Journal of Maritime Archaeology

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 43–62 | Cite as

Beyond the Stone Town: Maritime Architecture at Fourteenth–Fifteenth Century Songo Mnara, Tanzania

  • Edward Pollard
  • Jeffrey Fleisher
  • Stephanie Wynne-Jones
Original Paper


The towns of the Swahili coast of East Africa are widely acknowledged as the remains of a maritime society whose relationship with the ocean was fundamental to their economy and identity. Yet research that links the terrestrial environments of the towns to their adjacent maritime landscapes is rare, and urgently required in the light of marine erosional processes unmitigated by human actions. In the Kilwa archipelago of southern Tanzania, survey of the coastal foreshore has documented maritime architecture—particularly a series of coral-built causeways—that serve to link the medieval towns of this area to coastal resources and to expand the limits of the settlements themselves. This paper reports on survey recovering these causeways on Songo Mnara Island, putting the structures into context as part of the broader spatial manifestation of the island’s fourteenth–fifteenth century town. Several possible uses of the causeways are discussed, including functional explanations linked to the exploitation of oceanic resources, and more social reasons of territoriality and spatial demarcation.


Swahili Coral Architecture Causeways Urban space Territoriality 



This research was funded by the British Institute in Eastern Africa (Nairobi), the National Science Foundation (USA, BCS 1123091), Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK, AH/J502716/1), and the Rice University Archaeological Field School. We thank Dr. Ambreena Manji, Mr. Revocatus Bugumba, and the students that assisted with the inter-tidal surveys. The Songo Mnara Urban Landscape project, of which this research was a part, works in collaboration with the Antiquities Division, Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Tanzania.


