Somaliland: Medieval Cosmopolitan Society and Material Culture

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19th century Wood objects from Somaliland stored at the British Museum ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Somalilandsun: The groups that inhabited western Somaliland during the Medieval period, both nomads and urban dwellers alike, had a rich material culture which encompassed all aspects of life, from the daily activities to the objects employed in religious ceremonies, social meetings or war.

These objects were built in a wide range of materials and often expressed the identity, the wealth or social rank of the owner, or provide information about the economic activities of a given group. Trade and exchanges can also be traced through the study of the objects preserved in the archaeological record, showing the extent and intensity of interactions of the Horn of Africa with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, not all the materials endure the pass of time, and the objects made of vegetal fibres, wood, animal skins and other perishable materials are only exceptionally found in archaeological contexts.

Therefore, the archaeological perspective on the material culture of a group is significantly reduced to those materials than can survive until our days, such as glass, pottery, stone or in some cases, metal.  Ethnographic collections as those of The British Museum can suggest, to some extent, how objects made in perishable materials could have looked like in the past.

Local and imported potteries in Somaliland

Of the objects that have reached our days, pottery is without any doubt the most abundant. In western Somaliland two main types of pottery can be found: the local wares produced in the villages and towns of the region, and imported pottery made in a wide range of places in Middle and Near East, Asia, India or Arabia. These imported potteries show an astonishing variety of styles and provenances, and include well known types as celadon and blue and white porcelains from China, Martabani wares, red slip Indian wares and yellow Yemenite pieces. There are also many less known types of glazed and unglazed potteries which are currently under study, but which could correspond to local pottery traditions in the Red Sea, Egypt and Syria.

The study of the Somaliland imported potteries is extremely important to establish links with other better studied regions in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf; to relate the region to the trade networks which flourished during the Middle Age in the Indian Ocean and to see how these routes changed through time.

Although a great number of imported pottery comes from close areas as the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt, the Incipit Mission in Somaliland has documented object coming as far as Vietnam, Japan or China, showing how the Horn of Africa was an important trade hub at the crossroads of some of the most important routes that linked Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean. Most of these pieces are high quality objects used for consumption, although big containers from Asia and India have also been found. From a different perspective, some fragments of Ethiopian medieval pottery have been found in sites as Hasadinle, close to the current border between Somaliland and Ethiopia. These pieces show how trade was not only conducted between the coast and the interior, but also between the different regions of the Horn o Africa.

“In western Somaliland two main types of pottery can be found: the local wares produced in the villages and towns of the region, and imported pottery made in a wide range of places in Middle and Near East, Asia, India or Arabia.”

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