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Résumés de thèses soutenues en 2021/2022

Fragmented Landscapes: An Archaeology of Transformations in the Pra River Basin, Southern Ghana

Sean Hamilton Reid
p. 99-100

Editor's notes

PhD in Anthropology, obtained April 14, 2022 at Syracuse University,
Syracuse (NY, USA)
Advisor: C.R. DeCorse; committee: D.V. Armstrong, J.M. Read, T.A. Singleton,
S. MacEachern, E. Aiken

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1This archaeological research examines the Pra River Basin (PRB) in southern Ghana through lenses of landscape, temporality, and transformation. Drawing on the Annales school (e.g., Braudel 1958) and Ingold (2002), this study moves away from binary constructions of natural and cultural landscapes to a more integrated view of the landscape’s long human history. The temporal focus of this research is the past three millennia, but evidence of even more ancient eras is also examined. The artifacts and features documented allow glimpses of pre-Atlantic (pre-1450 CE) settlement patterns, subsistence, and technology, as well as more recent and ongoing transformations. Ceramics, quartz flakes, stone beads, ground stone tools, and iron slag were found on hilltop sites throughout the surveyed areas. Most of these sites represent a pre-Atlantic pattern of settlement that continues, to a lesser extent, into the early Atlantic era (1450-1700 CE). Long grinding slicks, possibly related to stone celt production, are present on numerous rock outcrops. Test excavation at the Adiembra hilltop iron smelting site (site AD31) indicates that the bulk of the slag was deposited in the early second century CE, but deeper ceramic bearing contexts extended through the first millennium BCE. A single early seventh millennium BCE date associated with stone flakes underlay the site, representing the oldest date recovered from an archaeological context in the region. The archaeological evidence presented suggests the current landscape presents traces of continual alteration for millennia, but Atlantic influences and more recent colonial and post-colonial transformations are best represented. I examine this fragmented landscape using satellite remote sensing (Fig. 1), pedestrian survey, diagnostic artifact analyses, and limited test excavations to assess features and transformative processes.

Figure 1 – Human relationships with the landscape are discernable in multiple temporal rhythms in this multispectral satellite image of Apuntuado sacred grove (circled), near the Pra River

Figure 1 – Human relationships with the landscape are discernable in multiple temporal rhythms in this multispectral satellite image of Apuntuado sacred grove (circled), near the Pra River

Courtesy of DigitalGlobe Foundation

2Chapter 1 offers an overview of the central theoretical, methodological, and historical questions and perspectives guiding the research. At a broad level, this investigation aimed at contextualizing our understanding the long-term changes wrought by the opening of the Atlantic trade on African societies. The impacts of the Atlantic trade on African societies are situated in a longer-term perspective by understanding the nature of those societies before the fifteenth century CE. This perspective frames the background of my research and the Central Region Project at large (DeCorse 2021). Survey and excavation reveal that this landscape has been inhabited for millennia and continually modified by humans, an indivisibly natural and cultural landscape in motion with the rhythms of human history. Through a conceptual vantage of an intertwined natural/cultural landscape and a multifaceted research methodology, this research interprets signals of extensive transformations writ large across the landscape.

3In Chapter 2, I draw on Ingold’s ideas of dwelling and Braudel’s rhythms of history to examine the spatiotemporality of the PRB landscape in a way that avoids misleading binary oppositions of “natural” and “cultural” features. This is productive for interpreting a complex landscape characterized by ancient settlement sites, shifting cultivation, cash cropping, secondary forest, colonial era forest reserves, and dense patches of forest imbued with historical and cultural significance often referred to as sacred groves (abosom). I also review the marginalization of West Africa in broader theorizations of “landscape.”

4Chapter 3 offers an overview of the history and archaeology of the PRB. This landscape has been shaped by a confluence of entangled environmental, cultural, and historical processes that have unfolded over at least eight millennia. Evidence of the earliest eras of human occupation in the PRB is sparse and fragmentary, often overwritten by more recent colonial and post-colonial transformations. Shifts in subsistence, settlement patterns, and technology are evident, however, and the current PRB landscape cannot be understood without an eye toward its deeper history.

5Chapter 4 discusses the multifaceted methodology being employed in this research, which incorporates archeological survey and excavation, satellite imagery, and GIS analysis. Pedestrian survey aided by multispectral satellite imagery was the main means of finding and assessing sites in the field (Reid 2020). This methodology was specifically developed to grapple with some of the challenges of surveying dense forest. Experimental satellite imagery analysis also revealed transformational dynamics in the landscape. Limited test excavation was undertaken at three newly identified sites with pre-Atlantic components: a hilltop atetefo ceramic scatter (SD610) and a grinding slick (SD520), both near Supomu-Dunkwa, and the Adiembra iron smelting (site AD31).

6In Chapter 5, I map the distribution of hundreds of sites, features, and artifacts throughout the PRB. These sites provide a long-term perspective on the dynamics of human-landscape transformations. Surface scatters of ceramics, hilltop sites, sacred groves, Nyame Akuma axes, grinding slicks, stone flakes, and iron smelting sites are fragments of vast transformations that likely occurred during the pre/early Atlantic. This chapter also analyzes the results of the test excavations at sites AD31, SD520, and SD610. Excavations at the Adiembra iron smelting site produced radiocarbon dates from circa 8100–600 cal BP.

7In Chapter 6, I examine dynamics of landscape change in the PRB through satellite images and survey photographs. These processes span several millennia, and they continue to alter the landscape in various ways. These include shifting agriculture, palm oil and cocoa tree farming, the growth and destruction of sacred groves, forest reserves, and secondary forest. I also examine the deleterious impact of galamsey (small scale gold mining) on the Pra.

8Chapter 7 provides reflections and future directions on key elements of this dissertation. The first revisits the “denaturalization” of the Pra. The second offers commentary on the potential of incorporating satellite imagery within multifaceted archaeological research methodologies in West Africa. The third considers future research on pre-Atlantic artifacts and features. The fourth reviews and reflects on long-term transformations of the forested landscape of the PRB.

9This research disentangles a fragmented landscape profoundly shaped by millennia of human history in which nothing can easily be considered solely “natural” or “cultural.” This binary is ultimately an impediment for understanding these transformations. Rather, the PRB has been synergistically formed, reformed, altered, effaced, and inscribed by the entangled rhythms of human/environmental historical processes.

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Braudel F. (1958) – Histoire et Sciences sociales : La longue durée. Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 13 (4) : 725‑753.

DeCorse C.R. (2021) – An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast, 1400–1900. (Reprint with new prologue) New York, Percheron.

Ingold T. (2002) – The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London, Routledge.

Reid S.H. (2020) – Forests of History: Satellite Remote Sensing and Archaeological Survey in Southern Ghana. African Archaeological Review, 37(4): 597‑614.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 – Human relationships with the landscape are discernable in multiple temporal rhythms in this multispectral satellite image of Apuntuado sacred grove (circled), near the Pra River
Credits Courtesy of DigitalGlobe Foundation
File image/jpeg, 612k
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Bibliographical reference

Sean Hamilton Reid, “Fragmented Landscapes: An Archaeology of Transformations in the Pra River Basin, Southern Ghana”Afrique : Archéologie & Arts, 18 | 2022, 99-100.

Electronic reference

Sean Hamilton Reid, “Fragmented Landscapes: An Archaeology of Transformations in the Pra River Basin, Southern Ghana”Afrique : Archéologie & Arts [Online], 18 | 2022, Online since 02 November 2022, connection on 01 April 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sean Hamilton Reid – Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904 (USA)

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

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