Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of York), African Urbanism from the Ground Up: Exploring Urban Lives on the Swahili Coast. Co-sponsored by the Committee on Archeology and the Committee on Medieval Studies. This talk will take place on the Zoom platform; please click here to register.
Abstract: Precolonial urban forms in Africa can be difficult to define. Archaeologists bear witness to a range of settlement that differs in scale and material form from that found elsewhere in the world. Ethnographies of contemporary Africa stress social definitions of urbanism and the importance of leadership and authority. While these have informed precolonial archaeologies, there are challenges in applying cultural models to the deeper past; it remains unclear how aspects of authority and social capital might be represented by the material record. In this paper I argue for the archaeology of urban lives through detailed contextual archaeology, as a means of constructing more valid understandings of past urban forms. I present the results of excavations at Songo Mnara, a fourteenth – sixteenth century town on the southern Swahili coast, as a case study in the exploration of practice and meaning in an urban setting. At Songo Mnara it has been possible to reconstruct daily life in detail, exploring themes of trade and exchange, Islamic practice, cuisine, objects and value, and the economic roles of men and women. Together these allow for a reconsideration of urban lives in the region, as well as a model for approaching urban forms in the African past.