Under the supervision of Dr. Neil Norman of the College of William & Mary, Madeleine Bassett will undertake archaeological research to study the impact of pastoralist political economies on the timing and nature of Islamic Period religious change in the Horn of Africa. The Islamic Period (ca. AD 800-1400) marked a time of transformation in the Horn of Africa: In the span of a few centuries, urban centers emerged along the Somali coast and thousands of ancestral Somali pastoralists converted to Islam. Previous scholarship on religious change has centered on large-scale, sedentary agricultural societies. Africanist scholars, for example, have effectively demonstrated the importance of Islam in the history of eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean World, focusing predominantly on the sedentary societies of the Swahili coast. Through the archaeology of pastoralist settlements in Djibouti, this project focuses instead on seasonally mobile pastoralist societies, and the ways in which their economic networks, political systems, and local ecologies defined the conditions and limits of religious transformation. Ultimately, this research seeks to answer two related questions: How did local actors influence or participate in the process (i.e., timing and nature) of religious change in Djibouti? Specifically, how did local actors shape the creation and use of religious spaces through time? This project is well positioned to address these questions because it utilizes archaeological methodologies that allow the systematic collection and analysis of material evidence related to religious practices across space and time. This project is significant because it will shed new light on the process of Islamic Period religious change in the Horn of Africa, and more broadly on the nature of religious change among mobile, pastoralist societies. The issue of religion and religious change is relevant, and often violence related, in many regions of the world today and the results of this research have the potential to shed interpretive light on current day processes.
The project will examine how and when Islam spread to seasonally mobile pastoralist communities living along the Somali Coast by mapping the organization and evolution of religious infrastructures across pastoralist landscapes. It will be conducted in eastern Djibouti, an important area in the spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula through the Horn of Africa. Under the supervision of Dr. Norman, Bassett will examine the spatial and diachronic patterning of Islamic Period structures and artifacts at a large, pastoralist seasonal aggregation site in the Ambouli River drainage of eastern Djibouti. This project will test the hypothesis that pastoralist political economies - and the social and religious institutions at their center - influenced how pastoralists integrated Islam into their daily routines and seasonal settlement practices. As the first study in eastern Africa to date pre-Islamic and Islamic-Period stone structures using a combination of OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) and AMS radiocarbon dating methods, this project will develop the first detailed chronology for the integration of Islamic architectural elements into archaeological sites along the Somali coast. By establishing a solid chronological sequence for Islamic architectural elements, this project will bolster understandings of when and how eastern Africa's rural pastoralist societies converted to Islam and improve general chronologies for the spread of Islam in Africa. In so doing, this project will make significant contributions to anthropological theory by extending the scope of research on religious change to include pastoral societies and their political economies. Finally, one broader impact of this project will be the creation of a database of information about pre-Islamic and Islamic Period archaeological sites and structures.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.