An Archaeology Excavation: Aksum In Ethiopia

Aksum is located 2,200 metres above sea level on a flat plateau deep in the interior of Ethiopia on Africa’s horn. The ancient city wielded great influence over trade in agricultural produce, ivory and gold. Via the port of Adulis the Aksumites held trading prominence on both shores of the Red Sea and rose economically on the interchange with the Roman Empire.

The Kings of Aksum once ruled the great African power of Ethiopia. Little is known of the ancient Aksumites and an archaeology excavation of the old city is an important source of relevant data.

Archaeology Excavations At Aksum

Although the first recognised archaeology excavations were begun in 1906 it was not until Dr Neville Chittick’s expedition in 1974 that the deep tombs beneath the city were explored. Like most treasure-hunting expeditions the earlier work concentrated on the easy pickings of artefacts from monuments and elite cemetery sites. By the 1970’s, Chittick, working with staff under the British Institute in Eastern Africa, was using scientific explorative archaeology techniques at Aksum.

However, the improved methodology did not mean that Dr Chittick would not follow his early colleagues in selecting archaeology excavation sites that favoured the upper classes of an urban city. Grand palaces, stately homes, substantial and significant tombs, and even church buildings have surrendered their artefacts once belonging to Aksum’s elite groups. Excavations have proved to unearth almost no peasant dwellings or their accompanying artefacts.

The reason for this could be that the class gap between the elite and the poor was so great that the peasants owned or used very little objects or tools in their daily lives. A second suggestion is that the peasantry were not permitted to live in urban centres and their peripheral dwellings are yet to be uncovered.

In spite of the lack of distilled information about this archaeology site many objects have been recovered in excavations. Pottery, glass, stoneware and metalwork artefacts all reveal a great deal about Ethiopia’s lost gentry class.

Pottery Artefacts At Aksum

Fine and coarse ceramic items have been located in very large quantities in archaeology excavations at Aksum. What interests archaeologists about Aksumite pottery is that it appears to have been made in a unique fashion without the influence of the chronology of foreign pottery traditions.

The predominance of the characteristic style of a lightly impressed decorative design with vertical corrugations combined with small impressions in a staggered fashion within diamond-shaped panels has led to the pottery being known as ‘classical Aksumite’.

Many of the pots and bowls extant as artefacts have stamped impressions often in the form of a cross in many different styles. The Ethiopian Queen, Candice, permitted her royal treasurer to attend the Passover celebration in Jerusalem and he was present in the city during the crucifixion week. Ethiopia’s Lord of the Exchequer is credited with bringing Christianity back to Ethiopia.

Red, black and white were popular pottery colours although the rare and more collectable is known as purple-painted ware. This brownish-purple paint was used in the later Aksumite period.

Most pottery objects appear to have been made for drinking, eating, storing and cooking but some unusual items were certainly used for special purposes such as holding cosmetics, personal care and ceremonial occasions.

Glassware Excavated At Aksum

The Aksum excavations have uncovered a variety of exotically coloured glassware that is not represented at any other site. Among the rich range of glassware artefacts located, the common vessels are clearly imported. It is unlikely that lower classes could have afforded glass items as the journey from Egypt or Syria by ship followed a long, troublesome uphill land trek to the interior would have made the item highly expensive at its destination.

Thin-stemmed goblets, long necked flasks and engraved bowls tend to indicate rather luxurious levels of living. In one of the great homes, oil burning glass lamps suspended by fine bronze chains provides further evidence of the comfortable Aksumite lifestyle.

Aksumites were not without fine glass jewellery. Glass was employed into bangles and necklaces incorporating leaves of thin gold.

Stoneware Artefacts At Aksum

In Aksum’s Addi Kilte district a quantity of broken lithic pieces was discovered in archaeology excavations of rooms that appear to be one of the great mansion houses. Archaeologists who excavated the floor believe they were deliberately broken and incorporated into the foundation for the plaster floor. Although none of the items were found complete, reconstruction of the artefacts shows them to be finely made, lathe-turned, stone bowls of an exquisite purplish colour. Like the locally made pottery and glassware, nothing like these bowls is known from any other source in Ethiopia.

Metal Artefact Items At Aksum

The metal artefacts found at Aksum fall into two main categories:

  • Luxury Items

    Items made from the precious metals of gold and silver include jewellery, delicate boxes, small ornamental objects, and even bowls. Figurines in gold, silver and bronze were also located.

    Comparative to other major North African sites there has been little in the way of gold or silver artefacts discovered. What has been excavated is, not surprisingly, of an Eastern Mediterranean appearance, in view of the considerable trading links with that region.

  • Utilitarian Items

    Items made from iron include tools and weapons. All of the basic equipment for labourers and soldiers has been identified such as knives, chisels, saws, and axes for the workers while spearheads and arrowheads are examples of their military resourcefulness.

The Rise and Fall of Aksum

Aksum boasts some monumental architecture unconvered by archaeology excavation. One hundred stone obelisks loom over the cemetery; the tallest at over 30 metres high weighs 517 tons. Aksum’s high rate of literacy saw it flourish until, in the 6th century AD, the rise of the Persian Empire redrew the map of Asia excluding the kingdom of Aksum from its trading networks. Shortly thereafter, the great Ethiopian trading capital fell from world importance.

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