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UCL East: Dr Sada Mire, Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Archaeology

Dr Sada Mire leverages cutting-edge research into the past to improve collective futures, enriching the lives of entire communities by protecting and documenting their heritage.

Dr Sada Mire stands next to a glass cabinet containing artefacts.

29 April 2024

Until recently, Sada was the only Somali archaeologist actively working in Somaliland – taking her back to the region she was forced to flee as a child due to civil war.

Her work has been integral to the preservation of culture and heritage across the Horn of Africa. Internationally recognised, she has been the subject of documentaries, presented TED talks and was included in New Scientist magazine’s list of Inspiring Women in Science.

“What I would like people to know is that archaeology and heritage are tools for the present,” Sada says. “Everything is contextual. It’s about people in their place, in their space.

Merging heritage with innovation

Innovation sits at the very heart of UCL East, powered by the spirit of its surroundings – from the dynamism of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to the creativity of the people of Stratford. This blend of tradition, culture, collaboration and creation is what excites Sada, and creates parallels with her work across the world.

“The location is amazing,” she says. “I’m envisioning that there will be a lot of collaborations and that people who live locally will have access to not only the spaces where we will be making things but also to be partners in knowledge creation, dissemination and dialogue.

“This is a really great opportunity to have access to these communities. To enrich our ways of working while enriching the area with access to world-class education, right there on the doorstep.

“UCL East is fascinating to me as a new campus, and I very much feel its mission is in line with what I’ve been doing my whole career.”

A lifetime of journeys

Sada’s own story serves as direct inspiration for her research specialism. Having grown up in Mogadishu, she and her twin sister fled upon the outbreak of civil war in 1991, arriving in Sweden as child refugees.

“I had no idea what archaeology was, and it was only because I read an African history book by Basil Davidson that I understood its importance,” she says. “It said, in order to write African history we need to do archaeological research and I thought, ‘Oh, what’s archaeological research? I want to do that!”

Several years later, Sada enrolled at Lund University to study Scandinavian pre-history and archaeozoology. In 2003, her passion led her to the UK, first to study at SOAS University of London (BA, History of Art/Archaeology of Africa and Asia) and then UCL, where she studied for an MA in African Archaeology in 2006 and a PhD in Archaeology in 2009. As a mature student at UCL, Sada gained new perspectives.

“I’d really started to become aware of the lack of African history in schools and schoolbooks in Europe,” she says. “As an unaccompanied child refugee, it was hard to connect with my history, and I started to explore the reasons for this. I always thought of Western education as the pinnacle of knowledge but there was this society-wide gap in African history. This is what really drove me in my career, and it’s still the driver today.”

Reconnecting with roots

“One of the proudest moments for me was going back to Somaliland after 16 years,” says Sada. “To return to somewhere that I only associated with trauma, to face that, and to truly make something out of it.”

As part of her fieldwork around the pre-Islamic history of the Somali people, Sada led a team of 50 people in a programme of archaeological explorations which discovered prehistoric rock art across nearly a hundred sites. She also worked closely with the Samburu community of Kenya to help them record their heritage, introducing them to her online course, ‘Heritage Under Threat’, which many of them completed.

She says: “There’s such terrible access to the internet there but we have a new generation who are Samburu warriors, so they’re living in shelters and continuing rock art traditions, but at the same time they’re sitting there on Facebook!

“Literally the last people to enrol on my course were this group of warriors. Those things give me a sense of hope because these are young men and they are doing this because they’re interested in keeping their traditions alive, in protecting their heritage. But at the same time they are also part of the modern world.”

Through her work, Sada has helped to establish and direct Somaliland’s Department of Tourism and Archaeology. She’s the founder of the Horn Heritage Organisation, a humanitarian NGO based in Hargeisa. And now, she’s Associate Professor in Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Sada says: “Obviously, current issues have inspired me: the cost of living, climate change and how archaeology and heritage can shed light on these pressing problems. With UCL East bringing together a group of scholars from subjects such as geography, anthropology, area studies, art history and archaeology, we can look at climate change, inequality, conflict and migration with a different mindset.

“It’s inspiring and energising to look at it broadly and together. And it fits neatly with how I work and how I teach.”

Connecting past with present

Looking to her new working home at UCL East, Sada is keen to bring together all of her learned experiences and contribute to the development of the new campus.

“I think we’re finally understanding that we can’t do archaeology as we always have done,” she says. “There’s a whole complex science around it that includes people’s understanding of their culture and lived experiences, and I’m so proud that UCL is taking that and really spearheading heritage studies.

”We have the potential to start dialogues with the local communities about their heritage, and their experiences. Reaching out to communities that are perhaps not ‘the usual’ – whether it’s Samburu in Kenya or it’s East London – opens up dynamic new ideas for transformation.

“UCL East will bring new energy and new blood into UCL, and to London.”


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Image by John Moloney.