Creating Urban Communities at Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, AD 800-1300

Article excerpt


The archaeology of the eastern coast of Africa, and of what is known as the 'Swahili' culture, has long been a topic of academic enquiry. Until recently, debate has focused on the 'origins' of this specifically coastal culture and the ethnicity of the inhabitants. This debate has been rightly superseded--in an archaeological literature increasingly unwilling to subscribe to narrow conceptions of ethnicity--by a focus on process, and it is now necessary to reconsider the material culture associated with these towns in the light of recent theoretical debate. Rather than viewing the various artefacts as passive reflections of particular ethnicities or social groups, they may be seen as active features of a dynamic society. This paper examines coastal material culture in the light of such insights--concentrating in particular on the role of material culture in the creation and consolidation of certain types of authority.

The archaeology of the 'Swahili coast'

The elites of the East African coast inhabited the stonetowns (so named for the coral-built architecture they contained) that grew there from the tenth century AD onwards, building their local political and economic dominance on the flourishing trade network that connected them to the wider Indian Ocean world. Towns such as Kilwa Kisiwani, on the southern coast of Tanzania (Figure 1), enjoyed a privileged and prestigious position in that trade, as the middle-men between the riches of the African continent and the exotic luxuries of the Arabian peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. Gold, ivory, ambergris, iron, timber and slaves passed through the towns in large quantities, to be exchanged for luxury imports such as fine silks and fabrics or glazed and decorated ceramics. Ideas also travelled the trade networks, most obviously visible in the spread of Islam to the East African towns, some of which contained a Muslim population from the ninth century (Horton 1996) and all of which became Islamic within the succeeding centuries, a tradition that persists to this day. The modern occupants of coastal Kenya and Tanzania continue to define themselves by this religion, which sets them apart from their compatriots further inland. Although the coast has since been subject to Portuguese, Omani and British domination, a distinctive coastal culture remains. In fact, the recent centuries have cemented coastal identities into what is today known as the 'Swahili' culture, a nomenclature that is often extended into the past, to describe the people who previously inhabited this stretch of land and traded in the waters of the Indian Ocean.


The specifically coastal distribution of the sites associated with this culture is striking, as they cling to the East African littoral and off-shore islands. This geography has affected the way that wider East African environments are understood by coastal archaeologists and historians, as they developed certain conventions for describing different areas (see for example Horton & Middleton 2000: 8). Thus, the term 'hinterland' is normally used to refer to the region immediately inland from the towns, extending perhaps 50km from the ocean. Recent archaeologies have tended to view this area as part of the wider society associated with the towns (see below). In contrast, the term 'interior' has come to refer to the wider East African region, with which the towns were trading, but were probably not in daily contact.

Archaeological research into the origins, development and socio-linguistic composition of the stonetowns has traditionally subscribed to one of two modes of thought--one locating the origins of the urban population in the Arabian world, and the other emphasising the African roots of the Swahili. In general, the early claims for external origins are countered by the more nationalist archaeologies of recent decades. Each view has emphasised different forms of evidence, with the few indigenous histories that relate to the coast in the first half of the second millennium AD providing much of the inspiration for the claims of Arab immigration (Kirkman 1964; Chittick 1975), and a growing knowledge of the local archaeological sequence providing the counter-claim. …