African Archaeological Review

, Volume 29, Issue 2–3, pp 171–207 | Cite as

Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices

  • Jeffrey Fleisher
  • Stephanie Wynne-Jones
Original Article


The development of the Swahili world involved new ways of organizing and conceiving of space. Archaeology and historical linguistics are both crucial in charting the trajectory of changing spatial practice during the late first and early second millennium ad, yet their respective datasets have been correlated only in specific and restricted ways. In this paper, we take the first steps toward working between archaeological and historical linguistic data to understand the changing contexts and meanings of Swahili spatial practice. We develop this argument in three parts. First, we review archaeological approaches to space in the Swahili world and develop a holistic view of towns, including both confined and delimited space. Second, we offer an archaeologists’ perspective on the development of historical linguistics in relation to the Swahili world, exploring the changing relationship between linguistics and archaeology and arguing for a greater appreciation of context in how archaeological materials are deployed with linguistic data. Finally, drawing on new data from Songo Mnara, a fourteenth–sixteenth-century Swahili town on the southern Tanzania coast, we make a preliminary attempt to reconcile some aspects of the archaeological and linguistic datasets. Using published lexical innovations, we suggest ways that meaning might be found alternatively in archaeological and linguistic data. Our hope is to make some tentative steps toward a mutually satisfying way of working between disciplines.


Swahili coast Spatial practices Historical linguistics Household archaeology Commemoration Meaning 


Le développement du monde swahili entraîna de nouveaux modes d’organisation et de conception de l'espace. L'archéologie et la linguistique historique ont un rôle décisif à jouer dans l’analyse des pratiques d’utilisation de l’espace à la fin du premier et au début du second millénaire av. J.-C. Ceci étant dit, leurs ensembles de données respectifs n'ont été intégrés que de manière spécifique et restreinte. Dans cette communication, nous faisons les premiers pas vers une méthode de travail intégrant les données archéologiques et linguistiques historiques pour comprendre les contextes et significations des pratiques spatiales swahilis, et leur évolution. Notre thèse est en trois parties. D'abord, nous passons en revue les méthodes archéologiques à l’égard de l'espace dans le monde Swahili, et développons une conception holistique des villes qui comprend les espaces restreints et bornés. Ensuite, nous offrons une perspective archéologique sur l'évolution de la linguistique historique par rapport au monde Swahili. Notre analyse explore le changement de relation entre la linguistique et l'archéologie, et plaide pour une meilleure prise en compte du contexte permettant l’association de leurs données respectives. Finalement, nous mettons à contribution de nouvelles données provenant de Songo Mnara, une ville swahili datant du XIVème-XVIème siècle située sur la côte sud de la Tanzanie, afin de réconcilier certains aspects des données archéologiques et linguistiques. Avec l'aide d'innovations lexicologiques publiées, nous suggérons des méthodes pour recouvrir les modes de signification dans les matériaux archéologiques ou linguistiques. Nous espérons avoir fait quelques pas initiaux vers une méthode de travail mutuellement satisfaisante entre les disciplines.



Research at Songo Mnara is funded by the National Science Foundation (USA, BCS 1123091), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK, AH/J502716/1), the Rice University Archaeological Field School, and the Social Sciences Research Institute at Rice. The project is carried out in collaboration with the Antiquities Division, Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Tanzania; in particular, we thank Mr. Donatius Kamamba, Director of Antiquities, and Mr. Revocatus Bugumba of the Kilwa office. Thanks are due to the many specialists who have worked to collect and interpret such compelling data: Federica Sulas, Kate Welham, Kate Robson Brown, Harry Manley, Charlene Steele, Francesca Migliaccio, and Prof. Heinz Rüther and the Zamani Project. Thanks also go to the students on the field schools that assisted with testing and excavations in 2009 and in 2011. Finally, thanks to Patrick Wynne-Jones who translated the abstract into French. The paper benefitted immensely from two anonymous reviewers as well as close readings and comments by Kate de Luna, David Schoenbrun, and Adria LaViolette.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology MS20Rice UniversityHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK

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