Archaeological Discoveries in Alkalawa, the Former Capital City of Gobir Kingdom

Being a paper presented at the First International Conference on Gobir Kingdom, Past And Present: Transformation And Change, held at The Usmanu Danfodiyo University Auditorium, from 9th – 13th July, 2018

Archaeological Discoveries in Alkalawa, the Former Capital City of Gobir Kingdom

Isa Muhammad,
Rabiu Yusuf,
Department of Archaeology ABU Zaria


Nura Bello Gwadabawa
Department of History, SSCOE, Sokoto
Correspondence: yusufrabiu45@yahoo.com 08061548505


Archaeological fieldwork was undertaken at Birnin Alkalawa site and environs with a view to documenting aspect of its settlement history. The site is located near the present village of Alkalawa in Sabon Birni Local Government Area of Sokoto State. This paper represents the first archaeological work undertaken on the site prior to 2000. It consists of a survey of the site and its environs to document features of archaeological interest. It also aimed at investigating the early history of Gobir with focus on settlements and their materiality. No intensive archaeological work has been carried in the area, but historical researches undertaken by Nadama (1977)  Augi (1984) and have stressed the central importance of the site to the history of Gobir. The paper concludes with a call for a sustained archaeological research that will include excavation and dating of finds and features so that a chronological framework on the history of Gobir at Birnin Alkalawa will be established.

Keywords: Gobir, Settlement, Archaeological discoveries and Birnin Alkalawa.




This paper is on an archaeological investigation of Birnin Alkalawa in Sabon Birni Local Government Area, Sokoto State. Attempt was made to study and document the archaeology of the site through employing the following methods: collection of oral tradition, consulting of documented works, archaeological survey, classification and analysis of finds and features. Finally, interpretations and discussions were made from the finds and features found on the site.

Birnin Alkalawa is an abandoned settlement site located in Sabon Birni Local Government Area of Sokoto State. The early settlers in Birnin Alkalawa were Gobirawa who are referred to as Kipiti (Copts) from Misra (Egypt) (Na-dama 1977). Birnin Alkalawa formally became the capital city of Gobir Kingdom after the defeat of Birnin Zamfara in 1757 A.D. It later fell to the Sokoto Jihadist in (1808 A.D) who destroyed the city as they were seen as rebels against the Islamic faith (Augi 1984).


Another account for the origin of Gobirawa who settled in Alkalawa is that they originally came from Arabia in about the 10th century A.D through Bornu, they lived in areas largely now in Niger Republic before finally consolidating power and establishing themselves at Alkalawa (Sokoto Tourist Guide, 2011). 

Archaeological evidence in Birnin Alkalawa includes; ruins of city wall, dye pits, grave yard, potsherds, mounds among others. This site is also of great spiritual significance as people used to come from various parts of the country and even from Niger Republic to seek blessings from one of the great ruler of the town, Bawa Jan Gwarzo. He was said to have been the longest serving king of Birnin Alkalawa (Augi 1984). Little or no attempt was made before this work to document the Archaeological potential of this site; the historical work on Gobir did not reveale much about the cultural potential of Birnin Alkalawa.


Although a number of works have been carried out on the general area of study, such work seemed to have focused mainly on history of the site which has sharpened our knowledge of the political and social past ways of life of the people of Birnin Alkalawa and had shown the significance of the site in Gobir Kingdom being the capital of a very important Hausaland Kingdom within the Sokoto Rima basin. However, the material evidence to corroborate these historical works has not yet been documented, which therefore calls for an archaeological investigation, hence the essence of this paper.


It is important at this juncture to note that, the material evidence which has not been documented is largely threatened by human activities such as intensive farming and grazing of animals, it is also threatened by environmental hazards such as desertification and erosion, these factors pose a lot of challenge to the features in Alkalawa, hence leaving a big gap to be bridged. Therefore, undertaking an archaeological work on this site would go a long way towards bridging this gap.


