Archaeological survey and excavation at the ancient Swahili stonetown of Songo Mnara will enable the exploration of aspects of ancient urban planning in coastal East Africa. Dr Jeffrey Fleisher (Rice University) and Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of York) will lead an international team of specialists from the U.S., U.K., and Tanzania in the investigation of economic and ritual activities at Songo Mnara and of how they related to planned and unplanned parts of the town. Support from the National Science Foundation in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom, allows for three seasons of fieldwork at this site on the southern Tanzanian coast. Swahili stonetowns, found along the eastern African coast, were the home to an indigenous and cosmopolitan form of urbanism that linked Africa with the Indian Ocean world system from AD 700 to 1500. A World Heritage Site, Songo Mnara is recognized as the most impressive of all Swahili townscapes, including more than 40 coral-built houses and room-blocks, 5 mosques and multiple cemeteries. Occupation of the site was brief, from the 14th to 16th centuries AD, coinciding with the golden age of Swahili towns along the coast, and particularly at its neighboring site of Kilwa Kisiwani. This work will contribute substantially to discussions of organizational principles in ancient town plans more generally, and to research on aspects of town layouts that were formed by movement, activity and use, rather than formal planning from above. By exploring the way the actions of people both shaped and were shaped by town plans, this study will provide a holistic case study that addresses current concerns with the plans and spatial practices of ancient complex societies. The fieldwork will explore the urban space of Songo Mnara at four interlinked scales: (1) household activities through excavations within and around buildings; (2) public and communal practices in the open areas and monuments of the site; (3) the site plan will be accurately plotted; and (4) the site will be positioned within its broader island landscape. The exceptional preservation at Songo Mnara allows the construction of a robust dataset to explore how Swahili towns were both planned and unplanned. This will offer insight into the multiple ways that towns plans emerged - through the efforts of powerful people, but also through the more basic and daily acts of those living in and moving through the town. Broader impacts of the project include important training for American, British, and Tanzanian students, both graduate and undergraduate. Additionally, the project contributes to the preservation and conservation of Songo Mnara, which remains an "endangered" World Heritage Site. A long term commitment to archaeological research at the site will provide important opportunities for community involvement, and educational opportunities to demonstrate the unique role that archaeology can play in its preservation and documentation.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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Rice University
United States
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