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Songo Mnara

Urban space, social memory and materiality


The Archaeology Magazine profiled the Songo Mnara project in the January/February 2014 issue

Songo Mnara is one of the more prominent Swahili stonetowns, nestled in the Kilwa archipelago on the southern coast of Tanzania. Songo Mnara was a central participant in Indian Ocean commerce during the long 15th century AD, facilitating exchanges of goods from the African continent with traders from ports in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and western India. The importance of this site is underscored by its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage site list.

Despite excellent preservation, only cursory recording of architectural features had previously been conducted at the site. Most research in the region had 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 room-blocks, 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. Compared to the 800-year occupation of nearby Kilwa, the relatively short, 150-year occupation of Songo Mnara makes it an ideal candidate to examine household and public spaces from a discrete period in time.

This project seeks to explore the urban space of Songo Mnara, as an example of the structuring of a Swahili stonetown. Fieldwork encompasses a range of different techniques aimed at understanding activities across the site, and includes geophysical survey, excavation, geochemical testing, phytolith and palaeobotanical studies, and analysis of finds such as ceramics, coins, and faunal remains.

Research at Songo Mnara is funded by the National Science Foundation (US) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). We have also received funds from the Society of Antiquaries of London, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, the Leverhulme Trust and the Social Sciences Research Institute of Rice University.


Regional activities:

  • Geophysical survey extended to Kilwa Kisiwani in 2011;
  • In addition, survey of the island landscape and of the coastal foreshore were undertaken by affiliated researchers Matthew Pawlowicz (Virginia Commonwealth University), Jack Stoetzel (University of Virginia) and Edward Pollard (British Institute in Eastern Africa).

Site-level activities: 

  • Intensive sampling across open areas, with shovel test pits excavated to access archaeological layers and geochemical samples taken at this level;
  • Geophysical survey of the site undertaken by Dr Kate Welham, Charlene Steele and Harry Manley (Bournemouth University);
  • 3D laser scanning of the site was undertaken by Professor Heinz Ruther (University of Cape Town);
  • Excavations of a series of burials analysed by Professor Kate Robson Brown (University of Bristol).

Activities within and around structures:

  • Comparative excavations between different stone houses, targeting particular rooms within each;
  • Excavation of two entire wattle-and-daub structures, one including a bead manufacturing workshop;
  • Excavation of the central mosque and adjacent graveyard by Professor Mark Horton (University of Bristol);
  • Area excavations over features, such as iron-working area identified through geophysical survey and the central well.

Sampling and analysis

  • All deposits sampled for flotation and palaeobotanical analysis, conducted by Dr Sarah Walshaw (Simon Fraser University);
  • Faunal remains collected and analysed by Dr Thomas Biginagwa (University of Dar es Salaam) and Dr Erendira Quintana Morales (Rice University);
  • All deposits sampled for phytoliths and phytolith analysis being conducted by Hayley McParland (University of York);
  • Micromorphological sampling on particular sediments inside and outside houses overseen by Dr Federica Sulas (ISEM-CNR, Cagliari).


Project Directors

Geophysical survey

  • Dr. Kate Welham (Bournemouth University, UK)
  • Charlene Steele (Bournemouth University, UK)


  • Dr Federica Sulas (ISEM-CNR, Cagliari)

Palaeobotanical analysis

Phytolith analysis


  • Prof. Heinz Ruther (University of Cape Town, South Africa)
  • Benson Kimeu (British Institute in Eastern Africa, Kenya)
  • Mark Dover (Bournemouth University, UK)
  • Dr Matthew Pawlowicz (Virginia Commonwealth University, US)

Maritime archaeology

  • Dr Edward Pollard (British Institute in Eastern Africa, Kenya)

Publications and reports

Fieldwork reports

2011 season

2009 season

Articles and chapters


Fleisher, J and F. Sulas. 2015. Deciphering public spaces in urban contexts: Geophysical survey, multi-element soil analysis, and artifact distributions at the 15th-16th -century AD Swahili settlement of Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Journal of Archaeological Science 55:55-70.

Wynne-Jones, S. and J. Fleisher. 2015. Conservation, Community Archaeology and the Archaeologist as Mediator at Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Journal of Field Archaeology 40(1):110-119.

Fleisher, Jeffrey, Paul Lane, Adria LaViolette, Mark Horton, Edward Pollard, Erendira Quintana Morales, Thomas Vernet, Annalisa Christie, Stephanie Wynne-Jones. 2015. When did the Swahili become Maritime? American Anthropologist 117(1).


Fleisher, J. 2014. The Complexity of Public Space at the Swahili Town of Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 35:1-22.

Perkins, J., J. Fleisher, and S. Wynne-Jones. 2014. A deposit of Kilwa-Type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 49(1):102-116.

Welham, K., J. Fleisher, P. Cheetham, H. Manley, C. Steele, and S. Wynne-Jones. 2014. Geophysical Survey in Sub-Saharan Africa: Magnetic and Electromagnetic Investigation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Archaeological Prospection 21(4):255-262..

Wynne-Jones, S. and J. Fleisher. 2014. Water Management in a Maritime Culture: the Swahili Coast of East Africa. In From Jericho to Cities in the Seas:  A History of Urbanization and Water Systems, Series 3, Vol. 1, Terje Tvedt and Terje Oestigaard, eds. London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 240-258.

Wynne-Jones, S. and J. Fleisher. 2014. Swahili Urban Spaces of the Eastern African Coast.  In Making Ancient Cities: Comparative Perspectives on Origins, Form, and Function, K. Fisher and A.  Creekmore, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111-144.


Fleisher, J. 2013. Performance, monumentality and the ‘built exterior’ on the eastern African Swahili coast. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48(2):263-281.

Wynne-Jones, S. 2013. The Public Life of the Swahili Stonehouse, 14th - 15th centuries AD. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 32: 759-773.


Wynne-Jones, S. and J. Fleisher 2012. Coins in Context: Local Economy, Value and Practice on the East African Swahili Coast. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(1):19-36.

Sulas, F. and M. Madella. 2012. Archaeology at the micro-scale: micromorphology and phytoliths at a Swahili stonetown. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 4(2):145-159.

Pollard, E., J. Fleisher, S. Wynne-Jones. 2012. Beyond the Stone Town: Maritime Architecture at fourteenth – fifteenth century Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Journal of Maritime Archaeology 7(1):43-62.

Fleisher, J. and S. Wynne-Jones. 2012. Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spaces. African Archaeological Review 29(2/3):171-207.

Fleisher, J., S. Wynne-Jones, C. Steele, K. Welham. 2012. Geophysical Survey at Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania. Journal of African Archaeology 10(2):207-220.


Wynne-Jones, S. and J. Fleisher 2011. Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2011, Nyame Akuma 76:3-8.

Stoetzel, J. 2011. Archaeological Survey of Songo Mnara Island, Nyame Akuma 76:9-14.


Wynne-Jones, S. and J. Fleisher 2010. Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2009, Nyame Akuma 73:2-8.

Fleisher, J. and S. Wynne-Jones 2010. Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications, Numismatic Chronicle 170: 494-506.

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