StateHorn is a multidisciplinary project which merges archaeology, history, ethnography and other disciplines. Yet, archaeological work constitutes the core of the project and the source of the largest part of the data to be analysed. For that very reason the global pandemic represented a major challenge for our project because it prevented us from carrying out any field work in 2021. Compounding that, and due to a series of unexpected issues beyond our control, we were forced to discontinue work in Somaliland and relocate to the neighbouring Djibouti region, which is equally rich in archaeological sites and has a similar historical relevance. Therefore, we were terribly excited when we finally managed to start working in Djibouti. We are enormously thankful to the different officials, technicians and experts from Djibouti, Spain and the European Union that made this possible. They have also been an inspiration for our team and contributed to the first archaeological campaign of StateHorn having been a huge success.

During a month the team has excavated the medieval city of Handoga, a major 16-hectares large town located to the southeast of Djibouti, close to the border with Ethiopia. The site is close to the wadi Chekheti and it consists of tens of round or oval houses distributed in a plain area, sometimes grouped in compounds and in other cases on their own. Between the houses there are numerous empty spaces which might have corresponded to courtyards, squares or other public spaces. To the south of the settlement a large cemetery extends along the ridge of the Chekheti riverbed, and to the west, on a low outcrop, more structures can be seen, although some of them could belong to a much more modern chronology. Handoga is in a semi desert area close to important trade routes which connected the coast with the Danakil region and the Ethiopian highlands. It corresponds to a different environment to that of the most medieval sites from Ethiopia and Somaliland, which are typically located in mountainous areas and enjoy a cooler and wetter climate.

Location of Handoga. Source: Google Maps. 
Handoga structures. ©StateHorn 
Medieval tomb to the south of Handoga. ©Álvaro Minguito 

Handoga was mentioned for the first time in an academic publication in 1969, and it was studied between 1974 and 1980 by a local archaeological team from Djibouti. This team excavated several houses and documented an interesting number of features, including pottery vessels buried in the floor of the houses but also in the exterior. The team also gathered a remarkable number of archaeological materials, including imported glass beads and bracelets, cowries, multitude of local pottery sherds and animal bones. In 2007, the French archaeologist Xavier Gutherz and his team visited briefly the site and partially excavated an oval house which yielded an incredible amount of metal – more than 1.200 fragments of slag, iron pieces and copper ingots! –  and that was tentatively interpreted as a foundry. Unfortunately, the team did not carry out further excavation campaigns.

Plan of one of the houses excavated in the 1970s. After Grau 1982
Houses excavated by the French in the 1970s. ©StateHorn Project

Once all the available information from these previous excavations had been studied, our team met with the Djiboutian authorities and carried out a short visit to the site of Handoga in November 2021. Thereafter, an ambitious research plan for Handoga was designed. This plan was based in four main premises. Firstly, it had to be comprehensive – documenting the totality of structures and archaeological features of the site and integrating the data of previous excavations. Secondly, the study of the site should include both the interior of houses and external areas, in order to understand the relationships between the different spaces of the settlement. Thirdly, the study should establish conclusively the chronology of the site, which previously had been based on sparse data from randomly selected sources and areas. Finally, we agreed on the need of conducting an exhaustive study of the local material culture, in order to better understand the materiality of the medieval population of this part of the Horn and its possible links with other nearby or more remote regions.

 

Meetings with the IRAH-CERD team. ©Álvaro Minguito 

The campaign in Handoga lasted for a whole month. The team enjoyed of the hospitality of the local people of Dhikil, the nearest town to Handoga, and the invaluable support provided by the Djiboutian colleagues. On a personal note I can say that among the several campaigns I have participated in Africa, in six different countries, this will stand high as one of the most rewarding and enlightening.

But let us go back to the 2022 campaign in Handoga: what has it exactly been done? Firstly, with the help of a drone with a high-precision GPS, a high quality, comprehensive map of the site was completed. This resource will allow us to study the site’s urbanism in detail and to locate with precision the currently excavated areas as well as the previous ones, along with any features or objects documented throughout the survey. This map will also help the Djiboutian authorities in the management of the site, in terms of protecting it and preparing it for the visitors. Secondly, we surveyed the whole area around Handoga and we discovered tens of structures, most of them tombs and most of which might be related to the medieval city.

