BIEA Research Themes

Retelling the past

There is a growing tendency to discount knowledge about the past, with archaeology and historicized ways of thinking seen as an unaffordable luxury irrelevant to an African future. At the same time, historical narratives and knowledge play an ever more potent role in discussions about national cohesion, and in debates and litigation over land rights, citizenship and the politics of culture and heritage. Opportunity also comes from wider debates over the nature of scholarship and decolonisation of knowledge. Challenge and opportunity are linked, and the past – whether deep, or recent – must be revisited and retold from new perspectives. Archaeology, ethnography, anthropology, history and a host of complementary disciplines can be used to retell the past.

Changing environments

Climate change, bio-diversity loss, urbanisation, large infrastructure projects and technological innovations all impact the environments in which people live in ways that are having, and have long had, profound demographic, socioeconomic, cultural and political effects. It is critical that these changes – including their histories, their varied and complex impacts, the challenges and opportunities that they throw up, how these changes are conceptualised, negotiated, understood and represented, and the varied responses of governments, ordinary citizens and other stakeholders (including cultural actors) – are studied so as to better understand the past, present and possible futures.

Urban lives

Often seen simply as problematic, urbanisation is also a driver of creativity and innovation – from music-making and art to political mobilisation and mobile banking. This theme encourages research that explores and questions peoples’ imaginations, negotiations and everyday realities of urban life today and/or in the past.

Technologies of politics

Africa’s ‘digital revolution’ creates new realities, and provokes fresh thinking, on how power is mobilised, organised and exercised. Social movements, street protests, democratic elections, state authority and economic innovation are enabled and constrained in different ways as communication technologies, new and old, are innovated, imported, adapted and controlled. The BIEA brings its commitment to empirically grounded and multi-disciplinary local scholarship to promote research that builds worldclass knowledge on the digital age in and from the region.

Next generations

Across the region the idea of who constitutes the youth commonly extends to people in their 30s. This theme looks at the lived experiences, concerns, identities and strategies of the current youth, as well as at the changing and possible educational, socio-economic, employment, cultural, political, and environmental contexts which will help to shape the lives of future generations.

Epidemics, pandemics and epizootics

COVID-19 and varied government responses, popular responses and narratives, and cultural, socio-economic, and political impacts, have provided a stark reminder of how diseases help to make history, but also how they help to bring various social relations and realities into the spotlight. This theme encourages research that looks at both of these aspects – namely, on the impacts of, and insights provided by, disease – in the context of COVID-19 or earlier epidemics, pandemics and epizootics in the region.

1. BIEA-led Research

Jane Humphris – BIEA Director

Kushite iron production, Sudan
This large research project focuses on the ancient iron production technologies of the Kingdom of Kush. Since 2012 Jane has led a team excavating at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Royal City of Meroe in Sudan, and collaborated with teams working at other Kushite iron production locations. To investigate the large-scale remains of ancient technological practice she employs a combination of archaeological and archaeometallurgical methods, including experimental archaeology, to understand the technological nature, socio-cultural role and politico-economic impact of ancient technologies and technologists during this key period of Sudan’s history. Having revealed particularly early dates for iron production at Meroe, the research also considers the origins of ferrous technology in Africa.
Jane and her team have developed a comprehensive and diverse programme of community engagement and capacity building activities in Sudan, as well as site management strategies and an open air, bi- lingual information point.

Recent publications:

2021 Humphris, J. Iron production at Meroe. In G. Emberling, & B. B. Williams (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, DOI:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190496272.013.47

2021 Humphris, J., Emberling, G. & and Bradshaw, R. Archaeological Practice in the 21st Century.
Reflecting on Archaeologist-Community Relationships in Sudan’s Nile Valley. In G. Emberling, & B. B. Williams (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Nubia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190496272.013.57

2020 Humphris, J. Is the archaeometallurgical record a valuable tool when considering Meroe within a Trans-Saharan landscape? In C. Duckworth, A. Cuénod, & D. Mattingly (Eds.), Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond (Trans-Saharan Archaeology, 259-289). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, DOI:10.1017/9781108908047.009

2020 Ting, C. & Humphris, J. Pottery Production in Ancient Sudan: A Case Study of the Pottery from the Slag Heaps of Meroe and Hamadab. In A. K. Hodgkinson & C. L. Tvetmarken (Eds.), Approaches to the Analysis of Production Activity at Archaeological Sites. Archaeopress Archaeology, 141 – 160.

