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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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A Material Culture: Introduction

A Material Culture: Introduction

(p.1) 1 A Material Culture: Introduction
A Material Culture

Stephanie Wynne-Jones

Oxford University Press

Africa’s eastern littoral borders the Indian Ocean, providing the setting for the settlements, people, and language known collectively as Swahili, which have been a key part of that ocean’s trading networks for at least two millennia. Graeco-Roman sailors visited the now-forgotten metropolis of Rhapta, and their voyages were recorded in the narratives that later became the first-century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Casson 1989). Traces of that early contact survive in the form of beads and coins, yet are limited in number and diffuse in nature (Chami and Msemwa 1997a; Horton 1990). From the seventh century onwards, a series of more permanent settlements began to monopolize this trade; by the eleventh century some of these had grown into towns that were able to control and provide a focus for the mercantile opportunities of the Indian Ocean. The trading economy of Swahili towns was based on the wealth of the African continent—gold and ivory were particularly valuable exports—and underlain by a mixed economy and diverse population of fishers and farmers, traders and craft-workers (Horton and Middleton 2000; Kusimba 2008). By the ‘golden age’ of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Swahili were an African society of considerable cosmopolitanism and fame, with towns like Kilwa Kisiwani known throughout the medieval world (Sutton 1993, 1997). Swahili archaeology is focused, conceptually and methodologically, on the series of stone towns that grew up along Africa’s eastern coast from the end of the first millennium AD. These towns developed as key nodes in both local and international networks of interaction, and became the conduits through which the African continent traded and communicated with the wider Indian Ocean world. The material settings of the towns, and particularly the distinctive tradition of coral architecture they contain, embody their cosmopolitanism, with this locally derived building tradition creating unique urban spaces that nevertheless reference the Islamic architecture of the Arabian Peninsula and Persian Gulf (Garlake 1966). Archaeology on this coast is still relatively new, dating back only to the 1950s and 1960s, and to the pioneering work of researchers convinced they had discovered evidence for Arab trading stations on the coast of eastern Africa (Kirkman 1964).

Keywords:   Actor Network Theory (ANT), Semiotics, Swahili language, chronology, identity, materiality, urbanism

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