Barking up the right tree

As we wait for the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines and the return to something like normal life, planning is underway for getting back to Zambia. The final season of fieldwork on the Deep Roots project has been penciled in for August, assuming, of course, that international travel resumes.  More on those plans later as they develop.  And training has already started for a spin-off project scheduled to start this June.  Training?  Yes, it’s definitely needed as this is a new departure for me and out of my archaeological comfort zone.

During the 2019 season at Kalambo Falls we were working with colleagues from Moto Moto Museum in Mbala. The museum is about 35 km from the Falls, just off the tarmac before the dirt road begins that takes travellers north to Tanzania or northwest to the Falls. If you ever have the good fortune to come this way, set aside time to explore the Museum.  There’s archaeology, ethnography, history, contemporary art – and a great little gift shop.

Museum gift shops are always on my radar and in Zambia they often have traditional locally made crafts.  At home we have an ever growing collection of these gift shop finds made of natural materials: wood, clay, roots and grass. And some decorative treasures.

A three-legged wooden stool from the Moto Moto Museum functions as an occasional table at home and an evocative reminder of a brief season of excavation at Kalambo in August 2006.  That stool was part of a set of eight which the team used around the fire. The 2006 season led – eventually – to two publications which paved the way for the Deep Roots project.

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Our Kalambo Falls dining room in 2006 with our suite of three-legged stools

We arrived at the Moto Moto Museum in 2019 not just to visit en route to Kalambo, but to greet the Director, Perrice Nkombwe and her team who would be joining us on the excavation.  Perrice and I had met previously at the Livingstone Museum, where she was Keeper for Ethnography and Art.  She helped in the run-up to the 2019 field season with logistical planning and on our arrival gave us a tour of the museum when I was drawn to a display in the ethnography gallery on traditional bark cloth-making.

I was vaguely aware of the use of bark as a fibre for making clothes, bags and nets from historical and ethnographic sources.  Livingstone, on his travels in northern Zambia (mid-1860s), observed specialised camps of bark cloth makers and commented on their impact on the vegetation.  He also grumbled that the cloth was of such fine quality that he struggled to trade his commercially made calico.

I knew that hunter-gatherers of the rainforests in central Africa traditionally made and decorated their bark clothing, and recall a discussion with a chief and his advisors in northern Zambia on the whereabouts of an elderly maker of bark cloth, somewhere along the edge of the Muchinga escarpment.  There was no time then to follow up on this information.

The display in the ethnography gallery set me thinking about a suggestion made in 1950 by archaeologist Desmond Clark about tools for bark-cloth making.  He speculated that a distinctive blunt-edged stone axe head found in Later Stone Age sites in northern Zambia might have been used for stripping bark from trees, without tearing the bark.

The forests of this region today are part of the Zambezian floral domain, which is the largest in Africa stretching from Angola in the west to Tanzania and Mozambique in the east.  Known as miombo woodland in Zambia and surrounding countries, this thorn-less deciduous forest is characterised by leguminous trees with a bark which protects them from dry season fires.

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Miombo woodland in the Northern Province of Zambia

It’s the bark that is the story here, but these forests also provide seasonally important foods including large edible mushrooms (up to 1 metre across) during the wet summer months, caterpillars in autumn and a dark flavourful honey in the dry season.

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This woman was selling mushrooms by the side of the Great North Road with her little baby on her back

In the ethnography gallery there were old photos of bark cloth making and some of the tools on display, including a blunt-edge iron axe. Aha! Present and past merge in a moment of recognition.  But there was no time to ponder this connection, we needed to head to the Falls and set up camp.

On leaving the museum I popped into the gift shop for a quick scan – wooden stools (check, have those), clays pots (ditto), wooden cooking spoons (yep, in our kitchen), wooden mortar and pestle (don’t ask), chitenge printed cotton cloth (we use this for our artefact bags), a Zambian flag (nice but there’s a small one already on my office desk), and what’s that on the top shelf? There, stacked on the shelf was a row of brownish-red truncated pyramids of a coarse material I’ve not seen before. I took one down – it was stiff, made of a coarse fibre. What was it? You guessed: bark cloth.

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Mr Simon Chileshi modelling coarse bark cloth, including the famous hat, outside the Moto Moto Museum. Picture Copyright Moto Moto Museum

On one of the many later visits to the Museum that season I learned that it was a hat – it wasn’t obvious – and that they were made by a man in a village towards the town of Kasama, a three-hour car journey from Mbala. There wasn’t be time last season to pay a visit, but I was intrigued.  I bought the hat and a much finer piece of bark cloth made into a purse.  They are now in my office and not at home –  lock-down prevents me from showing you these new treasures.

