Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2009
By Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Jeffrey Fleisher
Nyame Akuma: Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists, Vol. 73 (2010)
Introduction: Songo Mnara, in the Kilwa archipelago on the southern coast of Tanzania, is the setting for a new research project exploring the use of space across a Swahili urban center. This paper reports on the first field season, completed July 2009, under COSTECH permit no. RCA2009/46.1 Fieldwork aimed to explore spatial practice at this ancient urban center across the range of public and private contexts. Domestic, monumental and cemetery spaces were explored, in an attempt to trace particular material signatures related to domestic activity and to ritual/commemorative practices around centrally-located cemeteries and open areas.
Despite Songo Mnara’s prominence and excellent preservation, most of the work completed there has been focused on recording the extensive architecture; only test excavations have been conducted at the site. Most research in the region has been focused on the more famous and well-known site of Kilwa Kisiwani.
Songo Mnara is dominated by the well-preserved remains of more than 40 large domestic roomblocks, five mosques, and numerous tombs. Room blocks wrap around and enclose an open, central area of the site where tombs, a walled cemetery and a small mosque are located. The site was occupied for a maximum of 200 years, between the late 14th and early 16th centuries. This relatively short lifespan (in comparison with the 800-year occupation of Kilwa) means that the stratigraphy is simple, with little vertical complexity, making it an ideal site at which to explore horizontal variation and spatial patterning.