Swahili Archaeology

The explorers of the late nineteenth century were the precursors for current multidisciplinary research. In 1856, Charles Guillain wrote the first historical report on the east coast of Africa, while R. Brenner visited sites in the archipelago of Lamu, Mambrui and Malindi in 1868. Richard Burton mentioned ruins in Zanzibar and Tanganyika in 1872. But it was Georges Révoil who carried out the first archaeological research, digging several trenches in Mogadishu in 1882. He published several books and articles on Somalia and northern Kenya, notably his travel accounts in Le Tour du Monde (1885, 1888). Révoil’s contribution is not only material and textual: he produced many sketches and photographs. These iconographic documents are very important for archaeology, because they show buildings that today have disappeared or fallen into ruin. Photographs were also taken by Sir John Kirk who visited Gedi and Lamu in 1897. Captain J. Stigand published photographs of Lamu, Takwa and Pate in 1913. F.B. Pearce initiated the first research into Zanzibar and Pemba in 1920; he was followed by W.H. Ingrams in 1931 and L. Buchannan one year later. The ruins of Kilwa were declared heritage-listed monuments and were restored by a German team in 1935. The pre-war period was thus characterized by a rising awareness of the historical value of Swahili archaeological sites.

The first archaeological dig on a medieval Swahili site can be traced to 1948. A disciple of Mortimer Wheeler, James Kirkman was sent to Kenya to excavate and develop the Gedi site. Wild stories had been circulating about this lost city, which was believed to be the work of Phoenicians or Egyptians stranded on the African coast. The excavations lasted 10 years, until 1958, and the results were published in 1954 and 1963. Kirkman also investigated two other major sites, the city of Ungwana in the bay of Formose and the fort of Jesus de Mombasa (Kirkman 1966, 1974). The museum of Fort Jesus opened to the public in 1960 and was managed by Kirkman until 1972. As early as 1948, Kirkman founded the Coastal Archaeology Unit of the National Museums of Kenya. This department was originally based in Lamu but was transferred to Fort Jesus. It currently occupies offices in the former courthouse of East Africa, in Mombasa. The role of this department is to record, monitor and protect more than 120 historical and archaeological sites along the coast of Kenya, its researchers conducting rescue and research operations on endangered sites. Kirkman made numerous excavations and topographical surveys in Takwa, Kilepwa, Kioni, Mnarani of Kilifi, Jumba la Mtwana, Kinuni and even at Ras Mkumbuu on the island of Pemba. The 1950s were also marked by archaeological surveys conducted by Mortimer Wheeler and Gervase Mathew at Kilwa and at Songo Mnara. In 1964, James Kirkman published Men and Monuments on the East African Coast. Significantly, he refused to attribute the invention and use of coral limestone architecture to the people of Africa, preferring to see it as the result of Arab or Persian colonies. Only foreigners could be the cause of urbanization, according to Kirkman; towns were established as Arab trading posts, not as African cities.

A second important figure in Swahili archaeology, Neville Chittick became the director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa in 1962. This institute, founded in 1960, had as its principal goal the promotion of archaeological research in East Africa. Chittick was particularly interested in the medieval cities on the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts. During the 1960s and 1970s, he undertook two major excavations, one in Kilwa in south Tanzania, and the other in Manda in North Kenya (Chittick 1974, 1984). Chittick also initiated excavations in Songo Mnara, in Kisimani on the island of Mafia, in Pate in the Lamu archipelago, explorations in Somalia and surveys in Mogadishu. Problems with Neville Chittick’s work comprise his lack of interest in the successive ancient occupations of Kilwa and the classification of African pottery as a homogeneous group called “cooking pots”. This attitude sprang from previous research; even today the cities of the African coast are studied primarily through their imported material and monumental architecture, with African contributions being minimized or ignored.

In 1966, the work of Peter Garlake, The Early Islamic Architecture of the East African Coast, was published and is considered a milestone in the study of Swahili architecture. Garlake created a systematic inventory of all the ruins on the Tanzanian, Kenyan and Somali coasts. He analysed the evolution of local Swahili architecture and integrated it into the wider Islamic world. In the 1970s, Thomas Wilson identified 450 to 500 stone establishments extending from Warsheikh, to the north of Mogadishu, to the bay of Sofala in Mozambique. Wilson’s work arguably initiated reflection on the articulation of Swahili territories (1978, 1980).

In a 1962 publication, Freeman-Greville conceded that Swahili towns could be of African origin. In 1974, James de Vere Allen affirmed the African origin of the Swahili town in his presentation, “Town and Country in Swahili Culture”, during the Leo Frobenius symposium in Cologne. In a 1981 article, he argued that Swahili urbanization and culture were the exclusive preserve of Africans. Unfortunately, this research on “africanity” resulted in aberrations during the 1980s. The posthumous work of James de Vere Allen mentions the presence of an African state in the ninth century, the great Shungwaya. Allen argued that this state, located in what is now southern Somalia, consisted of Cushitic-speaking peoples who later dispersed in order to found the Swahili towns. This afro-centrist vision was pure fantasy, not based on any archaeological or historical evidence. More moderate views were presented in the General History of Africa published by UNESCO; for example, Henri Mutoro declared: “The material forms assumed by Swahili culture present no analogy with Arab or Persian civilizations. There is no exact correlation between Swahili stone constructions and Middle Eastern, Arabic and Persian architecture, which leads one to suppose that it drew its inspiration from the latter” (Masao & Mutoro 1990: 645).

After the colonialist vision of Arab-Persian trading posts, Europeans and Africans both became engaged in the elaboration of a new ideological construct, the Africanization of Swahili cities, a theory supported by the myth of Shungwaya. Current thinking is that there is no Arab or African culture, but rather a Swahili culture, which is truly hybrid; scholars thus moved away from nationalist or propagationistic debates. In the 1970s, Pierre Vérin initiated archaeological research in the north of Madagascar (1975). His team, engaged too with the study of the Comoros, included Claude Allibert who continued the research started by Henry Wright in the 1980s (Wright 1984).

In 1980, Mark Horton undertook excavations in Shanga, in the Lamu archipelago (1996). Six field excavations, held between 1980 and 1988, clarified the Islamization of this coastal area. Horton was the first archaeologist to focus on the early phases of coastal sites, in keeping with Africanist views and bearing in mind the historical continuity linking the Islamized populations to the cities of the first millennium CE. In 1986, Paul Sinclair launched a project looking at the urbanization of East Africa and in particular of Mozambique. This project united institutions in Botswana, the Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zanzibar, strengthening archaeological research in these developing countries, and collecting and publishing the results of excavations carried out by local researchers (Sinclair et al. 1993). Major African archaeologists emerged in the early 1990s, including George Abungu in Kenya, Félix Chami in Tanzania, Ricardo Duarte in Mozambique and Ahmed Jama in Somalia, who work on coastal sites in East Africa with complete scientific autonomy (Jama 1996; Duarte 1993).


Copal Gum Gedi 15th
Copal Gum Gedi 15th 

References Stephane PRADINES


2003 – L’Afrique noire et la Chine. La céramique importée : symbole du pouvoir des marchands swahili, in La grande histoire de la porcelaine chinoise , RMN, Paris, p. 35-41.

1999 – L’archéologie swahili et la collection Révoil au Musée de l’Homme (Paris), Mvita, Nairobi : Regional Centre for Archaeology National Museums of Kenya, p. 20-28.

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