Archaeology section

The Archaeology Section at the National Museums of Kenya is mandated with all field and laboratory archaeological research including prospecting, surveys and excavations in the country. The Section therefore facilitates archaeological research through permits, logistics and personnel to both local and International researchers. In addition, all archaeological materials recovered in the field are documented and stored in the Section’s laboratory. Archaeological information relating to these materials and sites is then disseminated to the public through journals, scientific papers as well as lectures to interested groups or individuals.  The outlined functions of the section are conducted by a team of trained archaeology staff comprising of research scientist, collection managers and technicians.

The Section has thousands of archaeological materials/ collections stored in its laboratory. These materials are shelved according to the regions and sites where they have been collected and include different types of tools and materials as outlined below

  • Stone Artifacts
  • Pottery
  • Bones
  • Harpoons
  • Iron working
  • Shells
  • Beads
  • Ochre
  • Wooden vessels
  • Charcoal
  • Geological samples

Currently, the section has seven ongoing key research projects of which, some are carried out in collaboration with international partners and others by departmental research scientist. Our international partners with major research projects have also helped to train some of our staff.

These materials fall under different archaeological periods.

  1. 2.5 -1.8 million years:  This period is related to the earliest evidence of stone tools beginning 2.5 million years. Examples of tools from this period have been found from West Lake Turkana Basin (Lokalale, Kokisel) and date between 2.3-2.1 million years. Professor Helene Roche (Maison de l’Archaeologie-France) and Dr. Mzalendo Kibunjia (NMK) have directed a group of researchers and students with archaeological work since the early 1990’s. In addition, Dr. Sonia Harmand is now currently working in the area.
  1. 1.8 million years-300,000 years: The cultural technology during this period is Acheulean. Sites of importance here are Kariandusi, Isenya, Chesowanja, Kilombe, Olorgesaile and Koobi Fora. These sites exhibit stone tools including scrappers (e.g. the Karari scrapper), Handaxes, Cleavers, Cores as well as Picks. During this period, there is also evidence of fire (Koobi Fora). Researchers involved with this time period and working in collaboration with staff from the Section include Professor Jack Harris (Rutgers University), Drs. David Braun (University of Cape Town) and Mzalendo Kibunjia (NMK).
  1. 300,000-50,000 years: This period is associated with the Middle Stone Age Technology. Sites of importance include Prospect Farm, Kapthurim Formation- Baringo, Songhor, Mugurruk etc. Tools that appear during this time period include Levallouis points and cores as well as scrappers. The Kapthurim Formation represents the transition from the Acheulean to Middle Stone Age. At this period, there are discussions as to whether there was a speciation of Homo sapiens. One argument is that speciation can take place without any change in biological traits and the vice. Researchers working during this time period include Professor Stanley Ambrose (University of Illinois), Dr. Isaya Onjala(NMK), Sally McBreaty (University of Connecticut) and Christian Tyron (Washington University)
  2. 50,000 years-5,000Bp: This period is associated with the Later Stone Age Technology which represents the cultural traits of Homo sapiens. The sites that are important here include Prolonged Drift, Enkapune ya Moto, sites within Lukenya Hills, Lothagam-northern Kenya. The cultural materials representing this technology include Pottery, Beads, Rock Art, Harpoons, Ochre, Bow & Arrows, Microlithic stone tools (backed tools) as well as sites of burial. Key researchers working in collaboration with the Section staff include Professor Stanley Ambrose, Gail Ashley (Rutgers University), Purity Kiura (NMK) and Mulu Muia.
  1. 5,000-1,000Bp: This period is associated with the Neolithic Technology and represents cultural traits of the late Homo sapiens. This is a period which highly represents food production inform of domestic animals as well as use of grains. Sites include Njoro River Cave, Jaragole, Lukenya Hills, Prolonged Drift, Hyrax Hills etc. The cultural materials here include Pottery, Grinding Stones, Rock Art, Microliths (backed tools), Stone Bowls, Figurines (clay), Beads (glass, precious stones, and bone), Bow & Arrows as well as Burials. This cultural technology is not very different from the Later Stone Age Technology although the economies seem diverse and include the onset of pastoralism. Movement and migrations of people as well as change of economies either through the push-pull factors begin to diversify during this time period. Some of the researchers working with the Section include Professor Stanley Ambrose, Purity Kiura and Mr. Mulu Muia.
  1. Iron Age. This period is associated with Iron Technology and includes cultures associated with iron working, root crop cultivation and advanced sedentary. Sites are found inland as well as along the Coast and include Urewe, Deloraine, Kwale, Manda Island, Katunganga etc. This period is represented by such materials as iron blades, Tuyere, cowrie shells, beads (glass, pearl) as well as pottery. This period also represents trade, migration and urbanization. Dr. Chap Kusimba (Chicago Museum) and Ms. Freda Nkirote (NMK) are involved with research during this period.
  1. Modern Day studies. This includes studies of modern day landscapes, environments and people in relation to the past. In addition, ethnoarchaeological work and heritage management studies especially in the Laikipia District, Marsabit and Coastal Areas are being undertaken in the Section. Researchers involved with this work, include Drs. Kathleen Ryan (Pennsylvania University), Purity Kiura and Ms. Angela Kabiru (NMK).