Literature Review

Unlike most of the settlements in West Africa where there is the dearth of written records, Birnin Alkalawa to some extent has few detailed written works in terms of its History. The first is a PhD thesis written by Na-dama tiltled “The Rise and Collapse of a Hausa State: A Social and Political History of Zamfara.” (1977), the author saw the Gobirawa as people who migrated to Birnin Zamfara and enjoyed a lot of social interaction with the people of Zamfara. Infact the hospitality of Zamfarawa was such that it even allowed intermarriages between Gobirawa and Zamfarawa. For example Ibrahim Babari’s sister (founder of Birnin Alkalawa) who was a princess called Fara (white) was married to Sarkin Birnin Zamfara Moraki. Babari was said to have grown up in the palace where his sister was a housewife. The author also explained that the Gobirawa later betrayed the Zamfarawa due to the internal divide and weakness of the central administration. By 1741 A.D during the reign of Sarkin Zamfara Malu, the Gobirawa particularly the group at Birnin Alkalawa had waxed stronger and had ascended from Maiunguwa (small power) to become Sarkin Gobir Zamfara( in the person of Ibrahim Babari). After the demise of Sarkin Zamfara Malu in 1748, Sarkin Zamfara Gado succeeded him and most of the Sarakuna (Kings) wanted Sarkin Birnin Zamfara Moriki to become the overall Sarki. This explains the fracas and weakness in the central administration which the new Sarki could not consolidate. The Gobirawa particularly the group of Birnin Alkalawa (in-laws of Sarki Moriki) who wanted Sarkin Birnin Zamfara Moriki to become the overall king used this opportunity to stage an uproar which led to the death of the new Sarki Gado and later capturing Zamfara in 1750 A.D. This work is purely historical and does not give us any archaeological clue about the site.


The second work is also a historical work, a PhD thesis by Augi, (1984). His thesis, unlike the previous one by Na-dama; dwelled on the political nature of Birnin Alkalawa particularly after defeating and taking over mantle of leadership from Zamfarawa. However he noted that Birnin Alkalawa faced both internal and external conflicts. Externally, they were faced by military conflict from the sultanate of Agades, Katsina and some small regions of Zamfarawa who were not conquered by the Gobirawa (Birnin Alkalawa). These external conflicts occupied their attention which made them not to properly handle some pressing internal factors. Like heavy taxes, levies on people and forced recruitment of people into the army.

This and many other reasons made a section of Mallamai (Scholars) under the leadership of Shehu Usmanu Danfodio to speak out and fight against what they saw as unislamic nature of the society. Hence, this led to the defeat of Birnin Alkalawa in 1808 A.D.


Smaldone (1977), in his work “Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate”, stated the war strategy that was employed by the jihadist to sack Birnin Alkalawa, noting that the Gobir capital Birnin Alkalawa had been previously attacked in 1804, 1806 and 1807 by Waziri Baba (the then Waziri), Aliyu Jedo (Sarkin Yaki) and Sultan Muhammad Bello (Shehu’s Brother), who all failed in their respective attempts.  It was during the fourth attack in 1808 that the jihadist re-strategized using a three-pronged pincer movement that is two columns commanded by Aliyu Jaidu and Namoda, both under the supreme command of Sultan Muhammad Bello advanced on the city from the west and east simultaneously. Umar Dallaji, the leader of Katsina who had accepted Shehu’s call approached Birnin Alkalawa from the southwest with a large Katsina force. Hence Gobir capital Birnin Alkalawa was decisively defeated and destroyed. Some of the Birnin Alkalawa inhabitants who fled, migrated to a new settlement called Birnin Kadaye, the town was said to have been opened by Sultan Muhammad Bello.


Smith (1987), traced the capital of Gobir Kingdom, from Birnin Lalle in the Gulbin Targa during the 17th century to Tsibiri in the 17th and 18th century and to Birnin Alkalawa in the mid 18th century. This also tells us the century this town was in prominence but does not give any archaeological information about the site.


From the literature studied above, it is clear that historical work to some extent has been documented about the site understudy and this has helped in a better understanding of our knowledge of the political and social past ways of life of the people of Birnin Alkalawa. However, there is no material evidence to support these historical works, hence leaving a big gap to be bridged. Therefore, undertaking an archaeological work on this site would go a long way to bridge this wide gap.


Description and Characteristics of the Site

The soil of this site is well drained with texture ranging from coarse grains, it is mostly dusty and sandy, there are no much trees on the site except for a few Neem and Shea butter trees. The site is more of a Sahel Savannah in terms of its vegetation as there are virtually no grasses.

There are three settlement mounds in the site; they are located to the northern part of the site.

There is a burial Crain in the site which attract people both from within and outside the country who come to seek spiritual blessings. There are also dyeing pits, scattered potsherds, fragments of human bones, defensive wall which lies close to Rima River and has since been eroded by the river. Similarly there exists a pool of heads (Tafkin Kanu) in the site. The site covers an area of 4.35 Sq.Km (fig 4).

It is important to note that there exists a structure erected in the site though uncompleted by the then Minister of Culture, Hon. Bello Jibrin Gada; this structure is to serve as a site museum which will serve as a place to showcase the artifacts recovered from the site and the features on the site will be managed and maintained by the museum staff, unfortunately this has not been actualized.


