We started this project in 2011 with a survey of the site.  We are particularly proud to announce  that since our first report and publication we changed the vision of the archaeologists on the area: Mayotte and the period, 9th to 12th century.

First, we introduced the concept of Abbasid ceramics. Before these ceramics were commonly called sasanian-islamic…

Second, we challenged the interpretations on the site done by previous archaeologists (Allibert and Liszkowski).  As we are not sure that Austronesian furnaces existed on the site of Dembeni, the evidences presented are not really convincing. And because we found another hypothesis to explain the wealth of the site of Dembeni with the Rock crystal trade…

Plan Dembeni Mayotte
Plan Dembeni Mayotte 

Sailors, Trade and Islam in the Indian Ocean

Our research project concerns navigation, trade and the beginnings of Islam in the Western Indian Ocean: mainly what we call the Swahili Coast. After working from 1999 to 2003 on the site of Gedi in Kenya (Pradines, 2010) and from 2004 to 2006 at two sites Songo Mnara and Sanje ya Kati, in the region of Kilwa in Tanzania (Pradines, 2005 and 2009), we have focused our attention on an ancient site on the outskirts of the Swahili area: the Comoros archipelago.

Urbanization and population of the Comoros are linked to maritime trade with Islamized populations came from the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf. The Comoros archipelago consists of four islands, called respectively from west to east: Grande Comore (Ngazidja) Mohéli (Mwali), Anjouan (Ndzuwani) and Mayotte (Mahore). Comoros (Qmr) is an Arabic word whose meaning is subject to controversy, but seems to refer to the famous “Island of the Moon.” For Arabs and Persians sailors, the term encompasses several geographic realities: the Comoros and also the northern part of Madagascar. The area in question is at the limit of Austronesian and African worlds. Comoros and particularly, Anjouan were Islamized early in the eleventh century and perhaps in the ninth century. The first material traces of this Islamization are visible in Domoni and Sima in Anjouan (Wright, 1984). Unfortunately, there is no example of an old Islamization proved in Mayotte. Most of what we know of sites in Mayotte and the Comoros come from the surveys carried out in 1975 by Henry Wright and Susan Kus (1976 and 1984: 13-39). The oldest sites on the island dates back to eighth – thirteenth centuries and are seven in number: Koungou, Majikavo, Kani-Keli, Hanyoundrou, Dembeni, Mirandola and Bagamoyo. After a quick reconnaissance of archaeological sites on the island of Mayotte in 2009, we decided to focus our research on the site Dembeni. In 2011, we recognized the limits of the site, its scientific potential and identified threats that could lead to its destruction. This survey was done with a Total station to map all the area before further actions.

The site of Dembeni is located on the island of Mayotte in the Comoros archipelago. During our first survey in 2009, we collected several fragments of Abbasid glazed turquoise jars (called sassanido-Islamic). These ceramics are dated between the 9th and 10th centuries. The biggest problem with the site at Dembeni is that it is a very large site. However the origin and quantity of imported objects discovered on the surface are exceptional. This qualitative judgment does not apply only to the Dembeni place in the history of Mayotte and the Comoros, but in the history of the Western Indian Ocean and the Swahili coast. The site, called Dembeni, is one of the largest and richest archaeological sites in all East Africa. Its apogee in the 9th-12th centuries was a period of intensive trade, first with the Abbasids in the Persian Gulf then with the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. Dembeni delivered an archaeological material of unprecedented wealth for the time, with a large amount of Chinese and Persian ceramics, as well as glassware from all over the Islamic world. This accumulation of richness was not made by chance, and during many years, archaeologists were seeking the origin of the wealth of this site.

Survey Dembeni
Survey Dembeni 

Excavations: Dembeni, Mayotte (Comoros archipelago)

Results of summer 2013: The African Rock Crystal

The first excavations in Dembeni started on 23 July and ended 25 August 2013. During this mission, the team uncovered large quantities of fragments of rock crystal in the form of chips and flakes of different sizes. Arab & Persian written sources on trade in the Indian Ocean during the medieval period mention rock crystal from the islands of East Africa, the quantities of rock crystal uncovered during the excavation leads us to believe that the mineral was imported to Mayotte from Madagascar in draft form, then resized and exported to the Middle East – mainly Iran and Egypt. It is now possible explain the wealth of the site and to be more precise than the Arab written sources on trade in the Indian Ocean during the medieval period and to pinpoint the exact international trade route.

This rock crystal arrived in the capital cities of Baghdad and Cairo via Persian merchants who travelled with Omani boats and sailors. They travelled for months to East Africa and they were stationed in many Swahili ports like Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa. Then they pushed further south towards the coast of Mozambique in order to get gold, or to the southeast to reach the Comoros. On arrival on the island of Mayotte, the merchants exchanged ceramics and other items for the precious rock crystal, which only the best parts were retained. Between the 11th and 12th century, the rock crystal was discharged in Aden, Yemen. Archives of Jewish merchants and Persian travelers tell us that the products were then transshipped and forwarded to the Egyptian ports of Aydhab and Quseir on the Red Sea. These valuable goods were then loaded to the Nile Valley and transferred by felucca to Cairo and Alexandria, the rock crystal was then shaped by skilled craftsmen.

Rock crystal objects – mainly ewers and bottles – adorn the great museums in the world, like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Some objects were incorporated into the treasures of Christian kingdoms like in Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice and in the King’s Abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris. I believe the rock crystal found in Mayotte is related to these prestigious objects.  Most striking is the complexity of international trade in the Indian Ocean in the early Middle Age – a ‘globalization’ before its time.

Actions planned for 2014

The next step is for the excavated rock crystal to undergo mineral analysis to determine the sample’s origin and its relationship to the objects in these great museums. I brought some samples to London, with an exportation agreement from the French authorities.

On the field, the next excavation in August 2014 will be centred on that topic of the rock crystal. We will try to find the debitage area and other waste material that may throw light upon the processing of rock crystal at the site, and perhaps even the chance to find tools and working areas. Another topic of the next season will be to identify the necropolis and the funerary area of the site. In order to see if the people of Dembeni followed the Islamic practises, it will be interesting to see for example if they buried their death with objects as it was the case in Vohémar in Madagascar, a site who was connected to Dembeni.

Director: Stephane Pradines (ISMC-AKU)


Chinese Ceramics: Bing Zhao, CNRS
Soapstone objects:  Julie Marchand, Ph.D. candidate


Partner institutions:

•    Direction of Cultural Affairs in Indian Ocean, Reunion (DRAC)
•    General Council and Prefecture, Mayotte (CG)
•    Heritage’s House, Mayotte (MAPAT)



2012 – Stéphane Pradines et Pierre Brial, « Dembéni, Mayotte (976). Archéologie swahilie dans un département français » in Nyame Akuma 77, p. 68-81.

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Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros