Senna Thornton-Barnett


The Archaeobotany of Agricultural Resilence in East Africa


Supervised by Daryl Stump and Dorian Fuller


My PhD research explores the evidence for the intersection of ancient and modern modes of intensive terrace agriculture in East Africa through the identification of macrobotanical remains from Engaruka, in northern Tanzania, and Konso, in southern Ethiopia. This work comprises the archaeobotanical component of the AAREA project, which is focused on establishing the efficacy of applying archaeological results to policy decisions regarding agricultural resilience and sustainability. The main critique relates to the premature application of results that are in a dynamic state of development as new evidence has the potential to impact perceptions of success and failure.

The abandoned terrace irrigation site of Engaruka, Tanzania has been featured as an example of poor agricultural sustainability in debates related to the motivation for and consequences of agricultural intensification, following decades of archaeological research. According to these narratives, the 18th century desertion of Engaruka following a 300-400-year occupation resulted from poor resource management. However, until the current research, little was known about crops being grown. A similar economy persists at Konso, Ethiopia, regarded for its long-term sustainability based on resource longevity and conservation. However, without a better understanding of crop selection at each site, resilience or failure by environmental mismanagement cannot be accurately established.

Following two seasons in the field, one at each site, and uncountable hours at the microscope, I have significantly expanded what is known to have been grown at Engaruka during its occupation, based on the discovery of charred sorghum, millets, and pulses from hearths. Current analysis of the Konso macrobotanical remains from rubbish deposits has revealed a similar cropping strategy, while ethnographic work has revealed a level of detail about the operation of the agronomy which is not possible at Engaruka due to it's abandonement. This work is vital to establishing the variables that indicate whether or not Engaruka is a model of resilience, failure, or something in between, using Konso in southern Ethiopia as a comparison.


Contact details

Senna Thornton-Barnett
Department of Archaeology
Kings Manor
Exhibition Square