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Medieval Landscapes in the Horn of Africa

A Marie Skłodowska-Curie IF project

Material culture

The groups that inhabited western Somaliland, both nomads and urban dwellers during the Medieval period had a rich material culture which encompassed all aspects of life, from the daily activities to the objects employed in religious ceremonies, social meetings or war. These objects were built in a wide range of materials and often expressed the identity, the wealth or social rank of the owner, or provide information about the economic activities of a given group. Trade and exchanges can also be traced through the study of the objects preserved in the archaeological record, showing the extent and intensity of interactions of the Horn of Africa with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, not all the materials endure the pass of time, and the objects made of vegetal fibres, wood, animal skins and other perishable materials are only exceptionally found in archaeological contexts. Therefore, the archaeological perspective on the material culture of a group is significantly reduced to those materials than can survive until our days, such as glass, pottery, stone or in some cases, metal.  Ethnographic collections as those of the British Museum can suggest, to some extent, how objects made in perishable materials could have looked like in the past.

AN01199055_001_lSomali camel bell. British Museum, Number Af1935,0105.5. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Of the objects that have reached our days, pottery is without any doubt the most abundant. In western Somaliland two main types of pottery can be found: the local wares produced in the villages and towns of the region, and imported pottery made in a wide range of places in Middle and Near East, Asia, India or Arabia. These imported potteries show an astonishing variety of styles and provenances, and include well known types as celadon and blue and white porcelains from China, Martabani wares, red slip Indian wares and yellow Yemenite pieces. There are also many less known types of glazed and unglazed potteries which are currently under study, but which could correspond to local pottery traditions in the Red Sea, Egypt and Syria. The study of the Somaliland imported potteries is extremely important to establish links with other better studied regions in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf; to relate the region to the trade networks which flourished during the Middle Age in the Indian Ocean and to see how these routes changed through time. Although a great number of imported pottery comes from close areas as the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, the Incipit Mission in Somaliland has documented object coming as far as Vietnam, Japan or China, showing how the Horn of Africa was an important trade hub at the crossroads of some of the most important routes that linked Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. Most of these pieces are high quality objects used for consumption, although big containers from Asia and India have also been found. From a different perspective, some fragments of Ethiopian medieval pottery have been found in sites as Hasadiley, close to the current border between Somaliland and Ethiopia. These pieces show how trade was not only conducted between the coast and the interior, but also between the different regions of the Horn o Africa.

Indian continentExamples of Indian exports found in Somaliland medieval sites. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland
Imported waresGlazed and painted pottery from Egypt, Middle and Near East found in Somaliland medieval sites. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland
China-VietnamFar East pottery and porcelain found in Somaliland medieval sites. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland
arabiaArabian and Yemenite pottery found in Somaliland medieval sites. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

The second type of pottery is much less known. It corresponds to the local wares used in the daily activities of cooking, storing food and water, or during the consumption of food. We know very little about the techniques and centres of production, regional differences, styles and the chronologies of the different types of vessels found in the settlements. This type of pottery was traditionally considered less interesting and attractive that the imported wares and therefore not much attention was paid to its study and organization. Only with the beginning of the Incipit project in 2015 a proper research has started to be conducted on this pieces which paradoxically, provide an incredible amount of information about the quotidian life of the people of the medieval period. The research has shown a significant uniformity in the shapes and decorative patterns of the pottery found throughout western Somaliland. Pieces are hand-made, of middle size and without any wall treatment. Three main types seem recurrent: open bowls with the rim slightly engrossed, globular vessels with a short straight neck and spherical-like pieces with an almost horizontal, flat rim. Handles are abundant, either horizontal, curved handles with oval sections or smaller vertical handles with circular sections. The bases found are all ringed. Decoration is usually scarce and limited to the neck or the upper part of the rim. It normally consists on incised simple designs (series of parallel horizontal or oblique lines). Only in very rare cases other types of decorations are present, as nail incisions or clay appliqués.

Local PotteryLocal pottery found in the Borama area. ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland
Local pottery 3Drawings of local pottery found at Qorgab (close to Borama). ©Antxo Rodríguez-Paz/ Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland
Local pottery 2Drawings of local pottery found at Siyara ©Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

Although pottery is by far the most abundant material found in the medieval settlements, other types of pieces are relatively common, most of them imports. Glass vessels and bangles are present in most of the sites in a wide array of styles, and their origin can be traced to Egypt and Syria. Soft stone objects also appear frequently, as happens in the Arabian Peninsula where these items are ever present and from where they were probably exported to the Horn of Africa. Metal, on the contrary, is scarce, although in the excavations conducted in the 1930’s some coins, a ring and an iron arrow were located (Curle 1937). Cowries –a type of shell original from the Maldives and used as a currency in most of the Indian Ocean- are also common, if not very abundant. The sample of material culture found in Somaliland medieval settlements can be completed by some examples of lithic tools –flint arrowheads and scrapers, weights for digging sticks and rotatory querns and hand stones, very abundant in all the settlements. Although more humble that the imported pieces, they provide an essential information about the use of local resources and the economical activities that constituted the subsistence of most of the medieval settlements.

Glass importsFragments of glass vessels and bangles © Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland


soft stoneFragments of soft stone vessels found in Somaliland © Incipit Archaeological Mission in Somaliland

Logically, most of the elements of material culture founded for the medieval period in western Somaliland correspond to permanent settlements, and there are important gaps in the knowledge of the material culture of the nomads. Given their mobile style of like, materials as pottery, glass or stone are disregarded either because of their fragility or their weight, favoring instead objects made of wood, hides or vegetal fibres. There are some exceptions though: frankincense censers are commonly found in nomad sites in the medieval period. For the rest of the material culture of the Somali nomads, only the ethnographic collections and the descriptions of the 19th century travelers can provide hypotheses of the objects used and carried by the nomads.

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