important shrine in terms of external perception nor indeed in generating revenue for the inhabitants of the Tongo Hills. This accolade is taken by another shrine known as Yaane or Tonna’ab.

Tonna’ab has been described as both an earth and an ancestral shrine, but regardless of its association it differs from Nyoo since it is formed of a rock shelter set within a piece of woodland. It is regarded as a shrine that hates evil and is thus good at identifying witches, as well as being both benevolent and curative, especially in regard to infertility.

Because of its perceived powers Tonna’ab attracts a lot of pilgrims from neighbouring ethnic groups such as the Mossi and Bulsa, but also from much further, particularly from Southern Ghana where its reputation is well known among the Asante (Ashanti). Besides the pilgrimages made to Tonna’ab, it has also been ‘franchised’ to meet the demands for its powers – curative and otherwise.

The movement of both ideas and material culture from Tonna’ab to the new area in which its franchise is to be established achieves the process of franchising. Of especial interest here is the fact that rock plays a prominent role in this process: for besides ritual knowledge, a stone or boulder from Tonna’ab is given to the individual seeking to establish a new shrine.

This practise might help to explain the presence of non-local stone in other archaeological sites – including Neolithic ritual sites in the British Isles. Why do we find ‘exotic’ rock in Neolithic monuments such as Stonehenge and West Kennet Long Barrow? The power of rock in shrine franchising processes might be one answer to this enduring question.

Much Work Still to Do

The ongoing nature of this research project is readily apparent and much work remains to be done. Nonetheless, we have already made significant progress. The dates suggest the Tongo Hills have been the focus, potentially, of earth and ancestral cults from before the claimed creation of the Tallensi from Talis and Namoos (perhaps some 350-400 years ago). The results obtained also adds to the corpus of evidence that indicates the archaeology of African traditional religions is very complex, and, furthermore, that the beliefs which underpin this material are in part accessible in the archaeological record.

Further fieldwork will take place in early 2008 when excavations will be focused upon the middens associated with existing residential compounds to assess how long these compounds have been occupied. A second aim will be to investigate how shrines are created among neighbouring ethnic groups such as the Bulsa and Kusasi to see if, as anticipated, pieces of rock and other materials from the Tongo Hills are used in their ritual ‘activation’.

Thus, since breaking the ground for the first time in 2004, our expectations of what might have been achieved have been far surpassed as a small part of the Upper East Region of Ghana begins to yield its past.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 26. Click here to subscribe

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