National Museum of Ethiopia, Islamic Archaeology Section in the Historical Archaeology Gallery

The first ever section on Islamic Archaeology is being included in the new Historical Archaeology Gallery in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. I am very pleased to be co-curating this with Mr Solomon Kebede, Head of the Historical Archaeology Directorate in the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Addis Ababa. It will include a range of material from the Becoming Muslim project, particularly from Harlaa. The overall Historical Archaeology Gallery re-display is being directed by Dr Clément Ménard, Scientific Project Manager of the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies, also in Addis Ababa.

– Tim

Figure 1. Mr Kebede outside the main entrance of the National Museum of Ethiopia (photo. T. Insoll)

Figure 2. The current Historical Archaeology gallery in the National Museum of Ethiopia (photo. T. Insoll)

“Antiquity” Medieval Ethiopia Special Section

A special section on Medieval Ethiopia that I have guest edited has been accepted for publication by “Antiquity”, and will appear, likely, in early 2021. This provides a comprehensive review of recent research completed on the post-Aksumite period in various parts of Ethiopia and gives excellent comparative context to the BM research, and Harlaa in particular. The papers it will include are:

Timothy Insoll – “The Archaeology of Complexity and Cosmopolitanism in Medieval Ethiopia. An Introduction”

Marie-Laure Derat, Claire Bosc-Tiessé, Antoine Garric, Romain Mensan, François-Xavier Fauvelle, Yves Gleize, and Anne-Lise Goujon. “The Rock-Cut Churches of Lalibela and the Cave Church of Washa Mika’el: Troglodytism and the Christianization of the Ethiopian Highlands”

Timothy Insoll, Nadia Khalaf, Rachel MacLean, Hannah Parsons-Morgan, Nicholas Tait, Jane Gaastra, Alemseged Beldados, Alexander J.E. Pryor, and Laura Evis – “Material Cosmopolitanism: The Entrepot of Harlaa as Islamic Gateway to Eastern Ethiopia”

Julien Loiseau, Simon Dorso, Yves Gleize, David Ollivier, Deresse Ayenachew, Hiluf Berhe, 

Amélie Chekroun, and Bertrand Hirsch – “Bilet and the wider world. New insights into the archaeology of Islam in Tigray (Ethiopia)”

– Tim

Map of the locations discussed in the Medieval Ethiopia Section (prepared by N. Khalaf)

Postgraduate Student and Early Career Researcher Online Event – Global Islamic Archaeology Showcase

Two PhD students in the CfIA, Awet Teklehimanot Araya and Hannah Parsons-Morgan, are organising an exciting online event for postgraduate students and early career researchers on 26th September 2020. This provides an opportunity to present current research within the field of Islamic archaeology to a global audience. Registration is free and open to all, and the organisers are particularly keen to encourage researchers based in Africa and Asia who may not ordinarily have the means to attend a conference in Europe. Please see https://www.islamicarchaeology.co.uk/ for full details.

– Tim

New Article on Glass Beads Analysis Published

I am pleased to report that a new article has just been published, to which I contributed, and which has analysed some of the glass beads from excavations I completed a long time ago (1993 and 1996) in the Islamic trade centre of Gao, Mali. Although on the other side of Africa, there are resonances with the Harlaa glass beads, chronologically, but also in the central role beads appeared to have played in value systems and their importance as trade items. The sources of the Gao beads are also interesting, being from Iraq, Egypt or the Levant, and Ile-Ife in Nigeria. The latter are particularly exciting as it goes toward substantiating a hypothesis myself and the late Thurstan Shaw proposed for trade between Gao and Nigeria along the River Niger. 

The details are – Keech McIntosh, S., Wood, M., Dussubieux, L., Robertshaw, P., Insoll, T., and Cissé, M. 2020. Glass Beads from Medieval Gao (Mali): New Analytical Data on Chronology, Sources, and Trade. Journal of African Archaeology 18: 1-20

– Tim


Excavations on the tell, Gao-Saney, Mali, October 1993 (photo. T. Insoll)

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