Digging the sky: astronomy, archaeology and the nomads of Somaliland

Hello everyone! My name is Carolina Cornax Gómez and I am 24 years old. Between 2019 and 2020 I took a Master in Archaeology and Sciences of the Antiquity at the University of Santiago de Compostela. My final master essay delved on the astronomical dimension of the tumuli of Xiis and Gugux sites in Somaliland and I prepared it under the supervision of Jorge de Torres and César González.

Why did I choose such a strange topic? As I was particularly eager to carry out my research on a field outside of Europe, one of my teacher’s, Felipe Criado, suggested me to contact Jorge. He outlined to me Jorge’s research project in Somaliland and I found it interesting and original. So I asked him to supervise my project. Thereafter, I began working with Jorge, concerning the archaeological part of my research, and with César, for the astronomical part. At the beginning I was not sure if I would be able to make it but after I spoke with my advisors and I received their suggestions I grew confident and was thus able to put hands at work.

Left to right location of Xiis andvView of the cairnfield of Xiis. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Working under the Covid-19 pandemic was not easy at all. The pandemic and the measures undertaken to combat it forced us to discontinue part of the research and to work most of the time under a state of quarantine. This was difficult indeed because under these circumstances I  was not able to access to all the material and the necessary tools to carry out my research. One of the biggest challenges was maintaining, through the internet, a line of communication open with my supervisors. On top of that I encountered problems when having to do all the mathematical calculations necessary in order to study the astronomical dimensions of the study sites. Luckily, and thanks to the support of my supervisors, I was able to understand the procedures and to apply them to my data.

In spite of all these challenges we managed to get the job done in time. Not only that but we also came to some interesting findings that enhanced our understanding of the archaeological sites under study. We measured and analyzed the burial mounds in the two fields of Xiis and Gugux and we were able to establish that in both sites the orientation patterns were related to astronomical factors. Unfortunately, in the case of Gugux, the results were not entirely conclusive due to the small number of burial mounds included in the sample. However, the results produced from the study of Xiis allowed us to draw statistical conclusions and to shed light on the preliminary research questions.

Measuring orientations in Xiis tumuli. ©Carolina Córnax

Receiving so much support and encouragement from César and Jorge has been fundamental for me. Thanks to them I was able to carry out my first big archaeological research. Moreover, this project also gave me the chance to become familiar with a field of study that I find fascinating, Archaeoastronomy, the science that studies how ancient societies observed the sky and how they incorporated their observations and knowledge about astronomical events into their culture and built heritage. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this topic and with this cool team.

Location of Gugux, a Gugux tumuli and the Inicpit team documenting the orientations of the cairns ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland (map) and ©Álvaro Minguito (photos)

To conclude, I am convinced that the two sites studied, Xiis and Gugux, are representatives of a larger funeral culture of the nomadic people of Somalilandia. Therefore, the archaeoastronomical approach undertaken and the findings produced can be profitably applied to improve our knowledge of the past Somali societies and of their funeral monuments. In these two sites there is much more archaeological data waiting to be excavated and studied. So I would be very happy if I could continue working with this team, thus exploring further the amazing archaeological sites of Somaliland and knowing more about the past of the Somali nomadic people. I am particularly eager to study the influence of the astronomical events not only upon the ancient Somali societies, but also upon other human past groups across the planet.

Front page of my Master’s dissertation, which will soon be available online ©Carolina Córnax

Referencing this article

C’ornax, Carolina (2021). ‘Digging the sky: astronomy, archaeology and the nomads of Somaliland’, StateHorn Project, 11 March. Available at: https://statehorn.com/digging-the-sky-astronomy-archaeology-and-the-nomads-of-somaliland/ (Accessed: DD/MM/YYYY).

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