Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices

Jeffrey Fleisher, Stephanie Wynne-Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The development of the Swahili world involved new ways of organizing and conceiving of space. Archaeology and historical linguistics are both crucial in charting the trajectory of changing spatial practice during the late first and early second millennium AD, yet their respective datasets have been correlated only in specific and restricted ways. In this paper, we take the first steps toward working between archaeological and historical linguistic data to understand the changing contexts and meanings of Swahili spatial practice. We develop this argument in three parts. First, we review archaeological approaches to space in the Swahili world, and develop a holistic view of towns, including both confined and delimited space. Second, we offer an archaeologists’ perspective on the development of historical linguistics in relation to the Swahili world, exploring the changing relationship between linguistics and archaeology, and arguing for a greater appreciation of context in how archaeological materials are deployed with linguistic data. Finally, drawing on new data from Songo Mnara, a 14th-16th-century Swahili town on the southern Tanzania coast, we make a preliminary attempt to reconcile some aspects of the archaeological and linguistic datasets. Using published lexical innovations, we suggest ways that meaning might be found alternatively in archaeological and linguistic data. Our hope is to make some tentative steps towards a mutually satisfying way of working between disciplines.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-207
Number of pages37
JournalAfrican Archaeological Review
Issue number2-3
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Sep 2012


  • linguistics; Swahili; space; urban

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