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Link to the past: The Christiansborg Archaeological Heritage Project

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Archaeology is a very interesting discipline that is sadly misunderstood by most Ghanaians.

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It really isn’t because of overall ignorance but it is mostly because people do not see its importance to their day-to-day activities.

I have, in fact, met many people who have quite innocently asked, Is Archaeology important at all in Ghana?  What do we have that you need to study? Well, we have quite a lot if you ask me.

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Before Ghana became what it is now, it was a part of a bigger civilization and has indeed left a lot in terms of cultural materials. From then, we come to the time of European contact and colonial rule which has again left a lot in material culture.

Do you still believe Ghana has nothing to study?

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If this point doesn’t convince you that we have much to discover if we give Archaeology a chance in Ghana then maybe this will.

Ever heard of the Christiansborg Archaeological Heritage Project?

It is basically research that studies the heritage resource available in the archaeological record at the Castle.

The project, which started in 2014 and is still ongoing, is in its fifth stage of archaeological excavation.

This is year’s excavation is being funded by the government of France.

Many artifacts have been found and profiled for further study while more are being unearthed.

Historical accounts point to the fact that the Christiansborg castle has served several important functions. It was a trading entrepôt during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the seat of colonial government administration.

It later became the Office of the President of the Republic of Ghana. It is also a site that is acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

I got the opportunity to see this castle for myself and even though I was not allowed to explore it entirely, I must say honestly, I loved what I saw and what I learned.

Christiansborg Castle is made up of a courtyard, a cistern, a chapel, ‘mulatto school’, storerooms and living quarters, a gable with a bell tower, and a whooping twenty-eight cannons.

But then, an inscription on the cistern was something that aroused some interest in me.

I had pre-knowledge of this fact but I was amazed when I saw it. On the cistern was an inscription with Danish Governor Carl Gustav Engmann’s name.

Hold that point with me, please.

I got to see the site at the Castle Garden where a group of talented people was painstakingly digging to expose the dirt-covered past.

As a student of Archaeology and Heritage Studies from the University of Ghana, I was so happy to see them work, and of course, was extra happy to hear them speak about archaeology as they did.

I listened to Rasta speak about how he dug in 20cm arbitrary layers to the fifth layer where they unearthed a wide array of bottles none like those that we have now.

I also spoke to Betty who shared that she is in charge of data processing in the project. She admitted that being a part of the project has given her insight into what archaeology is and how it is used to reconstruct the part.

“Talking about the bottles the shape is very different from what we have today. There is a big difference and it is very thick. Even when they fall, they can’t break as easily as the recent ones. I didn’t know anything about Archaeology. I came here and heard that it is an aspect of history but the practical side of it. I have learned a lot,” she said

Grace also shared with me what she does at the site and the artifact she has seen

“I wash the artifacts. When the guys dig what they find, they bring it to us to wash, dry, and send to the lab to analyze. I have seen a lot of broken bottles, broken pots, smoking pipes both local and foreign types, and shells.” She stated

I saw the specially designed smoking pipes, the bottles, the potsherds, and everything.

I also got an opportunity to speak to the Director of the project, Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann. If you have followed this narration, the name by now should ring a bell. She is directly related to the Governor I spoke about earlier. She told me about this fact when I spoke to her.

“I was always interested in doing a project in Christianborg Castle and then a personal aspect came into the picture. I have always grown up as a child knowing that the first Engmann was Danish and he came to the coast as a Missionary. In 2003 my aunty told me to go to the Castle and see your name written on the wall. So, I made an appointment and I came and saw that sure enough, my name was on the wall. So then did some research in the archives and discovered the Carl Gustav Engmann’s was not a missionary but in fact a governor” she said.

Further speaking, she stated that her project team is unique because it is mostly made up of direct descendants of Europeans who arrived in Gold Coast.

What I am trying to do here is a project that really revolves around and includes demographic and collaborative model and I am calling this Auto-archaeology. What I have done is and what seems to be of interest to a lot of people is that it draws from several things one being Auto-archaeology, then Autobiography because we have many people like myself who have a personal connection to the site. It draws upon politically engaged Archaeological work and it also draws upon politically engaged Anthropological work. And so, what I have done with the project design of other people who are like me direct descendants of Danish men who married Ga woman dating back to between the 17 and 19 centuries. She stated

She further highlighted another aim of the project indicating that she wants to acknowledge in a special way the people who worked in the project.

One of the things I think we should know about the project is that typically academia works in an extractive model meaning that researchers come and collect their data. They go home they write books and write papers and get jobs and promotions. But often the people who help make the project happen are never really acknowledged. But by and large that is how academia works and I am not saying every academic is like… She added.

With some attachment to the site, the locals who are involved in the project get to understand firsthand the activities of their direct ancestors giving them a sense of identity. I believe Archaeology helps us answer questions that relate to the existence of humans. It also gives us a better appreciation of happenings in the past. With the aid of oral history and ethnography, an archaeologist is able to reconstruct the past.

The study of archaeology me satisfies our basic need as humans to know where we came from and why we do what we do. Studying the past can tell us that.  So to clear this notion,  “Archaeologists don’t just dig, they dig to preserve and give meaning to the past.”

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