Ceramics and Society: Early Tana Tradition and the Swahili Coast (Data Paper) Open Data

Stephanie Wynne-Jones1 and Jeffrey Fleisher2

1. Department of Archaeology, University of York, UK. Email: stephanie.wynne-jones@york.ac.uk
2. Department of Anthropology, Rice University, Houston, USA. Email: jfleisher@rice.edu

Cite this as: Wynne-Jones, S. and Fleisher, J. 2013 Ceramics and Society: Early Tana Tradition and the Swahili Coast (Data Paper), Internet Archaeology 35. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.35.7

Dataset Location

This dataset has been deposited with the Archaeology Data Service. doi: 10.5284/1016128


Referee statement by Paul Lane

Dataset Content

The Ceramics and Society dataset (Wynne-Jones and Fleisher 2013) includes a database that documents the analysis of over 2,000 potsherds of the Early Tana Tradition (ETT), a 7th-10th century ceramic tradition found along the eastern African coastline and hinterland. The dataset contains 40 variables for each sherd, including those related to vessel shape, materials, decoration and finishing and production attributes.


Locally-produced ceramics are the most ubiquitous find on archaeological sites in eastern Africa and their study offers the potential to develop a robust understanding of activity and interaction within and between sites. In particular, understandings of the Iron Age societies that developed on the eastern African coast and its hinterland have been transformed by exploration of a particular group of vessels known as Early Tana Tradition or Triangular-Incised Ware (ETT/TIW). During the late first millennium, c. AD 600-900, sites across East Africa were united by the production and use of these ceramics, consisting of necked jars with incised decoration and a series of other jar and bowl forms in varying quantities.

The Ceramics and Society project sought to explore this corpus of ETT ceramics, creating a database of sherds from previously-excavated sites across the region. The history of research in eastern Africa has resulted in a very diverse set of methodologies and analytical systems being applied to different sites, and through systematic comparison Ceramics and Society sought to bring these data into a common framework for comparison. As such, a series of key ETT sites were revisited, and sherds analysed according to a single system, allowing quantitative cross-site comparison for the first time.


The database contains materials from eight archaeological sites in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. In Kenya, two sites from the northern Lamu archipelago were examined, Ungwana and Manda. Materials from five sites in Tanzania were analyzed, three on Pemba Island (Bandarikuu, Tumbe, and Kimimba), one on Zanzibar (Unguja Ukuu), and one in the central coastal hinterland (Dakawa). One site from Mozambique, Chibuene, was also included. The contexts from which these ceramics were found date from the 7th to 10th centuries AD.

Although dozens of other sites yielding ETT ceramics are known across Kenya and Tanzania, the sites included in the Ceramics and Society project are some of the foundational datasets for understanding the ceramic type. It is hoped that in the future researchers will be able to add to the database, expanding the regional and chronological range.

Re-use potential

The production of a database for future studies was central to the aims of the project. We are committed to a quantitative approach to the study of ETT ceramics, and hope that the Ceramics and Society data will allow future researchers to put their own finds into context. Some initial conclusions drawn from analysis of the database have already been published (Fleisher and Wynne-Jones 2011). Two researchers have also used the database to compare with their own material: Pawlowicz (2012) drew on the database to compare his material from Mikindani in southern Tanzania, and M'Mbogori (2011) used database materials in conjunction with her ethnoarchaeological and production-related studies in Kenya. As additional ETT/TIW assemblages are recovered in eastern Africa, we hope the database will provide both a comprehensive analysis system as well as a body of comparative data. This will allow the data to be taken in multiple directions by scholars of the coastal region, facilitating the analysis of new ceramic assemblages and a re-examination of stored collections. This is a simple but fundamental goal, as it has not previously been possible to compare data with pre-existing collections across national boundaries and excavation methodologies.

Relationship to other publications

The dataset builds on important work carried out previously on ETT/TIW ceramics and relied on the datasets from previous excavations for its source material. The earliest archaeologies of the Swahili coast were crucial to recognizing links between disparate sites across eastern Africa (Chittick 1974, 1984; Phillipson 1979; Abungu 1989). Horton (1996), Chami (1994, 1998), and Msuya (1997) have all worked to build more comprehensive understandings of the variation within these ceramics assemblages, focusing on a particular site or region, and putting forward arguments about how they fit into regional cultural historical sequences. Recent case studies (Fleisher 2003; Juma 2004) documented the variation of ETT ceramics at a particular site or region, and began the work of comparing assemblages more broadly.

The database is the result of reanalysis by the authors of sherds from previous excavations. These are held at a range of museums within and outside Africa. Sherds are included from Manda (Chittick 1984; stored at Lamu Museum, Kenya); Ungwana (Abungu 1989; stored at Fort Jesus Museum, Kenya); Dakawa (Haaland 1994/5, Haaland and Msuya 2000; stored at Bergen Museum, Norway); Tumbe, Kimimba, Bandari Kuu (Fleisher 2003; stored at Pemba Museum, Zanzibar); Unguja Ukuu (Juma 2004; stored at the Peace Museum, Zanzibar); Chibuene (Sinclair 1982, Sinclair et al. 2012; stored at Maputo Museum and University of Uppsala, Sweden).


Abungu, G. H. O. 1989 Communities on the River Tana, Kenya: An Archaeological Study of Relations between the Delta and the River Basin AD700-1890, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge.

Chami, F. 1994 The Tanzanian Coast in the Early First Millennium AD: an archaeology of the iron-working, farming communities, Societas Archaeologica Uppsaliensis, Uppsala.

