Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology

1. Becoming Muslim: Conversion to Islam and Islamisation in Eastern Ethiopia

This project, funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (BM-694254-ERC-2015-AdG) is exploring Islamic conversion and Islamisation in eastern Ethiopia. The fieldwork emphasis is on Harar, the most important living Islamic centre in the Horn of Africa, and on sites in its surrounding region, notably the former trade centre of Harlaa. The fieldwork has five main aims.

1. Assessing the origins of Harar through establishing an occupation chronology.
2. Assessing the role of Harar in regional trade, religious and political networks.
3. Providing information on Islamisation processes in Harar and the wider region.
4. Examining the importance of regional and long distance trade over time.
5. Examining possible predecessor sites to Harar.

Harar: Harar was and is a centre for Islamisation and the focus of both trade and Muslim pilgrimage routes that connect it to its wider region. Despite its importance, the origins of the city remain obscure, with traditions giving foundation dates variously of the 7th, 10th, and mid-16th centuries AD.

In 2014 test excavations were completed at four sites in Harar. The work was completed with Habtamu Tesfaye, then of the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), and Malik Saako Mahmoud of the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (see Ethiopia 2). The sites excavated were 1. Shagnila-Toya, an iron-smelting site; 2. the palace of a former Amir (ruler) in the original area of settlement in Harar, Hamburti; 3. A cemetery linked to the shrine of Amir Nur, one of the most revered Muslim saints in the city; 4. A housing compound, also in Hamburti. Outside Harar, excavations were completed at three sites. 1. The abandoned stone-walled site of Ganda Harla. 2. Tulu-Korefta, which according to local tradition was the original settlement of the Argobba people of Koromi. 3. A burial tumulus at Sofi (see Ethiopia 2). TL and AMS C14 dates ranging from the 13th to 18th centuries AD were obtained.

Harlaa: Harlaa is situated c.35km northwest of Harar and 15km from Dire Dawa. Three excavation seasons have been completed at Harlaa (2015, 2016, 2017) assisted by Blade Engada, Degsew Zerihun, and Misganaw Gebremichael of the ARCCH, Dr Rachel MacLean, Dr Nadia Khalaf (IAIS), and Mr Nicholas Tait (IAIS), with Dr Veerle Linseele (University of Leuven) and Dr Alemseged Beldados (Addis Ababa University) as specialist analyst project partners. Harlaa is a possible predecessor to Harar and three sites have been excavated so far, a mosque, what appears to be a jeweller’s workshop in the settlement area, and a tomb complex. Extensive evidence for both long distance and regional trade has been recovered including a diverse bead assemblage (glass, rock crystal, carnelian, coral, banded agate, shell), Chinese Celadon and probable Qingbai porcelains, and ‘Mustard’ wares of Yemeni provenance, as well as other glazed wares as yet unidentified (see Ethiopia 3). The chronology based on 12 AMS C14 dates covers the period from the late 5th-early 7th centuries AD to the late 13th-early 15th centuries AD. A chronology encompassing both the pre-Islamic and Islamic periods.

The fieldwork is being completed in partnership with the ARCCH. Prior to the ERC, The University of Manchester (2013), the British Academy (2014), and the Fondation Max Van Berchem (2015, 2016) funded the fieldwork.

2. The Islamic Funerary Inscriptions of Bahrain, pre-1900 CE

Click the images to read the captions.

This project is compiling an inventory and catalogue of all Islamic funerary inscriptions on Bahrain pre-dating 1900 CE. Fieldwork was completed in April 2014 and February-March 2015. Project co-directors are Dr Salman Almahari (Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities) and Dr Rachel MacLean. Sheikh Bashar al-Ali and Mr Jassim Al-Abbas of the Jaffaria Waqf also provided significant assistance during the recording of the funerary inscriptions. A total of 150 gravestones have been recorded in 26 cemeteries, shrines, mosques, and museums. Of these, 38 were exposed through archaeological excavation and 106 have inscriptions which provide a wide range of biographical and historical information. (see Bahrain 7).

The inscriptions have been transcribed, and translated and are being published (Insoll, T., Almahari, S., and MacLean, R. (Contracted and in Preparation, 2018). The Islamic Funerary Inscriptions of Bahrain. Pre 1900 CE. [Handbook of Oriental Studies Series] Leiden: Brill). Significant information on the form of the gravestones has also been recorded (see Bahrain 7); Gravestones are formed of either single or double blocks of limestone, and can be either hollow or solid. Rarely, the two sections of a double gravestone could be jointed together. Two gravestones had cup-marks carved on them that appear to have been used as awari or mancala gaming boards. Data on the contemporary use and meaning of the historical gravestones and the material culture associated with graveside commemoration in Shia cemeteries has also been collected. The latter is the focus of an exhibition, Remembering the Dead in Bahraini Shia Cemeteries held in the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, between January-March 2018.

The research has been completed in co-operation with the relevant local communities in Bahrain and with permission from the Jaffaria Waqf, Sunni Waqf, and Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities.