Prehistoric Chinese artifacts discovered in Kenyan town witness traditional ties date back centuries

Lamu is Kenya’s oldest town. It was once as an important center of trade along the East African coastline.

Some of the oldest Chinese artifacts in the African continent have been discovered in the ancient town of Lamu in Kenya, indicating the exchanges of trading and cultural events between the peoples of China and Africa centuries ago.

Located on an island some 350 kilometers from Mombasa, Lamu is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa, and once served as an important center of trade along the coastline of the continent.

Its history dates back some 700 years, with much of its social fabric and culture still intact today and is now a UN heritage site.

Almost 100 meters from the town’s sea front is an imposing structure overlooking the town square.

The Lamu Fort, part of the Lamu Museum, will be home to some of the most treasured Chinese artifacts found on the Island in the next few weeks.

The fortress was built by the locals in 1821 as a base for the town’s rulers. It was later used as a prison by the British colonial administration, before its conversion into a museum, after Kenya got its independence.

“The Lamu Museum itself is located on the waterfront in between two of the town’s probably most important buildings, the Raudha Mosque and Catholic church,” said Mohammed Mwenje, curator of the Lamu Museum.

When renovations began at the Lamu Museum in November 2021, a decision was made to bring all of its treasures here, at the Lamu Fort for storage. Among those treasures were Chinese artifacts dating back centuries.

Mohammed Ali, the Museum’s collection manager, has agreed to show the China Global Television Network (CGTN) some of the Chinese porcelain in the Museum’s collection, some of it kept under lock and key in the Museum’s storage room.

“As you can see here, we have porcelain, plates. We have celadon bowls, we have porcelain pots and small saucers. In describing Chinese unique patterns, which mostly highlight coin patterns which is here at the center, as well as scroll patterns. And the other patterns which appear on the surface is the landscape,” said Ali.

The designs on the porcelain are also a good indicator of the time period they were produced. Some, dating back centuries are still in very good condition compared to porcelain from other regions.

“Chinese porcelain have always been of high quality because of its method of production. The artifact itself is molded, decorated. So you have a very high quality of porcelain that does not lose its lust over a period of time,” the curator said.

Over time, the porcelains were adopted by the locals for different uses. Others just became a status symbol, used for decorative purposes in the homes of the wealthy.

Some could date back to the eighth century, which would put them among some of the oldest Chinese artifacts, that made their way to East Africa.

“We have a sort of map of historical sites and monuments of Lamu region, showing the Chinese people where they resided,” said Ali.

Using ancient trade routes established by Chinese navigators and merchants, Chinese ships visited new regions for trade and to learn about the different cultures.

“We were able to receive a lot of silk and porcelain from China, in exchange for manufactured goods from the East Coast of Africa,” said Ali.

The ancient maritime silk road had a huge influence on local culture for centuries.

Interactions between the Swahili people and the Chinese through an exchange in goods, language and culture is evident in some traditions that have withstood the test of time.

Today, cultural relations between China and Africa have strengthened ties between both sides, which has meant huge strides made in trade, education, technology and investment through people to people exchanges.

These cultural engagements have taken place in various fields including music, drama, theater and poetry, bring the two peoples closer together.

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