Uncovering history

Rice students learn archaeology field techniques during summer experience at medieval Swahili site

African archaeology has been the focal point of Rice anthropologist Jeffrey Fleisher’s academic research, and for the past seven years, he has shared this interest with students through the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania.

A Rice student works at Songo Mnara, site of the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

Rice junior Anna Thomas works at Songo Mnara, site of the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

The field school has centered around a research project at the site of Songo Mnara, one of the more prominent Swahili stonetowns, tucked in the Kilwa archipelago on the southern coast of Tanzania. Songo Mnara was a central participant in Indian Ocean commerce during the 15th and 16th centuries and facilitated the exchange of goods from the African continent with traders from ports in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and western India. The importance of this site is underscored by its inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

The well-preserved remains of more than 40 large domestic room blocks, five mosques and numerous tombs dominate the site. Room blocks wrap around and enclose an open central area of the site where tombs, a walled cemetery and a small mosque are located.

For five weeks every other summer between 2009 and 2016, between four and nine Rice students lived and worked in the project camp at the site, which had no running water or electricity. They actively participated in day-to-day excavations, artifact recovery and analyses of various parts of the town, where they focused on the 500-year-old remains of houses and yards at the site. The students also participated in archaeological surveys on the island and worked to record a previously undocumented set of ruins on a nearby island. During the project, students worked closely with an international team of scholars and more than 50 local people who participate in the project.

Fleisher, an associate professor in Rice’s Department of Anthropology, called the annual trips “archaeological and cultural experiences.”

The field school is part of the Songo Mnara Urban Landscape Project, which is focused on discovering how the ancient inhabitants of Songo Mnara used public and private space. Fleisher co-directs the project with Stephanie Wynne-Jones, an archaeologist at the University of York in the U.K.

Rice students working at Songo Mnara, site of the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

From left: Rice postdoctoral research fellow Eréndira Quintana Morales and senior Clare Randolph work onsite at the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

“The site of Songo Mnara offers a unique context to explore these questions as it was built elaborately, inhabited for a short time, quickly abandoned and never reinhabited,” Fleisher said. “These conditions mean that the site is a remarkable time capsule for the 15th and 16th centuries, and thus one of the few early Swahili towns where our questions can be addressed and answered.”

Rachel George, a senior studying anthropology, said that she first learned about the Songo Mnara site during Fleisher’s class, African Prehistory, in which the students are asked to examine a variety of debates concerning the cultural history of the people of Africa from multiple perspectives.

“I loved getting to experience learning about history as discovery and debate as opposed to as an exercise in memorization,” she said. “And the Rice University Field School is in a way the crystallization of that course’s message that there is more out there to be discovered. Fieldwork is a fundamental first step in recovering the past.” She participated in the field school this past summer and said the experience is great because of the way it is organized by Fleisher.

“Each student is able to learn about and experience a wide variety of archaeological techniques, including archaeobotanical flotation, survey, lab work and, of course, excavation,” she said. “This allowed me to really hone in on what specific techniques I enjoy and am good at. Having this newfound self-knowledge, which came tried and tested out in the field, has really clarified for me what I want to focus on within archaeology in the future.”

The lure of this field school experience is what first made Charles Ronkos, a junior studying anthropology, seriously consider changing his major and focusing his academic energies on archaeology.

“I was drawn to the remote nature of the site, the natural environment that surrounded it and the intrigue of Swahili archeology,” he said. “With the combination of location, subject material and living conditions, I didn’t think this trip would be a typical study-abroad experience.”

A Rice student works at Songo Mnara, site of the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

Rice junior Max Ronkos works at Songo Mnara, site of the Rice Archaeological Field School in Tanzania. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

Anna Thomas, a junior studying anthropology, said that working onsite at an archaeological excavation teaches you in a way that the classroom cannot.

“You camp next to the trenches, you’re surrounded by accomplished archaeologists and you live and breathe the archaeology,” she said. “I learned ceramic analysis techniques, how to properly use a jembe (Swahili for hoe) for efficient digging, how to draw archaeological plans and much more.”

Grace Apfeld ’14 who first participated in the field school in 2011, said that Fleisher and his work in Africa were a big part of what influenced her to come to Rice.

“As a high school student, I didn’t get to visit Rice until after I was accepted, when I was in the final stages of narrowing down my final school choice,” she said. “At that time, I was developing an interest in archaeology. During my visit to Rice, I actually scheduled a meeting with Jeff, where he talked about his Songo Mnara field school. Long story short, I chose to come to Rice, and (Fleisher) was a big part of that. I was signed up for the field school before I even matriculated!”

Apfeld, now a second-year graduate student in anthropology at Washington University, said that her experience with Fleisher’s field school heavily impacted where she is today.

“My first season at Songo Mnara was after my freshman year of college,” she said. “I remember having the feeling, for the first time of my life, that this is what I was meant to do.”

Jeff Fleisher and students at the Rice Archaeological Field School in Songo Mnara. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

From left: Madeleine Pelzel, Anna Thomas, Max Ronkos, Rachel George, Paige De Vos and Clare Randolph with Eréndira Quintana Morales and Jeffrey Fleisher (back row) at the Rice Archaeological Field School in Songo Mnara. Photo credit: Jeff Fleisher.

Apfeld visited Songo Mnara a second time in 2013 to carry out research for her honors thesis and joined Fleisher on another project in Zambia in 2014 following her graduation from Rice. In graduate school, she is studying the bioarchaeology of late Pleistocene/early Holocene mobile populations in east and northeast Africa.

For Courtney Ng ’11, who works at a nonprofit that supports first-generation college students, the experience continues to inform her professional career.

“I often speak to students about my experiences in college, reminding them that no matter how many times they might change their major or career path, they can take away important life lessons from every experience,” she said. “It’s a reminder to push themselves outside their comfort zone and seek out meaningful mentoring relationships. Dr. Fleisher is a lifelong mentor for me, and that field school was one of the most formative experiences of my undergraduate career.”

Aryn Neurock ’15 said that she cannot adequately put into words how valuable this experience was to her.

“Dr. Fleisher went out of his way to ensure that I attended the school, and his mentorship in Tanzania and throughout my four years at Rice mean the world to me,” she said. “To me, this field school embodies the Rice experience that we try to sell to prospective students — unique, life-changing and off the beaten path.”

Fleisher said that although this year was the last field school planned for Songo Mnara, he plans to continue training Rice students at field schools at other archaeological sites, likely in Zambia or the Comoros Islands.

”The primary goal of the Rice Archaeological Field School is to train students in a broad range of archaeological methods,” he said. “In the process of learning these methods, they also get to be a part of a scientific team and participate in the daily discussions and debates that occur on site. For some students, this experience will be the first of many with archaeological research, as they pursue careers in the field. For others, who go on to myriad other careers, it is an experience where they can challenge themselves to work outside their comfort zone. For all, I hope that the experience of living and working in a radically different place allows them to reflect on their lives at home.”

Research at Songo Mnara is funded by the National Science Foundation (U.S.) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (U.K.), as well as by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, the Leverhulme Trust and the Social Sciences Research Institute of Rice.

For more information on anthropology at Rice, visit http://anthropology.rice.edu/

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.