If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I studied archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania before my military service, during which I was posted to Asmara Eritrea, then part of Ethiopia, where I lived for five years. The Army had trained me as an Arabic linguist, and I fairly quickly learned Tigrinya, the local language of highland Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, which is a cousin of Arabic.
In this post, the first of a series, I will outline the history and archaeology of the region and the site where I participated in the 1969 and 1970 excavations.
I quickly made contact with Francis Anfray, the French archaeologist who was in charge of the studies jointly sponsored by the French Center for Scientific Research and the Ethiopian Institute of Archaeology, requesting permission to take part in his excavations. As a result, I participated in four seasons of research, two each at two of the major excavation sites, as well as some smaller digs at other sites. Here, Anfray is seen with one of our site workers during an excavation at Matara, one of the most important sites in Eritrea.
It was my intention to make use of the opportunities afforded me by participating in these excavations to further my education, fully anticipating entering graduate studies in archaeology on my return to the States and specializing in the region where I already had so much experience. As it happens, this was not to be the case, but that’s another story.
Most of my travels were within the area of the map below, primarily in the region bounded by Massawa and Barentu in the north, and Gondar (north of Lake Tana, seen on the map above), and Meqele (spelled Mek’elé on the map) to the south.
The archaeological sites where I worked during my five years in Asmara were major sites in the history of the Empire of Aksum, as well as its predecessors, several of which dominated these highlands from at least 1500 B.C.E. to around 800 C.E. There had been a chain of cities (seen on the road map below the following historic maps) which ran from the Red Sea port city of Adulis across the lowlands, ascending the escarpment to the highlands at Cohaito, then travelling to Matara, and finally to Aksum (formerly transliterated as Axum) that controlled the trade between Aksum and its commercial partners, Egypt, Byzantium, and Rome, as well as southern Arabia, Persia, India, and beyond from the beginning of the Common Era to the 7th or 8th century, when Aksumite control of the Red Sea was cut off by the rise of Islamic power in neighboring Arabia.
Aksum was preceded by the Kingdom of Da’amat, which was at its peak around the 8th to 5th centuries B.C.E. Except in Aksum, there are significant remains from the time of Da’amat in all the same chain of cities, leading to Yeha, which appears to have been its capital, or else a religious center. After the fall of Da’amat in the 5th century B.C.E., a number of smaller kingdoms followed, until Aksum rose to power around 100 C.E. and consolidated the smaller kingdoms into an empire much more extensive and far-reaching even than Da’amat had been.
Also along the road between Matara and Aksum is the monastery mountain, Debre Damo, founded in the 6th century C.E., which I introduced previously and which can be seen on my blog header.
Archaeological evidence from earlier than Da’amat is less well-known, but studies of mummified baboons found in the temple of the 15th century B.C.E. female pharaoh Hatshepsut has definitively situated the fabled land of Punt (more accurately transliterated from the hieroglyphs as Pwenet) in Eritrea or adjacent northern Ethiopia. The phonetic symbols p wn n t are read from top to bottom and left to right in the example below, with the ideographic sign for land at the bottom of the right-hand cluster, as written by the Egyptians.
The segment below, part of a relief depicting Hatshepsut’s trade mission to Punt, which the Egyptians also called Ta Netjeru, or God’s Land, shows the chief of Punt and his wife welcoming the Egyptians in a remarkably true-life representation of the individuals and their clothing.
My first two seasons working with Anfray and his team were spent in Matara (while Metera is a better transliteration of the name, Matara has become the established name for the site). It’s located 1 km south of Sen’afe, 136 km south of Asmara, and close to the border with Tigray Province in Ethiopia.
The site was named for a small nearby village by the first archaeologists to survey the area. The people of the region call it Belo Kelo, a name that may refer to a tribe named Belo who formerly lived there. The ancient name of tie city is not known, but local legends as well as surviving reports of travelers to Aksum suggest that it may have been called Bur. It was a large city located on a broad fertile plain, only parts of which have been excavated, which can be seen in this satellite photo.
The ruins of palaces, churches, villas, shops and common homes from the Aksumite era are spread over a wide area. The modern dirt road that cuts across the site destroyed the northeast corner of the largest palace complex, and before the site was set aside for excavation, the whole plain had been plowed and farmed for centuries.
Excavation took place over a period of 10 years ending in 1970, concentrating on areas that stood above the level of the plain, revealing the collapsed remains of buildings of Aksumite design, a distinctive architecturqal style seen across the region in sites of that period. The finer, more affluent structures all featured a central building surrounded by a courtyard and encircling wall of smaller rooms, as can be seen in the three large excavated buildings in the lower center of the satellite map and the center of the site map below.
The small palace at the center of this map, designated as site Mat-A, is a remarkable example of the finest architectural design from the period, although only the foundation survives. Here is one side of the central building foundation within the palace courtyard.
On one of my visits to the site, I filmed most of the excavated areas with a movie camera which I had borrowed from a friend. The film was later converted to digital video. Here is an edited selection of views of this small palace, which I shot in June 1970. The background music is a traditional tune played on an end-blown bamboo flute called shambuqo in Tigrinya and washint in Amahric.
