Beyond Commoner and Elite in Swahili Society: Re-Examination of Archaeological Materials from Gede, Kenya

  • Matthew PawlowiczEmail author
Original Article


The Swahili communities of the East African coast created one of the best-known societies of precolonial Africa, combining cultural influences from throughout the Indian Ocean world with those of their continental African roots. Of the many Swahili towns and communities, Gede is among the most famous because of its extensive, well-preserved stone ruins and long tradition of archaeological work. Yet research at the site has primarily investigated its elite inhabitants or pursued broad culture-historical questions. One significant exception was a PhD dissertation project undertaken in the early 2000s by Lynn Koplin, but unfortunately never finished or published. By analyzing the data collected by Koplin, the daily lives of the town’s inhabitants and patterns of economic and social difference inside and outside the town walls begin to come into focus. This study provides us with important insights into the functioning of Swahili society during a less well-known period, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Gede reached its apogee during this period. The data especially provide a significant case study for exploring the diversity among Swahili “commoners” in the cosmopolitan centers of the East African littoral.


East Africa Swahili Kenya Social difference Material culture 


Les communautés swahili de la côte est-africaine ont créé l’une des sociétés les plus connues de l’Afrique précoloniale, alliant les influences culturelles de l’ensemble du monde de l’océan Indien à celles de leurs racines africaines continentales. Parmi les nombreuses villes et communautés swahili, Gede est. parmi les plus célèbres en raison de ses vastes ruines de pierre bien préservées et de sa longue tradition de travaux archéologiques. Pourtant, les recherches sur le site ont principalement porté sur ses habitants d’élite ou sur de vastes questions de culture et d’histoire. Une exception notable était un projet de recherche doctorale entrepris au début des années 2000 par Lynn Koplin, mais malheureusement jamais achevé ni publié. En analysant les données collectées par Koplin, la vie quotidienne des habitants de la ville et les schémas de différences économiques et sociales à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur des murs de la ville commencent à se préciser. Cette étude nous fournit des informations importantes sur le fonctionnement de la société swahili au cours d’une période moins connue, les quinzième et seizième siècles. Gede a atteint son apogée pendant cette période. Les données fournissent en particulier une étude de cas significative pour explorer la diversité parmi les «roturiers» swahili dans les centres cosmopolites du littoral est-africain.



I appreciate the cooperation of Lynn Koplin in sharing the information from her project and for giving me the permission to publish the material. Her project was funded by a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (Award #0118465) from the National Science Foundation and carried out under Kenyan permit #MOEST 13/001/31C 30/5 and National Museums of Kenya Excavation license #AD/108.10. The ceramic analysis that I conducted was licensed through the Kenyan National Commission for Science, Technology, and Innovation while I was affiliated with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). I would particularly like to thank Dr. Stephen Rucina, Margaret Omoto, Jambo Haro, and Mohammed Mchulla of NMK for their assistance. The work was funded by the Humanities Research Council of Virginia Commonwealth University. I would also like to thank Adria LaViolette for helpful comments in improving the earlier drafts of this work.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Virginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA

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