Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7f7b94f6bd-sqtrr Total loading time: 0.395 Render date: 2022-06-29T17:36:20.225Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2016

University College London


This contribution seeks to explore the potential for historical archaeology in Uganda. By reflecting on where the potential strengths of such an approach may lie it is suggested that the most effective contributions will be made where there is a significant breadth and depth of historical sources. However, in Uganda the emphasis has tended to be on archaeological sites with distant or even dubious historical associations. The situation is further complicated by the very active processes of history making that are currently taking place, particularly in association with ‘traditional’ spirit worship. Nevertheless there are a range of themes and contexts which could be explored through historical archaeology and there are also plentiful archaeological resources from the twentieth century. It is concluded that there is great potential for historical archaeology but that there needs to be a readjustment of the contexts and situations that are explored.

JAH Forum: New Directions in East African Archaeology
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Author's email:


1 As one historian colleague reminded me in 1992 when I joined the Archaeology Unit within the Department of History at the University of Dar es Salaam, ‘Archaeology is the handmaiden of history.’ For a discussion of the relationship between historians and archaeologists see Vansina, J., ‘Historians, are archaeologists your siblings?’, History in Africa, 22 (1995), 369408CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Robertshaw, P. T., ‘Sibling rivalry? The intersection of archaeology and history’, History in Africa, 27 (2000), 261–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Unfortunately there has been little development of this discussion thereafter.

2 See Lane, P. J. and Reid, A., ‘Editorial: Azania at 50’, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 50 (2015), 425–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Reid, R., ‘Past and presentism: the “precolonial” and the foreshortening of African History’, The Journal of African History, 52 (2011), 135–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Two very notable – and very different – exceptions to this are P. R. Schmidt, Historical Archaeology: a Structural Approach in an African Culture (Westport, CT, 1978), combining oral histories and archaeology to reconstruct cultural landscapes and D. L. Schoenbrun, A Green Place, A Good Place: Agrarian Change, Gender and Social Identity in the Great Lakes Region to the 15th Century (London, 1998), who makes excellent use of archaeological, palaeoenvironmental, and ethnographic data to flesh out his histories based on comparative linguistics.

5 See, for instance, C. E. Orser, A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World (New York, 1996).

6 T. Kausmally, ‘William Hewson (1739–1774) and the Craven Street Anatomy School – anatomical teaching in the 18th century’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University College London, 2015).

7 Probably as a direct result of this thoroughly unhealthy working environment, Hewson died of septicaemia in 1874: Ibid. 121.

8 See, for example, D. W. Cohen and E. S. A. Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape (London, 1989); E. Ohnuki-Tierney (ed.), Culture Through Time (Stanford, CA, 1990); A. B. Stahl, Making History in Banda (Cambridge, 2001). For a very specific Ugandan example see Willis, J., ‘Two lives of Mpamizo: understanding dissonance in oral history’, History in Africa, 23 (1996), 319–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 In an Australian colonial context, appropriate to sub-Saharan Africa, it is argued that the recognition of other knowledge systems is a necessary prerequisite to research: I. J. McNiven and L. Russell, Appropriated Pasts: Indigenous Peoples and the Colonial Culture of Archaeology (Oxford, 2005). For a discussion of the use of the term indigenous in African contexts see P. J. Lane, ‘Being “indigenous” and being “colonised” in Africa: contrasting experiences and their implications for a postcolonial archaeology’, in N. Ferris, R. Harrison, and M. V. Wilcox (eds.), Rethinking Colonial Pasts Through Archaeology (Oxford, 2014), 423–44.

10 S. Tarlow, The Archaeology of Improvement in Britain, 1750–1850 (Cambridge, 2007), 195.

11 See Schmidt, Historical, with regards to religion and political succession in Buhaya, and Schoenbrun, D. L., ‘A mask of calm: emotion and founding the kingdom of Bunyoro in the 16th century’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 55 (2013), 634–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar, concerning the Bito and Bunyoro.

12 See, for instance, D. Henige, ‘“The disease of writing”: Ganda and Nyoro kinglists in a newly literate world’, in J. C. Miller (ed.), The African Past Speaks (Folkestone, 1980), 240–61.

13 See, for example, T. Ranger, ‘The invention of tradition in colonial Africa’, in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), 211–62.

14 An excellent example from Uganda is provided by Willis, J., ‘Killing Bwana: peasant revenge and political panic in Early Colonial Ankole’, The Journal of African History, 35 (1994), 379400CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 C. Wrigley, Kingship and State: The Buganda Dynasty (Cambridge, 1996), 19.

16 This is not to say, of course, that other means around which to construct the past do not exist. See N. Kodesh, Beyond the Royal Gaze: Clanship and Public Healing in Buganda (London, 2010).

17 As recognised by Oliver, R., ‘Ancient capital sites of Ankole’, Uganda Journal, 23 (1959), 5163Google Scholar, but curiously not by Morris, H. F., ‘Historic sites in Ankole’, Uganda Journal, 20 (1956), 177–81Google Scholar.

18 Posnansky, M., ‘The excavation of an Ankole capital site at Bweyorere’, Uganda Journal, 32 (1968), 165–82Google Scholar. For a critique of this approach, see P. R. Schmidt, ‘Oral traditions, archaeology and history: a short reflective history’, in P. T. Robertshaw (ed.), A History of African Archaeology (London, 1990), 252–70. See also Schmidt, this Forum.

19 A. Reid, ‘The emergence of states in the Great Lakes region’, in P. R. Mitchell and P. J. Lane (eds.), Handbook of African Archaeology (Oxford, 2013), 883–95.