  1. Abungu GHO (1994/1995) Agriculture and settlement formation along the East African coast. Azania 29/30:248–256Google Scholar
  2. Abungu GHO (2004) Reactive monitoring mission to Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in the Republic of Tanzania, East Africa. ICOMOS, ParisGoogle Scholar
  3. Abungu GHO, Muturo HW (1993) Coast-interior settlements and social relations in the Kenya hinterland. In: Shaw T, Sinclair PJJ, Andah B, Okpoko A (eds) The Archaeology of Africa: food, metals and towns. Routledge, London, pp 694–704Google Scholar
  4. Bayliss-Smith TP (1988) The role of hurricanes in the development of Reef Islands, Ontong Java Atoll, Solomon Islands. Geogr J 154:371–391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Breen C, Lane P (2003) Archaeological approaches to East Africa’s changing seascapes. World Archaeol 35:469–489CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Caplan P (1998) African voices, African lives: personal narratives from a Swahili Village. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  7. Chami F (2006) The archaeology of pre-Islamic Kilwa Kisiwani (Island). In: Kinahan J, Kinahan J (eds) The African archaeology network: research in progress. Dar es Salaam University Press, Dar es Salaam, pp 119–150Google Scholar
  8. Chittick HN (1974) Kilwa: an Islamic trading city on the East African coast. British Institute in Eastern Africa, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  9. Fleisher JB (2010) Swahili Synoecism: rural settlements and town formation on the Central East African Coast, A.D. 750–1500. J Field Archaeol 35:265–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fleisher JB (in press) Between mosque and house: an archaeology of Swahili open space. In: Proceedings of the 13th congress of the PanAfrican association for prehistory and related fields, IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop, DakarGoogle Scholar
  11. Fleisher JB, Wynne-Jones S (2010) Archaeological investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania: urban space, social memory and materiality on the 15th- and 16th-century Southern Swahili Coast, Dar es SalaamGoogle Scholar
  12. Fleisher JB, Wynne-Jones S (2012) Archaeological investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, June–July 2011Google Scholar
  13. Frank TD, Jell JS (2006) Recent developments on a nearshore terrigenous-influenced reef: Low Isles Reef. Aust J Coast Res 22:474–486CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Freeman-Grenville GSP (1962) The East African Coast. Select documents from the first to the earlier nineteenth centuries. Clarendon Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  15. Garlake PS (1966) The early Islamic architecture of the East African Coast. Oxford University Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  16. Garlake PS (2002) Early art and architecture of Africa. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  17. Horton MC (1994) Swahili architecture, space and social structure. In: Parker-Pearson M, Richards C (eds) Architecture and order. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  18. Horton MC (1996) Shanga: the archaeology of a Muslim trading community on the coast of East Africa. British Institute in Eastern Africa, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  19. Horton MC, Middleton J (2000) The Swahili: the social landscape of a mercantile society. Blackwell, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  20. Hourani GF (1996) Arab seafaring. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  21. Kennedy DM, Woodroffe CD (2002) Fringing reef growth and morphology: a review. Earth Sci Rev 57:255–277CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kusimba CM (1996) Spatial organization at Swahili archaeological sites in Kenya. In: Pwiti G, Soper R (eds) Aspects of African Archaeology: papers of the 10th conference of the Pan African Association of prehistory and related subjects. University of Zimbabwe, Harare, pp 703–714Google Scholar
  23. Kusimba CM (1999) The rise and fall of Swahili States. Altamira Press, Walnut CreekGoogle Scholar
  24. Lane P (2005) Maritime archaeology: a prospective research avenue in Tanzania. In: Mapunda B, Mswema P (eds) Salvaging Tanzania’s cultural heritage. Dar es Salaam University Press, Dar es Salaam, pp 95–131Google Scholar
  25. LaViolette A (1996) Report on excavations at the Swahili site of Pujini, Pemba Island, Tanzania. Nyame Akuma 46:72–83Google Scholar
  26. Mapunda B (2005) Two decades of archaeology programme at the University of dar es salaam: The Ups and Downs. In: Mapunda B, Mswema P (eds) Salvaging Tanzania’s cultural heritage. Dar es Salaam University Press, Dar es Salaam, pp 9–24Google Scholar
  27. Mclean RF, Stoddart DR (1978) Reef Island sediments of the Northern Great Barrier Reef. Phil Trans R Soc Lond 291:101–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Middleton J (1961) Land tenure in Zanzibar. HMSO, LondonGoogle Scholar
  29. Mturi A (2005) State of rescue archaeology in Tanzania. In: Mapunda B, Mswema P (eds) Salvaging Tanzania’s cultural heritage. Dar es Salaam University Press, Dar es Salaam, pp 293–310Google Scholar
  30. Muhando C, Mgaya Y, Daffa J (2001) Coastal resources and their use. Eastern Africa Atlas of Coastal Resources, TanzaniaGoogle Scholar
  31. Nicholas CJ, Pearson PN, McMillan IK, Ditchfield PW, Singano JM (2007) Structural evolution of southern coastal Tanzania since the Jurassic. J Afr Earth Sci 48:273–297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Pawlowicz M (2009) Archaeological exploration of the Mikindani Region of the Southern Tanzanian Coast. Nyame Akuma 72:41–51Google Scholar
  33. Pollard E (2008a) The archaeology of Tanzanian Coastal Landscapes in the 6th to 15th Centuries AD (The Middle Iron Age of the Region). BAR International Series, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  34. Pollard E (2008b) Inter-tidal causeways and platforms of the 13th- to 16th-century city-state of Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania. Int J Naut Archaeol 37:98–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Pollard E (2008c) The maritime landscape of Kilwa Kisiwani and its region, Tanzania, 11th to 15th century AD. J Anthropol Archaeol 27:265–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pollard E (2011) Safeguarding Swahili Trade in the 14th and 15th Centuries: a Unique Navigational Complex in South-East Tanzania. World Archaeol 43:458–477CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pollard E (2012) Present and past threats and response on the east coast of Africa: an archaeological perspective. J Coast Conserv 16:143–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pradines S (2009) L’île de Sanjé ya Kati (Kilwa, Tanzanie): un mythe Shirâzi bien réel. Azania 44:49–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pradines S, Blanchard P (2005a) Archéologie et préservation du patrimoine: le projet franco-tanzanien de Kilwa, 2002–2005. Nyame Akuma 63:20–26Google Scholar
  40. Pradines S, Blanchard P (2005b) Kilwa al-Mulûk. Premier bilan des travaux de conservation-restauration et des fouilles archéologiques dans la baie de Kilwa, Tanzanie. Ann Islamol 39:25–80Google Scholar
  41. Prins AHJ (1961) The Swahili-speaking peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast: Arabs, Shirazi, and Swahili. International Africa Institute, LondonGoogle Scholar
  42. Prins AHJ (1965) Sailing from Lamu: a study of maritime culture in Islamic East Africa. Van Gorcum, AssenGoogle Scholar
  43. Richmond M (1997) A guide to the seashores of Eastern Africa and the Western Indian Ocean islands. Sida/Department for Research Cooperation, SAREC, StockholmGoogle Scholar
  44. Scheffers A (2004) Tsunami imprints on the Leeward Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire) and their relation to other coastal problems. Quat Int 120:163–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Stoetzel J (2011) Archaeological survey of Songo Mnara Island. Nyame Akuma 76:9–14Google Scholar
  46. Sulas F, Madella M (2012) Archaeology at the micro-scale: micromorphology and phytoliths at a Swahili stonetown. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 4:145–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wilson TH (1982) Spatial analysis and settlement patterns on the East African coast. Paideuma 28:201–219Google Scholar
  48. WWF (2005) The Eastern African Marine Ecoregion: lime production from Land-based Fossil Corals. The Secretariat of Eastern African Marine Ecoregion (EAME) Programme, Dar es SalaamGoogle Scholar
  49. Wynne-Jones S (2007) Multiple landscapes and layered meanings: scale, interaction and process in the development of a Swahili town. In: Kohring SE, Wynne-Jones S (eds) Socialising complexity: approaches to power and interaction in the archaeological record. Oxbow Press, London, pp 142–160Google Scholar
  50. Wynne-Jones S, Fleisher JB (2010) Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2009. Nyame Akuma 73:2–8Google Scholar
  51. Wynne-Jones S, Fleisher JB (2011) Archaeological investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2011. Nyame Akuma 76:3–8Google Scholar
  52. Wynne-Jones S, Fleisher JB (forthcoming) Swahili urban spaces of the East African coast. In: Fisher KD, Creekmore A (eds) Making ancient cities: studies of the production of space in early urban environments. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward Pollard
    • 1
  • Jeffrey Fleisher
    • 2
  • Stephanie Wynne-Jones
    • 3
  1. 1.Archaeology Department, Orkney CollegeUniversity of the Highlands and IslandsKirkwallUK
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyRice UniversityHoustonUSA
  3. 3.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK

Personalised recommendations