Site Reconnaissance

Reconnaissance is a method adopted by an archaeologist in undertaking archaeological investigation or research by physically examining the surface of a site with the intent of determining the cultural viability of the site. The reconnaissance survey carried out at Alkalawa was through traversing on foot throughout the site. During the field walk, finds and features were identified, GPS readings were documented. Some features in the site were also photographed for clarity in description.

Map of Nigeria showing Sokoto State and the area of study









Map of Alkalawa Site






During the reconnaissance survey of the site, potsherds were found scattered over the site.

Pottery were found in association with bones, the sherds were of different body parts and

decorative motifs. Seventy-seven (77) of them were collected from different part of the site,

like the grave yard, the dye area, the mounds etc for analysis.

Cowry shell

A cowry shell was found in association with pieces of bones on one of the mounds. The reading of the mound was taken and documented and the piece of cowry shell was collected and bagged.

A cowry shell picked from the site

Grinding stone

A fragmented grinding stone was found, unfortunately this grinding stone has been displaced from its original position and it is kept in the uncompleted site museum. According to an oral informant the grinding stone was picked from the dye pits area. It is the only material retrieved from the site and kept in the museum for fear of it being carried away by people carrying out farming activities on the site. The grinding stone has a length of 0.95m, a width of 0.25m.

Fragment of lower Grinding stone.


Grave yard

This is where prominent rulers of Birnin Alkalawa and their family members were buried. There is an ancient well in the grave yard from which water for mixing the mud to cement the grave was obtained.  Mallami ( Pers. Com. 2013), recounted that people from various parts of West Africa used to come and seek spiritual blessings from the grave of one of the famous and prominent ruler of Birnin Alkalawa Bawa Jan Gwarzo; he was a contemporary of Shehu Usman Danfodio and both of them studied under Malam Buzu during the reign of Birnin Alkalawa. Some herd’s men come to the site during the dry season to graze their animals with the belief that there are spiritual benefit when they feed their animals on the site. The grave yard is fenced in a rectangular shape with 27m length and 19m breadth covering an area 513Square Meters. There are about thirty (30) tombs in the grave yard all for the royal family members, those who were not from the royal family were not buried in this grave yard.

Front View of the entrance to the grave yard

The coordinates of Bawa Jan Gwarzo’s grave is latitude 130 36’ 18.4”N and longitude 060 15’ 26.4”E with an elevation of 300m above sea level.

Bawa Jan Gwarzo’s grave

The well in the grave yard

            The coordinates of the well is latitude 130 36’ 18.9”N and longitude 060 15’ 26.0”E with an elevation of 298m above sea level. The grave yard is about ten meters (10m) north of the uncompleted site museum. 


Dye pits 

About fifteen dye pits in a cluster were among the features found on the site. They are located at the lower depression of the site which is about two hundred meters North West of the site museum. The soil colour of the area differs from other areas as it is whitish and grey. Some of the dye pits are covered with soil. The dye pits range from 0.8 – 1.2m in diameter. The coordinates of the clustered dye pits is latitude 130 36’ 24.9”N and longitude 060 15’ 17.4”E with an elevation of 299m above sea level. Potsherds, pebble stones and small stone slabs were found at the dye pits area. The dye pits covers a rectangular area of length 9m by 7m breadth totaling 63m2.

            The clustered dye pits are about two hundred and sixty-six meters (266m) north west of the grave yard.

     Dye Pits.


Three mounds were found on the site, they were found northwest of the site, the mounds had bones, and potsherd on them and intensive farming is presently taking place on them. The three mounds were named M1, M2 and M3 respectively. On one of the mounds (M2) a cowry shell was found in association with the pieces of bones and potsherds. The coordinates of the three mounds were taken and they are:

M1.     Latitude 130 36’ 34.1”N and longitude 060 15’ 23.1”E with an elevation of 296m above sea level, M1 is about three hundred and ninety two meters (392m) north west of the dye pits. M1 has a height of 0.7m.

M2.     Latitude 130 36’ 37.4”N and longitude 060 15’ 28.7”E with an elevation of 298m above sea level, M2 is about one hundred and ninety six meters (196m) north west of M1. It has a height of 0.9m.

M3.     Latitude 130 36’ 41.8”N and longitude 060 15’ 20.7”E with an elevation of 297m above sea level, M3 is 1.1m high and it is about two hundred and forty seven meters (247m) north west of M2.


