Swahili Material Worlds
Swahili Material Worlds
The abiding importance of objects and spaces in the Swahili world makes this a fertile ground for archaeological exploration, as well as for material ethnography. This volume therefore picks up on a rich history of writing on objects and settings on the coast, and in the Indian Ocean world more generally. As such, the eastern African coast has potential for broader considerations of the role of objects in social life, an important field of both archaeological and anthropological interest. The more recent past on the Swahili coast has long been recognized for this potential. Contemporary understandings of materiality on the Swahili coast—notably in Lamu and Zanzibar—have provided key case studies for archaeological treatments of objects and spaces (particularly Donley 1982, 1987; Donley-Reid 1990a, b) as well as for the growing field of material culture studies in global history (Prestholdt 1998, 2008). The contemporary world of objects and structured spaces also, of course, provides a framework for viewing the precolonial coast, and tropes that have emerged in Swahili historiography often owe their roots to ethnography. The importance of the Swahili house, for example, has been stressed in contemporary Lamu and Zanzibar, with authors demonstrating links between stone-house ownership, ancestry, modes of occupancy, and the self-identification of groups in the Swahili world (Allen 1979, 1981; Bissell 2000; el-Zein 1974; Ghaidan 1971, 1974, 1975; Myers 1996; Sheriff 1992, 2001–2). The importance of cosmopolitanism and overseas connections is also emphasized in the interiors of these houses—a practice that appears of long standing (Meier 2009; Prestholdt 2008). Forms of consumption and display, and particularly the practice of conspicuous generosity, also have a particular power on the Swahili coast, wielded more recently by newcomer groups as a means of creating identities in coastal society (Fair 1998, 2001; Glassman 1995). Even the identity claims of coastal urbanites, which in the twentieth century emphasized Arab ancestry in order to gain a competitive advantage under European colonial powers, echoed the claims for ‘Shirazi’ origins found in the origin stories of earlier Swahili settlements and families (Allen 1982; Pouwels 1984; Spear 2003).
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