I dig it… Pt. 2

In my previous post, I dig it… Pt. 1, I gave an introduction to the history of the archaeological site known as Matara, an ancient city of great historical importance in strikingly beautiful surroundings where I took part in two seasons of excavation in 1969 and 1970. 

I also gave something of an outline of the great and little-known history of the region of which Matara is such a significant part. 

This region currently comprises two countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, whose boundaries remain in dispute today as an aftermath to the war which ended in 2000, although in the main they follow the same demarcation as at the formal establishment of the Colony of Eritrea in 1889 in the Treaty of Wuchale (or Ucciale in Italian) signed by King Menelik II of Shewa, who became Emperor of Ethiopia, and Count Pietro Antonelli of Italy. One provision of this infamous treaty differed so strikingly between the Italian and Amharic versions that it led to war six years later, culminating in the spectacular rout of the Italian forces in the 1 March 1896 Battle of Adwa. This was the greatest African victory over a European power since Hannibal’s defeat of Roman armies, and allowed Ethiopia to remain the only African country which was never colonized. 

Prior to the Italian colonization of Eritrea, several of its provinces had been affiliated with Ethiopia, sometimes considered as parts of one nation, sometimes as loosely allied states, always sharing a closely related language and culture.

This shared heritage traces into prehistory. The earliest records of the region, dating back to the pre-Aksumite kingdom of Da’amat and before, provide evidence of a unified power which encompassed the highlands of present-day central Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, extending from that homeland as far outward as each particular power reached.

From the earliest times, two names always have been associated with the region: Agazi (more accurately transliterated Ag’azi) and Habeshat. Both appear to have been tribal confederations. The first was centered in the region of Eritrea that until recently was called Akkele Guzay, in which Matara is located. Incidentally, the oldest known inscription in the Sabaean alphabet dates from the 9th century B.C.E., and was found not in southern Arabia but in Akkele Guzay. The second name was associated with what is now Tigray province in northern Ethiopia, with its center of power in the region of Yeha and Aksum

The Agazi people lent their name to the language, Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopic tongue which survives as the liturgical language of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Churches and several daughter languages, including Tigrinya and Amharic.

The name Habeshat gained more widespread fame. The word Habesha was modified in Latin and other European languages into the name Abyssinia, which today is sometimes used to refer to the combined entity consisting of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Speaking of names, Ethiopia (ΑἰθιοπίαAỉthiopía) is also an ancient name, a Greek word dating back at least to the Iliad and the Odyssey, thought originally to have meant “land of burned faces.” It referred to various parts of Africa, including Libya, Kush, and Meroë, a powerful kingdom in southern Sudan which was eventually conquered by the Aksumite King Ezana, who was the first to apply the Ge’ez version Ityopya to Aksum. 

The name Eritrea comes from Greek as well. It is the Italian version of the Greek word Ἐρυθραίᾱ (Erythraíā) meaning Red Land, related to its position on the Red Sea. This ancient name was given by the Italians to their Red Sea colony at the end of the nineteenth century.

In the previous post about Matara, I ended with a discussion of the hawulti, the stone monument which has become its best-known symbol. Now I’ll give some more detailed information about the site and its history, beginning with a satellite view of the entire site next to an archaeological site map, and then some panoramic views of the site which I photographed and filmed from the top of Gwal Saim in 1969 and 1970. The satellite view below shows twice the area of the site map, including all of Amba Saim in the south and another amba in the northeast corner, while the site plan cuts off just south of Gwal Saim.  

The next photo was taken in 1969 looking north from the top of Gwal Saim. It gives an overview of nearly the whole site, including the small ruined foundation on the lower summit of Gwal Saim. However, the hawulti is off-camera to the right. 

My other panoramic views of the site were taken in 1970 beside the foundation on the lower summit. This is believed to be where the hawulti stood before it toppled to the field below. As I pointed out in the previous post, there was a striking climatic change between 1969 and 1970, with the effects of growing drought clearly visible.

