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Urban Ecology and Transitions on the Zanzibar Archipelago


The Zanzibar archipelago off the coast of eastern Africa is home to some of the iconic sites of the Swahili urban tradition. The site of Unguja Ukuu (settled from the 7th century AD) has yielded remarkable evidence for integration into long-distance networks from first settlement. In the 10th century the site was depopulated, as part of a more general moment of transition on the Swahili coast. At this time new centres were being formed, including the site of Tumbatu on the northern coast of Zanzibar, where a stone-built town flourished from the 11th to the 15th centuries, containing a mosque and grand houses built of coral.

The Urban Ecology and Transitions project aims to understand this urban tradition in its local context, focusing on the resource landscapes that were used and transformed by inhabitants of these growing centres. Contrasting investigations at Unguja Ukuu and at Tumbatu seek to explore how local landscape use changed over time.

Two seasons of fieldwork at Unguja Ukuu have now been completed, resulting in the excavation of some of the first earthen houses explored for the Swahili coast. These were subjected to high-resolution sampling and recording, as a means of recovering information on artefacts and ecofacts in domestic contexts. The results are still in progress, but radiocarbon dating has already shown that it is possible to recover generational scale detail on this developing settlement. Geoarchaeology at the site has given detail on interior and exterior contexts. A focus going forward will be the landscape scale, exploring the creation of agricultural hinterlands around the two sites.

Grants: The project has been awarded additional support through a major research grant from The Leverhulme Trust, UK.

PIs: Stephanie Wynne-Jones (Urbnet core group and University of York) and Federica Sulas (Urbnet and University of Cambridge)

For more information on the project visit the project website: https://urbanecologyzanzibar.wordpress.com/