The Archaeology of Nomads in Somaliland

If there is a form to define and conceptualize Somaliland it is as being a land of nomads. The harsh environment, the recurrence of seasons and the climatic conditions have made of mobility one of the main factors in Somaliland history. Nomadism has epitomized the Somali way of being in the world, even if at the same time it has sometimes simplified the vision that the world had of this people. Somali nomads, including the traditions and strategies they employed to survive and thrive in a challenging world, are fundamental to understand the framework in which many of the historical processes of the region have taken place during the last millennia. For the medieval period, this aspect is even more relevant due to the emergence of a network of settlements which dotted the highlands of Somaliland, especially along the modern border with Ethiopia and Djibuti. These settlements, together with the coastal sites where commerce took place during the trading season, constituted the nodes of a complex system of trade in which the nomads were fully integrated until the collapse of the Sultanate of Adal at the end of the 16th century.


Nomadic houses at Lughaya. ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

The archaeological study of nomads presents some serious challenges in Somaliland as it does elsewhere. The mobile nature of nomads implies that most of their objects are made of perishable materials that rarely survive until the present-day in the archaeological record. Ethnographic collections such as the ones displayed at the British Museum show the wealth and complexity of the material culture of the Somali nomads, but they date mostly to the beginning of the 20th century and can only vaguely assist us in finding out what objects the nomads used in the medieval period.



Photograph of a Somali nomad (19th century). ©Trustees of the British Museum

The scarcity of material evidence about the daily life of medieval nomads has brought the scholars to shift their attention to the main remains of their culture: the funerary traditions which, as it happens in many other nomadic societies, play a central role in their cultures and are enduring throughout the ages, often serving as anchors in a landscape which is basically defined by fluidity. The funerary archaeology of Somaliland is extremely abundant and consist of cairns made of piled stones, normally located in prominent places in the landscape, such as mountain passes or hills, or along wadis –the traditional paths for the movement of the nomadic communities. The cairns are extremely varied, with tumuli of square, rectangular and circular shapes, sometimes combining stones of different colours and displays of rings of stones around the tumuli. With the arrival of Islam, the tumuli became less prominent and the graves were organized with stelae topping them, following the precepts of the Islamic faith. In some cases, cairns are found in the centre of small mosques defined by stones on the earth. Although cairns were documented as early as the 19th century by the first Europeans travelling across the region, no systematic study of these structures that scatter the landscape and constitute one of the most exceptional legacies of Somali history has yet been attempted. If we rely on the data gathered in the neighbouring region of Afar, some of these tumuli could have served not as tombs but rather as funerary monuments built to honour important warriors, leaders or holy men. These important structures might add new layers of meaning to the sophisticated cosmology of the nomads who lived in the region.

Different types of cairns found in Somaliland ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
3D model showing a cairn built inside a nomadic mosque ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Although the main aim of the Incipit Archaeological Project is the study of trade networks and the commercial relations between the Horn of Africa and the rest of the world, the study of these important funerary structures has not been disregarded. In the course of the past five field seasons more than six hundreds cairns have been documented throughout Somaliland. More importantly, a number of other sites have been documented in the region, the analysis of which has shed important light on the life of the nomadic societies during the medieval period. The most important among these new sites are a series of coastal posts that during the trading season seem to have acted as meeting points for nomads and nomadic traders. Such a system of commerce has been well documented in 19th century exploration literature; according to information gathered in places such as Heis and Ras Hafun this system could have been practiced uninterruptedly for at least the last two millennia until the present day. The Incipit archaeological Project has documented one of such places, named Siyaara (a term which describes a seasonal pilgrimage), a site close to Berbera where thousands of pieces of imported and local pottery dated from the 10th to the 16th century have been found, which attests to the importance of the trade conducted by nomads during the medieval period.


Cairn field of Xiis (1st-3rd centuries AD). ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Coastal trading post of Siyaara ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Another of the sites found by the Incipit project is Iskhudar (literally, meeting point), probably one of the most important medieval sites of the whole Somaliland, in particular regarding its nomadic history. Iskhudar is located on a small hill at the conjunction of three rivers, immediately after the ridge of the mountains that separate the desert coastal plain from the Oho Highlands. It is a religious centre which includes cairns and other graves, square buildings some of which could have been used as mosques and empty spaces among them. All these structures are surrounded by a line of parallel big slabs which might constitute a sort of symbolic wall surrounding the site. The excavations conducted at the areas between the cairns have revealed evidence of ritual celebrations, probably hinting at the existence of non-Islamic funerary traditions in Somaliland as late as the 14th century.


Left: ritual enclosure of Iskhudar. Right: funerary structures ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland
Evidences of feasting at Iskhudar ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Along with these main sites, the Somaliland landscape is scattered with other sites associated with its rich past. These include mosques, which are usually made of a single line of stones on the earth but which on occasions are more complex, with stones of different colours serving as decoration; fences for herds which can be easily located through satellite images and which present a very similar pattern to the contemporary fences made with bushes by nomads today. It was in order to study these remains and the history of the Somali nomads that in 2018 the project MEDLANDS ( was launched. This project gathered and analysed archaeological and historical information to understand the territorial patterns of these communities and the way they coexisted with the inhabitants of the towns and the villages. The results of this two-year project are currently under study and have been transferred to the much larger StateHorn research project. During the coming five years, starting from early 2020, the role of nomads in the medieval states of the Horn of Africa will be analysed, together with the spheres in which they interacted with other communities, including state structures, thereby providing stability to the region.

Medieval nomadic mosque at Dameraqad (western Somaliland) ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland

Referencing this article

Torres, Jorge de (2021): ‘My Road  is Everywhere: The Archaeology of Nomads in Somaliland’, Statehorn Project, 19 January. Available at: (Accessed: DD/MM/YYYY).

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