Ancient site discovered in Malindi's old town

A satellite image of Mambrui in Malindi along Kenya's coast. Photo/GOOGLEMAP

Kenyan and Chinese archaeologists have discovered two more human skeletons in a second pit on an excavation site in Malindi's old town.

Earlier, the archaeologists discovered 15 skeletons at an excavation site, which is close to the new site.

The archaeological team is made up of 15 researchers from the School of Archaeology and Museology at Peking University in China and two from the National Museums of Kenya.

Head of the Chinese team, Professor Dashu Qin from the School of Archaeology and Museology in Peking University in China said the discovery of the two skeletons together with other Arabic pottery items in the second pit can help in dating those found in the first pit.

“We have found Arabic shells and pottery that can be dated to between the 15th and 16th century, which means these deaths occurred during that time. This is almost the same time the Portuguese came to Malindi,” he said.

The excavations have been streamed live by China’s CCTV.

Early coastal trade

It is believed that the famous Chinese trader Zheng He was a frequent visitor to the ancient Malindi Kingdom acting as an envoy from China.

During this period, a Chinese ship disappeared within Ng’omeni area over 600 years ago and Zheng He is believed to have been on board.

The team has been digging an area covering 800 square metres behind the Malindi Museum, the Chief’s camp and in Mambrui for clues of the exact location of Malindi Kingdom.

Professor Dashu Qin said expect to reach the lowest strata by the next two weeks adding that they would have gathered adequate evidence by the end of the one month land excavation.

Just behind the Malindi Museum, the archaeologists discovered foundations similar to that of a palace with measurements to that found in Gede ruins.

In one of the pits at the Chief’s office, several human and animal skeletons dating back to early 16th century along with a pair of shackles and bullet cartridges were discovered.

“Because of the way in which the skeletons are aligned, which is irregular, we suppose that these people died from a disaster like a tsunami. Perhaps there is a whole layer of beach sand that has been displaced,” said Professor Dashu Qin.

He said that the team had located a new piece of land within Malindi’s old town which could give more clues but the excavation will begin next year after an agreement is reached with its owner.

In the first phase of the excavation carried out in Mambrui in 2010, important discoveries were made including that of Arabic and European pottery as well as Chinese ceramics placing the village to have existed between 12th and the 14th centuries.

This changed the popular belief that Mambrui came to existence after the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century.

A dated five sided brass coin and a shell that was only used to trade by royalty of the Ming Dynasty and which the Chinese archaeologists believe was brought as a gift from China by famous Chinese trader Zheng He to the locals of the Malindi kingdom was also discovered.

According to Chinese folklore, which mentions the ancient Malindi Kingdom as early as the 9th century says it existed close to a great river and next to a harbour that facilitated the maritime trade.

“We believe that the great river is River Sabaki. We are yet to find the exact location of the kingdom because the ocean waves came this far. This is the reason why we are excavating both Malindi and Mambrui,” he said.

Professor Qin said the excavation was being carried out based on a probable hypothesis of a preliminary research carried out in 2006 that helped them determine where to put the excavation kits.

He said the excavation will be complete in two weeks and thereafter an indoor analysis of the artefacts will be conducted.

Swahili graves

National Museum of Kenya’s head of Coastal Archaeology Jambo Haro moved to allay fears by the locals that the excavation was being conducted on ancient Swahili graves adding that they were yet to establish if it was intentional grave site or a mass grave.

“We want members of the public to ask questions on what we are doing so that they can learn about the rich history of Malindi. We will not disturb the skeletons but keep digging around them until we have gathered enough evidence,” he said.

Mr Haro noted the excavation would play an important role in tracing Chinese relations with Malindi and might even lead to important discoveries like those made in Lamu of the existence of Chinese descendants.

Head of Underwater Archaeology, Caesar Bita said that the highlight of the whole research would be the excavation of the Ng’omeni shipwreck believed to belong to Zheng He in November this year when another team of archaeologists from China is expected in the country for the joint underwater expedition.