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Urban Transitions in the Zanzibar archipelago

Urban transitions in the Zanzibar archipelago

The Urban Transitions project (2016- ) is examining the development of settlement and urbanisation in the Zanzibar archipelago. Here, the first towns emerged in the mid-1st millenium ad and as these early settlements appear to decline, completely new forms of stone-built towns emerge in the early 2nd millenium AD fully engaged in Indian Ocean trade, contributing to the making of medieval global trade networks. Yet, the landscapes and environmental dynamics associated with settlement and urban phenomena remain largely know. What made these towns thrive? How did past societies negotiate new environments, growth and change? What is the link between early settlements and stone-built towns? Zanzibar’s exceptional archaeological record has the potential to unlock the role and impact of transition processes in understanding urban dynamics and resilience, yet it remains largely unexplored.

Early towns, trade and environments in medieval eastern Africa

In the global history of medieval networks and commercial exchange, Zanzibar has a special place. From around the 6th century AD, the coast of eastern Africa emerged as a nodal point for connecting people and commodities spanning the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. The first coastal settlements appear on Zanzibar Island, where new settlers had to negotiate new environments and challenges such as accessing fresh water. The early settlement of Unguja Ukuu has returned very rich deposits of local material culture together with exotic goods from the Persian Gulf and Asia from the 7th century AD. There is evidence for a long but fragmented sequence of occupation supported by fishing, cultivated plants, hunting and only limited domestic animals. From the 11th century, a broader shift in settlement is attested in the region and expressed by the founding of new towns characterised by coral-built architecture in different places such as Tumbatu, a small and difficult-to-access island off the NW coast of Zanzibar. Here, impressive remains testify to a complex, urban layout with multiple mosques, monumental houses and other buildings, and the presence of exotic goods. These new urban expressions will become a characterising feature of Swahili culture along the coast of eastern Africa.

The early towns of Zanzibar, thus, contain the history of early urban transitions within trading networks linking the Indian Ocean, Africa and Europe. What makes Zanzibar unique is its well-preserved urban record suitable for developing high-definition archaeology to examine the role and impact of transition processes in urban dynamics. To take this research forward, the proposed research will investigate the urban dynamics of Unguja Ukuu and Tumbatu, and how these relate to changes and continuities within the region and in the wider context of the Indian Ocean. In so doing, the results will expand knowledge about medieval networks, and on urban resilience during climate change.

Contextual and high-definition archaeology

The project is developing a high-definition approach, combining methods from the humanities and geosciences to examine archaeological stratigraphies, material culture, landscape sequences, and associated environmental proxies at two sites: Unguja Ukuu and Tumbatu Island.

Contextual excavations of house and domestic deposits are being undertaken in parallel with systematic artefact and soil sampling. Artefact distribution together with soil physical, chemical and micromorphological analyses aim at detecting, extracting and interpreting the footprints of spatial organisation and activities. Study of material culture (building materials, ceramics, glass and metal) together with organic and biogenic materials is investigating local resource uses, subsistence, and trade.

The Urban Transitions project is part of and funded by the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet) at Arhus University and carried out in collaboration with the University of York and the Department of Antiquities, Zanzibar. Additionally, the project has been awarded further support through a major research grant from the Leverhulme Trust.