My discussion will be calling for indigenous conceptualization of the archaeology of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea for the future well-being of the region. I argue that by using local and indigenous chronological concepts we bring people of the region closer together in their shared history. Shared values that the heritage of the Horn of Africa displays are needed in times of conflict and hostility to create a better appreciation for shared cultures and values.
What were the pre-Christian/Islamic indigenous religions of the peoples of the Horn of Africa and how do they relate to other religious institutions in the North-Eastern Africa? What do the indigenous religions inform us about the history of statehood and extension of kinship as well as religious syncretism in the region? My book (forthcoming 2018) explores this topic from the perspective of ideologies of statehood and popular religion. It contextualizes and analysis the fundamental practices that shaped and still shape to a certain degree, the communities of North-Eastern Africa, in the light of new anthropological and archaeological discoveries and through innovative theoretical and multi-disciplinary approach. The book uses archaeology, cultural and biological anthropology as well as linguistics to answer these questions. What are the relationships between archaeological and natural remains such as Sufi Saint Shrines, the olive forests, the (phallic) stelae traditions, the rock art, ancient Christian ritual centers and the ruined towns of medieval Muslim kingdoms? These varied expressions of culture share people, and the descendants who currently live in the Horn of Africa. Why do Somalis practice zar (spirit possessions)? What is the (original) purpose of practices such as Female Circumcision? How does this relate to indigenous expressions of kindship and sacrifice?
I explore sacred landscapes and material culture related to the local indigenous beliefs and practices. It also presents, among other finds, the first archaeological evidence for ancient Christianity in the current Somali territory. I also propose a theoretical framework for studying the pre-Christian and pre-Islamic cultures of the Horn of Africa, based on my comparative analysis with other sacred centres in the Horn of Africa such as Lalibela, Tiya and Aksum, in Ethiopia.
The current and past archaeological narratives of the Horn of Africa have failed to conceptualise and contextualise entities, space, and time from indigenous cultural perspectives in any meaningful way. This has led to both fragmentation and minimisation of the local prehistory of a region that clearly has had an impact on all parts of human history, from the Rift Valley’s millions of years’ histories of human origins, to the region’s impact on early food production, early civilisations like those of the Indian Ocean, and the earliest development and diversification of languages and religions. We know from the records of contemporaneous civilisations such as those of the Mediterranean that they were clearly in awe of the sophisticated technologies, be it seafaring or others, of these Africans. It is long overdue that we re-examine this region’s history from its local depth, in ideas, time, and space, and it is time to start such re-examination with a genuine interest in the region’s current and future wellbeing, rather than concerns with antiquity for antiquities’ sake.
Recent research in the Somali region shows the knowledge of the past in this otherwise volatile part of Africa has the potential to better human life in the present and the future. However, the reduction of its history to the snapshot of external items from supposedly dominant ancient external traders shows the less we study the indigenous cultures, the less we can have an impact on the current needs of its populations.
I believe that history and heritage can contribute to a better life for the current peoples of the Red Sea region. I have elsewhere argued that ‘our world is on fire”, the Horn of Africa has had non-stop conflicts in the last 5 decades, we see what is currently happening in Yemen. Discovering the diversity of recent archaeological finds in Somaliland has taught me we have so much in common yet we know nothing of each other beyond the construction of Islamic/Christian identity or nationalist dominant narratives. Regional history and deep-seated traditions across the Red Sea are left largely unexplored. Yet I believe these have potentials to bring the region closer together. In the archaeological historiography, often ‘Hellenistic’, ‘Roman’, ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Islamic/Christian’ focus is pursued without any or little understanding the local counterpart.
This archaeological tradition disconnects people from their heritage. Archaeology becomes not something empowering and enlightening but something associated with outsiders, past and present. Since archaeology is practiced mainly by westerns in the Red Sea, it becomes double associated with outsiders. So ownership of ‘Hellenistic’/ ‘Roman’/‘Christian’/’Islamic’ finds made by “European “archaeological missions –even though it is often a collaborative work with agencies- it does not reflect much local investment in local heritage. Also, if we fail to equally contextualize the local cultural traits in the archaeology, and only look at long distance trade, it thwarts the narrative and reduces local interest. It becomes a curiosity and for tourism only. It also becomes souvenirs for tourists. So, the heritage and knowledge potential is misunderstood. This in the long term undermines our interests to protect sites from looting and destruction. We also miss the indigenous approaches to heritage management which are not completely apparent to us but need sophisticated multidisciplinary approaches to discover and understand.
In my study of art, architecture, landscape and rituals, I have learned that many characteristics unite the region of the Red Sea. The Horn of Africa itself can be seen as a cultural area. Yet, archaeology has not explored much of the indigenous traditions that make up this cultural area. One such trait that I am exploring is the indigenous religious of the Horn of Africa and their relationship with the Arabian side of the Red Sea. Although some elements are common, it is clear from my work that at some point in the Horn of Africa we have an indigenous regional religion. This regional religion seems to have impact on art, script, lunar calendars, and burial traditions. Archaeology and heritage can help shape narrative locally, regionally and globally. Again, the interactions go back thousands of years as seen in regional trade and traditions beyond random external influences. We have located hundreds of Niolithic Ethio-Sabaean rock art in Somaliland in the last decade, which link with wider pastoral societies and economy in North-east Africa.
However, our understanding of time in this part of the world needs contextualizing in regional and local concept, material culture, landscapes and practices. In Somaliland, although we have been able to use local heritage to appreciate and mitigate conflicts, work with people about environmental issues and use it for economic benefits, it is not enough. I would like to call for looking closer at these pressing issues that heritage can be part of addressing. I feel we cannot ignore the indigenous archaeology and its significance for the local people of today’s Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region. I believe that cultural heritage can be a useful tool for bettering the lives of people in the Horn.
Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:
Why and how do ancient indigenous African ideologies and traditional values play a role in social change and transformations in Africa’s past, present, and future?
Provisional sketch of essay:
My paper would try to understand cultural formations in the Horn of Africa and early statehood and their links with major religious movements, ideologies and state-building. It will also try to understand present long duree strategies to change of social, economic and environmental development.
To the degree that your work considers structures/practices that persist from before (to after)Anglo-European invasion or hegemony, how would you describe that “persisting” process? What is its importance for your regions’ dynamics— whether internally and/or with other regions, states, economies, or epistemologies?
Epistomologically, the chronology is a problem and part of the “persisting”. In the archaeological historiography, often ‘Hellenistic’, ‘Roman’, ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Islamic/Christian’ focus is pursued without any or little understanding the local counterpart time contepts or indigenous cultures. External items, often random, are used to generalise entire time periods. To challenge this, I am looking at the archaeology of the indigenous cultures using ethnography and history of the peoples of North-East Africa, particularly Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya.
Given our aim to build decolonial models that bridge pre-1500 and post-1500 periods, and that likewise consider transregional and transcontinental formations, can you offer one potential reconstellating question or angle for your cluster. (If you like, provide a link to a single piece of your own scholarship, one that illustrates your approach or bears on this question, with a sentence explaining its pertinence.)
Question: How can we look at traditional indigenous management of the knowledge of the past, and its transmission? The paper: “Preserving Knowledge, not Objects: A Somali Perspective for Heritage Management and Archaeological Research” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10437-007-9016-7
This paper presents the idea that Somali many traditional/indigenous societies do not value a thing itself for its age or art as unique but rather the knowledge about the of object and the preservation of that knowledge. So, for example the concept of a museum with old and unique objects is not common in these cultures.