StateHorn: a (pandemic) year’s account
Among all the things I had foreseen and prepared for when I was planning an ERC Starting Grant to run an archaeological project in the Horn of Africa, I must acknowledge that I had not factored in a world-wide pandemic. StateHorn was officially launched in June 2020, at a moment when we were under a lockdown and there was not much to celebrate. I remember drinking a glass of wine alone in my flat and thinking “this was not what I had expected, at all”. There were no celebratory beers or welcoming words, and for several months I struggled to set the foundations of the project, hire my personnel and learn the basics of running a large project while keeping all the necessary sanitary precautions. It has been a complicated year, but it has not been a bad year for StateHorn. Actually, it has been pretty successful, thanks to the effort and goodwill of a lot of people from the Incipit, CSIC and the ERC.
I had set three main objectives for the first year of StateHorn: to hire the staff needed for the project, to build a powerful brand and website and to develop the databases required to structure and organize the information. All these objectives have been achieved, in some cases going farther that I had expected. In September, Manuel “Muros” -a GIS specialist, topographer, drone pilot and man for all tech things- joined the project. In December, Andreu, a specialist in Medieval and Modern History of the Horn of Africa, was able to Ethiopia and move to Santiago. In January, Raquel, became our project manager to help with accountancy, social media and the daily management of the project. In June, Carolina, a Masters student who wrote her dissertation with me some months ago, got a PhD grant from the Xunta de Galicia and has recently joined us. Next August, another PhD student -this one ERC funded- will join the team and we will all be here (for the moment). Incorporating people in the middle of the pandemic has been challenging, but everybody that should be here has finally arrived.
Left: the StateHorn team at a meeting with other Incipit Africanist (December 2020). Right: Carolina, the last addition of the project, on her first day at work (June 2021) ©Jorge de Torres
While hiring people, we worked hard on the wonderful website that you are navigating right now, and the brand image of the project. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted, but I was sure I didn’t want a typical academic website just limited to show technical information. I wanted something that reflected the passion, care and detail we pay to our project, something that was at the same time beautiful, engaging and academic. And Irene Sardá and Marta Verano hit the nail on the head, reading what I had in mind and improving it by a thousand times. Thanks to them, we have the best platform to communicate what we want to do and whatever we achieve.
We even have stamps for the project now!
A large part of any long-term scientific project is related to the management of data, and StateHorn is not an exception. A lot of work has been dedicated to decide how to organize the different types of data we are going to collect during these years, either administrative, geographical, historical or archaeological, and the ways in which they can connect in between. Four databases have been built during this year, and will be progressively filled with information during the following years. By the end of the project, they will constitute the largest archaeological, geographical and historical repository of the Horn of Africa, expanding from the case study of Somaliland to the surrounding areas.
The preliminary design of the archaeological database… and how it’s looking like now
These three key objectives of StateHorn have been achieved, but we have done much more: We have started a series of analyses of materials from the 2020 excavations from Fardowsa. Soon we will have the first pollen, seeds and wood data ever studied in Somaliland. We have restored and analysed unique metal objects which one day (Inshallah) will be displayed in a museum in Somaliland. We have published our first articles related to the project, attended important conferences (the last one, the triennial congress of the Somali Studies International Association). We have written lots of Twitter threads, blog entries, press releases and given radio interviews. There are several potential collaborations in the horizon. And I have discovered that being a Project Director is also about dealing a lot of paperwork. Tons of paperwork.
Left: online presentation at the European Association of Archaeologists vuirtual meeting in 2020. Right: study of metal objects from Fardowsa
Of course, the pandemic has affected us. There have been delays, conference cancellations, stress and maybe a bit of excessive worry from a first-time Project Director. The main disturbance has been the impossibility to conduct archaeological fieldwork: Our field season in Somaliland was meant to take place in February-March. It was delayed to June-July, and now (hopefully) will happen in September-October of this year. In the meanwhile, though, we have gathered information from historical texts, satellite images, previous excavations and those samples we have in Spain from previous projects. We are building the backbone of the project, and when excavations are finally possible, we will be prepared to contextualize the new data in a much better organized context.
Preparation of soil and charcoal samples from Fardowsa
The second year of the StateHorn project has now started, and this time we have been able to celebrate properly. And I would like to give a huge THANKS to all the people that have made this possible, especially to the admin people from the Incipit who have assessed, advised, managed and often calmed down a nervous Principal Investigator. In a year when you couldn’t meet anybody but needed to make some key management decisions, they have been one of the project pillars. I always felt StateHorn was a collective project, and after this first year, I feel it more than ever.
It has been a rollercoaster of a year. But we have survived, and (from my not precisely impartial point of view), succeeded.