The Swahili and the Mediterranean Worlds: Pottery of the Late Roman Period from Zanzibar

By Juma, Abdurahman M. | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Swahili and the Mediterranean Worlds: Pottery of the Late Roman Period from Zanzibar


Juma, Abdurahman M., Antiquity


Mortimer Wheeler famously tied together the worlds of ancient Rome and ancient India by finding Roman ceramics stratified into levels at Arikamedu, south India. Late Roman pottery from far down the East African coast new permits the same kind of matching link from the Mediterranean to a distant shore, this one in the Swahili world.

Introduction

The islands of Zanzibar are situated off the Tanzanian coast, south of Ras Hafun (Hafun on FIGURE 1). The pottery under discussion has been excavated from a site on the southern part of the main island of Zanzibar, called Unguja Ukuu, where a sandy harbour is located at one of the closest points to the mainland and is the best anchorage in the southern part of the island. Until well into the 20th century it has been a place for arrival from the mainland coastline. The archaeological deposits cover about 16 ha. In the deepest areas including a mound, the cultural deposits are nearly 3 m deep. According to present knowledge, this is the oldest site occupied on the islands. Alongside enormous quantities of material of East African provenance from systematic excavations that I directed, appreciable quantities of broken imported ceramics and other exotic articles are recovered.

Some few exotic finds recovered from the earliest level are unusual on the east African coast; they include ceramics. Here, I would like to discuss only two types: Pots A and B from excavation Units L and J respectively [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 2 & 3 OMITTED]. The units are about 100 m apart. Radiocarbon determinations on charcoal samples were obtained from other units (but not from these); they confirm the primary occupation of the site spanning from the late 5th century to about 1000 AD. In TABLE 1 below are shown the earliest determinations for the site (Stuiver & Becker 1986). The pots have been excavated from the lowest levels; their date is deduced by correlation with material from these other units supported by such determinations.

Pot A (FIGURE 2)

This dish-shaped pot is small with a wall about 0.4 cm thick. The clay is medium coarse-textured and fired to orange, but the pot has an un-oxidized grey core. Inclusions consist of small sandy grits. The flat base rises in a roughly triangular shape; it juts out slightly from its low flaring wall. On the underside it has a relatively broad groove, resting the vessel on a sagging floor. It measures about 0.6 cm thick and has a diameter of 14 cm.

The rim is somewhat expansive with an outer edge slightly curving downward and gives a triangular impression. It is about 0.7 cm thick and 1.1 cm broad. The outermost diameter is 15 cm. The vessel height is about 2 cm with an internal depth of only 1.3 cm. The vessel is burnished with a matt red slip (Munsell 2.5YR 5/8) all over the surface. Some glittering flecks are probably traces of mica. Under the rim, the surface has some scraps of black irregular spots or 'pops', perhaps representing lime impurities left during washing of the clay. The black colouration may be due to dirt stain or, as Hayes (1972: 13) suggested, an effect of firing. The slip is not the only embellishment; a fine single groove impression runs on the top surface of the rim closer to the interior of the vessel. Four examples of Pot A type were identified from the excavations; one is presented here, the others are very fragmentary.

Pot B [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

This is a carinated pot with a necked profile. The wall is thin, average thickness 0-5 cm. It derives strength from good firing. The upper part of the neck and the lower part of the body are tapered. The clay paste is reddish brown (Munsell 5YR 5/3), perhaps fired in a reducing atmosphere, and of sandy fine texture. The brownish tinge may be an effect of weathering. Few black grit inclusions can be observed, perhaps the result of unfinished cleaning of the clay. The base of this pot is not preserved.

Likewise, the complete rim profile is not preserved as the ledge is broken.

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