New Paper and PhD Thesis from the ‘Becoming Muslim’ Project

Two new results have come out of the research in eastern Ethiopia. Nick Tait has successfully defended his PhD thesis, “Archaeological ceramics as chronological markers on Islamic sites in Eastern Ethiopia” (University of Exeter, 2020), and a paper has just been published examining the faunal remains and their implications for Islamic conversion at Harlaa, Harar, and Ganda Harla. The full details of the paper are – Gaastra, J., and Insoll, T. 2020. Animal Economies and Islamic Conversion in Eastern Ethiopia: Zooarchaeological Analyses from Harlaa, Harar and Ganda Harla. Journal of African Archaeology 18: 1-28.

– Tim


Examples of cattle foot bones indicating the animals had been used for traction purposes at Harlaa, perhaps for ploughing or rotating a stationary grinding apparatus (photo. J. Gastra)

2020 Fieldwork

Six weeks of archaeological fieldwork were completed in eastern Ethiopia, ending in early March, fortunately just before the COVID-19 shut down. This was focused on Harlaa with an emphasis upon exploring architecture and developing the community museum and heritage trail. A large stone building was investigated and three adjoining rooms excavated. These were very well-preserved and preliminary interpretation suggests that they were a kitchen and storage room with an in-situ hearth, with next to it a room with an industrial purpose, possibly for cloth production, with a grinding/processing installation and several pits inside it. This room was originally entered through a series of stone steps. The third room was a living room with a raised bed/sitting area. Radiocarbon dates are awaited, but the ceramics found indicate occupation between the 12 to 13th centuries AD, i.e. the highpoint of Harlaa.

This site, through the kindness of the land-owner, and with the co-operation of the Dire Dawa Culture and Tourism Office (DDCTO) and the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), has now been permanently protected with a zinc roof and presented for the public. Interpretation boards will also be installed as soon as possible. The building forms one component of the Harlaa heritage trail which will also incorporate a mosque excavated in 2015, and start with a small community museum near the main Harar to Dire Dawa road. The objects for the museum have been collected from local villagers by the DDCTO and the local administration, and interpretation of these is again in progress. Besides the kind help of our Ethiopian partners at the DDCTO and ARCCH, represented by Mr Abraham Yaregal and Mr Temesgen Leta, we also benefited from the input of Mr Malik Saako Mahmud, Principal Curator at the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board, and this provided a very worthwhile instance of inter-African and international partnership activity. 


1. Drone photo of the excavated building with, left to right, kitchen room, industrial facility room, living room (photo. T. Insoll)

2. Stone lamp from the industrial facility room (photo. T. Insoll)

3. The interior of the shelter built over the excavated building (photo. T. Insoll)

4. The exterior of the site shelter (photo. T. Insoll)

Indian Ocean World Archaeology Conference (IOW-ARCH)

The inaugural IOW-ARCH conference was hosted by the Centre for Islamic Archaeology, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, over the 10th and 11th January 2020. We welcomed nearly 70 delegates from various countries including, besides the UK, France, Switzerland, USA, Sweden, Germany, Bahrain, China, Japan, and Malaysia. A very varied and interesting programme of papers was presented ranging from new archaeological investigations through maritime archaeology, ceramics, manuscripts and epigraphy, and regional sessions on the Red Sea and East African coast. It was a very good start to what is hoped will be a biennial even with the next held at Durham University in 2022.

– Tim


IOW-ARCH delegates involved in discussion

Dr Seth Priestman answering questions

ERC Conference – Archaeological Perspectives on Conversion to Islam and Islamisation in Africa

The ‘Becoming Muslim” project conference was held this week and was a great success. Two days of presentations accompanied by several networking events took place between the evening of the 16th December and the final conference dinner on the evening of the 18th December. Speakers from the UK, as well as Belgium, Germany, Madagascar, Mali, and Poland gave fascinating papers on material from the whole of the continent as well as providing views from a historian and anthropologist on the conference theme. Thirty seven delegates and guests, including from Ethiopia, Italy, Eritrea, Madagascar, Spain, India, and Sudan, joined in extended debate over concepts ranging from the material and archaeological indicators of Islam, the concept of Islam, syncretism, the complexity of African Islamic practices, and future directions in research. I will be editing the papers as a conference proceedings.

– Tim

Group photo of speakers and delegates

Bahrain Fieldwork 2019

A very successful field season was completed on Muharraq Island in Bahrain in November, with direct relevance for the BM project. What appears to be undisturbed Umayyad occupation was recorded in-situ at one site, and further evidence for African connections found in the form of African origin/inspired ceramics, including roulette decorated and Tana Tradition/Triangular Incised Wares from East Africa. Several sherds of black burnished wares were also recovered, possibly also of African (Ethiopian?) provenance. This material is the focus of PhD research by Awet T. Araya looking at African-Gulf connections in the Islamic period through ceramics analysis.

– Tim


1. Probable Umayyad storage (Torpedo) jar fragments in-situ

2. Example of TT/TIW sherd from Muharraq

Society of Antiquaries Lecture and Bahrain Fieldwork

Just before leaving for fieldwork investigating early Islamic sites on Bahrain as part of a long-running project, I gave a well-attended lecture at the Society of Antiquaries, London, about the BM research. The Bahrain research has become particularly relevant to BM as we are finding East African ceramics and, potentially, Ethiopian ceramics as well. Material evidence attesting the historical references to contacts between the Gulf and these regions.

– Tim

AARD 2019, UCL

Yesterday I presented a paper at the African Archaeology Research Day held at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. As always, the annual AARD conference was an interesting day filled with a variety of talks on archaeological research being carried out throughout the continent. I spoke about the work I have been conducting on using open source satellite imagery on Islamic sites in Ethiopia and the potential of its use across Africa.

– Nadia

LandCover6k

Last week I met with around 20 researchers from a range of international institutions to form the LandCover6k working group for the African continent. The goal of the project is to use the archaeological record to provide information on past land cover and land use change. This will improve our understanding of current and future land-use change and how it effects the climate. The purpose of the workshop held at the University of Cambridge was to collate data and knowledge of land use in Africa through lists and maps of dated sites, this was followed by discussions in regional groups to create an initial conceptualisation of land use/cover through different time slices. I discussed Islamic archaeological sites in Ethiopia, along with Iron Age sites in West Africa.

– Nadia

Attendees of the workshop outside the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge