Scholars from the Faculty of Arts explore former Swahili towns in Africa, creating 3D models of them

Press Release Achievements Science

An international team of experts is creating unique computer models that will allow the public to explore long-gone Swahili towns. The data were acquired during their recent field research in Kenya. The project is led by Monika Baumanová from the Department of Middle East Studies.

"Thanks to this research and documentation from these locations, we managed to provide evidence that building pre-colonial Swahili towns involved a great deal of planning and developing the grid of town streets and that even stone structures underwent relatively frequent renovations," Monika Baumanová explains the first findings of the field part of the prestigious research project with the participation of the Center for African Studies at the UWB Faculty of Arts, which falls under the Department of Middle East Studies. The "Comparison of the Transformation of Urban Morphology from Pre-Colonial to Colonial Urban Traditions" project, funded by the Czech Science Foundation, focuses on the effect of colonialism on the spatial structure of towns. Apart from experts from UWB, the international team also includes a team from the Department of Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, led by Professor Heinz Rüther.

"It is the first project in the field of historical archeology dealing with sub-Saharan Africa conducted by a Czech university. It allows us to significantly contribute to an international discussion about global urban development and urbanism," says the project's lead researcher, Monika Baumanová from the UWB Faculty of Arts.

The project focuses on several geographical locations – mainly East and North Africa and parts of the Iberian Peninsula. The regions subjected to this research in Africa underwent both European and Arab colonialism, while in the Middle Ages the Iberian Peninsula, i.e., today's Spain, was colonized by Muslims from Africa. The objective of the research is to compare the said areas in terms of how their colonial history was translated into the shape of their towns – their grid plans, the location of structures and their spatial context. The main emphasis is placed on structures and areas that fulfilled a public and social function, i.e., places where people could meet for religious, commercial and political purposes, such as mosques, markets or town squares.

The Pilsen scientists have completed 3D scanning and mapping of the two long-gone pre-colonial towns of Jumba la Mtwana and Mnarani in Kenya, which date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. "The Swahili coastal towns played a key role in the development of long distance commerce between African inland areas and the Middle East, India and China," Monika Baumanová explains. "As a large number of structures in these towns were made from stone, the archeological finds include standing remnants of walls and various architectural elements, which can be studied using non-destructive surface research methods," Baumanová adds.

3D scanning allowed researchers not only to document the condition of the preserved archeological sites, but also open new topics, such as the floor plans of structures and grid plans of entire towns, or research into structural and building techniques used at that time, which are now the subject of Monika Baumanová's model-based research. Thanks to the mapping and scanning of the spatial layout of structures, it was possible to create 3D models of the former towns and display them in virtual reality, which will allow people to "visit" these towns using a computer from anywhere in the world. At this time, the National Museums of Kenya has 3D models of two former towns, which are used by local experts for the purpose of protecting the cultural heritage sites.


Faculty of Arts

Šárka Stará

16. 03. 2022