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Songo Mnara (Tanzania)

Swahili Coast Stonehouse Community

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Great Mosque at Songo Mnara

Great Mosque at Songo Mnara

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011
Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara

Courtyard of the Palace at Songo Mnara

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011
Mihrab of the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara

Mihrab of the Great Mosque at Songo Mnara

Stephanie Wynne-Jones/Jeffrey Fleisher, 2011

Songo Mnara is the name of a Swahili culture town, located on an island of the same name, within the Kilwa archipelago on the southern Swahili Coast of Tanzania. The island is separated from the famous site of Kilwa by a sea channel three kilometers (about two miles) wide. Songo Mnara was built and occupied between the late 14th and early 16th centuries.

The site features the well-preserved remains of at least 40 large domestic room-blocks, five mosques and hundreds of graves, surrounded by a town wall. At the center of the town is an open area, where tombs, a walled cemetery and one of the mosques are located. A second plaza is located within the northern part of the site, and residential room blocks are wrapped around both.

Living at Songo Mnara

Ordinary houses at Songo Mnara are made up of multiple interconnected rectangular rooms, each room measuring between 4 and 8.5 meters (13-27 feet) long and 2-2.5 m (~20 ft) wide. A representative house excavated in 2009 was House 44. The walls of this house were built of mortared rubble and coral, placed at ground level with a shallow foundation trench, and some of the floors and ceilings were plastered. Decorative elements at the doors and doorsteps were made of carved porites coral. The room at the back of the house contained a latrine and relatively clean, dense midden deposits.

Large quantities of beads and locally produced ceramic wares were found within House 44, as were numerous Kilwa-type coins. Concentrations of spindle whorls indicate thread spinning took place within the homes.

Elite Housing

House 23, a grander, more ornamental house was also excavated in 2009. This structure had a stepped internal courtyard, with many ornamental wall niches: interestingly, no plaster walls were observed within this house. One large, barrel-vaulted room contained small glazed imported bowls; other artifacts found here include glass vessel fragments and objects of iron and copper. Coins were in common use, found throughout the site, and dated to at least six different sultans at Kilwa. The mosque near the necropolis, according to Richard F. Burton who visited it in the mid-19th century, once contained Persian tiles, with a well-cut gateway.

A cemetery at Songo Mnara is located in the central open space; the most monumental houses are located near the space and built atop coral outcrops raised above the level of the remainder of the houses. Four staircases lead from the houses to the open area.

Coins

Over 500 Kilwa copper coins have been recovered from ongoing Songo Mnara excavations, dated between the 11th and 15th centuries, and from at least six different Kilwa sultans. Many of them are cut into quarters or halves; some are pierced. The weight and size of the coins, traits typically identified by numismatists as a key to value, varies considerably.

Most of the coins date between the early fourteenth to late fifteenth centuries, associated with the sultan Ali ibn al-Hasan, dated to the 11th century; al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman of the 14th century; and a type known as "Nasir al-Dunya" dated to the 15th century but not identified with a specific sultan. The coins were found throughout the site, but about 30 were found within different layers of a midden deposit from the back room of House 44.

Based on the location of the coins throughout the site, their lack of standardized weight and their cut state, scholars Wynne-Jones and Fleisher (2012) believe they represent currency for local transactions. However, the piercing of some of the coins suggest that they were also used as symbols and decorative commemoration of the rulers.

Archaeology

Songo Mnara was visited by the British wanderer Richard F. Burton in the mid-19th century. Some investigations were conducted by M.H. Dorman in the 1930s and again by Peter Garlake in 1966. Extensive ongoing excavations are being conducted by Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Jeffrey Fleisher since 2009; a survey of the islands in the vicinity was performed in 2011. The work is supported by antiquities officials at the Tanzanian Department of Antiquities, who are participating in conservation decisions, and with the collaboration of World Monuments Fund, for the support of undergraduate students.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Swahili culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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

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

Wynne-Jones S, and Fleisher J. 2010. Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania, 2009. Nyame Akuma 73:2-9.

Fleisher J, and Wynne-Jones S. 2010. Archaeological Investigations at Songo Mnara, Tanzania: Urban Space, Social Memory and Materiality on the 15th- and 16th-century Southern Swahili Coast. Department of Antiquities, Republic of Tanzania.

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

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