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September 15 2012

Malian treasures trapped in a culture war


Djenne-Djenno, one of the best-known archaeological sites in sub-Saharan Africa, spreads over several acres of rutted fields near the present city of Djenne in central Mali. The ruts are partly caused by erosion, but they're also scars from decades of digging, by archaeologists in search of history and looters looking for art to sell.

When I was there last fall, a few archaeology students were in evidence. These days, with Mali in the throes of political chaos, it's unlikely that anyone is doing much work at all at the site, though history and art are visible everywhere. Ancient pottery shards litter the ground. Here and there the mouths of large clay urns, of a kind once used for food storage or human burial, emerge from the earth's surface, the vessels themselves still submerged.

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