Heritage Futures and Community Archaeology in Tanzania

Laura Bates
Wednesday 3 April 2019

The Kilwa Kisiwani site off the coast of Southern Tanzania was occupied from the 9th century and was one of the most powerful settlements along the Swahili Coast.  From the 13th to the 16th century, much of the trade in the Indian Ocean was handled by the merchants of Kilwa, who dealt in gold, silver, pearls, perfumes, Arabian crockery, Persian earthenware and Chinese porcelain. In 2004, the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani were placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/144).  The ruins include the Great Mosque, roofed entirely of domes and vaults, is the oldest standing mosque on this coast. The monuments are still in everyday use today by both villagers and as one of the oldest Muslim schools in East Africa. However, the pressure of daily use as well as the impacts of climate change, manifest by sea-level rise and increased weathering and vegetation growth, are threatening to severely degrade the heritage site.

The interdisciplinary ‘Safeguarding Heritage in Tanzania’ team from the University of St Andrews, comprising Dr Richard Bates, Donald Herd and Dr Ted Pollard (Earth & Environmental Sciences), Elie Graham (History), and Dr CJ Davies (Computer Science), together with colleagues from the University of Dar es Salaam (Dr Elgidius B. Ichumbaki), have recently returned from a highly successful field trip to Kilwa Kisiwani.

The team are investigating the Kilwa site using remote sensing technologies and had initiated a community-led programme for raising awareness to the potential loss of both tangible and intangible heritage in the area. Despite previous international aid programmes for protection of the tangible heritage, often little is done for the local community. In March 2019, the team hosted an education day, “Kilwa Bonanza”, with local schools, bringing to the island over 150 primary and secondary pupils for tours of the site.  Following the tours, the school groups were joined by over 250 people from the local community to enjoy the benefits of their heritage. Raising public awareness and the popularisation of the sites is being aided by the use of contemporary performing arts (https://youtu.be/xaD93UJqfOg).

In addition to the community groups, the “Kilwa Bonanza” was attended by local District Commissioner, representatives of the Department of Antiquities, Dept of Tourism and local business.  The Bonanza was catered for by a new start-up venture, WAUMAKI (The Woman’s Culture, Buildings and Heritage Organisation in Kilwa). This group aims to provide visitors to the site with tour guiding, transport around the site and local region, catering for the visitors as well as offering a range of indigenous, locally-produced hand-craft.

Kilwa was a site that is intimately associated with the sea, with people relying on the sea for resources and, historically, for trade. The nearshore coast also contains heritage in the form of submerged structures, due to sea-level rise, and shipwrecks.  As part of their preservation training, the ‘Safeguarding Heritage’ team taught the first Nautical Archaeological Society underwater archaeology courses (Parts I & II) in East Africa to a group of local divers from government agencies, university departments and local tour companies.  The trained divers will provide a valuable resource for maritime archaeological investigation in the future. Some stunning new finds from a possible 13th century wreck near the old Omani port in Kilwa were recovered on the last day of training.

As Tanzania does not have a country-wide digital database for their cultural heritage, the team met with the Director General of National Museums in Dar es Salaam as the first step to working with them to produce a national cultural database. A digital record is seen as a vital resource for recording sites (such as those at Olduvai Gorge where the Leakeys accomplished their ground-breaking work on early hominins), managing sites, protecting them and creating a long-term legacy for the country. It is hoped that the approach adopted by the project in Kilwa, especially the inclusion of community outreach, will provide a blue-print for other sites across Tanzania and Africa.

Tanzanian staff from the University of Dar es Salaam will be visiting the University of St Andrews in May to train on field and processing digital techniques and to work on some joint Scottish-Tanzanian fusion of musical experiences in the promotion of our joint heritage. For more on the project, see www.urithiwetu.org.

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