Chami, F. 1998 'A Review of Swahili Archaeology', African Archaeological Review 15(3), 199-218. doi:10.1023/A:1021612012892

Chittick, H. N. 1974 Kilwa: an Islamic trading city on the East African coast, British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi and London.

Chittick, H. N. 1984 Manda: Excavations at an Island Port on the Kenya Coast, British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi and London.

Fleisher, J. B. 2003 Viewing Stonetowns from the Countryside: An Archaeological Approach to Swahili Regional Systems, AD800-1500, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Virginia.

Fleisher, J. B. and S. Wynne-Jones 2011 'Ceramics and the Early Swahili: Deconstructing the Early Tana Tradition', African Archaeological Review 28(4), 245-278. doi:10.1007/s10437-011-9104-6

Håland, R. 1994/5 'Dakawa: an early Iron Age site in the Tanzanian hinterland', Azania 29/30, 238-247. doi:10.1080/00672709409511679

Håland, R., and Msuya, C. S. 2000 'Pottery Production, Iron Working, and Trade in the Early Iron Age: The case of Dakawa, east-central Tanzania', Azania 35, 75-103. doi:10.1080/00672700009511597

Horton, M. C. 1996 Shanga: The archaeology of a Muslim trading community on the coast of East Africa, British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi.

Juma, A. 2004 Unguja Ukuu on Zanzibar: An archaeological study of early urbanism, Societas Archaeologica Upsaliensis, Uppsala.

M'Mbogori, F. N. 2011 Population and ceramic traditions: Revisiting the Tana Ware of Coastal Kenya (7th-14th century AD), doctoral thesis, L'Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre la Defense.

Msuya, C. S. 1997 Kwale and Tana Pottery Traditions; A New Look at the Pottery Sequence, M.Phil thesis, University of Bergen.

Pawlowicz, M. 2012 'Modelling the Swahili past: the archaeology of Mikindani in southern coastal Tanzania', Azania 47(4), 488-508. doi:10.1080/0067270X.2012.723510

Phillipson, D. W. 1979 'Some Iron Age sites in the Lower Tana Valley', Azania 14, 155-160. doi:10.1080/00672707909511270

Sinclair, P. J. J. 1982 'Chibuene: An Early Trading Site in Southern Mozambique', Paideuma 28, 149-164.

Sinclair, P., Ekblom, A. and Wood, M. 2012 'Trade and society on the south-east African coast in the later first millennium AD: the case of Chibuene', Antiquity 86(333), 723-737.

Wynne-Jones, S. and Fleisher J. 2013 Ceramics and Society: Early Tana Tradition and the Swahili Coast [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] doi:10.5284/1016128


This work was supported by the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and by a grant from the British Academy with input from the Chittick Fund (#SG54671). Additional funding was provided by the Leverhulme Trust.

Referee Statement

Paul Lane, Department of Archaeology & Ancient History, Uppsala University.

Cite this as: Lane, P. 'Referee Statement' in Wynne-Jones, S., & Fleisher, J. (2013). Ceramics and Society: Early Tana Tradition and the Swahili Coast (Data Paper). Internet Archaeology, (35). Council for British Archaeology. doi:10.11141/ia.35.7

The East African coast, from Ras Hafun, Somaliland, in the north to Sofala, Mozambique, in the south has been the focus of professional archaeological interest for over sixty years, and some parts are now among the most intensively researched areas of the region. Early interest in the archaeology of the coast was triggered by the material evidence for extensive trading contacts across and around the Indian Ocean and possible connections with the Mediterranean world alluded to in early written sources. This shaped subsequent research to the extent that until quite recently, very little energy had been directed toward the detailed typological and functional analysis of local ceramics and other material culture, in marked contrast to the attention given to study of imported materials, and especially ceramics from the Persian Gulf, the Indian sub-continent and China. Complicating matters even further is that as research on local African ceramics advanced, several different classification and recording systems were developed with different researchers employing somewhat different criteria to describe and categorise their materials. This has been a particularly acute problem for the so–called Tana Tradition (TT) or Triangular Incised Wares (TIW) which find their earliest expressions in 7th-10th century AD contexts and are crucial for understanding the genesis of later urbanised communities such as the Swahili. This lack of consistency has led, inevitably, to confusion and uncertainty over issues concerning the concordance of particular phases at different sites, typological developments and the antecedents of TT/TIW ceramics, and even vessel functions and types. By re-analysing a significant corpus of material from sites located between northern Kenya and southern Mozambique, and by making available their data and details of their methodology available online, Stephanie Wynne–Jones and Jeffery Fleisher have done regional archaeologists a great favour, not only by resolving some of the previous issues but also by providing such a straightforward and model approach to establishing a standardised analytical and classificatory system. It is hoped that other researchers will now adopt this system and add their own datasets to the existing data base. By doing so, this will greatly help comparative analysis of this critical period in East Africa’s archaeology. One area which the authors might have given some attention to is the scope for the use of various statistical approaches to the analysis of typological trends, such as the use of correspondence analysis pioneered by Richard Helm (2000a, 2000b) with reference to materials from southern Kenya. But in all other respects this is a highly laudable initiative.

August 2013


Helm, R. 2000a Conflicting Histories: The archaeology of the iron-working, fanning communities in the central and southern coast of Kenya, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Bristol.

Helm, R. 2000b 'Recent archaeological research on the iron–working, farming communities of coastal Kenya', Azania 35, 183–189.

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