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Medieval Landscapes in the Horn of Africa

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF project

Nomadic archaeology

If there is a way in which Somaliland can be defined and conceptualized is as a land of nomads. The harsh environment, the recurrence of seasons and the climatic conditions have made of mobility one of the main factors in Somaliland history. Nomadism has epitomized the Somali way of being in the world, even if at the same time has sometimes simplified the vision that the world of the Somali. Somali Nomads, their traditions and their strategies to survive and often thrive in a challenging world are fundamental to understand the framework in which many of the historical processes of the region have taken place in the last millennia. In the case of the medieval period, this important is even more relevant due to the emergence of a network of settlements which dotted the highlands of Somaliland, especially in the border close to Ethiopia and Djibuti. These settlements, along with the coastal sites where commerce took place during the trading season, constituted the nodes of a complex system of trade in which the nomads were fully integrated until the collapse of the Sultanate of Adal by the end of the 16th century.

However, the archaeological study of nomads presents some serious challenges not only in Somaliland, but elsewhere. The mobile nature of the nomads implies that most of their objects are made of perishable materials and therefore they haven’t been preserved to be studied archaeologically. Ethnographic collections as the one of the British Museum show the richness and complexity of the culture of Somali nomads, but they are mostly dated in the beginnings of the 20th century and can only offer suggestions about the objects the nomads could have used in the medieval period.

Nomadic Houses LughayaNomad house made of perishable materials close to Lughaya. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

This lack of evidences about the daily life of medieval nomads has shifted the attention to the main remains of their culture: the funerary traditions which, as happens in many other nomadic cultures, are very strong and enduring, and often act as anchors in a landscape which is basically defined by fluidity. The funerary archaeology of Somaliland is extremely abundant and consist on cairns made of piled stones, normally placed in prominent places in the landscape (such as mountain passes or hills) or along wadis –the traditional paths for the movement of the nomadic communities). The diversity of cairns is extremely varied, with tumuli of square, rectangular and circular shapes, sometimes combining stones of different colours, and displaying rings of stones around the tumuli. With the arrival of Islam, tumuli become less prominent and often have stelae on the top, following the precepts of Islamic faith. In some cases, cairns are inserted in the centre of small mosques defined by stones on the earth. Although cairns were documented as early as the 19th century by the first Europeans travelling across the region, there is not yet a systematic study of these structures that dot the landscape and constitute one of the most exceptional legacies of the Somali history. If we attend to the information of neighboring regions as Afar, some of these tumuli could actually be not tombs but funerary monuments built to honor important warriors, leaders or holy men. These structures add new layers of meanings to the cosmology of the nomads which lived in the region.



Cairns in different places of Somaliland. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

3D model cairn-mosque

Upper view of a 3D model of a cairn built within a nomadic mosque ©Manuel Antonio Franco/Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Although the main interest of the Incipit Archaeological Project is the study of trade networks and the commercial relations of the Horn of Africa with the rest of the world, during the five field seasons more than six hundreds cairns have been documented by the project throughout Somaliland. More importantly, a number of places have been documented in the region, which have for the first time expanded our vision of the nomads during the medieval period beyond the funerary remains. The most important ones are a series of coastal sites were, during the trading season, acted a meeting points for nomads and nomadic traders. This system of commerce is well documented through 19th century texts, and according to information coming from places as Heis and Ras Hafun it could have at least two millennia of antiquity. The Incipit archaeological Project has documented one of these places named Siyara (a term which describes a seasonal pilgrimage), a site close to Berbera where thousands of pieces of imported and local potteries dated in the 10th to the 16th centuries have been found attesting the importance of the trade conducted by nomads in during the medieval period.

Siyara 1Buildings at Siyara. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Another place found by the Incipit project is Iskhudar (literally, meeting point), probably one of the most important medieval sites in Somaliland directly related to the nomadic history. Iskhudar is located on a small hill at the conjunction of three rivers, inmediatelly after the ridge of the mountains that separate the desert coastal plain from the Oho Highlands. It is a religious centre which includes cairns and other graves, square buildings some of which could be mosques and empty spaces among them. All these structures are surrounded by a line of parallel big slabs which constitute a kind of symbolic wall around the place. The excavations conducted at the spaces between cairns have shown evidences of ritual feastings, showing the existence of non-Islamic funerary traditions within groups in Somaliland as far as the 14th century.

Iskhuder (1)Symbolic wall at Iskhuder ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Iskhuder (2)View of Iskhuder ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Iskhuder (3)Evidences of feasting at Iskhuder ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Along with these main sites, many other evidences of the ancient Somali nomads dot the landscape of Somaliland: mosques which usually are made of a single line of stones on the earth but which in occasions are extremely complex, with stones of different colours as decoration; or fences for herds which can be easily identified through satellite images and which are identical to those made with bushes. The importance of these remains made mandatory a more detailed approach to the study of the Somali nomads, and the project MEDLANDS will have gather and analyze both archaeological and historical information to understand the patterns in which communities occupied the territory and coexisted with the inhabitants of the towns and the villages in the region.

Nomad Mosque DameraqadNomadic mosque at Dameraqad ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
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