A Material Culture: Consumption and Materiality on the Coast of Precolonial East Africa

ISBN : 9780198759317

Stephanie Wynne-Jones
256 Pages
135 x 216 mm
Pub date
May 2016
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A Material Culture focuses on objects in Swahili society through the elaboration of an approach that sees both people and things as caught up in webs of mutual interaction. It therefore provides both a new theoretical intervention in some of the key themes in material culture studies, including the agency of objects and the ways they were linked to social identities, through the development of the notion of a biography of practice. These theoretical discussions are explored through the archaeology of the Swahili, on the Indian Ocean coast of eastern Africa. This coast was home to a series of 'stonetowns' (containing coral architecture) from the ninth century AD onwards, of which Kilwa Kisiwani is the most famous, considered here in regional context. These stonetowns were deeply involved in maritime trade, carried out among a diverse, Islamic population. This book suggests that the Swahili are a highly-significant case study for exploration of the relationship between objects and people in the past, as the society was constituted and defined through a particular material setting. Further, it is suggested that this relationship was subtly different than in other areas, and particularly from western models that dominate prevailing analysis. The case is made for an alternative form of materiality, perhaps common to the wider Indian Ocean world, with an emphasis on redistribution and circulation rather than on the accumulation of wealth. The reader will therefore gain familiarity with a little-known and fascinating culture, as well as appreciating the ways that non-western examples can add to our theoretical models.


1 A Material Culture: Introduction
2 Objects in the Swahili World
3 Kilwa Kisiwani: Establishing a Town
4 Vumba Kuu: Negotiating Similarity and Difference
5 The Nyika: Moving Inland from the Coast
6 Community and Identity in Material Culture
7 The Indian Ocean Before the Arrival of Europeans
8 Swahili Material Worlds

About the author: 

Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones is a lecturer at the University of York. Her work focuses on the archaeology of the Swahili coast of eastern Africa and particularly on the role of objects and material culture in that society. Her previous roles include the Assistant Directorship of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship. She has directed extensive fieldwork in eastern Africa, including at Songo Mnara, Vumba Kuu (Kenya), Uvinza, Ujiji, Mafia Island, and Kilwa (Tanzania).

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