Ulster and the Indian Ocean? Recent Maritime Archaeological Research on the East African Coast. (Special Section)

By Breen, Colin; Forsythe, Wes et al. | Antiquity, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Ulster and the Indian Ocean? Recent Maritime Archaeological Research on the East African Coast. (Special Section)


Breen, Colin, Forsythe, Wes, Lane, Paul, McErlean, Tom, McConkey, Rosemary, Omar, Athman Lali, Quinn, Rory, Williams, Brian, Antiquity


In January 2001, a team of researchers from the University of Ulster (Northern Ireland) conducted an innovative maritime archaeology project on the East African coast in partnership with the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the National Museums of Kenya. Its focus was Mombasa Island on the southern Kenyan coast, a historical settlement and port for nearly 2000 years (Berg 1968; Sassoon 1980; 1982). The East African seaboard, stretching from Somalia in the north to Madagascar and Mozambique in the south, was culturally dynamic throughout the historical period. This area, traditionally known as the Swahili coast, is culturally defined as a maritime zone extending 2000 km from north to south, but reaching a mere 15 km inland. The origins of `Swahili' cultural identity originated during the middle of the 1st millennium AD, following consolidation of earlier farming and metal-using Bantu-speaking communities along the coast and emergence of a distinctive `maritime' orientation and set of cultural traditions (e .g. Allen 1993; Chami 1998; Helm 2000; Horton & Middelton 2000). Previous research produced evidence of exploitation of marine resources for food and an early engagement in long-distance exchange networks, linking parts of this coast with the Classical world by at least the BC/AD transition. Towards the end of the 1st millennium AD, trade had grown in scope and geographical extent, linking the East African littoral with other lands bordering the Indian ocean, including China, India and the Arabian Peninsula. Around this period, a series of autonomous walled coastal towns were established, which developed into important settlement and trading locations by the 13th century, whose primary functions included the control and management of trade and communications along the eastern seaboard of Africa and the exploitation of the marine and coastal resources. European influence arrived in the 16th century when the Portuguese established control over port-towns along this seaboard, in places establishing their own forts (e.g. Kirkman 1974). This control was only broken in the late 17th century by Omani Arabs, who subsequently dominated this coastline for 150 years.

Although there is a well-established tradition of archaeological research along the East African coast little specifically maritime archaeological work has taken place, except work on the `Mombasa wreck' directed by Robin Piercy (Lynch 1991). The primary aim of our project was to study the port-town and island of Mombasa using contemporary integrated landscape approaches. The project involved archaeologists, geologists, geophysicists and historians in an examination of the development of the island's cultural landscape. Systematic survey on the foreshore discovered dense ceramic scatters, the earliest relating to the early 7th- and 8th-century AD settlement associated with the Tana Tradition.

A number of the ceramics found were amongst the earliest ever recovered from Mombasa and point to earlier hinterland contact than had previously been anticipated. Terrestrial survey, combined with small-scale excavation and use of various archival sources, helped refine existing records regarding the location of the two earliest formal urban-like settlements on the island. This component of the project also revealed extensive evidence for exploitation of maritime resources in the form of fish traps and early landing places associated with the development of the urban settlements.

The seabed off the north side of Mombasa in the area of Tudor Creek was extensively surveyed using a suite of marine geophysical survey equipment, including sidescan sonar, marine magnetometer and echo-sounder. …

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Ulster and the Indian Ocean? Recent Maritime Archaeological Research on the East African Coast. (Special Section)
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