Jeffrey Fleisher

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Jeffrey Fleisher is a Professor of Anthropology at Rice University. He is an archaeologist that works in eastern and southern Africa, whose research has focused on questions that concern people often left out of archaeological interpretations: rural communities in urban settlement systems, non-elite people in cities, and communities beyond the frontiers of large-scale societies. This research has explored: the roles that rural and non-elite people play in the composition of urban societies and the way they participate in social, economic, and religious spheres; the transformation of village settlements to ‘rural’ ones as urban centers develop; the use material culture and space in the establishment and maintenance of social inequality and power; and the way people use everyday items such as ceramics, coins, and architecture in public performances and the construction of value.

Methodologically, his research has pioneered new approaches to ephemeral archaeological contexts such as earthen architecture and public and open spaces, integrating archaeological testing/excavation, geophysical surveying, and soil chemistry analysis.


Jeffrey has explored these issues through a number of projects on the eastern African ‘Swahili’ coast, investigating urban polities and rural settlements that date to the 7th- to 16th-centuries AD. The ancient Swahili of the eastern littoral are often cast solely as Islamic merchant entrepreneurs, living in elaborate stone-built towns (stonetowns), and seeking to accumulate prestigious overseas goods. His work has sought to place this powerful minority and their elite spaces in wider context, through investigating the lower ranking, non-elite majority (in both the countryside and town), and by contextualizing elite urban spaces within the larger spatial practices of the town. His work on rural and non-elite parts of the Swahili world focused on Pemba Island, Tanzania, where he conducted survey and excavations from 1999-2006 (partly in collaboration with Adria LaViolette and Bertram Mapunda). This research has sought to show how these people participated in and were important to the multiple scales of the Swahili world: in coastal towns, the regional political economy, and the Indian Ocean world.

A long-term research project (2009-2017) at Songo Mnara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the southern Tanzanian coast, focused on the use of material culture and space in Swahili public and private life. Collaborating with Stephanie Wynne-Jones (University of York), this project focused on domestic contexts in and outside houses, as well as the first-ever effort to explore interpret public spaces within a Swahili urban context. This included investigating how open space was created and maintained, the types of productive and practical activities that occurred within central open areas, as well as ritual activities associated with centrally-located tombs, mosques, and cemeteries. Methodologically, this project included scientific analyses new to eastern African archaeology, including geophysical surveys and geoarchaeological research, carried out in collaboration with colleagues in the United Kingdom. This work has contributed to a nascent literature on the way ‘empty’ spaces in urban milieu were locations where social power could be established and maintained, as well as the way that monuments (like Swahili tombs) and the spaces that surround them, may have been active sites of memory-making, a part of the strategic use of the past for the present.

Jeffrey's current research project, funded by the NEH, is a collaboration with Kathryn de Luna (Georgetown) and Matthew Pawlowicz (Virginia Commonwealth Univ.) in the Kafue River floodplain in southwestern Zambia. This project builds on his previous efforts to better integrate archaeological and historical linguistic research and data. The project aims to reconstruct the cultural history of mobility in a region considered beyond the frontiers of surrounding kingdoms and states. The region is punctuated by mounded settlements from the 8th to 15th centuries AD that indicate long-term settlement as well as a subsistence economy that was linked to multiple forms of mobility. Language shift and human migration have long served as explanations for the expansions of language families and populations in sub-Saharan Africa. This project will be the first to study human mobility in such demographic histories as a historical problem in its own right, capturing the motives and contingencies that shaped changing forms of and ideas about mobility and, as a result, actually changed the pace and path of the larger expansion process. Such research on human mobility is only feasible with the creation of an interdisciplinary archive linking archaeological, ecological, ethnohistorical, and historical linguistic data.


Introduction to Archaeology (205); African Prehistory (312); Early Civilizations (363); Heritage Management (456); Landscape Archaeology (355); Advanced Archaeological Theory (460); Archaeological Field Techniques (362/562)


Information about the project at Songo Mnara can be found here.

The project on Tana Tradition ceramics can be found here.

Information about his collaborative work in Houston's Fourth Ward (Freedman's Town), including field reports, can be found here.



