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Urban transitions in the Zanzibar archipelago

The Urban Transitions project 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 unknown. 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.

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. 

  •  Urban footprint on the landscape
  •  The nature of the environment and resource use
  •  Urban life
  •  Timing transition processes

Urban footprint on the landscape

This strand will map the extent of settlement and how it has changed over time, focusing on Unguja Ukuu and Tumbatu Island. A combination of remote sensing, using satellite imagery and drones, and ground survey will be employed.

Environments and resource uses

Geoarchaeological survey, including test-pitting, will record and examine different landscape units. Laboratory analyses will characterise local environmental conditions, resources (land, water, vegetation), and changes to them. Analysis of plant and animal remains, building materials (plaster, mortar), and artefacts from house contexts will inform on the sources, uses and management of resources (food stuff, water, timber, etc.) at household level and how these relate to local landscape conditions. This will combine established techniques (e.g. soil micromorphology of building materials) with innovative methods (molecular analysis of food remains).

Urban life

Excavations of domestic structures will provide detailed archaeological stratigraphies and allow for systematic recording of artefacts and sampling (floors, outdoor spaces) for laboratory analyses to identify activity markers.

Timing transition processes

Our ambitious dating programme uses different methods and materials to date settlement dynamics and landscape sequences, and to examine seasonality of resource uses. Bayesian modelling will generate new high-definition chronologies of urban transition.