2020 Humphris, J. Sudan Today. Exploring the Cultural Heritage of Meroe’s communities (Bi-lingual book), Akkadia Press.


Collaborative Research Projects

  1. Project Director, Western Sudan Community Museums (WSCM) Phase II. 
  2. Co-I, Mapping Africa’s Endangered Archaeological Sites and Monuments
    • Project Lead: Professor Paul Lane, University of Cambridge.
    • Project Partner in Kenya: National Museums of Kenya

     Additional Co-Is:

    •     Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Department of Archaeology, University of York
    •     Professor Kevin MacDonald, Institute of Archaeology, University College London
    •     Professor Tim Insoll, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter
    •     Dr Daniel Löwenborg, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Sweden
    •     Professor Ibrahima Thiaw, IFAN, University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal
    •     Professor Amanda Esterhuysen, Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

3.  Co-I, Refugee Study Centre (RSC), University of Oxford 

2. BIEA Collaborative Research Projects

BIEA staff collaborate on major international research projects.

Western Sudan Community Museums (WSCM) Phase II

Western Sudan Community Museums (WSCM) Phase II. 

Project Partners: The National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, Sudan; Mallinson Architects; University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology. 

The Aliph-funded WSCM Phase II project is designed to have maximum impact in post-conflict Sudan through promoting cultural heritage as a force for peace in three museums: Nyala in Darfur, El Obeid in Kordofan, and Omdurman, Khartoum. It builds on the success of the British Council Heritage Protection funded, phase I of the project which began to restore the three museums. Phase II sees the completion of high-level security, display cases and exhibitions (including production and delivery of bespoke, international-standard display cabinets), and the development and implementation of a conservation and management plan for the collections at each of the museums. See for more information and live updates.

GlobalCORRIDOR - Urbanisation, everyday life and techno-social differentiation

GlobalCORRIDOR proposal for partnership arrangement with the British Institute in East Africa

European Research Council funded five year project beginning in July 2021. Led by Dr Jonathan Silver, University of Sheffield the project will be the first comprehensive, social science study of this new global, urban geography of Corridor Urbanization through an agenda-setting programme of research to respond to the immense changes to urban life these visions, plans, and investments are likely to impose and the gaps in knowledges addressing this phenomenon. The aim of GlobalCORRIDOR is to address the challenge of how we understand Corridor Urbanization and to assess how these infrastructure led transformations are shaping urban inequality, as an everyday experience of techno-social differentiation. The East African region will form one of three global case studies on this phenomena.

  • Dr Jonathan Silver (PI), University of Sheffield, UK
  • Dr Prince Guma, Urban Institute – University of Sheffield, UK 


Guma P.K. 2021. “Rethinking Smart Urbanism: City-Making and the Spread of Digital Infrastructures in Nairobi” (Doctoral dissertation, Utrecht University). Published as: Eburon Academic Publishers. ISBN: 978-94-6301-302-4.

Guma, P.K. 2021. Recasting provisional urban worlds in the global South: Shacks, shanties and micro-stalls. Planning Theory and Practice. DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2021.1894348

Guma P.K. 2021. “Localising the smart city? A view of urban plans and technologies in Nairobi,” In, Jochen M., de Bercegol R. and Bon B. Translating the Networked City: Urban Infrastructures in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Routledge Studies in Urbanism and the City.

Guma, P.K. 2020. Incompleteness of urban infrastructures in transition: scenarios from the mobile age in Nairobi. Social Studies of Science, 50(5), 728-750

Guma, P.K. & Monstadt, J. 2020. Smart city making? The spread of ICT-driven plans and infrastructures in Nairobi. Urban Geography. DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2020.1715050

Guma P.K. 2020. “Situating urban smartness: ICTs and infrastructure in Nairobi’s informal areas.” Ed. Aurigi A. and Odendaal N. Shaping Smart for Better Cities: Rethinking and Shaping Relationships between Urban Space and Digital Technologies. Academic Press.

Regional Futures - The territorial politics of digitalisation-as-urbanisation in the global south

The territorial politics of digitalisation-as-urbanisation in the global south

Global and national initiatives to adopt smart technologies in local governments, with the claim that opportunities presented by digitalisation will resolve the challenges of urbanisation – are now literally automating regional futures. This project will conduct the first comprehensive South-South investigation of the dynamics of digitalisation-as-urbanisation – the transition to automated planning processes in metropolitan regions, and its impacts on regional urbanisation. The project will conduct research in peri-urban municipalities of three rapidly growing metropolitan regions where municipal digitalisation is directed towards strategic regional planning. These municipalities face major challenges with transforming paper-based colonial and postcolonial bureaucracies into automated planning processes within highly unequal contexts, and therefore represent the wider experience of digitalisation-as-urbanisation in the global south.


Digitalising state

  • How is the ‘digitalising state’ assembled in the municipal scale?
  • How does the digitalising state automate urbanisation?

More details here: 

MAEASaM - Mapping Africa’s Endangered Archaeological Sites and Monuments

The MAEASaM project is working to identify and document endangered archaeological heritage sites across eight African countries, dated from the Palaeolithic/Early Stone Age to the 20th century, then share this information to help protect them.