20 Wayland, E. J., ‘Notes on the Biggo bya Mugenyi; some ancient earthworks in northern Buddu’, Uganda Journal, 2 (1934), 2132Google Scholar; Posnansky, M., ‘Bigo bya Mugenyi’, Uganda Journal, 33 (1969), 125–10Google Scholar. See also Schmidt, this Forum.

21 These colonial ideas have been perpetuated into contemporary political discourse: P. R. Schmidt, ‘Deconstructing archaeologies of African colonialism: making and unmaking the Subaltern’, in N. Ferris, R. Harrison, and M. V. Wilcox (eds.), Rethinking Colonial Pasts through Archaeology (Oxford, 2014), 445–68.

22 Posnansky, ‘Bigo bya Mugenyi’.

23 Informants encountered at Ntuusi in 1988, who had been with the NRA in hiding at Bigo, recalled the time in 1985 when they watched unobserved as John Sutton visited the site. Museveni's interest in Bigo (see Schmidt, ‘Deconstructing archaeologies’) was greatly influenced by his time at the University of Dar es Salaam and his interaction with Walter Rodney, explaining the latter's use of Bigo as a case study: W. Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, 1981).

24 In the 1970s, Idi Amin barred representatives of the Department of Antiquities from visiting sites such as Ntuusi and Bigo, because this promoted notions of the superiority of southern Ugandan history over that from the north, E. R. Kamunhangire, personal commication, 1988. In the early 1980s it was simply too dangerous.

25 P. T. Robertshaw and E. R. Kamuhangire, ‘The present in the past: archaeological sites, oral traditions, shrines and politics in Uganda’, in G. Pwiti and R. Soper (eds.), Aspects of African Archaeology: Papers from the 10th Congress of the Pan African Association for Prehistory and Related Studies (Harare, 1996), 739–43.

26 A. S. Taylor, ‘Report on Ntanda’ (unpublished report, Geological Survey Department, Uganda, 1921).

27 Kodesh, Beyond, 55–6.

28 Lanning, E. C., ‘Notes on certain shafts in Buganda and Toro’, Uganda Journal, 18 (1954), 187–9Google Scholar.

29 This is similar to, but quite distinct from the iron spears, knives, and bells that were deposited at the Luzira shrine and collected in 1929: Wayland, E. J., Burkitt, M. C., and Braunholtz, H. J., ‘Archaeological discoveries at Luzira’, Man, 33 (1933), 2947CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Initial visits were made by the author as part of archaeological survey in Buganda in 2001 and 2002. Subsequent visits have been made in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 as part of the ‘Studies in African Field Archaeology’ undergraduate course at University College London. I am grateful to Peter Bisasso and Dismas Ongwen for their insights and help in understanding Ttanda.

31 See R. R. Atkinson, Origins of the Acholi of Uganda (2nd edn, Kampala, 2010).

32 See, for example, A. Reid, ‘Ntusi and the development of social complexity in southern Uganda’, in G. Pwiti and R. Soper (eds.), Aspects of African Archaeology: Papers from the 10th Congress of the Pan African Association for Prehistory and Related Studies (Harare, 1996), 621–7; and Sutton, J. E. G., ‘The antecedents of the Interlacustrine kingdoms’, The Journal of African History, 34 (1993), 3364CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Reid, A., ‘Archaeological ivory and the impact of the elephant in Mawogola’, World Archaeology, 47 (2015), 467–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 The matter was complicated by Ssembabule District having previously been part of Masaka and so land title archives had to be referred back to Masaka, but the greatest issue was that a number of the locations being acquired were situated on mailo land associated with the Gombolola and therefore owned by Buganda.

35 For a discussion of the link between the ‘Mawogola Uprising’ and the invasion of Rwanda see M. Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers (Kampala, 2001), particularly 176–84.

36 Amongst staff of other junior ministries, officers of the Department of Antiquities were ordered to participate in the collection process, noting, where evident, the cause of death, E. R. Kamuhangire, personal communication, 1989. Not only did Peter Bisasso have to take part in the collection, but through family ties with the area, he was also aware of the main killing sites in the Nakaseke area, Peter Bisasso, personal communication, 2000.

37 Giblin, J. D., ‘Post-conflict heritage: symbolic healing and cultural renewal’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 20 (2014), 500–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 As one primary school teacher at Nabuganyi remarked during an archaeological survey in 2000, ‘You Europeans brought science and technology to Africa’, overlooking the abundant evidence for successful precolonial iron smelting that we were encountering.

39 M. S. M. Kiwanuka, A History of Buganda: From the Foundation of the Kingdom to 1900 (London, 1971); R. Reid, Political Power in Pre-Colonial Buganda (Kampala, 2002) provides a much fuller discussion and archaeological evidence is presented in A. Reid and R. Young, ‘Iron smelting and bananas in Buganda’, in P. Mitchell, A. Haour, and J. Hobart (eds.), Researching Africa's Past (Oxford, 2003), 118–23; Humphris, J., Martinón-Torres, M., Rehren, T., and Reid, A., ‘Variability in single smelting episodes – a pilot study using iron slag from Uganda’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (2009), 359–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 See Schmidt, Historical; P. de Maret, ‘The Smith's myth and the origins of leadership in central Africa’, in R. Haaland and P. Shinnie (eds.), African Iron Working: Ancient and Traditional (Oslo, 1985), 73–87; and Sassoon, H., ‘Kings, cattle and blacksmiths: royal insignia and religious symbolism in the interlacustrine states’, Azania, 18 (1983), 93106CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 This data is sourced from the Uganda 1:50,000 Map series.

42 See C. Buchanon, ‘Courts, clans and chronology in the Kitara complex’, in J. Webster (ed.), Chronology, Migration and Drought in Interlacustrine Africa (London, 1979), 87–124 and Kodesh, Beyond.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *