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A Material CultureConsumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa$
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Stephanie Wynne-Jones

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198759317

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198759317.001.0001

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The Indian Ocean before the Arrival of Europeans

The Indian Ocean before the Arrival of Europeans

Chapter:
(p.173) 7 The Indian Ocean before the Arrival of Europeans
Source:
A Material Culture
Author(s):

Stephanie Wynne-Jones

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780198759317.003.0012

The precolonial Swahili coast was thus a region united through particular material practices. In this volume, consumption and display have been emphasized as aspects that are very clearly evident in the archaeological record. More ephemeral practices, such as ritual, dance, or public acts of memorialization, are only now being incorporated into our understandings, bringing the picture of the precolonial coast into line with what is known of more recent periods (see Chapter 8). Yet tangible acts of display and the use of material objects in certain contexts served to delineate a particular cultural area, as well as to link them to a broader Indian Ocean sphere; the objects bound up into prominent acts were often derived from that world. As has been discussed, this served a purpose on the Swahili coast, where cosmopolitanism and the ability to claim connections with distant regions have long been important in the negotiation of identities. This might be seen as an unequal relationship: a region in which external symbols had special power, whether due to their intrinsic qualities or to the cultural hegemony of the societies from which they came (per Gosden 2004). This has often been the assumption on the eastern African coast, where commodities such as gold or ivory were traded for exotic objects such as glazed ceramics or beads. Yet this inequality is a difficult notion to test. First, as discussed in earlier chapters, the ocean was only one of the spheres of interaction in which the Swahili were active, albeit one that they chose to highlight. Second, it is probable that the imported goods we see on the coast, often in tiny quantities, were just a very small part of a much larger commodity trade. Ships would not have travelled empty to this region, and so the bulk of their cargo must have been made up of items we now do not see: cloth, foodstuffs, or raw materials long since consumed or formed into manufactured objects.

Keywords:   Ibn Battuta, Persian Gulf, Sharma, Siraf, Songo Mnara, hospitality, imported ceramics, monsoon trade

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