African Archaeological Review

, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 245–278 | Cite as

Ceramics and the Early Swahili: Deconstructing the Early Tana Tradition

  • Jeffrey Fleisher
  • Stephanie Wynne-Jones
Review Article


Archaeological understandings of the Iron Age societies that developed on the East African coast and its hinterland have been transformed by exploration of locally produced ceramics. During the late first millennium, c. AD 600–900, sites across eastern Africa are characterized by ceramics known as early Tana Tradition or Triangular-Incised Ware, containing necked jars with incised decoration and a series of other jar and bowl forms in varying quantities. The recognition of this pan-regional tradition of pottery, known from an ever-growing number of sites, has been crucial in the reorientation of Swahili research to recognize the indigenous roots of the cosmopolitan coastal culture. This paper reports on the results of a ceramics project that has revisited excavated collections from a series of key ETT/TIW sites, analyzing sherds according to a single system and allowing true cross-site comparison for the first time. The results show regional diversity, in both form and decoration, particularly in the relative importance of the necked jar types that have come to stand for the early Tana Tradition more generally. While previous studies have hinted at regional diversity, such conclusions have been subsumed in discussion by the evident similarities between assemblages. Comparative results are here discussed against the background of previous research at the sites, and a series of conclusions about overlapping spheres of commonality are presented. Rather than critiquing previous work that has recognized this ceramic type, we seek to understand the remarkable distribution better by exploring its context and content.


Swahili Ceramics Tana Tradition TIW 


La compréhension archéologique des sociétés de l'âge du fer qui se sont développées sur la côte de l'Afrique de l’est et dans son arrière-pays a été transformée par l'exploration de céramiques produites localement. Durant le premier millénaire, c. AD 600–900, des sites à travers l'Afrique se caractérisent par des céramiques appelées Early Tana Tradition ou Triangular-Incised Ware, contenant des jarres à goulot avec dessin gravé et une série d'autres formes de pot et de bol en quantités variables. La reconnaissance de cette fabrication traditionnelle de poterie domestique, reconnue par un nombre croissant de sites, a joué un rôle crucial dans la réorientation de la recherche en Swahili afin de reconnaître les racines autochtones de la culture cosmopolite de la côte. Cet article rend compte des résultats d'un projet de céramique qui a revisité des collections excavées d'une série de sites clés ETT/TIW, analysant les tessons selon un système unique et permettant, pour la première fois, une vraie comparaison entre les sites. Les résultats montrent la diversité régionale, dans la forme et la décoration, particulièrement dans l'importance relative des types de jarre à goulot qui en viennent à s’identifier aux “early Tana Tradition” plus généralement. Alors que des études antérieures ont suggéré une diversité régionale, de telles conclusions ont été subsumées dans la discussion par les similitudes évidentes entre les assemblages. Des résultats comparatifs sont discutés ici dans le contexte des recherches antérieures sur les sites, et une série de conclusions est présentée sur le recoupement des sphères communes. Plutôt que de critiquer les travaux antérieurs qui ont reconnu ce type de céramique, nous cherchons à en mieux comprendre la distribution remarquable en explorant son contexte et son contenu.



Ceramics and Society was supported by the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and by a grant from the British Academy with input from the Chittick Fund (#SG54671). Additional funding was provided by the Leverhulme Trust. It is clear that this research could not have been attempted without the generous agreement of many scholars to provide us with access to their collections. We are extremely grateful to Paul Sinclair, Randi Håland and Abdurahman Juma for giving us permission to revisit their ceramics and to Felix Chami for valuable conversations about collections in Tanzania. In the museums of eastern Africa we received invaluable assistance from Herman Kiriama, Mohammed Mchulla, Bw. Mbarak, Paul Msemwa, Abdallah Ali, and Hamad Omar. We also thank Sigrid Kaland and Svein Ove Agdestein of the Bergen Museum and Anneli Ekblom and Elisabet Green of the Archaeology Department in Uppsala. The sherd analysis was conducted mainly by the authors, with help from Alexandra Kelly, Katie Derrett and Freda Nkirote.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

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

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