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Temporality of permanence –material and socio-spatial practices in African urbanism

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - TEMPEA (Temporality of permanence –material and socio-spatial practices in African urbanism)

Reporting period: 2017-05-14 to 2018-05-13

The built environment has always played an important part in defining and shaping aspects of identity, social practices and the structure of urban societies. Understanding the underlying logic of the changing and stable elements of the spatial structure of towns in a long-term perspective is ever more relevant in the context of our rapidly urbanising present-day world. This holds true especially for Africa, where urban development represents an important, and for long under-theorised, reference collection for comparative analyses of the interplay between constructed space and social change. The ebbs and flows of urbanisation represent one of the key issues in research on human settlements as well as a major concern of global society today. The spatial structure of towns is a material representation and an active component in negotiations of social relationships, including political power, trade, and constructs of cultural identity. This research project was designed with these ideas in mind to study the characteristics and changes in the spatial properties of urban settlements in sub-Saharan Africa over the long-term, focusing specifically on the thirteenth through to the nineteenth century. This allowed the researcher to analyse and assess how urban fabric developed over multiple generations, compare pre-colonial and colonial trajectories of changes, and draw conclusions about the connotations and under-the-surface causalities of the present-day structure of African towns.

The research undertaken for this project, first at the Centre of African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland, and then at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University focused on targeting several aspects which may advance our understanding of how space is constructed to manifest permanence (such as buildings of durable material and street networks of urban settlements) by the upkeep and contribution of a number of generations of urban dwellers, and how space may contain and cater for social temporality. For such enquiry, an interdisciplinary approach was adopted, specifically involving archaeology, architectural history, sociology and ethnography. The project centred on identifying patterns in structuring of the built environment and possible crossing points between social and spatial dynamics. The region studied in greatest depth was the East African coast, where the predominantly Islamic Swahili towns represented an ideal case study for analysis. Because the importance of trade, contacts with other regions, and Islam, all characterised these towns for much of the second millennium, comparative case-studies with similar characteristics were chosen from West Africa, specifically the towns on the edge of the Sahara that have broadly coeval histories with those on the Swahili coast.

Analyses of individual buildings and of town layouts were undertaken for sites on the Swahili coast. The study of individual buildings included comparative review of stone-built palatial complexes as well as stone houses. This brought new understanding of underlying principles shared along the Swahili coast for potential movement and visibility properties of space within the residential structures. The issue of visibility was explored for two other urban features in the built environment: pillar tombs and town walls, which included review of research on these phenomena and new considerations of their long-term role for the concepts of Swahili identity and social trust in this cosmopolitan urban society. On the settlement scale, street networks were analysed respective to assess the positioning of open (public) spaces, mosques and town gates. This study was only possible for later living towns with colonial history such as Mombasa Old Town. The outcomes were compared with similar analyses of West African trading towns, undertaken on the basis of satellite images, maps and recent surveys. The cross-regional and cross-cultural comparisons brought revelations about the important role the urban quarters played in maintaining an equilibrium of social power and how their structure created materially-constituted spatial terms for intra-town cooperation and competition such as access to trade-related spaces and opportunities.

The project was divided in three work packages, realised over the outgoing and incoming phase. The outgoing phase which took place at the Centre of African Studies, University of Basel, Switzerland. The incoming phase, realized at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Sweden.

WP 1. Interdisciplinary research on the themes of East African/ Swahili urban studies (month 1-6)
• 7 seminars attended, with 2 presentations given
• 2 conferences: Africa Days (Pilsen, Czech Republic), “Territoriality” workshop (Basel)
• 2 popular articles (see Dissemination activities section below)
• Interview for University of Basel News
• Report on Africa Days conference for Swiss Society of African Studies
• 1 research article submitted, 2 other articles in preparation by end of this phase

WP 2. Comparative review of social themes in urbanism of West and South Africa (month 7-20)
• 13 seminars attended, with 5 presentations given
• 6 conferences: Structure of infrastructure (Liverpool; Society of Africanist Archaeologists (Toulouse); World Archaeological Congress (Kyoto); Central Europe TAG (Bratislava); Socio-environmental dynamics workshop (Kiel, Germany); Secondary cities (Basel)
• 2 peer-reviewed articles published
• 2 research articles submitted
• 1 public lecture
• Organisation of a panel at the Swiss Researching Africa Days, Bern, November 2016

WP 3. Comparative analysis and implications for Swahili archaeology (month 21-32)
• 14 seminars attended, with 2 presentations given
• 6 conferences: Identities and identifications Euroacademia conference (Florence); ECAS (Basel); European Association of Archaeologists (Maastricht); Central Europe TAG (Vienna); African Archaeology Research Day (York); CEA (Modena); Society for American Archaeology (Washington)
• 3 peer-reviewed articles published
• 2 research articles submitted, 1 submitted
• 1 public lecture
• Organisation of an international conference Biannual CRG African History Conference, University of West Bohemia, 14-16 June 2018.
The project has pushed the limits of research in multiple ways. For archaeological sites on the East African coast, data on several aspects of the preserved stone-built environment have been reviewed and new interpretations generated. The past roles of these features in the social environment have been reassessed from novel comparative perspectives, producing new knowledge about Swahili era sites. Secondly, the data for two West African historical towns mapped in the past have now been subjected to analyses and interpreted as complex spatial networks which served long-distance trade and local resident communities.

The findings of the project are highly interdisciplinary and have a broader research and educational relevance for students, professionals in a range of disciplines, policy stakeholders and the general public. As such the results of the projects have been regularly presented at university seminars in Switzerland, sweden, the UK and the Czech Republic, and at public lectures and through widely accessible university newsletters oriented towards the public.