Drone orthophoto of Handoga. ©StateHorn Project
Detail of the central area of Handoga. ©StateHorn Project

But above all, we have excavated. We were especially interested in understanding how private and public spaces related with each other, and to this purpose we looked for a compound that integrated three types of areas: private spaces (buildings), semi-private zones (like courtyards within the compound) and public areas (spaces between compounds). The selected compound had four round structures surrounded by a wall, and the excavation has documented differential uses of these spaces (some areas were used as dump areas, while other were probably used as distribution areas or living or cooking spaces. What is perhaps more interesting, we found a previous occupation of the site. Underneath the stone structures we have documented scores of post holes and pits which correspond to older buildings, made with perishable materials. Although the chronology of this older phase could not be ascertained, its documentation is important because it reflects the transition between traditional nomadic constructive techniques and ones based on proper stone-made architecture. In other words, we may have found the moment when Handoga became a stone town.

Excavation of the compound C-5000. ©Álvaro Minguito 
Initial and final drone photographs of the C-5000 compound . ©StateHorn Project

The excavation has produced a large amount of archaeological materials, which were also of a great variety. This surprised us because the results of previous test pits done in November 2021 had not been very encouraging. Among the objects found were glass beads and bracelets, mother-of-pearl decorated pendants, many objects of metal and hundreds of fragments of cowry shells. There was also, of course, abundant pottery material, including hundreds of fragments of locally made pottery, in some cases still in their places. Probably the most impressive object found was a Chinese coin – the first one to be found in an archaeological context in the Horn of Africa. Yet, my favourites are two other objects: a mother-of-pearl decorated pendant and what looks like a nose ring made of bronze. Surprisingly, very little imported pottery was found – contrary to what happens in the medieval towns of Somaliland we had previously excavated. The reason for this absence of imported pottery remains an enigma and we hope to provide an answer with the successive excavation campaigns envisaged. An answer could be that perhaps that Handoga was visited mostly by nomadic people who valued pottery less because it was difficult to transport and it could break easily, and they preferred instead small objects like beads, bracelets and pendants that could be transported and displayed easily.

Pottery in its original position ©StateHorn Project 
Materials found at the excavation of compound C-5000 in Handoga. ©Álvaro Minguito

 

And now, what? Back in Santiago we have a lot of work still to do: restoring and studying the materials, dating and analyzing the samples, creating 3D models, producing maps and integrating the new findings with the previously-recorded information. So this year we are going to be really busy putting together all the information and producing an accurate interpretation of the compound excavated. In general, we have been positively surprised by the amount of information that the site of Handoga has yielded. We expect that as this data is studied and analysed to be able to learn more about this important settlement of Djibouti and about its role during the medieval period. We look forward to telling the new findings here.

The excavation team at Handoga. ©Álvaro Minguito 

References

  • Cauliez, J. and Gutherz, X. (2020): “Handoga. Cité médiévale, cité de commerce.” Cauliez, J., Gutherz, X. (eds.): Djibouti, des Paysages et des Hommes. Regards sur le patrimoine archéologique du lac Abhé, CERD: 189-194.
  • Ferry, R.; Grau, R. and Bouvier, P. (1981): “Archéologie à Djibouti.” Archeologia 159: 47-63.
  • Grau, R. (1982): “Le site de Handoga, fouilles archéologiques: Rapport de fouilles n°1, 1974-75 ; rapport de fouilles n° 2, 1975-76.” Pount, 5-16.

Referencing this article

Torres Jodríguez, Jorge de (2022). ‘Digging in Handoga (Djibouti): a -brief- summary of the first fieldwork campaign.’, StateHorn project, 29 April. Available at: https://statehorn.com/remote-sensing-and-the-mapping-of-the-north-eastern-horn-of-africa/ (Accessed: DD/MM/YYYY).
 

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