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Medieval Landscapes in the Horn of Africa

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF project

The Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

For thousands of years, the Red Sea has been one of the most dynamic regions in the world linking some of the most important economic, cultural and political regions in the world, from the Mediterranean world to India, Persia, Arabia or the interior of Africa. At the core of this melting pot of civilizations, languages, commodities and ideas lay Somalia’s coast, a region where cities flourished and became international trade hubs from the Hellenistic period at least. Traditionally identified as the mythical land of Punt described in Egyptian texts, famed for its frankincense and described by Greek sailors already in the 1st century AD, the history of Somalia in Classical Antiquity still remains obscure, based in a limited set of excavations only partially published and the scarce information provided by Classical texts and epigraphy.

Since 2015, a Spanish archaeological project of the Institute of Heritage Sciences (Incipit) of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) has been working in Somaliland, a self-declared independent region west of Somalia, studying the development of the trade routes from Antiquity to the 19th century. The objective of the Incipit-CSIC project in Somaliland is to understand the development of long-distance trade in the region and assess the role of local communities during the first and second millennia AD. The scope of the project is really wide: from the Antiquity to the 19th century, although any archaeological sites found during the fieldwork are obviously documented, including prehistory and 20th century historical sites. To the day, the Incipit-CSIC has conducted four field seasons in the country, totaling more than three months of fieldwork in which is now the longest running foreign archaeological project ever conducted in Somaliland. It has documented thoroughly 27 important sites, conducting archaeological test pits in eight of them, and has also recorded more than 600 funerary cairns. Hundreds of archaeological items have been inventoried, drawn and photographed, and when published will constitute the biggest sample of material culture ever studied in Somalia.

Incipit project in Somaliland (1)Work in Bender Abbas (Close to Berbera). 2016 campaign ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Incipit project in Somaliland (5)Excavations at Qalcadda ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

The first field campaign consisted on a brief overview of the country to gather information and to evaluate the possibilities of conducting research in Somaliland. The places of Berbera, Dubar, Zeila, Ferdusa and Qorgab were visited, all of them previously well known. The second campaign in 2016 combined work at the coast around the Berbera area (Berbera, Bulhar, Bender Abbas) and the interior, documenting a wide range of medieval towns, caravan stations, and nomadic meeting sites. In 2017 work focussed on the town Bulhar where a four-week excavation was conducted, complemented with surveys around Berbera and Borama. The 2018 campaign has been focused on two main geographic areas: the coastal sites of Xiis and Maydh in Sanaag region and the area around the village of Boon, to the north of Borama in the Awdal region. In the first area an ancient site was documented with materials coming from the Mediterranean, Persia and India. In the second region five medieval sites of different sizes were comprehensively studied, including the important town of Abasa described by Richard Burton in 1854. In 2019, the Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland will focus on the site of Heis, which was one of the most important coastal sites in the Horn of Africa during the Antiquity.

Incipit project in Somaliland (7)Town of Bulhar, where the Incipit project has conducted surveys and excavations in 2016 and 2017 ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Incipit project in Somaliland (2)The Cairn field of Xiis, visited by the Incipit project in 2018 ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

During these years, an excellent relationship has been established between the project members and the Somaliland authorities, especially the staff from the Tourism and Archaeology departments who have always supported the project and facilitate the archaeological work. The Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland has also supported the decisive moves the Somaliland authorities and civil society have taken towards a higher professionalization and a better preservation of Somaliland heritage. Support to initiatives as the creation of a Department of Archaeology in 2018 or the Antiquities and Museums act that will be approved by the Somaliland Parliament in 2019 are just two examples of the close relationship between the Spanish and Somaliland teams. The Incipit members train regularly staff of the Department of Archaeology in archaeological and curatorial skills, and are members of the Somali Association of Archaeologists founded in Hargeisa in 2018.

Incipit project in Somaliland (8)The Incipit Spanish-Somaliland team in 2016 ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Incipit project in Somaliland (10)Jorge de Torres, co-director of the Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland, and Ahmed Dualeh, senior officer of the SomalilandDepartment of Archaeology, visiting a medieval site in Kabab, southern Somaliland ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Our project “Medieval Landscapes” rises from the previous work of the Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland, but has a different scope: rather than examining a long-term process as the development of trade in the Horn of Africa, it aims to study a specific historical period and its territorial and archaeological expressions. It will integrate the information gathered by the Incipit project (co-directed by Dr. Alfredo González-Ruibal and myself) with other methodologies, to present the most comprehensive view of the medieval period in the Horn of Africa.

Incipit project in Somaliland (4)Documenting cairns in the road Zeila-Borama, 2015. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Incipit project in Somaliland (6)Cairn field close to Sheikh, central Somaliland, 2016 ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
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