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Mr John Mukopa wearing fine bark cloth.  (I need to find out if there is more than meets the eye to these costumes). Picture Copyright Moto Moto Museum

Later on, I learnt from Perrice that there are two grades of this cloth, with the finer made from a different tree.

I learned even more as Perrice and I worked to very tight schedule early this January to meet a grant deadline.  It was a longshot, but we applied to the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge Programme (EMKP: funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.  Just three makers of bark-cloth carry on this ancient tradition in northern Zambia, which barely survives against the gales of globalisation. Commercial fabrics, nylon netting and plastic buckets have pretty much brought an end to this time-consuming and once communal activity.  The fine cloth can take some months to make and it survives thanks to its ceremonial role in the coronation of Bemba chiefs.  The coarse cloth takes less effort to make but has limited practical value – and I can’t say the hat is a thing of beauty (in the eye of this humble beholder).

At last – here’s the good news! The application was successful, and the online training has started in ethnographic research methods. Perrice and her team are part of a diverse group of researchers – from Amazonia to the Far East – meeting for the first time, online. All have different levels of experience, including novices such as myself. We are learning about ethical considerations in relation to interviewing participants (informed consent is essential), the kinds of cameras, tripods, audio-recorders, microphones and so on needed to document the experience, and today it’s data management.  The results of our project, along with the others in the EMKP programme, will be available as Open Access digital resources for future generations to view.

Perrice and the Moto Moto team will record all aspects of the bark-cloth-making processes, coarse and fine, from the choice of trees to the marketing of the final product. As well as creating a digital archive the team will collect objects for the Moto Moto Museum stores and its Ethnographic Gallery.  Perrice hopes the training will be the springboard for more ethnographic research by the Museum in years to come.

Bark cloth maker Mr John Mukopa explaining the process to Perrice Nkombwe and Stephen Mwila of the Moto Moto Museum. (Photograph: Copyright Moto Moto Museum)

My interest is primarily in the tools used and what traces might be left on the blunt axes and any other tools involved.  Can we test Clark’s hypothesis and perhaps find other tools, from even earlier periods that might have done the job?  Bark as well as wood must have been part of the material knowledge of Middle and Early Stone Age communities.  There are ethnographic specimens of the tools to study in Zambia and in the British Museum and archaeological collections of those enigmatic Later Stone Age axe heads. There’s also potential for a student project or two along the way. Assuming that things, one day, return to something approaching what we used to call normal…

John Mukopa’s wooden tools for processing bark into cloth. (Photograph: Copyright Moto Moto Museum)

But, for now, the Deep Roots project has its first unplanned spin-off.  Who would have guessed that a museum gift shop could be so rewarding?



6 thoughts on “Barking up the right tree

  1. Not sure I’ll be wearing the cloth any time soon , it looks difficult to wear ! However congratulations at making the find ,the connection and getting the grant , another year guaranteed ! Liz

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Dear Larry, Thanks very much for sending me your latest post . I’m replying this way instead of entering a comment in order to be able to send you a couple of photos. The camp stools in your photo immediately seemed familiar, as indeed they are, for I have one of the same style that I bought in Malawi when I was last there in 2008; here are photos I’ve just taken (forgot to include a scale). I bought it at Liwonde, where the N-S road crosses the river north of Zomba, and in the village market just north of the river are numerous vendors of carved objects. One wonders if this is a widespread (Central) African style of stool or has the style been imported from one area to the other? The decoration on the seat doesn’t show very clearly in the third photo, but the carving was obviously done when the wood was still green, hence the fissure. The white dots are little ivory(?) inserts. The photos are not as good as they should be as it’s ages since I used my camera. Best wishes, looking forward to your next instalment. John


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  3. Hello John,
    Interesting similarities in style and thank you for sharing the images. I’ve noticed over the years in Zambia that new stool designs appear within local traditions (I can’t resist stopping at roadside stalls), and there might be an interesting project here on how styles are adopted, ignored or simply emerge independently of markets and along major roads. One for the future…

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  4. Great job Larry. I hope you can pull it off. Your field work is difficult enough without the added stress of the Coronavirus. By the way, those giant mushrooms could form the basis of some awesome fajitas.

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About Larry Barham

My name is Larry (Lawrence if I’m feeling formal) Barham and I'm a Professor of African Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, England, teaching evolutionary anthropology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.