Beneath the Aksumite period ruins, artifacts and the foundations of buildings from the time of Da’amat and earlier have been found, and some stones from these older structures were incorporated into the newer buildings when they were erected on the older dismantled ruins. On the large stone in the center of this photo can be seen a fragmentary inscription in the ancient South Arabian alphabet, which was also used in pre-Aksumite Da’amat. In fact, the earliest known inscriptions in Sabaean were found not in southern Arabia, but in Eritrea.
The Sabaean alphabet, which was related to the Arabic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, and other Semitic scripts, as well as Greek, Latin, and later western alphabets, was written using only consonants, and originally was written in boustrophoedon, a Greek term for plowing a field, meaning that lines were read alternating right to left and then left to right. The two letters in the fragment of what must have been a monumental inscription are F (diamond-shaped) and R (shaped like a half-circle). Between the two letters is a vertical stroke which was used to separate words in a text. From its fragmentary nature, there is no indication as to which direction the text was originally written, and of course it’s impossible to know what the words might have been. The following graphic shows the letters in the center, upended in a vertical orientation as in their present location, and on either side, how they would have looked depending on the original orientation, each reading from the center – R|F on the left side, read right to left, and F|R on the right, read left to right.
The most famous artifact from Aksumite Matara is an inscribed monument of a style often referred to as a stele or stela. The name for such a monument in Tigrinya and Amharic (as well as their ancient ancestral language Ge’ez and its still more ancient relative, either Sabaean or Epigraphic South Arabian) is hawulti.
As it happens, the inscription on this hawulti, which is the oldest known in the modern Ethiopic script and Ge’ez language rather than Sabaean, contains the word hawulti at the beginning of the text, and tells who dedicated it and why, although ambiguity in the text and the lack of vowel markers have made it difficult to provide a definitive translation.
The graphic example below shows the evolution of the word hawulti from the Sabaean characters at the top, which are read from right to left: TLWH; to the word as written in the inscription on the Matara monument (the forms of the letters have changed, and the direction is now left to right): HWLT; and finally the Ethiopic syllabary, which includes seven forms of each consonant, depending on the following vowel: Ha W L Ti. The monumental forms of the Sabaean alphabet made it especially suitable for being carved in stone, while the letters on the hawulti show an evolution toward hand lettering on vellum, a change that was fully realized in the Ge’ez syllabary, which is written with pen and ink.
The top of the hawulti bears the disc and crescent symbol generally identified with the lunar god Ilumquh (sometimes written as Almaqah, among other variations), who was worshipped throughout much of South Arabia and in Da’amat, as well as Aksum until its conversion to Christianity in the 4th century C.E. The symbol appears on monuments, inscriptions, and even coins, indicating the importance of this deity for over a millennium.
After Italy colonized Eritrea in 1890, scholars began surveying antiquities, including Matara. The hawulti was found lying at the base of the small hill called Gwal Saim (daughter of Saim; a much larger mount standing nearby is called Amba Saim). It evidently had fallen or been thrown from the summit of Gwal Saim, breaking in two pieces. Ruins of a small Aksumite buildinrg remain on top of Gwal Saim. They can be seen on the site map above.
In 1906, the first extensive archaeological survey of sites in Eritrea and Ethiopia was mounted by a German team led by linguist and orientalist Enno Littmann, published in several volumes in 1913 under the title Deutsche Aksum-Expedition (DAE). The hawulti was measured, sketched, and photographed by Littlmann’s team.
The view from one of the excavated palaces seen below shows the French draftsman on our team making a drawing of the small building foundation which are visible atop Gwal Saim, with Amba Saim rising behind it. The hawulti is off-camera to the left.
The hawulti became Matara’s best-known landmark, a symbol of the past grandeur of the region. During the June 1970 excavation, I filmed it along with most of the excavated sections of the site. Here is a brief clip showing the location of the hawulti and a pan of its facade, including the inscription and symbol.
Sadly, not long after Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia, war broke out again between the two neighbors, and Matara became a battlefield. The greatest casualty was the hawulti, which was blown up by an occupying force of Ethiopian troops in 2000. The inscription and the carved symbol at the top of the monument survived, but the bottom was shattered by the explosion. Recently the National Museum of Eritrea has restored it.
I will have a great deal more to say about Matara, as well as the other sites I worked at in Eritrea and Ethiopia, in future posts. I’ll also be discussing a project which I called Virtual Abyssinia, an experiment in computer-based archaeological reconstruction which I created and ran for a short time on Second Life.
I’ll close this post with another edited video from the film I shot in June 1970. This one does not show a part of the excavations, but rather the deep well which was dug in the bed of a pond near the northern extent of the site. This is what the pond looked like in June 1969, despite the fact that the small rains were late, a good situation at the end of an excavation, but not for the farmers.
By 1970, the drought which over the next decade became such a devastating catastrophe throughout much of Africa was already causing great hardship on the people of the region. What had been a pond was now a dry basin, despite a very brief small rainy season which brought a touch of green to the landscape.
The water table was far below the surface, making the task of drawing water from the well very hazardous, especially considering the youth of the children who went there daily to water their thirsty animals.
The background music of this clip is a Tigrinya song that was popular throughout my years spent in Asmara, about a girl named Fereweyni. It’s a sweet counterpoint to the bittersweet reality of drought.