James Kirkman Obituary Page last modified Saturday, 04-Sep-1999 12:20:01 MDT

London Times 3-May-1989

Dr James Kirkman
Archaeology on Africa's eastern coast

Dr James Kirkman, OBE, FSA, who died on April 26 aged 83, established for the first time the archaeology of the East African coast upon a secure and scientific footing.
    For a quarter of a century until his retirement in 1972, he undertook excavation in Kenya, on Pemba Island and on mainland Tanzania at sites such as Gedi and the great Portuguese fortress of Fort Jesus in Mombasa.  This research formed the basis for much of the present work on the Swahili coast.
    James Speding Kirkman was born in 1906 and educated at Cambridge University.  After working briefly in Borneo and Ceylon he was taken on as an archaeological volunteer at Castle Dove and later joined Mortimer Wheeler at Maiden Castle. He then volunteered to work in Iraq, but with the outbreak of the Second World War his career was suspended and he joined the RAF where he served with typical courage as a rear gunner. His war service enabled him to return to the Middle East where he became proficient in spoken Arabic.
    After the war he worked briefly at the Iraqi Embassy in London and then joined the External Services.
    Kirkman wanted, however, to return to archaeology and his opportunity came in 1948 when a chance inquiry to Louis Leaky resulted in his appointment as Warden of the Gedi National Park, near Malindi.
    The mysterious ruins of Gedi have long fascinated travellers. They were variously attributed to Arabs, Persians and Portuguese; but the thick forest which covered the walls allowed for wild speculation and little scientific certainty. For the next 10 years the forest was carefully cut back, the houses, tombs and mosques uncovered by large-scale excavations. Today Gedi is one of the most spectacular sites in Africa. Kirkman was able [to] date and reconstruct the lifestyle of the Muslim inhabitants of the African coast, identifying their pottery which reached Gedi from as far afield as China and the Middle East.
    With Gedi completed he worked on exposing and dating the other major sites along the Kenyan coast such as Takwa, Ungwana and Mnarani. These towns when taken together, covered the whole span of the coastal civilisation from the 10th to the 19th denturies and so, in the classical archaeological way, established the basic cultural sequence for all to follow.
    His book Men and Monuments on the East African Coast (1964) exemplified much of the maxim that archaeologists dig up people not things; his experiences in Iraq convinced Kirkman that the medieval trading communities were Arab and not African in origin.
    In 1958, after it had been 60 years a prison, the Kenya Government declared Fort Jesus an historical monument, and asked Kirkman to direct the conversion. Despite years of neglect this huge fortress, built by the Portuguese as their East African headquarters in 1593, remained exceptionally complete. For eleven years Kirkman worked across the site, exposing the earliest buildings and clearing out great depths of rubbish rich in artefacts and pottery. He set up a museum and built himself a house within the fort.
    His work is marked by the publication, Fort Jesus: A Portuguese Fortress on the East African Coast (1974) and also provides Kenya's most visited historical site.
    Kirkman's retirement to Cambridge provided him with new opportunities at libraries that were not available in Mombasa and there followed a stream of articles on the history and archaeology of the Western Indian Ocean world. He took on the editorship of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and lent his considerable expertise to committees such as the British Institute in Eastern Africa.
    He leaves a widow, Dorothy, and one son.

[Stephen Kirkman, Jul-1999, added to web page 14-Aug-1999]

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