Beginning in the 14th century, Swahili city-states along the Eastern coast of Africa were involved in trade with India, Persia, Arabia, and even China. This communication led to the availability of Chinese porcelain, glass and coral beads, and the integration of Islamic tradition and practice.
Many porcelain plates were found in Gedi and the surrounding Swahili towns. Initially, Western archaeologists assumed that these plates would have been used for eating and preparing food. After further inspection, ethno-archaeologists concluded that these plates were not used for eating, except very rarely used by men on their wedding day. Instead, after interviewing many Swahili women, it was discovered that these special plates were often displayed in homes to communicate social status and to act as “protective decoration”. Porcelain pieces (specifically plate shards worn in jewelry) were believed to be a “protective decoration” against malicious spirits. The same was believed about beads. Plates were often displayed at the entrance of dwellings to “absorb” evil spirits before they entered the house. When the plate or beads absorbed an evil spirit, they would break. Women often wore shards of porcelain and different kinds of beads around their necks on necklaces, a common Islamic practice.
Glass, clay, and coral beads were also a popular imported artifact found in this ancient town. Beads were thought to have the same protective qualities as porcelain pieces. Young children and women who had recently given birth would wear these beads to ward off evil spirits that they came in contact with. Women, especially during menstrual cycles and after giving birth, were considered to be weaker than men; therefore they needed to wear these protective objects most of the time, especially when out in town. Beads were never worn by men, except white or black prayer beads.