On the Swahili Coast in southern Tanzania lie the ruins of a stone town known as Songo Mnara. The stone town was occupied from the 14th to 16th centuries. Songo Mnara has been recognized at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with nearby stone town Kilwa Kisiwani. In total, archaeologists have found six mosques, four cemeteries, and two dozen house blocks along with three enclosed open spaces on the island. Songo Mnara was constructed from rough-coral and mortar. This stonetown was built as one of many trade towns on the Indian Ocean.
Layout of Swahili Towns
Archaeologists have been working on a new key concept: the layout of stone towns on the Swahili coast. The reason they are looking at the layout of the town space is because not many archaeologists have looked at it in the past. It brings to light why the building was built the way it was to make it the town that it was in the past. They are mainly focusing on the relationship of the mosques and houses that are on the Swahili coast. This focuses on the importance of these places within the community in the culture they are living in. Houses and mosques are an important aspect in understanding the purpose of the Swahili coast in Islamic culture. There is a specific place where the mosque has to be within the city in order to understand the importance of the function of the town. According to archaeologists, the mosque plays a huge role in the symbolic meaning of the town it is in. Houses also play a role in how the town’s function within the community. The houses were part of both the complex economic and ritual processes of owning a piece of land.
Open spaces are another aspect of Swahili towns that have not been given much attention in the past. The purpose is of this space is used in two different ways: a functional space and a specific place of social organization. Within the open spaces, there are locations of tombs and cemeteries. There are many different areas found within the cemetery, one being inside and other outside the walls of the town.
Songo Mnara is one of many towns on the Swahili coast set up in the same ways as the other stone towns of the same type. The wall around Songo Mnara is different than the other towns on the coast. There are outer houses along the south and east side of the town, and the north and west had a purpose behind the building. This makes it hard to enter the stone town because there is no access toward it. The two cemeteries are located within the town, and two are places outside the town like many other stone towns on the Swahili coast.
Excavations have helped archaeologists to better understand ways of life at Songo Mnara. Many different areas have been excavated, including several of the more than 40 houses found surrounding the stone town. Trenches were dug in House 44, House 23 outside the houses, by a tomb, and a well. Many different types of artifacts have been found, although few were recovered from within the excavated houses. Archaeologists carefully mapped and recorded their finds.
House 44 was an important area of research because of the complexity of the rooms and the fact that it was an individual’s house. This house had excavations in each room, each trench having a different number. There was a 1 x1 m test unit on the southwest room, dug slowly because of the layers of ceramics. This excavation stopped when they hit the level of plaster underneath the floor. There was another located on the south-west side of the house which was approximately 4 x 2.25m. There were also ceramics found in this room. The next room was in the center of the house, where they found plaster and coral among the layers of rubble. In this room, they stopped excavations at the plaster floor. There were also excavations done at entrance room, southeastern room, and the back room of the house. The ceramics found at house 44 were from the 15th century.
House 23 is located in the southwestern corner of Songo Mnara. Due to time constraints, this house only had samples taken from it instead of excavating it completely. A 4 x 1m unit was put in the courtyard of the house. During excavations, steps were uncovered, along with floor made out of coral bedrock. The next room was a central room which had a 2 x 2m unit placed. There was no plaster floor like what was found at House 44.
Houses 31, 40, and 34 were excavated during the 2011 field school at Songo Mnara. Preliminary research was done during a field school in 2009. There were six areas within the house that the archaeologists did during the 2009 excavations of the houses at Songo Mnara. Once again plaster floors were found at each house and artifacts were present. Ceramics were found at one of the front entrances tested to be showing a lot of activity. The back room that was tested did not show the activity the front rooms did because they were too tidy compared to the front room. During this field school, Kilwa-type coins were found under the floor. All the information found at these houses showed not only was the open space shared, but the houses were also shared at the site.
During the 2009 field school, there were excavations done on the open spaces of Songo Mnara. All the activity is laid out by the structures that make the private space separate from the public space. When looking at it archaeologically, there is an abundance of activity found in layers of ceramics and other artifacts. Coins were also found in the open areas, thinking of all the open areas that are there as open areas are used for activities that area found normally to be outside. For the 2011 field school at Songo Mnara, the open area was also looked at by shovel test pits, this time looking at what the soil could tell a person about the site. There were also trenches dug, showing from the artifacts that the areas were related to household activities.
During the 2011 field school, mosques were looked at, unlike in the 2009 field school at Songo Mnara. The central mosque was looked at to understand Songo Mnara. Looking at the tombs, it was obvious people cared for those who were buried after they were first buried.
