Songo Mnara, once a thriving city off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, has been empty and abandoned for many more centuries than it flourished. A city no longer, it has crumbled, unoccupied and undisturbed, for more than 600 years. The island town, which developed as a trading port, has remained relatively untouched since it was deserted around 1500.
Jeffrey Fleisher, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rice University, already has spent two summers sifting through the ruins of this 15th-century Swahili settlement. He and his partner on the project, University of York archaeologist Stephanie Wynne-Jones, chose to study this remote place as an example of ‘ancient urbanism.’
‘We’re interested in why cities worked the way they worked and why cities looked the way they looked,’ Fleisher said, noting that Songo Mnara is an excellent subject for study.
‘The town was built very rapidly and then was lived in for 100-150 years and then abandoned,’ Fleisher said. ‘And because it was in a pretty remote place, nobody ever lived there since.’
This makes Songo Mnara prime property for archaeologists who want to study how urban areas develop. More than 40 houses and several mosques are still partially standing. Rather than burrow down through several layers of deposits to understand how a city developed over hundreds of years, Fleisher and his team can study this well-preserved ‘snapshot’ of a city that was built and deserted in a short amount of time.
‘Instead of going deep,’ Fleisher said, ‘we can go wide, and we can begin to look at the spatial arrangement.’
It’s a different kind of archaeology for East Africa, and that’s why most archaeologists have shown no interest in Songo Mnara, Fleisher said. ‘But that’s exactly why we’re interested in it.’
In 2009 and 2011, Fleisher, some other archaeologists and a team of students – including a few Rice anthropology majors – made six-week journeys to this island that has no fresh water or electricity. ‘It’s pretty rustic,’ Fleisher said; they waded through a mangrove swamp to reach the site and camped in tents near the ruins. Here they looked for clues as to how the town developed and how its people lived – their daily activities, how they used their buildings and their public spaces, where they gathered and why.
Fleisher has split up the project with his partner, and each leads a team with a different focus. Fleisher said Wynne-Jones’ work ‘is very much focused on the domestic structures, the houses. And I’m interested in the spaces between the houses – the open spaces.’
It’s a tricky goal, trying to find what’s not there. Fleisher’s team has used magnetometry to locate places underground where the soil has been disturbed. They have also located phytoliths, which are plant fossils of silica that some plants leave behind, indicating where they were planted or used.
With these clues, the team identified a rectangular open space near the city’s wall. They dug about 300 small holes into that open area, then picked up artifacts and took soil samples that will help determine how this space was used.
‘What we don’t really know about is: What were people doing in the open spaces?’ Fleisher said. ‘Were these spaces gardens, orchards, markets? Were there places people made offerings outside?’