DIGGING UP ZANZIBAR

Inscriptions from a prayer niche in the mosque on Tumbatu island.

Of all the things that Zanzibar is famous for, its archaeology is probably not one. Yet for 1989, African archaeology was essentially Zanzibar’s with no less than three major international projects in the Isles. The results of last summers ‘ diggings promise to change much of what we thought we knew about the history of the East African coast. During the British period there was a very ambivalent attitude towards the past. On the one hand careful records were made of the standing antiquities accompanied by some sober and, more often, wild speculation. A museum was built but many of the objects there were poorly catalogued and many coins were lost. Colonial officials did their best to demolish the most important ruins – parts of the Marahubi Palace were taken down in the fifties as unsafe, while only the Revolution in Zanzibar saved the Chake Chake Fort whose fate had been almost sealed by 0 proposed hospital expansion in late 1963. A little archaeology took place at Ras Mkumbu, which Sir J. Gray thought was the ancient city of Kanbalu. Dr James Kirkman showed that he was wrong. After 1963 all research stopped, and responsibility shifted from one Ministry to another. Many of the monuments fell down; a few more were destroyed for their stones.

In 1984 we were invited by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism to undertake a survey of Zanzibar’s archaeological sites and monuments. In collaboration with Abdulrahman M Juma, the Anti qui ties Officer of the Ministry, we found over 60 sites during the next two years. At many of these we dug ‘test pits’ (small holes a metre square) which produce a sequence of pottery and stratigraphy that provide a clear indication of the date range and wealth of the community.

One find was especially spectacular. At Mtambwe Mkuu, a large town of the 11th century in Pemba, which is even mentioned by Arab geographers by the name of Tamby, we found intact a large hoard of gold and silver coins, buried in a cloth pouch. The gold coins were all Fatimid dinars from Egypt, the latest dating to 1066 AD. But the silver coins, which numbered over 2,000, were of greater historical interest. They were locally minted – probably at Mtambwe itself – and give the names of nine local rulers living in the 11th century.

The next stage was detailed mapping and area excavation work. In 1989 three different groups were each allocated a major site. The Ministry itself worked at Unguja Ukuu, with help from SAREC and the Urban Origins Project; the University of Dar es Salaam worked at Pujini in Pemba; we worked with the British Institute in Eastern Africa on Tumbatu island.

Unguja Mkuu may well turn out to be the earliest site on the whole African coast. It covers a massive area of at least 30 hectares, with middens, buried walls, and what appears to be part of a fortification.

A burial site was also excavated with clear evidence of a spear wound in the skull. Abdulrahman Juma was able to identify a wide range of pottery and glass finds, including Chinese Tang Stonewares and very early Islamic moulded wares, possibly as early as the 7th century. Languja is mentioned by Al Jahiz in the 9th century, as one of the most important ports on the coast. Abdulrahman Juma seems to have found it at Unguja Ukuu.

The work at Pujini identified a rather different site, probably dating to the 15th century. Traditions link Pujini with a tyrannical ruler of Pemba, Mdame Mkume, who, among other things, forced the workers who built Pujini to carry the stones on their heads while shuffling on their buttocks. The work here, led by Dr. Adria LaViolette, found no direct archaeological evidence for such practices but a large and quite unique fortress was uncovered. Surrounded by large ramparts and a ditch, a square enclosure contained a number of stone houses, as well as two subterranean chamber s . Such fortifications are very rare before the arrival of firearms on the coast and the only explanation is that Pujini was the product of fantasy.

The third project on Tumbatu attempted to uncover parts of the best preserved medieval town on the islands. Tumbatu is, almost certainly, the Tumbat, mentioned by Yakut as the place where the ruler of the Zanj lived in the 13th century. It is a large town covering 20 hectares with over 40 ruined houses and mounds. There are at least four mosques of which three were discovered last year. In one of the mosques, the mihrab or prayer niche was excavated and found to contain an almost complete inscription collapsed on the floor. This was carved in local coral, using floriate Kufic script. Only one other example of such a script is known from East Africa and that is at Kizimkazi, where it is dated to 500/1107 AD. We are sure that the Tumbatu inscription was by the same craftsman. The style used is very close to recently discovered tombstones from the Persian Gulf port of Siraf, which was the seaport for Shiraz. Here, for the first time, we have some archaeological proof behind the many Shirazi traditions in Zanzibar, which were echoed in modern times, for example, in the name of the Afro-Shirazi Party.

We are sure that 1990 will yield more from, the buried soils of Zanzibar and Pemba where further work is planned at all three sites. Meanwhile, some of the more spectacular finds have already been put on display in the Zanzibar Museum. (Further information is available from the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford OXl 3PP – Editor).
Mark Horton

1 Comment »

  1. Tanzanian Affairs » 36 YEARS OF TANZANIAN AFFAIRS – PART 1 said,

    September 3, 2011 at 10:57 am

    […] 35 contains an article by Mark Horton on “Digging up Zanzibar” – a survey of Zanzibar’s archaeological sites and monuments. A related article in issue 37 […]

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