Professor of African and Islamic Archaeology

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

This project, funded by the ERC (BM-694254-ERC-2015-AdG) is exploring Islamic conversion and Islamisation through focusing on Harar, the most important living Islamic centre in the Horn of Africa, and its surrounding region.

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. The importance of Harar is reflected in the listing of the Old City as a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains within its wall, the djugel, approximately 2000 houses, 82 mosques, and over 100 saints’ tombs and shrines (see Ethiopia 2). 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.

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

In 2015 attention was shifted to the site of Harlaa, situated c.35km northwest of Harar and some 15km from Dire Dawa where three excavation seasons have now been completed (2015, 2016, 2017) assisted by Blade Engada, Degsew Zerihun, and Misganaw Gebremichael of the ARCCH, Dr Rachel MacLean, Dr Nadia Khalif (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 AMS C14 dates range between the mid-12th and late-14th centuries AD.

The fieldwork is being completed in partnership with the ARCCH and is funded by an Advanced Research Grant from the European Research Council (694254 ERC-2015-AdG). The University of Manchester (2013), the British Academy (2014), and the Fondation Max Van Berchem (2015, 2016) have previously funded the fieldwork.

2. Bahrain Islamic Funerary Inscriptions Project

Click the images to read the captions.

I am co-directing this project with Dr Rachel MacLean and Dr Salman Almahari to compile an inventory and catalogue of all Islamic funerary inscriptions on Bahrain pre-dating AD 1900. Fieldwork was completed in April 2014 and February-March 2015. 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 143 gravestones were recorded in 23 cemeteries and shrines. Of these 30 were exposed through archaeological excavation and 103 have inscriptions (see Bahrain 7).

Preliminary indications are that a wide range of biographical and historical data has been collected. The inscriptions are currently being read, transcribed, and translated and will be presented in a monograph (Insoll, T., Almahari, S., and MacLean, R. (Contracted and in Preparation, 2017). The Islamic Funerary Inscriptions of Bahrain. Pre 1900 CE. [Handbook of Oriental Studies Series] Leiden: Brill). The information collected on the form of the tombstones is also of interest (see Bahrain 7); examples are carved from single blocks of limestone, double blocks of limestone, and can be either hollow or solid. Where two blocks of stone were utilized, the two sections could be jointed together. Other tombstones were also used for secondary purposes as attested by cup-marks carved on two gravestones and used, apparently as awari or mancala gaming boards. The processes whereby inscribed tombstones have been appropriated and reused are also being considered, as is the contemporary materiality of Shi’a graves. The research is being completed in co-operation with the relevant local communities and with permission from the Jaffaria, as well as the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities. An exhibition resulting from the research, “Remembering the Dead in Bahraini Shia Practice” will be held in the Street Gallery, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, between December 2017-February 2018.