I assembled this composite view from several slides. Since I was not using a tripod, they can’t be put into a smooth panoramic image, but they give a good idea of the appearance of the entire site from this high vantage point, looking somewhat to the west of north toward the imposing Amba Matara

Amba Matara is a huge extrusive stone outcrop which stands to the west of the site, as can be seen in this view shot in 1969 from Gwal Saim.  

Its majestic mass can be seen for a great distance along the road from both directions when driving toward the site, an unforgettable landmark – as in this view from the highway driving toward Senafe, the city just north of Matara seen on the horizon, with Amba Saim visible in the far distance behind Amba Matara. 

Finally here is a video pan that I shot with a friend’s movie camera at the same time as the photos above, starting with a view to the east showing the hawulti, then panning westward to show all of the excavated parts of the ancient city as well as the workers engaged in various activities. The background music I added is a song that was popular in Asmara in those days. Called Adey Adi Jiganu (My City Is a City of Heroes – or My Land Is a Land of Heroes), it was a Tigrinya praise song of Eritrea’s freedom fighters.

All of these excavated ruins were built during the hegemony of Aksum, and most date between the 4th and 6th century C.E., although the city was active through the 8th or 9th century. Once it was abandoned, there appears to have been no further construction, and the whole plain reverted to farmland. The buildings collapsed into rubble piles. Such an archaeological feature is called a tell (or tel) in English, from an Arabic and Hebrew word for hill, while the French archaeologists use a word in their language, tertre, which means mound, knoll, or hillock. Since the whole area is heavily strewn with stone rubble, as can be seen in this photo of the hawulti in its modern location along the road southeast of the nearest foundation and east of Gwal Saim, a tell is a good indication of a foundation or structure worthy of examination.  

The excavated building remains at Matara were assigned letter designations, as can be seen on the site map, based on the order of their excavation. Mat-A, Mat-B, and Mat-C were palaces. Mat-D, which is joined with Mat-C, was apparently a church or chapel, with a subterranean tomb beneath the central building. 

This illustration from the Ethiopian National Museum is a reconstruction of a palace in Aksum known as Addi Kilte or Dongur, constructed at about the same time as these palaces in Matara, and roughly the same style, although the design details differ, as well as details of the stone materials and style of masonry employed in the construction. This will give an idea of what the palaces at Matara may have looked like when first constructed, with a central multi-story building surrounded by courtyards and a wall of outer rooms and towers pierced by one or more entryways. In Aksum, as here in Matara, the only surviving remains are the foundations, and the reconstruction of everything above is somewhat conjectural, although based on enough surviving information for reasonable certainty. 

Mat-F was a church in the basilica style introduced from the earliest Syrian orthodox churches, with the central building surrounded by numerous other rooms, including walk-through keyhole baptistries and storerooms. 

The small foundation on Gwal Saim appears to have been a chapel, similar to one of the palaces but without the surrounding courtyard and outbuildings. 

Mat-E was a large section of the city, including villas, shops, and homes, as well as streets and alleys running between them. Since it was a large section, it was subdivided into Mat-E1 and Mat-E2

Here’s a view from inside one of the buildings of Mat-E2 looking south toward Mat-E1, which stands somewhat higher on a bare stone outcrop. Amba Saim is in the background, and a street cuts across the view from the lower right toward the high ground, takes a left-hand turn, and then a right, continuing its narrow way toward Mat-E1. It can be seen on the plan above at the center of the Mat-E1 complex.

Investigation of several of these foundations revealed remains of pre-Aksumite buildings from at least two different periods, and preliminary evidence of even older habitation was found in places, proving that before its final demise in the 8th or 9th century C.E., Matara had been inhabited for much of the previous 2500-3000 years or more, making it a site of great significance to the history of the region. The previous post included a photo of an inscribed stone, part of a Sabaean monumental inscription, re-utilized as a building stone in the wall of one of the larger structures in Mat-E1. Here’s another, with two much less monumental inscriptions in Sabaean letters, a very fragmentary one on the side facing the camera, and another on the top surface with three lines of text in very shallowly inscribed letters. 

The photo below shows a very broad corner wall during excavation within one of the foundation rooms of Mat-B. This lower foundation was dated to the period of Da’amat, as were the inscribed stones found in Mat-E1 and Mat-E2. In an upcoming post I will have more to say about Da’amat, as well as the excavations at Yeha, the apparent capital of this pre-Aksumite power, and the magnificent architectural remains from that period. 

