Almost everybody who knows about the Somali people (throughout the Horn of Africa or in the diaspora) is struck by the love they profess to poetry, singing and story telling, and how the names of famous poets and their songs are transmitted through generations, praised and recorded. The rich and deep-rooted Somali oral traditions also convey a vast toponymy about the territory which can have important implications for the archaeological research. When the first colonial maps of Somaliland territory were crafted at the beginning of the 20th century, the local communities provided the cartographers with a large corpus of names defining geographical features or emplacements. A century later, these names can help us in identifying potential archaeological sites throughout the region. Toponymy has been scarcely used in past archaeological surveys in Somaliland. During the last years, however, the Incipit Archaeological project has been tracking and identifying some sites revealed by the cartography and which are directly related to archaeological sites. In the StateHorn project we will make further use of this wonderful legacy of the Somali society and culture.

An example will illustrate how useful toponomy can be for archaeological research. It is a commonly assumed that the Somalis have been nomads since the collapse of the medieval states in the 16th century and well into the 20th century. But in the old British maps from the early 20th century some places are called with names that include the word “derbi/dirbi” (‘wall’ in Somali language). We presumed that these ‘derbi’ sites could indicate the presence of ruins. So in 2017 we were able to visit one of these places named “Derbi Cad” (‘White Wall’), close to the city of Borama… and there it was: a medieval fortress hanging at the top of a hill! There are several other ‘derbi’ toponyms in the same region and at least in another one (Derbi Gogesa) a medieval settlement has been described by informants. Therefore, the word “derbi” seems to be a clear indication of the presence of an archaeological site. In other cases, the name of the site can describe very accurately the archaeological place. That is the case of Qalcadda (which comes from the Arab word ‘Qalat,’ fortress), which was a site studied by our team in 2016 where a rectangular fortress can be easily seen through satellite imagery. Another example is Maduuna, the well-known archaeological site close to El Afweyn, in eastern Somaliland. The name of the site derives from ‘Medina,’ the Arab word for city.

Left to right: 1930’s British map showing the toponym Derbicaad around two ruins signs, and structures of medieval chronology found at Derbi Cad in 2017 ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.
Satellite image of the fort of Qalcadda ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.
Satellite image of the city of Maduuna, close to El Afweyn ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Some place names may not refer to sites but to the movements that nomads made throughout the territory in annual cycles. That is the case of the archaeological site of Siyaara (a Somali word that refers to an annual pilgrimage), which defines its use: a meeting place used seasonally by nomads for centuries to trade with foreign merchants. The same can be said for Iskudar (‘aggregation’ or ‘gathering’ in Somali), an archaeological site located at the confluence of several valleys and where the Incipit team found in 2016 an important ritual centre. During the Medieval period, Iskudar was used as a place where nomads met regularly to bury their dead and to celebrate banquets in their honour.

Square building at Siyaara ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.
Satellite of Iskudar showing the accesses, and photograph of ritual wall around the site  ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somaliland.

Finally, there is a very interesting relationship between some medieval sites and important Somali religious figures. In Somaliland, there are several places which have a personal name preceded by the word ‘Aw’ (a term that designates a holy man in Somali). In all these sites there is a medieval settlement. The most important of all is probably Aw Barkhadle, the burial place of the most famous Somali saint, where the remains of a poorly preserved medieval site can still be seen. Another two places (Aw Boba and Aw Bare), now in Ethiopia but very close to Somaliland, were identified as medieval sites by the British officer A.T. Curle who visited them and left us a beautiful photograph of Aw Boba’s tomb. We ignore who Aw Bare was, but Aw Boba seems to have been a religious figure active during the period of Ahmed Gragn (16th century).


Remains of walls at Aw Barkhadle, 1930’s map of the Somaliland/Ethiopian border where the site of Aw Bare is marked nearby a ruins sign, and 1930’s photograph of Aw Boba’s tomb  (Curle 1937) ©Incipit Archaeological Project in Somalilan

All these examples show that toponymy in Somaliland can actually be used as a tool to look for medieval settlements. Part of the work at StateHorn will consist in creating a database of toponyms to locate potential archaeological sites that will be later checked during the fieldwork. The rich toponymy as conveyed mostly in oral traditions shows the extraordinary resilience and the ability of the Somali people (in Ethiopia, Somaliland or Somalia) to preserve a whole immaterial landscape of names which can help us reconstructing a physical territory that already disappeared three centuries ago. Indeed, as modernity progresses, many of these names vanish from the collective memory of the Somali society and with them the archaeological information connected thereto. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that we collect, record and preserve this data which is a fundamental part of the heritage of the Horn of Africa.


  • Curle, A. T. (1937): “The ruined towns of Somaliland.” Antiquity 11: 315–327.

Referencing this article

Torres, Jorge de (2021). ‘Of names and sites: toponymy and archaeology in Somaliland’, StateHorn project, 27 January. Available at: (Accessed: DD/MM/YYYY).

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