Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

People, Not Pots: Locally Produced Ceramics and Identity on the Nineteenth-Century East African Coast

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

People, Not Pots: Locally Produced Ceramics and Identity on the Nineteenth-Century East African Coast

Article excerpt

"the contribution of archaeology to the history of Africa is not limited to the discovery of new and complementary sources to be used by others, but goes to the very heart of the historical enterprise"1


Locally produced ceramics are the mainstay of archaeological research in East Africa. They are understood to be products of a particular socio-cultural milieu such that ceramic variation will correspond with cultural variation at some level. Ceramics are thus seen to indicate some form of shared identity-the archaeological "culture." Historians of the East African coast have sometimes drawn upon the data from archaeological "cultures" to supplement their insights, although their own sources-both documentary and oral-engage with the concept of identity on a rather different level. There has, however, been little comparative, self-critical analysis of the different types of identity being studied by historians and archaeologists, the extent to which such identities may be regarded as coterminous, and the interplay between different types of knowledge (i.e., historical or archaeological data) in the creation of both past and present identities.

In this paper, through the examination of locally produced ceramics for a historically rich period on the East African coast, we examine the multiplicity of ways that identities were created and experienced in coastal society and the ways that these were played out at varying geographical and temporal scales. In particular, we believe that one's discipline determines, to a great extent, the level at which one conceptualizes and understands identity. Here, we examine how wide-scale regional identities can intersect with more local, individual, or gendered identities played out through the production and use of local ceramic types. By these means we hope to illustrate the ways in which historical data (documentary, oral, and linguistic sources) and archaeological data can work in conjunction to produce rich and complex interpretations of the past on the East African coast.

In examining these themes, we discuss the record of locally produced ceramics from the nineteenth-century East African coast. During this period, numerous indigenous and colonial interactions occurred in different areas of the littoral and among different groups. Nevertheless, archaeological data from three widely separated regions-Kilwa, Zanzibar, and Mombasa (Fig. 1)-display striking elements of commonality. The implications of this are discussed herein.


Within all historical and archaeological interpretations of the past assumptions are made about identity; by delineating a people, society, or culture for study, we are effectively bringing that unit into existence.2 Such units are predicated upon the existence of a unifying identity at some level, and yet the definition of this is rarely made explicit. Those studies that have theorized identity have conceptualized and used the term in many different ways, across various disciplines of the humanities and social sciences, as our possibilities for understanding identity are created by the medium through which it is presented or interpreted. Different cultural fields of production create different possibilities of representation,3 thus history-whether using documentary or oral sources-can understand only the ways in which identity was presented by the authors of those sources.4 Archaeologists, in contrast, are constrained by very different sets of data. Their focus is upon the material world-both the natural landscape and that which is culturally constructed. One recent theoretical approach within archaeology views identity as an embodied process within this material world, created by our bodily practices and engagements.3 This presents two contrasting possibilities for understanding identity, and has inevitably resulted in different questions and directions for research in the disciplines of history and archaeology. …

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