The Elusive Archaeology of Kongo Urbanism: the Case of Kindoki, Mbanza Nsundi (Lower Congo, DRC)

Abstract

We present results, analyses, and an in-depth historical contextualization of the fieldwork undertaken in 2012 and 2013 at the Kindoki site in the Lower Congo (DRC). This site is linked to Mbanza Nsundi, one of the Kongo Kingdom’s provincial capitals, which turns out to be archaeologically ‘elusive’. Pinpointing its location proved to be particularly challenging. To this end, a historically informed survey methodology was applied that has rarely been implemented on such a scale in Central Africa before. We combined a strategy of systematic test pits with a large-scale 50-m grid approach. A cemetery was identified on Kindoki Hill with distinct but probably contemporaneous quarters of a sixteenth–seventeenth-century settlement on both sides. The cemetery itself contains mainly eighteenth-century burials, in all likelihood of successive high-ranking Nsundi nobles, perhaps even of Nsundi rulers. The foreign, especially Portuguese, ceramics excavated on the hilltop and the hundreds of Venetian and likely Bavarian beads found in the graves are indicative of Mbanza Nsundi’s connection to trade routes linking the Atlantic coast with the Pool region. The most striking discovery is that of a previously unknown type of comb-impressed pottery, from a pit with a calibrated radiocarbon date of AD 1294–1393 (at 2 sigma). This suggests that a settlement had been developing at Kindoki since at least the fourteenth century, which allows us, for the first time, to spatially bridge Kongo history and “prehistory.” For the entire Lower Congo region, only three 14C dates posterior to AD 1000 were available before the start of our project; 12 have been added for just Kindoki.

Résumé

Nous présentons les résultats, les analyses et la contextualisation historique détaillée du travail de terrain entrepris en 2012 et 2013 sur le site de Kindoki situé au Bas-Congo (RDC). Ce site est associé à Mbanza Nsundi, l’une des capitales provinciales du royaume Kongo, qui s’est révélée ‘élusive’, c-à-d difficile à saisir archéologiquement. Localiser son emplacement s’est avéré être un vrai défi. Pour ce faire, nous avons développé une méthodologie de fouilles, basée sur des données historiques, qui n’avait pas encore vraiment été testée à cette échelle en Afrique Centrale. Nous avons appliqué une stratégie de terrain combinant des tranchées tests systématiques avec des carroyages à grande échelle de 50 m. Sur la colline de Kindoki, un cimetière a été identifié avec de part et d’autre des quartiers distincts, probablement contemporains, témoignant d’une occupation aux 16ème-17ème siècles. Le cimetière lui-même contient principalement des inhumations successives datées du 18ème siècle, très probablement celles de nobles Nsundi de haut rang, peut-être même des dirigeants Nsundi. Les céramiques étrangères, principalement portugaises, découvertes au sommet de la colline et les centaines de perles originaires de Venise et probablement de la Bavière trouvées dans les tombes révèlent la connexion entre Mbanza Nsundi et les voies commerciales reliant la côte Atlantique avec la région du Pool. Une découverte très intéressante concerne un type de poterie décorée au peigne imprimé qui était inconnu à ce jour et provient d’une fosse dont la date radiocarbone calibrée est de 1294–1393 AD (à 2 sigma). Ceci suggère qu’une implantation s’est développée à Kindoki depuis au moins le 14ème siècle et nous permet, pour la première fois, de rapprocher spatialement l’histoire et ‘la préhistoire’ kongo. Pour la région du Bas-Congo toute entière, seules trois dates 14C postérieures à 1000 AD étaient disponibles avant que ne débute notre projet. Nous disposons à présent de douze dates supplémentaires uniquement pour le site de Kindoki.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by Starting Grant No. 284126 of the European Research Council and by the Special Research Fund of Ghent University. With regard to the fieldwork carried out for this article, our thanks go to the district and village chiefs of Mbanza Nsundi, Songololo, and Kindoki and the more than 50 paid workers from the neighborhood of Kindoki who excavated with us and helped us to maintain our base camp. The KongoKing excavation team (B. Clist, P. de Maret, E. Cranshof, M. Kaumba, and I. Matonda) was assisted by J. Yogolelo and A. Nkanza Lutayi (IMNC), N. Vanhaeren (Geography Department, Ghent University), as well as C. Verhaeghe and A. Sengeløv (Archaeology Department, Ghent University). N. Vanhaeren also undertook topographical measurements of the entire hilltop. We further wish to thank Prof. J. Sabakinu, the staff of the Procure Sainte Anne, and the team at the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Congo (IMNC), especially its director J. Imbongo and his staff at the archaeology section, who greatly facilitated administrative and practical issues in Kinshasa. Special thanks go to Dr. D. Fehse of the Zoological State Collection in Munich for the preliminary identification of the Pusula depauperata shells and Mr. P. Dubrunfaut of the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History in Brussels for his help in the identification and dating of the musket found in tomb 9. We gratefully acknowledge the input from Inge Brinkman, Pierre de Maret, and John Thornton, as well as the two anonymous peer reviewers selected by the Journal. Their thoughtful comments helped us to improve the original manuscript. The usual disclaimers obviously apply.

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Correspondence to Koen Bostoen.

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Clist, B., Cranshof, E., de Schryver, GM. et al. The Elusive Archaeology of Kongo Urbanism: the Case of Kindoki, Mbanza Nsundi (Lower Congo, DRC). Afr Archaeol Rev 32, 369–412 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-015-9199-2

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Keywords

  • Central Africa
  • Kongo Kingdom
  • Urban archaeology
  • Cemetery
  • Pottery
  • Swords
  • Beads