Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Swahili World--architecture

"Swahili houses acted as symbolic representations of corporate groups across generations, provided for the safekeeping of both physical and intangible possessions crucial to the maintenance of elite corporate groups, and played a crucial role in the negotiation of status and power within their local communities and beyond." (Fleisher and LaViolette, 2007, p.177)

"As a woman, I felt that exploring houses, a women's domainwithin the Swahili context, might yield new insights." (Donley, 1987, p.183)

"Swahili elites constructed themselves consciously with elegant architecture, piety, privacy,cosmopolitan dress and d├ęcor, creating idioms which defined coastal life." (La Violette, 2008, p. 42)

Above: A stone house. From

The above quotations are merely a glimpse at the wide variety of approaches one may take towards the architecture and archaeology of the Swahili. From earliest archaeological evidence of coastal life, along Africa's eastern coast, 6th and 7th century villages displayed a mixture of interior Iron Age material culture and imported goods from distant locales across the Indian Ocean. Around 8th century, Islam spread to the eastern African coast, and had become a prominent cultural influence by the 13th century. Within this time frame, coastal urban centers began to appear, featuring conspicuous stone houses and mosques. While some of these stone houses are still standing today, many scholars view them as invaluable sources of information in nearly every facet of Swahili culture, identity, economy, etc.

Above: an earth-and-thatch house. From
Considering both the importance and the shortcomings inherent in domestic archaeology, how do you think our own assumptions about gender/class/ethnicity manifest in our analysis of Swahili stone houses? How may these buildings influence the way we think about domestic archaeology? The stone house, while certainly a valuable piece of property, also has a more autonomous nature than most other possessions due to its longevity and to the spiritual and physical ideology of its inhabitants. From the rituals associated and preformed within the house to the presence of only a single stone house and a single stone mosque in an archaeological context, the relationship between these venerable structures and their people offer myriad exploration of critical issues in historical archaeology.

Donley, L. W. (1987). Life in the Swahili Town House Reveals the Symbolic Meaning of Spaces and Artefact Assemblages. The African Archaeological Review 5:181-192.

LaViolette, A. and J. Fleischer (2007). The Changing Power of Swahili Houses, Fourteenth to Nineteenth Centuries A.D. In The Durable House: House society models in archaeology, ed. Robin A. Beck, Jr. 175-197.

LaViolette, A. and J. Fleischer (2008). Swahili Cosmopolitanism in Africa and the Indian Ocean World, A.D. 600-1500. In The Archaeology of Colonialism and Contested Modernities, special thematic edition, eds. C. Cobb and D. Loren. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 4(1):24-49.

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