SRU logo
UEA logo

Sam Nixon

Research Associate

BA History of Art (1998) UCL; MA Archaeology (2002) UCL; Graduate attachee (2003) British Institute in Eastern Africa, Kenya; PhD Archaeology (2008) UCL; Honorary Research Associate (2009-2010) UCL; Research fellow (2011) UCL-Qatar.

Research Interests

The archaeology of cultural contact and exchange; African archaeology; the medieval world; the early Islamic world; trading societies and trading networks; trans-Saharan trade and the West African gold trade.

Current Research

Since 2012 I have worked on the ERC funded Crossroads of empires project ( This project focuses upon understanding the development of ‘empires’ in West Africa during the past two millenia, principally looking at how these influenced the patterning of settlement and material culture across the landscape, and how skilled craftspeople – ‘technical specialists’ – such as potters, blacksmiths and dyers were affected by these polities. The research is focused around fieldwork in northern Benin and involves a wide range of specialists from UK and international universities. My research role in the project involves investigating the architectural traditions in this region, seeking to understand how they fit into wider developments of early complex architectural forms in West Africa.

Excavation of architectural complex with circular rooms, Benin (2013)

Excavation of architectural complex with circular rooms, Benin (2013)

Alongside the excavations in Benin, I have secured funding from the Royal Anthropological Institute/Horniman Museum Collecting Initiative to commission craftwork from specialists in the region, linking this into the larger Arts Council England (ACE) project Ethnography Re-envisioned. The immediate result of this has been the production of textiles which have become part of the Horniman Museum (London) collection and the Sainsbury Research Unit teaching collection.

Strip-woven textile commissioned in Benin (2013)

Strip-woven textile commissioned in Benin (2013)

Most recently I have been curating the exhibition Crossroads of empires: archaeology in West Africa, held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (21st October 2014 – 1st February 2015) ( This is designed both to represent the ERC-funded project Crossroads of empires, but also more generally to communicate the practice and objectives of archaeological research in West Africa.

Curating the ‘Crossroads of empires’ exhibition at the SCVA (2014)

Since 2004 I have been running the Essouk-Tadmekka Archaeological Project (see Azania publication or Current World Archaeology article). The project was developed to better understand the nature of West African trading societies associated with the early Islamic trans-Saharan trade. The focal point of the research has been excavations and survey at the early Islamic trans-Saharan trading centre of Tadmekka, in the north of Mali. Publications developed from this research include a focused study of the project’s findings related to the trans-Saharan trade in gold ( A monograph on the excavations is currently being written up, to be published this year in the Journal of African Archaeology Monograph series.

In addition to these projects I am currently collaborating on developing new field research projects in southern Morocco, seeing this as an ideal area to continue addressing wider questions of early trans-Saharan trade. I am also Copy-Editor for the Journal of African Archaeology (

Site visit at Essouk-Tadmekka during the annual ‘Saharan nights’ festival (2005)

Site visit at Essouk-Tadmekka during the annual ‘Saharan nights’ festival (2005)



Nixon, S. (ed.) In press. Tadmekka. The Archaeology of an Early Muslim Market Town in West Africa (Republic of Mali). Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag.

Stevens, C., S. Nixon, M. Murray, & D. Fuller,  (eds.) 2014. Archaeology of African plant use. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Articles/Book Chapters

Nixon, S, M. Barpougani, & F. Takpara. In prep. The Ashanti-Hausa trade route and the Kingdom of Borgu: archaeological and ethnohistorical survey within the Republic of Benin.

Rehren, Th., & S. Nixon. 2014. Refining gold with glass – an early Islamic technology at Tadmekka, Mali. Journal of Archaeological Science 49: 33-41 [Open access]

Nixon, S. 2014. West Africa: Islamic archaeology. In C. Smith (ed.) Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. New York: Springer. 7720-7733

Nixon, S. 2013. ‘A longing for Mecca’ : the trans-Saharan Hajj and the caravan towns of West Africa. In V. Porter & L. Saif (eds.) Hajj: Collected Essays. British Museum Press. 65-73

Nixon, S. 2013. Tadmekka: Archéologie d’une ville caravanière des premiers temps du commerce transsaharien. Afriques 04

Nixon, S. 2013. Review of ‘Oursi hu-beero. A medieval house complex in Burkina Faso, West Africa’ (ed. L. P. Petit et al 2011). Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa.

Nixon, S., T. Rehren & M. Filomena Guerra. 2011. New light on the early Islamic West African gold trade: coin moulds from Tadmekka, Mali. Antiquity 85: 1353-1368.

Nixon, S. 2011. The rising trade with Africa. In M. Carver and J. Klapste (eds). The Archaeology of Medieval Europe, Vol 2: 1200-1600. Aarhus University Press. 361-369

Nixon, S., M. Murray & D. Fuller. 2011. Archaeobotany and trans-Saharan trade in the early Islamic West African Sahel: investigating Essouk-Tadmakka (Mali). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 20 (3) 223-239

Nixon, S. 2010. Before Timbuktu: the great trading centre of Tadmakka. Current World Archaeology 39: 40-51. Download from Current World Archaeology

Nixon, S. 2009. Excavating Essouk-Tadmakka (Mali): new archaeological investigations of Early Islamic trans-Saharan trade. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa. 44 (2): 217-255.

Exhibition catalogues/gallery guides
Nixon, S. & A. Haour. 2014. Crossroads of empires: archaeology in West Africa. Gallery guide. East Publishing.

Contributions to V. Porter (ed.). 2012. Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. British Museum Press


Site designed by Accent Design Group Ltd