Using a combination of remote sensing, records-based research and selective archaeological surveys, the team is building comprehensive and up-to-date records of site types and distributions, which will be made available in an open access Arches geospatial relational database tailored for different interest groups and stakeholders.

Past, present and potential future threats to these sites will be identified and assessed, and approaches to enhancing long-term site protection measures and new management policies will be developed with the project’s Africa-based partners and collaborators.

Project aims:

1) Collating, digitising and synthesising existing national archaeological site inventory records and published data on archaeological and cultural heritage sites;

2) Using remote sensing, historical maps and automated site detection methods to identify and document previously unidentified archaeological and cultural heritage sites with particular emphasis on identifying sites under threat from urban growth, conflict, sea-level change, and infrastructural development; and,

3) Undertaking, in collaboration with relevant national authorities and other in-country heritage managers, targeted field assessments of a sample of threatened sites to assess the reliability and accuracy of remote sensing methods for site detection, and provide suitable training for site detection, recording, database entry and for ensuring database sustainability.

All the data collected during this project will be assembled in an Open Access relational database utilising the Arches version 5.0 platform. The nature of current and past threats to these heritage resources will be compiled to reconstruct the sequence of changes to heritage sites and landscapes over the last several decades, and predict potential future threats. The collated and analysed data will be used to develop country-specific recommendations for future research priorities and management and mitigation strategies.

Two Research Fellows, Dr Pamela Ochungo, and Ms Angela Kabiru, are employed by the BIEA to work on this project. 

Refugee Study Centre (RSC), University of Oxford

The RSC aims to build knowledge and understanding of the causes and effects of forced migration to help improve the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, by leading research and education in the area of refugee and forced migration studies.

For more information please see:

Remote Sensing for Biocultural Heritage Preservation in an African Semi-Arid Region

Remote Sensing for Biocultural Heritage Preservation in an African Semi-Arid Region: A Case Study of Indigenous Wells in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia

The region of Southern Ethiopia (Borana) and Northern Kenya (Marsabit) is characterised by erratic rainfall, limited surface water, aridity, and frequent droughts. An important adaptive response to these conditions, of uncertain antiquity, has been the hand-excavation of a sequence of deep wells at key locations often along seasonal riverbeds and valley bottoms where subterranean aquifers can be tapped. Sophisticated indigenous water management systems have developed to ensure equitable access to these critical water resources, and these are part of well-defined customary institutional leadership structures that govern the community giving rise to a distinctive form of biocultural heritage. These systems, and the wells themselves, are increasingly under threat, however, from climate change, demographic growth, and socio-economic development…

3. BIEA Partnerships


Rethinking prosperity for Africa

Prosperity Co-Lab (PROCOL) Kenya is an innovative collaborative research programme seeking to broaden the discussion of what constitutes prosperity in Africa. Led by the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London in close collaboration with local partners, our research harnesses cutting edge science, community knowledge, astute policy development and participatory research methods to develop smarter, localised understandings of prosperity that can be tailored to communities across Africa. Find out more on the  PROCOL Kenya Website.

The BIEA endeavours to build relationships with organisations who are working to advance research excellence in Eastern Africa. We work with many of our partners to deliver seminar series and special events both in the region and globally.

The BIEA works with the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA)r, Collaborative Research Center (CRC), Refugees Research Centre (RSC) and the Rift Valley Institute (RVI), and some of our events are co-organised with these institutes. The BIEA has also partnered with the DirtPol Project.

The Marakwet Research Station

The Marakwet Research Station is situated in Tot-Sibou Village in the Kerio Valley, northwest Kenya (see map below). The Station has emerged out of longstanding interdisciplinary research led by Henrietta Moore and Matthew Davies in collaboration with the Marakwet community and now offers a unique center for the conduct of humanities and social science based research in a rural African setting.

The Station is run by Mr Timothy Kipkeu (Director) and Ms Helena Chepto (Assistant Director), alongside a well-trained team of local research assistants. The Marakwet research team are highly experienced in interview and oral historical research, audio-recording, photography and filming, GPS mapping, and translation and transcription. Research assistants regularly work independently and can communicate with external researchers via local mobile and 3G internet networks. To date the research team have worked independently on a wide range of topics including mapping of landscape features (field systems, land-tenure, irrigation features), issues of cropping and farming practice, mapping of social and ceremonial landscapes, recording of oral histories, recording of ceremonies and public events, recording of political events and speeches, surveys of market trends, and arrangement of interviews and focus groups.

In addition to research assistants and guides the Station can provide a research base, local cooks and some logistical equipment on arrangement. The Station can also advise on appropriate local research strategies, goals, aims and objectives, as well as local sensibilities, standard rates of pay/remuneration, and logistics.

The Station is able to support research projects who would like to operate in the Marakwet region and further information can be gathered by contacting Janet Njoroge ([email protected]) in the first instance.