What’s on : Lectures

African urbanism from the ground up: exploring urban lives on the Swahili coast

23 Nov 2021
Start time
7:30 PM
Stephanie Wynne-Jones, University of York
African urbanism from the ground up: exploring urban lives on the Swahili coast

Event Information

African urbanism from the ground up: exploring urban lives on the Swahili coast
Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, University of York

Pre-colonial 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 pre-colonial 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 14th – 16th 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.

The winners of the Charles Wellbeloved and Herman Ramm awards to University of York Archaeology Department students will be announced at the beginning of the lecture.

This lecture will be held on Zoom and invitations will be sent to YPS members and the general mailing list two days before the event. This is a free event but non members can help to cover our lecture programme costs by donating here:

Donate to YPS here

Member’s report


The Swahili Coast is an area of Southeast Africa facing the Indian Ocean. Some 3000-miles long it contains several pre-colonial city states, long abandoned and in ruins, once occupied by Islamic traders. At Songo Mnara, for instance, there are many mosques including one on each side of the town entrance. An empty walled town, it is now a World Heritage Site, and an ongoing archaeological case study into what makes a city, has examined urban lifestyles unique to the area. A trading centre, lacking a forum or market, the city’s focal point was a huge burial ground. There is evidence of an elite class living in very large elaborate houses built around courtyards, with workers living in wattle and daub buildings, but excavations suggest that wealth was spread evenly. Among many other fascinating details, finds include gold, silver and copper coins. Songo Mnara, like other such towns, produced its own currency only for local trade and exchange.

One reason for the towns’ abandonment was due to the arrival of Portuguese settlers who brought with them disease and a different religion.

Ken Hutson