Rice students explore archaeology at centuries-old Swahili site

Starting in 2009, four to nine Rice students have spent five weeks living and working at the site.
Starting in 2009, four to nine Rice students have spent five weeks living and working at the site. | File photo
Students in the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania recently learned about African archaeology with anthropologist Jeffrey Fleisher.

At the core of the field school is a research project at Songo Mnara, a prominent stonetown in Swahili’s Kilwa archipelago, along the southern Tanzanian coast. This town was important for commerce in the Indian Ocean throughout the 1400s and 1500s, allowing goods to travel from Africa throughout the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and western India. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Starting in 2009, four to nine Rice students have spent five weeks living and working at the site. There is no running water or electricity, but there are well-preserved remains from 40 large domestic room blogs, countless tombs and five mosques.

The students actively joined daily life and excavations at the site, recovering and analyzing artifacts from several areas in the town. Their attention was mainly dedicated to the remains of houses and yards at the site, dating to 500 years ago.

“The site of Songo Mnara offers a unique context to explore these questions as it was built elaborately, inhabited for a short time, quickly abandoned and never reinhabited,” Fleisher said. “These conditions mean that the site is a remarkable time capsule for the 15th and 16th centuries, and thus one of the few early Swahili towns where our questions can be addressed and answered.”

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