A Pipeline Runs Through It: Central Africa’s Big Dig

When you travel on foot through the heart of Africa, you see a few things. When you are Bowdoin archaeologist Scott MacEachern, you may just see 100,000 years of human history.

The professor of anthropology has spent several summers and sabbaticals walking along a 700-mile swath of land stretching from southwestern Chad to the Cameroon coast, the site of an Exxon oil pipeline. One of the lead archaeologists on an eight-year project, his job has been to identify, catalog, and excavate archaeological sites along the pipeline’s 30-meter-wide right-of-way, which stretches from Chad’s dry savannah to the dense tropical forests of Cameroon.

Along the way, MacEachern and his colleagues have uncovered some of the oldest intact remains of iron smelting furnaces on the continent. They found dozens of ancient garbage pits, evidence of prehistoric farming villages. They found stone tools that may be as much as 100,000 years old.

And, in some places, they found lots of leeches, bees and snakes. “Really quite gross,” concedes MacEachern, “but that’s just part of the deal.”

The full archaeological transect. Red marks indicate sites found.
This cultural-preservation project is the largest archaeological program ever undertaken in central Africa and is the subject of a soon-to-be-published book co-authored by MacEachern and an international collaborative of colleagues, tentatively titled, Komé-Kribi: Rescue Archaeology along the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline, 1999-2004.

“Much of the territory that we were looking at had never had archaeological work done,” says MacEachern, who worked closely with archaeologists and students from Belgium, Cameroon, and Chad. “You never knew what you were going to encounter.

“Much of the country we worked through is really beautiful, but there were some fantastically difficult areas in Cameroon,” he adds. “Near the Mbéré River valley, we were moving across a series of knife-edge hills that drop off into swamps. It was an awful, awful area to work, scrambling on your hands and knees up these hill slopes and on the other side, down into stagnant water up to your waist. It was the hardest archaeological survey I’ve ever done in my life. But in retrospect, I’m very glad I did it.”

In some places, archaeological work was conducted along the actual pipeline trench.
The physical terrain was not the only obstacle that MacEachern and his colleagues encountered. In Chad, the pipeline ran close to the national borders with Cameroon and the Central African Republic; banditry was a problem. MacEachern was required to travel with armed guards. “I was not crazy about having these guys with guns with me,” he says, “but that was part of doing the work. I put them to work looking for sites with the rest of us.”

Despite a few Indiana Jones-like aspects, MacEachern avows that this project—and most archaeological work—is hardly swashbuckling stuff. “You’re not finding golden idols,” he says, “but we got a lot of archaeology done.”

He and his crew surveyed ten kilometers a day on average, spending six to eight hours in the field. A typical day, he says, included scanning the ground, entering data into handheld GPS equipment, taking pictures, filling out forms, then retiring to villages or oil camps along the route for an evening of note-keeping.

Archaeological sites were plentiful, he says: “We found sites from the first day. People always underestimate the number of sites that exist anwhere in the world. But you usually expect to find lots of material in Africa, given how long humans have lived there. We were finding stone tools that that were 100,000 years old. You won’t find that in North America because people weren’t here that long ago, but in Cameroon they would just be sitting on the surface in some places.”

A furnace stump at Misi Madji.
All told, the team found 163 sites in Chad and 309 in Cameroon. Of those, they excavated roughly 60 sites. One of the most exciting of their discoveries occurred in southwestern Chad, where they stumbled on a vast enclave of iron smelting furnaces.

“We would be walking along and generally just scanning the ground and begin finding big pieces of iron slag,” recalls MacEachern. “It’s very distinctive. Then we’d find the remains of a furnace. Originally they were three to six feet high, but all that is left is the circular stump made out of mud brick. Inside, it is vitrified from the heat of the furnace. We would stop and look around and see a furnace stub there, there, and there … suddenly you’ve got a site. They tended to be found stretching along dried river beds.

Furnace remains at Djaoro Mbama.
“What’s interesting,” he adds, “is not the single site, but the concentration of sites in space and time—they dated back about 1,000 years. We had no idea that those were there, and with so many furnaces, it indicates that they were probably exporting iron a millennium ago.”

The project was a journey for MacEachern as well, he says. He began work on the project in 1999, expecting to spend a few months on a single survey in Chad. In fact, he was involved in survey and excavation work between 1999 and 2002, then stayed involved with the project as an advisor and consultant until this year.

The project was ultimately directed through this period by Philippe Lavachery, a Belgian archaeologist with whom MacEachern has collaborated ever since. Their collaboration, along with that of Cameroonian and Chadian archaeologists, has resulted in a number of journal articles, as well as their upcoming book, which will be issued in both French and English. It outlines the environmental, archaeological and culture backgrounds of the areas of their work, and includes synthesized analyses of data they discovered.

MacEachern says he hopes their work—and the book—will offer a framework of best practices for future oil-project archaeology in Africa. “The regulatory climate in Africa within which this work takes place can be fairly weak, and local archaeologists often have limited resources,” notes MacEachern. “The most important challenge we face is helping our African colleagues obtain the resources they need to do this work themselves.

“We set up practices based on national and World Bank Environmental Guidelines, which we hope will serve as a guide for future cultural resource management in Africa—because whether we like it or not, oil exploration and extraction continues to pose challenges there.”

Story originally published by Bowdoin College.