Art of Africa
Kilwa pot sherds
By The British Museum
Pot sherds, Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, c. 1000 to 1500 C.E. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
These pieces of broken pots were picked up on a beach in Tanzania, East Africa. They come from pots that were actually made as far away as China or the Middle East. They were found at the town of Kilwa Kisiwani, and are some of the rubbish thrown away by its inhabitants, and are a reminder of its history as a major trading centre.
Between 1000 and 1500 C.E. Kilwa was an important port on the Indian Ocean. These broken pieces of pottery provide evidence of the places it traded with. This is because the different colors of the pieces of pottery show clearly where these pots were originally made.
The blue green colored glazed pottery was made in China. This type of pottery is called celadon and complete examples of these types of vessels can be seen in the Chinese galleries.
Pot sherd, Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania, c. 1000 to 1500 C.E. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Some of the other green and decorated pieces of pottery were made in the Middle East, perhaps in Iran or Oman. The rougher brown broken pieces of pottery come from locally made hand made pots.
Together these broken pots show how far traders travelled across the world at this time. In return for these pots, silks and cotton, Kilwa traded elephant ivory, wood and gold to the Middle East, India, South East Asia, and China.
Many of the merchants and seaman were from East Africa itself—similar pieces of broken African pottery have been found at ports in the Middle East. Although just broken pieces of pottery, these are evidence for the important economic role East Africa played in the Asian and Middle East trade in the Middle Ages.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
M.C. Horton and J. Middleton, The Swahili (Oxford, Blackwell, 2000)
Mitchell, African Connections (Maryland, Alta Mira Press, 2005)
Pearson, The Indian Ocean (London, Routledge, 2003)
Phillipson, African Archaeology (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005)
H.N. Chittick, Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast (Oxford, 1974)