2019 de Luna, Katherine and Jeffrey Fleisher. Speaking with Substance: Methods of Language and Materials in African History. Springer.

2016 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Neil Norman (eds.). The Archaeology of Anxiety: The Materiality of Anxiousness, Worry, and Fear. Springer.

2015 Wynne-Jones, Stephanie and Jeffrey Fleisher (eds.). Theory in Africa, Africa in Theory: Locating Meaning in Archaeology. Routledge.


2018 LaViolette, Adria and Jeffrey Fleisher. Developments in Rural Life on the Eastern African Coast, AD 700–1500. Journal of Field Archaeology 43(5) :380-398.

2016 Wynne-Jones, Stephanie and Jeffrey Fleisher. The multiple territories of Swahili urban landscapes. World Archaeology 48(3).

2015 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Federica Sulas. Deciphering public spaces in urban contexts: Geophysical survey, multi-element soil analysis, and artifact distributions at the 15th-16th-century Swahili settlement of Songo Mnara. Journal of Archaeological Science 55:55-70 .

2015 Fleisher, Jeffrey, Paul Lane, Adria LaViolette, Mark Horton, Edward Pollard, Erendira Quintana Morales, Thomas Vernet, Annalisa Christie, and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. When Did the Swahili Become Maritime? American Anthropologist 117(1):100-115.

2014 Fleisher, Jeffrey. The Complexity of Public Space at the Swahili Town of Songo Mnara, Tanzania. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 35:1-22.

2013 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Adria LaViolette. The early Swahili trade village of Tumbe, Pemba Island, Tanzania, AD 600-950. Antiquity 87:1151-1168.

2013 Fleisher, Jeffrey. Performance, monumentality and the 'built exterior' on the eastern African Swahili coast. Azania:Archaeological Research in Africa 48(2):263-281.

2012 Fleisher, Jeffrey, Kathryn M. de Luna, and Susan K. McIntosh (eds.). Thinking Across the African Past: Archaeological, Linguistic, and Genetic Research on the Precolonial African Past. African Archaeological Review 29(2/3):75-317.

2012 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices. African Archaeological Review 29(2/3):171-207.

2012 Wynne-Jones, Stephanie and Jeffrey Fleisher. Coins in Context: Local Economy, Value and Practice on the East African Swahili Coast. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 22(1):19-36.

2011 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. Ceramics and the Early Swahili: Deconstructing the Early Tana Tradition. African Archaeological Review 28(4):245-278.

2010 Fleisher, Jeffrey. Rituals of Consumption and the Politics of Feasting on the Eastern African Coast, AD 700-1500. Journal of World Prehistory 23(4):195-217.

2010 Fleisher, Jeffrey. Swahili Synoecism: Rural Settlements and Town Formation on the Central East African Coast, AD 750-1500. Journalof Field Archaeology 35(3):265-282.

2010 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Stephanie Wynne-Jones. Authorisation and the Process of Power: The View from African Archaeology. Journal of World Prehistory 23(4):177-193.

2009 LaViolette, Adria and Jeffrey Fleisher. The Urban History of a Rural Place: Swahili Archaeology on Pemba Island, Tanzania, 700-1500 AD. International Journal of African Historical Studies 42(3):433-455.

2005 LaViolette, Adria and Jeffrey Fleisher. The Archaeology of African Cities and their Countrysides. In African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction, Ann B. Stahl, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 327-352.

1999 Fleisher, Jeffrey and Adria LaViolette. Elusive Wattle-and-Daub: Finding the Hidden Majority in the Archaeology of the Swahili. Azania 34:87-108.

Research Areas

African archaeology, political economy, landscape and regional archaeology, urbanization, household studies, ceramics, urban space, materiality of ritual, social memory, public and open space, mobility, affect/emotion


B.A. in Anthropology, University of Virginia, 1992

M.A. in Anthropology, University of Virginia, 1997

Ph.D. in Anthropology, University of Virginia, 2003

Honors & Awards

CTE Faculty Fellow, 2021-24

Sarah A. Burnett Teaching Prize in the Social Sciences, 2017

Charles Duncan Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement, 2014


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