Key research activities, programmes and projects

  • Koobi Fora Field and Training Program in Paleoanthropology
  • West Turkana Archaeological Research Project
  • Origins of Modern Humans Project
  • Thimlich Ohinga Archaeological Research
  • Lake Magadi Archaeological Project
  • Lake Baringo Archaeological Project
  • Swahili Studies and Coastal Peoples of Kenya field school
  • Laikipia Archaeological Project 

Other activities

  • Out of Africa conference in July 2006
  • Launching `Cast for secondary schools in Kenya programme” – a project funded by German students in Frankfurt, Germany.
  • Launching of East African Association of Palaeanthropology  and palaeontology in 2004
  • Koobi Fora a field school
  • Swahili studies and coastal people of Kenya field  school

Key Research Projects/ Programmes

  1. Koobi Fora Field & Training Program in Paleoanthropology. This is a collaborative venture between Rutgers University and National Museums of Kenya under the Co-Directorship of Professor Jack Harris (Rutgers University) and Dr. Purity Kiura (NMK). In addition, other senior scientists working under the program include Drs. Emma Mbua and Mzalendo Kibunjia (NMK) and David Braun (University of Cape Town). The program trains local and international students in Paleoanthropology as well as facilitates collaborative multidisciplinary research for both local and international scientists (www.koobifora.rutgers.edu)
  1. West Turkana Archaeological Research Project. This is a collaborative research under the Co-directorship of Prof. Helene Roche and Dr. Mzalendo Kibunjia. The project’s research interests lie in the archaeological period beginning 2.5 million years in the West Lake Turkana Basin.
  1. Origins of Modern Humans Project. Dr. Stanley Ambrose directs research within the Naivasha-Nakuru and Narok Areas and is interested in the Middle and Late Stone Age as well as studies on origins of modern humans and behavior. Angela Kabiru is the point scientist working with this project from NMK
  1. Thimlich Ohinga Archaeological Research. This is a project being undertaken by Dr, Isaya Onjala and Dr. Christine Ogolla on the earliest form of settlements as evidenced in this Western Kenya site of Thimlich.
  1. Lake Magadi Archaeological Project. Dr. John Barthelme is the Principal Investigator of this project and its major research interests lie in the Late Holocene including subsistence and settlement patterns.
  1. The Baringo Archaeological Project. This is a project under the direction of Prof. Sally McBreaty. The major research interest of this project is the Middle Stone Age. Veronica Waweru is the scientist from NMK working with this project.
  1. Swahili Studies and Coastal Peoples of Kenya field school. This is a collaborative summer field program between Rutgers University and the National Museums of Kenya under the Archaeology Section. The Co-directors include Drs. Mzalendo Kibunjia and Purity Kiura as well as Dillon Mahoney (Rutgers University). The field school is diverse in its training and includes such issues as the Origin and History, the economy, language and cultures of the peoples living along the Kenyan Coast today (www.swahili.rutgers.edu).
  1. The Laikipia Archaeological Project. Dr. Kathleen Ryan is the Principal Investigator of this project and its major research interest is in the transition from the Later Stone Age, when the area was occupied by hunters and gatherers through the Pastoral Neolithic, when pastoralists herding cattle, sheep, and goats entered the area from the north
  1. OBSIDIAN SOURCE SURVEY IN KENYA. Dr. Stanley Ambrose currently studying the evolution of macro-regional exchange networks by obsidian artifact source and MSA and Early LSA artifact chemistry in collaboration with Jeffrey Ferguson and Michael Glascock of the University of Missouri Research Reactor Archaeometry Laboratory. Electron microprobe analysis of sources is being performed by UIUC graduate student Philip Slater in the UIUC Geology Department Microprobe Lab, directed by Professor Craig Lundstrom. Philip Slater, and John Munyiri (National Museums of Kenya) are participating in source collection and artifact assemblage sampling.

Major Breakthroughs in Archaeology -last 5 years

  • Discovery of unique fossil hand bones in the Koobi Fora region.
  • Discovery of foot prints (fauna and human) in Koobi Fora region.
  • Discovery of earliest site with modified faunal remains in isolation from stone tools in the Koobi Fora research area.
  • Discovery of Rock Artistes in various parts of the country including Mt. Elgon area, Mbeere and Nakuru areas.
  • Discovery of Iron Age sites in Mt. Kenya region.