Songo Mnara is an Island built on top of a bed rock with sandy subsoil overlaying it. The proximity of the epicenter of Kilwa Kisiwani to Songo Mnara is a perfect area to look at for geoarchaeological research. The limited occupation makes it possible for researchers to understand what exactly was happening. Songo Mnara, in the 2011 field school, had samples sent for soil analysis looking at the sediments found and what was deposited during the time period that people were occupying the site. In order to do that, the geoarchaeologists looked at microstratigraphy chemical and phytolith analyses to complete the bigger picture of what was deposited naturally and what was deposited by people living at the site. Two open spaces were tested: one at the north end of Songo Mnara, and one at the south end. In order to tell the difference of what was being shown, a reference sample was taken from the area. More samples were also taken from the rooms that had fill in them and the floors of the houses. The open areas showed two different kinds of sediment found, one being the sediment normal for the region. The other was located in areas where there were a lot of activity, just a patch of it within the testing area. When looking at house 44, a great number of palm phytoliths were found, which is not a natural occurrence. The purpose of this research is to determine what is from the environment and what is from human activity in reconstructing what happened at Songo Mnara.
The research done at Songo Mnara’s public space is to see how urban centers can help us understand layouts of cities. Within the wall around the town, there is a great deal of space that does not have any architecture, and a public space. Both graveyards and mosques are also considered a public space. Archaeological testing, phytoliths and micromorphology techniques, are a new way of looking at public space. Seven different locations were looked at when doing this research: the western shoreline and areas associated with wattle and daub housing. These areas hold a large variety of artifacts associated with houses within the open space. When looking at the geochemical data, it was found there was a large amount of human activity in the areas of the western shore and areas associated with the wattle and daub houses. Location three looked at space looking at the public spaces and the cemetery/mosque space. During testing of this area, Iron tools were uncovered in primary context, showing there was iron smithing at Songo Mnara. Location four is graves and tombs in the central area, showing the people memorialized the people who were buried there. For memorializing those buried, there were Kilwa coins in remembrance of the loved one buried there. There were ceramic shards found, which would have been used for offering in remembrance of the buried. Location five is the mosque and graveyard. This section was looked at for how the markers were laid out, along with where the mosques were positioned. The geophysical looked at the soil being good for the burial, and no grave goods were uncovered. The sixth location is the public well area, showing this location is the most private place out of all the areas. There was also a midden when doing excavations around the well with a variety of artifacts. The last place looked at is the northern public space, showing with the phytolith research that there were possible garden plots or orchards in the area. During excavations, a variety of domestic and household items were found in this area because it was so close to the houses. In looking at public spaces at Mnara, there were three different areas of public spaces: organized centers, green space and areas of non-elite members’ areas.
Houses as public spaces
When looking at the house as an open space, research has been done with the comparison of house 44 and the other houses excavated during the years of work at Songo Mnara. Reasoning behind the comparison is the fact that house 4 is simpler compared to most of the others. The back rooms had a bunch of artifacts, but the entrance room only contained traces of palm phytoliths in the sampling. The back rooms each had different activities for the open space in houses. Excavations of many other houses follow some of what was seen in house 44. The entrance room in house 31 and a center room in house 23 were different than what was seen in those rooms in house 44. One reason for house 23’s differences is because the house is grander than house 44. The artifacts discovered in each room of each house showed a different activity. Coins within the middens all over the site, along with burials inside the back room, suggest the house is not private, but a public space to do business. This is different than how Swahili coast houses are have been researched in the past. All of the evidence suggests what played out within a city of trade is showing up in the houses that people live in. This shows there is not always a defined way of showing there is a public space and a private space.
Kilwa type coins
The coins date from the 11th to 16th centuries. More coins were legible than coins that were not. They were uncovered by excavation trenches across Songo Mnara, mostly in the floor layers. Nāsir al-Dunya, ‘Ali b. al-Hasan, and al-Hasan b. Sulaimān were the types found on the site. The Nāsir al-Dunya was not easy to read due to poor preservation. ‘Ali b. al-Hasan markings make up most of the types of Kilwa coins at Songo Mnara. Coins could have been left on the surface from other people, as they predate when the site was occupied, due to dates earlier than occupation of the location.
Trade on the Swahili coast ranged from China, India and other countries who dealt with trade on the Indian Ocean. When looking at who traded with Songo Mnara, there was evidence of ceramic shards from China and southeast Asia. The Chinese ceramics were blue-and-white porcelain, green-glazed stoneware dating from the 14th century. The Southeast Asian pieces were unglazed and green-glazed stoneware from Thi. Only a small amount of imported goods were found due to the agriculture that was carried out at the site. The ceramics found at Songo Mnara were exchange goods.
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Archaeology Magazine article on Songo Mnara: http://archaeology.org/issues/116-1401/features/1634-swahili-coast-towns