Pond of heads (Tafkin Kanu)

A pond was identified in the site. Oral sources (Sani Ladan, Pers. Com. 2013) said that whenever Birnin Alkalawa archers captured Shehu Usmanu Danfodio’s fighters they beheaded their heads and threw them into the pond. Similarly those who committed capital offences and were condemned to death, their heads were also beheaded and thrown into the pond. It is about a kilometers walk north wards from the site museum. The coordinates of Tafkin Kanu (pond of heads) is latitude 130 36’ 42.3”N and longitude 060 15’ 49.5”E with an elevation of 291m above sea level. The pool is about five hundred and thirty- nine meters northeast of mound M2.

Pond of Heads (Tafkin Kanu)

Remains of defensive wall (Bazar Birni): the remains of the defensive wall shows that the wall was built with mud though presently washed away by River Rima which flows by its side. Oral information and written documents confirm the names of the seven gates found on the wall namely; Kofar Malam, Kofar Galadima Kachiro, Kofar Kihin Bisa, Kofar Sarkin Kabi, Kofar Sarkin Kwanni, Kofar Sarki, Kofar Baramaka (Augi 1984, Alhaji Suleiman, per.com 2014).  The ruins of the defensive wall has a height of fifty (50) cm. The coordinates of the defensive wall (Bazar Birni) were taken at thirteen (13) different points along the ruin of the wall.

Remains of Defensive Wall

TABLE 1: Inventory of Finds and Features in Birnin Alkalawa





Ruin of Defensive Wall



Pool of Heads (Tafkin Kanu)






Dye pit



Grave yard



Grinding stones



Cowry shell



Pieces of Bones









Discussions and Conclusion

Having carried out this preliminary research at Birnin Alkalawa which involved the study of the cultural material left behind by the people who inhabited the site, some tentative conclusions are hereby drawn:

That the people who occupied this site were able to interact with the natural resources found in the environment as seen in the evidence of pots made from clay, the dye pits which is used as a well for dyeing process, the cowry which was used for either beautification or trade, though the present people no more practice these crafts.

It could be suggested that Birnin Alkalwa was a complex society and has characteristics of a Hausa urban centre, this is because the defensive wall required the services of huge labour force, the Tapkin Kanu where state offenders were executed shows that there existed a central administration which tried offenders before the law, and the grave yards where the ruling class were buried signifies social stratification all these are characteristics of a complex society.

Despite the fact that the site was destroyed by the Sokoto jihadist, and presently the site is under threat of intensive farming and grazing as well as the threat of desertification, Birnin Alkalawa could be regarded as a settlement site with a heterogeneous/complex city which if further archaeological is carried out will revealed a lot about the culture history of the Gobirawa.

This paper has been able to produce the map of the area under study as a result of the archaeological survey carried out, furthermore it has been able to bring to lime light the archaeology of Birnin Alkalawa and its environs. The chronology of this site could not be determined; this is because excavation was not carried out limiting the scope of this research and interpretation. Further research needs to be carried out to better our understanding of the chronology and culture history of the Gobirawa and Birnin Alkalawa site.




This is the first archaeological research work embarked on in Birnin Alkalawa which is the heart of Sokoto Rima Basin, it has exposed the cultural potential of the site and have provided background information which will serve as a basis for other researchers who may wish to carry out further research in this site. Thus, further research is expected to cover excavation, dating and other scientific laboratory analysis as this will provide answers to the sequence of occupation, dates and other aspects of the site.  Though, this site has been enlisted by Sokoto State Government as a Tourist Attraction Site, there is the need to deliberately embark on more detailed research and documentation of the site as what is written in the Sokoto State Tourist Guide is very scanty and could be misleading.

The Federal Government and National Commission for Museum and Monuments need to work harder towards completing the site museum in Birnin Alkalawa, as this would be the first of its kind in the state and more information would be assessed if the museum is put in place, it would also serve as a medium for public awareness which can also be called public archaeology.



Augi A.R.    (1984).    The Gobir Factor in the Social and Political History of the Rima Basin (c.1650 –to- 1808 A.D).  An Unpublished PhD Thesis. Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

Na-dama G.  (1977). The Rise and Collapse of a Hausa State: A Social and Political History of Zamfara. An Unpublished PhD Thesis. Ahmadu Bello University Zaria.

Smaldone, J.P.  (1977). Warfare in the Sokoto Caliphate. Cambridge University Press London.


Sokoto State Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (2011). Sokoto State Tourist Guide. Da’a Publishers Sokoto.


Smith, A.  (1987). The Early States of the Central Sudan. A little New Light: Selected Historical Writings of Abdullahi Smith Vol.1.Abullahi Smith Centre for Historical Research. 



Mallami Muhammad, aged 65, 2013.

Sani Ladan, aged 55, 2013.

Alhaji Suleiman, aged 70, 2014.

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