Thomas H. Wilson
A Frenchman, in an apparent fit of bonhomie, once said to Lord Palmerston, British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister in the mid-19th Century, “Were I not a Frenchman, I should wish to be an Englishman.” He thought he was paying a compliment. Palmerston coolly replied, “Were I not an Englishman, I too should wish to be an Englishman.” The story reveals something of Palmerston but also perhaps something of British attitudes in the imperial period. Archaeologists often hear similar comments: “Oh, were I not a _____ (brain surgeon, lawyer, plumber), I always wanted to be an archaeologist.” I stifle the urge to give a Palmerstonian response.
The inevitable question that invariably follows is: “What is your most exciting find?” Your interlocutor expects you to recount discovering golden pharaohs or chests of doubloons, guarded by nests of cobras. In the field I have encountered lions, buffalo, elephants, puff adders, green mambas, cobras and bandits, but never guarding treasure. The real reasons archaeologists conduct excavations is to use material culture to discover the behaviors of past peoples. All the objects in the excavation and their contexts when fully analyzed give meaning to the study and answer the hypotheses of the research. From sad experience, the archaeologist knows this real answer will leave the expectant interviewer crestfallen, his or her dreams of a second career as Indiana Jones dashed on the rocks of reality. Having experienced this a few times, the archaeologist accordingly revises the answer better to meet the expectations of the questioner. Here is my find.
Richard Leakey appointed me coast archaeologist for the National Museums of Kenya. The subject area was the Swahili coast, which stretches about 3000 kilometers from Mogadishu in Somalia to southern Mozambique, including the adjacent islands and parts of northern Madagascar. The Swahili are an Islamic people, speaking a Bantu language. Swahili culture goes back at least twelve centuries and still flourishes. Stationed on the north Kenya coast at Lamu Island, now a World Heritage Site, I conducted archaeological survey of the entire Kenya coast from the Somalia frontier to the Tanzania border. I investigated the archaeological remains of the earlier manifestations of Swahili civilization.
A typical Swahili site might have one or more ruined mosques, sometimes with complex floor plans and highly decorated elements, a number of ruined houses, and perhaps some monumental tombs. Construction of the more substantial structures was of coral rag masonry set in lime and sand mortar. The homes of people of more modest means characteristically were built of mud and thatch and located on the peripheries of settlements. Hundreds of Swahili sites line the Indian Ocean coast of Eastern Africa. Artifacts from the excavations come from the African interior, the circum-Indian Ocean area, the Far East, and even Europe after 1498.
Inscriptions on mosques and tombstones written in Arabic or Swahili in Arabic script attest to a degree of literacy in the past. Some of the larger communities, such as Kilwa in southern Tanzania or Lamu and Pate in the Lamu Archipelago had their own chronicles, or local histories. Various persons recorded several versions of the Pate Chronicle, the interpretation of which has caused historians no end of grief. The Pate Chronicle is essentially a list of the sultans of Pate and other leaders of the community, and accounts of major events of their reigns, but as sometimes happens when oral history is written, repetition of genealogies can occur. The problem is compounded with common Muslim names, such as Abu Bakr or Muhammad.
In 1913 a British colonial officer, Captain Stigand, in his book The Land of Zinj, recorded at Pate the tombstone of a Sultan Muhammad, also known as Fumomadi in the Pate Chronicle. The inscription listed the deceased, his father and grandfather, all sultans of Pate. Stigand read the date as A.H. (years from the Hegira) 1024, or A.D. 1616. These three sultans figure prominently in the Pate Chronicle. The problem is that the date in the Pate Chronicle for the death of Sultan Muhammad is much later, confounding historical interpretation. Is a tombstone a more accurate source than a written history? Did Stigand record and interpret the inscription correctly? Does this inconsistency cast doubt on the reliability of the Pate Chronicle? The tombstone of Sultan Muhammad was probably attached to its tomb at Pate when Captain Stigand read the inscription in 1911.Thereafter, it disappeared and was unavailable for archaeologists and historians to verify the reading.
The tombstone of Sultan Muhammad was lost to history, until we found it in the District Commissioner’s office at Lamu in 1980. We were able to determine that one Maawaiya bin Muhammad brought the carving from Pate to Lamu sometime before his death in 1928, and that it remained with the family until, after negotiations, they donated it to the Lamu Museum in 1981. It is a small monument of porites coral, with the background cut away to leave the script raised. The discovery allowed us to study the monument, re-translate the inscription and correct the reading of the date. The superscript across the top is the basmalah, or invocation to Allah, followed by the five registers of the genealogy and dates.
There is no God but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God; God bless Him and grant him peace
In the year one thousand two hundred twenty-four of the Hegira of the Prophet Muhammad, God bless Him
This is the grave of Sultan Muhammad bin Sultan
Abu Bakr bin Sultan Bwana Mkuu
Al-Nabahani, al-Batawi, forgive him and have mercy on him
His death was Wednesday, 22 Jumada al-Ukhra
Upon examination of the inscription, readers will immediately spot the mistake Captain Stigand made in deciphering the first line below the basmalah. The date is written out and not expressed numerically. Stigand read across the top of the line, “one thousand twenty-four,” but missed the subscript of the interlacing Arabic, “two hundred.” Hence, you will clearly recognize that Sultan Muhammad, Fumomadi, died on A.H. 1224 and not 1024, or August 4, 1809, which is the exact date recorded in the Pate Chronicle.
There is much of interest in this inscription. Sultan Fumomadi’s grandfather’s name is Bwana Mkuu, a title or honorific that in Swahili means “great man.” Bwana means mister or sir, perhaps worthy person or dignitary, and the term connotes respect. Here, bwana is modified by mkuu, which means great and implies authority or preeminence. Sultan Bwana Mkuu was a prominent person indeed. Al-Nabahani identifies Bwana Mkuu as a member of the powerful Pate family of that name. Some have suggested that al-Batawi means “person of Pate,” but this is supposition.
So when someone tells me that he or she always wanted to be an archaeologist, and then asks about my favorite find, I tell the story of the tombstone of Sultan Fumomadi. It is a work of art, a treasure lost and found, the key to an historical mystery, a challenge of translation and interpretation, a biographical document, and a memorial to three men important in the northern Swahili world. The humanities just don’t get any better than that.
Thomas H. Wilson is Chair of the Arizona Humanities Council and Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.