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Sada Mire’s Leiden Experience: "the Johnny Cash of Archaeology"

Pioneering in the archaeology of Somaliland, hosting international TV and radio shows, and producing a very successful MOOC: Dr Sada Mire already has a formidable track record.

Transition of Archaeology

Sada Mire was introduced to Leiden’s Faculty of Archaeology in 2010, when she was invited by former Dean Willem Willems to talk about heritage issues. In 2014 she spoke at the Transition of Archaeology conference, related to the moving of the Faculty to the new building. The conference saw many big names from Oxford and Stanford. Sada is grinning: “And me!”

From MOOC to Honours

In the same year, she was employed by our Faculty. “I had been looking at Leiden University, for a lot of interesting things were coming from it.” The past 2,5 years she has been very active with educational activities. With the Centre for Innovation, she made the MOOC Heritage under Threat. “I am now giving a Honours Course in living heritage with examples from Somaliland, specifically the site of Aw-Barkhadle, a ruin town dating from the 16th century.”

Sada Mire working on Indian Ocean trade finds in Somaliland.

Layers of meaning at Aw-Barkhadle

The site of Aw-Barkhadle plays an important role in Sada’s research. “It has many layers of meaning. Most of all it is linked to the 12th century sheikh Yusuf Al-Kawynayn, popularly known as Aw-Barkhadle, who is said to have converted the local people to islam. He was later sanctified, adding the prefix Aw (Saint) to his name.” Later, he was buried in a tomb in the town that now carries his name. It therefore is an important religious centre, but that seems to have been the case in the pre-islamic period as well. A local group of people links their ancestry with the original inhabitants, who some believe to have been Jewish. Confusingly, until recently when people did the pilgrimage at this site, they used to paint a cross on their forehead. “It’s a very complex story.”


Sada’s pioneering work focuses on the pre-islamic period of Aw-Barkhadle. Few people are allowed to visit the site, since it is the domain of the Saint. “I am the first to look at Aw-Barkhadle archaeologically. I have gotten permission to excavate!” Sada believes that the site is related to the Kingdoms of Ifad and Awdal, thereby contesting the scarce historical records. The general believe is that the town was the burial centre of the these kingdoms, which is seen as the direct precursor of the current inhabitants of the region, claiming legitimacy on that basis.

Sada and the BBC interviewing someone living next to a rock art site in Somaliland.

Crazy for ‘reading’ the stones

The site has a diverse set of features: “Phallic stones, Christian burials, dolmens, it’s amazing!” Many features are above ground. “We also use drone archaeology to see the context of the dolmens and burials. It’s a huge site and it has a continuous religious purpose, from pre-islamic days to now.” Sada has recently written a book about the theme, titled Divine Fertility. The publication is now in press and will be published by Routledge next year. “When I tell the local clerics that I am writing a book about the place, they reply ‘Yes, the sheikh was very important.’ They think I am crazy for ‘reading’ the stones.”

She has just returned from fieldwork, funded by the BBC, making a programme with herself as host, going on air in the Summer. She visited the site and identified burials in the wider area with a drone. taking pictures from the air. Based on the pictures and visits, she selected three locations for small targeted excavations. “It’s a sacred landscape, so I target the features that are under threat.” She is specifically investigating the pre-islamic era.

300 Somali students

When in Somaliland, Sada gave lectures at Hargeisa University. The Hargeisa students are very interested in heritage issues. “We had 300 Somali students who followed the MOOC Heritage under Threat and our local worshops on the topic. They are very happy with that course.” Sada is assembling these students in a large panel for the International Somali Studies Association, where Sada is convening a theme on Archaeology that will take place at Hargeisa University in the Summer. “There is a huge interest for the topic.”

Lecturing in prison

“I also gave a lecture in a prison.” It all started with a hand-written letter that was addressed to Sada Mire, written by a man in a Massachusetts prison, asking for help getting a curriculum. The letter was probably prompted by Sada’s role in the PBS show Africa’s Great Civilizations. “I have always believed that education helps people to make better choices. I think when you are in prison, and you’ve already been convicted for a crime, then education within the prison, helping you to make better choices when your time is done, is worthwhile.” Luckily, there was an institutional answer in the form of the MOOC.

But the idea stuck. “When I went back to Somaliland I intended to give a lecture at a prison. “This was a really interesting experience.” Sada got special permission from the Ministry of Justice and “all of a sudden I was standing there, with these locked rooms, and they opened them one after another.” Surrounded by female prisoners, she started talking. “I wanted to visit you, for I feel that you count in society. I would like you all to know, just like the people outside, of the cultural heritage of our country.” Afterwards, the women thanked her for coming. “It made them feel better.” Now that she has the right contacts, she will certainly do this again in the future.

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Johnny Cash

On May 25th, Sada delivered a key note lecture at a congress at the UCL. One of the organisers asked her how things had gone in Somaliland. “I said: ‘the BBC project went well, I did a bit of fieldwork, oh, and I gave a lecture at a prison.’ And he wrote me back and said: ‘Oh, wow. Now we have to introduce you as the Johnny Cash of Archaeology.’”

Horn Heritage Organisation

Sada will be leaving Leiden University early next year. However, as she continues her work, you can follow her journey and research through her own website, Facebook page, and the Horn Heritage Organisation. Sada set up this local NGO, which is supporting the work of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology and has trained over 50 people including the staff from this department in digital heritage recording, drone archaeology, tourism management and heritage under threat.

Lecture during Nacht van Ontdekkingen

Sada Mire will give a lecture about the relationship between ancient calendars, cosmology, writing and medicine in the Horn of Africa at the upcoming Nacht van Ontdekkingen.

Pass on the trowel

In this series we ask a staff member to pick a colleague of whom they would like to know more. Sada Mire passed on the proverbial trowel to Dr Catalin Popa. He will be interviewed for the newsletter of October 2018.

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