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Welcome to African Archaeology!

The Journal of African Archaeology is an international peer-reviewed periodical appearing half-yearly since 2003. It publishes original papers addressing recent research and developments in African archaeology and related disciplines. The journal's main purpose is to provide scholars and students with a new pan-African forum for discussing relevant topics on the cultural dynamics of past African societies.

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Journal contents:


Vol. 6 (2) 2008

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J.L. Flexner, J.B. Fleisher & A. LaViolette

Bead grinders and early Swahili household economy: analysis of an assemblage from Tumbe, Pemba Island, Tanzania, 7th-10th centuries AD

Journal of African Archaeology, Volume 6 (2), 2008, pages 161-181, DOI 10.3213/1612-1651-10110

Abstract
This paper focuses on a specific class of locally made artifacts known in the archaeological literature of the eastern African coast as bead grinders. Bead grinders are discarded potsherds or stone cobbles distinguished by long grooves abraded into their surfaces. Although they are some of the most commonly located artifacts on late first-millennium AD coastal sites, few close analyses of them have been conducted. Here we examine a particularly large assemblage of bead grinders from the site of Tumbe on Pemba Island, Tanzania, the largest such assemblage recovered from any site in eastern Africa. This essay is not aimed at determining whether or not these artifacts were in fact used to grind shell beads, the subject of considerable local debate, although we operate from that assumption. Rather, we treat them as artifacts related to production, and focus on standardization as a way to provide insight into the organization of production at Tumbe. Based on our analysis we argue that despite the intensive production implied by the sheer quantity of grinders recovered at Tumbe, the high degree of variation within relevant variables suggests that production was unstandardized and decentralized, carried on in individual households. We hope that this case study encourages more comparative research between coastal regions on bead grinders and other classes of artifacts related to production.

Résumé
Le travail que nous présentons ici porte sur un type particulier d'objets locaux connus sous le nom de polissoir à perles (bead grinder) — un outil abrasif pour fabriquer des perles — dans les textes archéologiques traitant de la côte orientale de l'Afrique. Ces instruments sont fabriqués à partir de tessons de poterie abandonnés ou de pierres et se caractérisent par de longues rainures abrasées à leur surface. Bien que ce soit l'un des objets les plus communément rencontrés sur les sites côtiers vers la fin du premier millénaire, cet outil n'a fait l'objet que de peu d'analyses approfondies. Nous en examinons ici un nombre particulièrement important provenant du site de Tumbe sur l'île de Pemba, en Tanzanie ; cet ensemble est d'ailleurs le plus large qui ait été retrouvé sur un site d'Afrique de l'est. Notre étude ne cherche pas à déterminer si ces outils étaient ou non utilisés pour fabriquer des perles en coquillage, bien que cette question soit au centre d'intenses débats locaux ; nous partons cependant de cette hypothèse. Nous considérons ici les polissoirs à perles en tant qu'objets liés à la production et nous nous concentrons sur la question de standardisation dans le but de mieux comprendre l'organisation de la production de ces outils à Tumbe. Nous affirmons dans notre analyse que, malgré la production intensive que suppose la quantité abondante de ces objets retrouvés à Tumbe, la production n'était ni standardisée, ni centralisée, mais provenait plutôt de foyers individuels. Nous espérons que cette étude de cas encourage de futures recherches comparatives entre les régions côtières sur la production de polissoirs à perles ou d'autres catégories d'objets locaux.




Keywords: bead grinder, household economy, shell beads, Swahili, Tanzania


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David W. Phillipson, UK
Gilbert Pwiti, Zimbabwe
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Robert Vernet, France
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