As an archaeologist of Africa, my past research has focused on two distinct, but related issues: the role of rural and non-elite populations in the political economy of small-scale complex societies, and the way that people use material culture and space in the establishment and maintenance of social inequality and power.
I have been exploring these issues through a number of projects on the East African ‘Swahili’ coast that focus on 7th- to 16th-century AD urban polities and rural settlements. The ancient Swahili of the eastern African littoral are often cast solely as Islamic merchant entrepreneurs, living in elaborate stone-built towns (stonetowns), and seeking to accumulate prestigious overseas goods. My work has sought to place this powerful minority and their elite spaces in wider context, through investigating the lower ranking, non-elite majority (in both the countryside and town), and by contextualizing elite urban spaces within the larger spatial practices of the town. These research strands have led me toward investigations of the more ephemeral parts of the ancient Swahili world, including villages, impermanent architecture, and open/empty spaces. My work on rural and non-elite parts of the Swahili world focused on Pemba Island, Tanzania, where I conducted survey and excavations from 1999-2006 (partly in collaboration with Adria LaViolette and Bertram Mapunda). This research has sought to show how these people participated in and were important to the multiple scales of the Swahili world: in coastal towns, the regional political economy, and the Indian Ocean world.
My current research focuses on the use of material culture and space in Swahili public and private life. Beginning in 2009, I have been working with Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of York) at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Songo Mnara, a monumental 15th- to 16th-century Swahili town on the southern Tanzanian coast. This research, funded by the National Science Foundation and Arts and Humanities Research Council, focuses on domestic contexts in and outside houses, as well as the first-ever effort to understand public spaces within a Swahili urban context. This includes investigating how open space was created and maintained, the types of productive and practical activities occurring within central open areas, as well as ritual activities associated with centrally-located tombs, mosques, and cemeteries. Methodologically, this project includes scientific analyses new to east African archaeology, including geophysical surveys and geoarchaeological research, carried out in collaboration with colleagues in the United Kingdom. This work contributes to a nascent literature on the way ‘empty’ spaces in urban milieu were locations where social power could be established and maintained, as well as the way that monuments (like Swahili tombs) and the spaces that surround them may have been active sites of memory-making, a part of the strategic use of the past for the present.
Since 2009, I have directed the Rice University Archaeological Field School, which takes place every other year at Songo Mnara. For information, please visit the Field School website.