Retracing Chinese roots in the Coast


Chinese researchers, in conjunction with Kenyan archaeologists, are on the threshold of rewriting maritime history.

The experts have descended on Malindi, and will soon be in Lamu in search of archaeological evidence to prove ancient trade between Kenya and China began much earlier than thought.

Qin Dashu, a professor of archaeology from Peking University is leading the Chinese team of eight experts who have teamed up with Kenyan archaeologists in excavating selected parts of Malindi to unearth history tracing back to 9th century.

Dr Herman Kiriama, the head of Coast archaeology at the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) is leading the Kenyan team.

TOP: Professor of Archeology at Peking University, Qin Dash shows some Chinese Porceleins at the ancient ruins excavation in Mambrui. BELOW: A section of the excavation site by the Chinese Archeologists at the Mambrui beach. [PHOTOS: MAARUFU MOHAMED/STANDARD]

Their efforts have been spurred on by the discovery of 30 pieces that bear footprints of early Chinese presence in the Kenyan coast. These include pieces of Chinese porcelain, Chinese celadon and local decorated pottery.

"This is the first large-scale excavation to be carried out in Malindi for an archaeological study. We are studying the history of Malindi kingdom where Chinese traders are known to have had an interaction as early as the 9th century. We will be in Malindi for up to two months," Dashu explained.

Exact location

Kiriama said the archaeological study was important as it seeks to establish the exact location of the old Malindi kingdom.

He says the ancient Malindi was at the mouth of River Sabaki where there was a suitable anchorage for ships.

Archaeologists, Kiriama explains, believe Malindi could have existed while maritime trade between the Kenyan Coast and Beijing thrived, and could possibly have been situated in present-day Mambrui.

"The present Malindi town has no anchorage for ships and, therefore, we believe the ancient Malindi was located at Mambrui," Kiriama offered.

Both Dashu and Kiriama were upbeat about the progress of the work in the first one week of excavation in Malindi.

But they were quick to point out that work had just begun as the artefacts and items discovered were from about 16th century, so they were still digging deeper in the hope of retrieving items dating back to 9th and 10th centuries.

The experts were excavating a site besides a graveyard, and another on a sand dune in the ancient Mambrui settlement with some old foundations of buildings. A third site is at Khatib mosque within Malindi town.

Seaside town

The graveyard, just within the present Mambrui village, was an ancient seaside town that is said to have been frequented by early traders from China. The excavation at the Khatib mosque is aimed at digging up facts on Zheng He, the commander of the ancient Chinese merchant ships who used to visit Malindi.

It is believed that he was a Muslim and used to say prayers at the seafront mosque while on a trade trips to Malindi.

Once the land archaeology is complete, another team of more than 10 experts will fly in from Beijing for underwater archaeology of Shanga village on Pate island in Lamu, in November.

The two research components cost Kenya and China governments Sh200 million and will take three years.

In Lamu, the Chinese experts will be joined by five researchers from the NMK to search and retrieve a Chinese shipwreck, which sank off the Shanga Coast 600 years ago after being loaded for a return