Dr Sada Mire (UCL Institute of Archaeology) has received a National Geographic Wayfinder Award and joins the newest cohort of National Geographic Explorers.

The newly named National Geographic Explorers represent the next generation of influential leaders, communicators, and innovators.

Wayfinder Award recipients are individuals who have proven themselves to be the next generation of influential leaders, communicators, and innovators whose critical work inspires us to learn about, care for, and protect the wonder of our world.


The Wayfinder Award recipients join the Society’s global community of National Geographic Explorers and each receive a monetary prize to support their work.

Congratulations Sada!

We speak to Sada below…

Dr Sada Mire Receives National Geographic Wayfinder AwardTell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at UCL

I am a Somali-Swedish archaeologist and art historian. I grew up in Mogadishu where I attended an orphanage college. When the war started in 1991, my family and I became refugees and ended up in Sweden. I left Somalia with an interest in science and literature. I love literature, and 19th and early 20th-century Swedish literature really resonated with me, the poverty in Sweden at that time, the 1.2 million Swedes that crossed the Atlantic and settled in the US, and the residue of the feudal system.

I also read a lot of American black female writers. This is all in the 1990s and then – after finishing the Natural Science secondary school program – I thought I was going to become a doctor or a lawyer, hence this grueling course. I took a break before university, which was really useful as I explored my interests in social issues through freelance journalism.

I ended up writing long in-depth articles about issues and had problems with editors who wanted short pieces. I realized I liked to dig deep into issues. I had already been thinking about archaeology but the time I took helped me realize it was the one topic that would cover most of my interests. I am multi-disciplinary. I have a specialization in bones as well as art, I study plants and I study social theory and statehoods and philosophy.

So, I felt archaeology really covered my many interests. I did Scandinavian archaeology and zoo-archaeology, then came to London to study at SOAS and UCL (history of art and Archaeology of Africa and Asia). I returned to UCL to, among other things, establish and teach our new BA Heritage, Sustainability, and Society. It is an interdisciplinary program which meets my core interests such as social issues and the future of heritage.

Dr Sada Mire Receives National Geographic Wayfinder AwardTell us about your research

My research is inspired by the social issues we face today. For me, disciplinary methods are just tools (archaeology, heritage, anthropology, medical anthropology, art history) that I employ depending on what issues interest me at any given time. For over a decade, I have used these tools and studied the ideologies of the peoples of Northeast Africa, especially the Horn of Africa, by exploring indigenous philosophy, the notion of statehood, sacred kinship, the original intention of FGM, and the role of spirit possessions through rituals, landscapes, and practices.

I have also worked on heritage issues and theories about why heritage is a basic human need. Figuring out we have a distinct perspective on heritage in nomadic societies of the Horn of Africa, the notion of preserving knowledge rather than objects (what I call the Knowledge-Centered Approach to archaeology and heritage), was mind-blowing for me, someone who is educated in the West but active in nomadic African communities.

I have been developing archaeology and heritage practice in Somaliland. I helped set up the country’s Department of Archaeology as the only trained archaeologist at the time. I have co-authored the country’s heritage bill. I have also set up a digital museum to build bridges and share with a global community. I am now working on a project on the archaeology of peace.

Dr Sada Mire Receives National Geographic Wayfinder AwardWhat has been your most memorable career moment so far?

I am excited about the discovery that Aw-Barkhadle, a shrine and a ruined town in Somaliland, was the lost first capital of the powerful medieval Islamic Awdal kingdom. The site also yielded a multi-religious heritage including pre-Islamic phallic stones, the first ever Christian insitu grave marked with an orthodox cross, as well as a living heritage of syncretic beliefs.

‘Deciphering’ the motifs on the 5000 years old of Laas Geel rock art site, also in Somaliland, was totally unexpected, but just came into place as the last piece of the puzzle. Another equally interesting puzzle piece was understanding that FGM was intended as a sacrifice and ultimately not about men and women but about humans and the divine, which was very illuminating for me, a survivor. I discuss these findings in my book Divine Fertility.

Dr Sada Mire Receives National Geographic Wayfinder AwardWhat would you do (for a career) if you weren’t doing this?

I naturally write and read every day so I would be writing about the human condition in whatever way. So, if I was not doing that in the way I am now, through the disciplines, I would through poetry and novels.

What are your main interests outside of work?

My work continues through my charity work including Horn Heritage Foundation. However, I also spend a lot of time reflecting – I have a suitcase of poems under my bed. I have kind of lived many lives (difficult childhood in a dictatorship, war, refugee life) however music and sports have always been important to me. I was a triathlete, and I am a certified athletics coach. This is why I love that UCL East is based at the former Olympics park.

If you had to eat one meal, every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Injera (I have been vegetarian since 1992).

Which famous person in history would you want to spend the day with?

Nelson Mandela. I bumped into him by accident after he gave a speech at Trafalgar Square in 2005 in front of the South African embassy. I did not have the chance to speak with him (I spoke to him rather!). He replied by doing the raised fist.

Where are you happiest?

Exploring the world with my daughter. I hope she will join me in Somaliland this year.

What book is currently on your bedside table?

English Pastoral: An Inheritance by James Rebanks. It’s poetic.

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