I took the photo above during the process of officially recording the status of the excavation before finishing that season’s dig – as it turned out, the last season at Matara. Note that the foundation stones had been brushed clean, the surface where digging stopped had been leveled and smoothed, meter sticks and an object of known size were set by a prominent feature to provide scale, and a slate with an identifying lable was set in a visible corner so as not to obscure any details but to assure the correct identification of the photographed structure. After fully recording the excavation with measurements, photographs, and drawings, delicate structures like this were covered over with backfilled earth to protect them from damage so research could resume in the future where these digs left off. Here’s Jean Gire, the photographer and draftsman on the team, with his kit and camera on the way to record a newly-excavated section of Mat-E2 in early June 1970. 

Every part of an excavation, every bit of evidence unearthed, is vitally important, and recording it is the most important part. Even with the modern technologies which allow non-invasive exploration of sites, eventually digging takes place, and excavation is destruction. Once excavated, a site can never be restored to its original condition. This is why such careful records are kept, so much information is retrieved from and associated with every item removed from a site, and good archaeology never involves complete uncovering of any site. Future archaeologists will have better technologies which can extract further information from unexcavated portions of a site, but once excavated, most of the evidence unobtainable by current methods is irretrievably lost.

There is one aspect of archaeology in places like Eritrea or Ethiopia which adds an extra dimension to the experience: continuity across time. Even in a site such as Matara, where the city has been dead and gone for 1200 years or more, the inhabitants of the region are descendants of the long-dead citizens of the city. They speak the direct descendant of the same language, and their material culture and traditions are also directly related to those of the city builders and residents. Since the laborers employed during the excavations live in the immediate vicinity, they often have retained oral traditions about the history of the region, and when artifacts are discovered in the course of excavation, they frequently recognize the item as being similar or identical to ones they have grown up with, and likely use the same name today as their ancestors gave the excavated object.

The just-excavated pot being cleaned by one of the workers beside the pond in 1969 is different from pots made today, because pottery styles change so regularly as to be a major means of dating sites, and yet it was made of the same materials and with the same methods as today, and those made today clearly are similar in function and probably name to when it was made some 1500 years previously. Likewise, the array of millstones found throughout the residential areas of the site, some where they were in use by the women, others discarded after becoming too thin for continued use, their upper surfaces worn to a crescent shape by years of grinding grain, are virtually identical with those used by the wives of the men who uncovered them, and the modern Tigrinya name, pronounced met-han, is almost certainly the same as the name used by the women who wore them down grinding their grain in Matara’s heyday.

The traditional houses in the vicinity are still made with the same materials and techniques as the Aksumite buildings being unearthed in the excavation. The two upper photos in the montage below are excavated doorways in Mat-E1. The open horizontal spaces in the walls on either side of the doorway were once filled with wooden beams that supported the wall above the door. The lower photos show two doors, one exterior and another interior, in a traditional house near the site, where we stored supplies during the excavations. Although constructed in the mid-20th century, the house was built using the same traditional techniques that were in use when the buildings in Mat-E1 were constructed over 1000 years before, including wooden beams anchored in the wall to support the weight of the stones above. Incidentally, the modern house was built using stones gathered from the site. Like the ancient buildings, no mortar was used to anchor the stones, but they are so carefully fitted that they stand securely.

A more unusual example is this large stone fragment which was found among the rubble of part of Mat-E1. It most certainly was a stepping stone or part of a staircase, and like many such steps, rows of holes had been carved into it in the pattern of the ancient sowing game known in Eritrea and Ethiopia as gebeta, or in other cultures as omali, wari, kalah, and numerous other names for mancala games in the African, Asian, and other cultures which play similar board games.

What was most amusing and enjoyable about this was that when I stopped to photograph it, I saw that the holes were all sown with stones, ready for play. Very likely boys would sit and play gebeta while tending their cattle, sheep, or goats when digging wasn’t going on nearby, as herding children have done for centuries, sometimes with nothing more than holes in the ground and pebbles or goat droppings to play with.

