Existing archaeological and historical evidence suggests that, at least for after the 8th c. AD, communities living on the East African coast were clearly maritime societies, and these proto-Swahili and Swahili societies are often referred to as such in the literature. However, until recently very few investigations have examined this regions’ archaeology from an explicitly maritime perspective, except in terms of long-distance maritime trade. While important, maritime archaeology acknowledges that there are other factors, beyond maritime trade, that need to be present for a society to be considered maritime in nature. Collectively, these features comprise a ‘maritime cultural landscape’ (after Westerdahl). The overall objective of this research, therefore, is to assess whether early and later Swahili settlement of the Indian Ocean seaboard of eastern Africa qualifies as a ‘maritime cultural landscape’.
The primary study area for this research is the Mafia archipelago, a group of islands situated off the coast of Tanzania, where pre-Swahili ‘Iron Age’, classic ‘Swahili period’, and ‘late Swahili’ sites are all known to exist. Using a combination of maritime and terrestrial survey, excavation and ethnoarchaeological research, the project is designed to evaluate the changing nature of maritime interaction and exploitation in the Mafia archipelago, focusing on three distinct time-periods: the 6th – 8th c. AD; 10th – 15th c. AD and 19th and 20th c. AD. This will be accomplished by determining the resources that were exploited and the tools and techniques used in their extraction. Additionally, this aspect of the research focuses on understanding the influences of maritime exploitation on the socio-cultural and ideological organisation of society, for example through its influence on the gendered division of labour, or differential control of, or access to particular resources. This component of the investigations will be situated in an environmental context to assess which natural and/or human processes drove changing patterns of resource exploitation, and what influence (if any) these changes had on socio-cultural and ideological organisation. Several ethnographic studies have been conducted in other areas that highlight the importance of the sea in the construction of social identities. Accordingly, and concurrent with the archaeological elements, an ethnoarchaeological approach is being employed to evaluate the relationship between Mafia’s diverse communities and their marine environment, with the aim of examining the influence of the sea on worldview and ideology.