Yet another example of continuity at the site appeared before me one day early in June 1970 while I was photographing the ruined buildings and deserted streets of Mat-E2. Turning a corner of the same street viewed from its north end in another photo above, and starting to walk toward members of the team who could be seen working in a nearby section, I came across a pair of cattle lounging in the street. No doubt ancestors of these animals did the same when the city was vibrantly alive, centuries before. 

In future installments, I plan to explore more details of the excavations at Matara and its importance in the archaeology of the region. I’ll also move on to examine other major sites in Eritrea and Ethiopia, concentrating on those where I took part in the excavations, especially at Aksum and Yeha. For now, let’s end with a view of a beautiful sunset gleaming on the Mat-E1 foundations and the surrounding rubble field in the evening of 26 June 1970, near the close of the final season of excavation at this singularly important site known as Matara. 

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4 thoughts on “I dig it… Pt. 2

  1. “a satellite view of the entire site” – WOW! That’s a huge area!!!

    “composite view from several slides” – That was a GREAT idea!

    “Tigrinya praise song of Eritrea’s freedom fighters” – Umm…definitely not Elvis Presley or Rascal Flatts. 😉

    “remains of pre-Aksumite buildings” – That picture is phenomenal. I find it so hard to believe people take the time to delicately unearth these ruins.

    “top surface with three lines of text in very shallowly inscribed letters.” – Wow! Actual writing from so, so long ago. Gives me chills.

    “covered over with backfilled earth to protect them from damage so research could resume in the future where these digs left off.” – I had no idea this was done.

    “excavation is destruction” – I hadn’t ever thought of it in that way until now.

    “good archaeology never involves complete uncovering of any site.” – I don’t understand this part. Why wouldn’t you want to find out everything you could about a site! Why not unearth the whole place!?

    “they frequently recognize the item as being similar or identical to ones they have grown up with, and likely use the same name today as their ancestors gave the excavated object.” – THAT is just too cool!

    “used by the women who wore them down grinding their grain in Matara’s heyday.” – So much history in one little artifact. It really makes you think about the woman who used it day after day to help feed her family.

    “Like the ancient buildings, no mortar was used to anchor the stones, but they are so carefully fitted that they stand securely.” – That’s amazing! No mortar! We can’t even make buildings with nails to stand that securely, so it is phenomenal that they didn’t use anything at all and the buildings still stood.

    “ancient sowing game known in Eritrea and Ethiopia as gebeta” – I hadn’t ever thought about them playing games. They seemed to have to work so hard just to survive that I figured they didn’t have much leisure time.

    “a view of a beautiful sunset” – Very beautiful.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post even though it was very long! LOL You have a very interesting writing voice, but that doesn’t surprise me at all. It is such a pleasure to be able to read your blog. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    • Yeah, it was a pretty big city. Had lots of room to spread out on that plain.
      Excavation is sometimes done with tooth brushes & dental picks. Have to be very careful not to disturb or destroy evidence while trying to uncover it;.
      Sites are often covered back up after excavation, unless they are going to be set up as a museum, or otherwise actively under guard at all times. And even disregarding vandalism, weather can destroy the ruins after they are uncovered.
      No matter how carefully a site is excavated, there are things that may be missed due to inadequate technological advances, and in the future more could be obtained, just the same as with forensic science. The science of DNA has allowed much more information to be obtained from a crime scene than was possible a few years ago. That’s why not destroying a whole site by completely excavating it is important.
      A very important thing to remember, something that was taught by the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, is that in the end we are digging up not things, but people. “Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows.” Every artifact, every building, everything unearthed is just a link to the people who used and built them, & it’s the job of the archaeologist to revive them.
      The walls were built with no mortar, but the stones were carefully fitted so they hold together.
      Yes, their work is hard, but there are also plenty of times when there’s nothing to do, like when the kids are in the fields keeping watch over their animals. That’s when games are a great way to pass the time.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m enjoying writing them, & bringing up the memories again. And again, thank you for inspiring me to start the blog!

  2. Thank you Skip. I just eagerly finished reading part 1 and 2 of your blog entry on ancient Matara. I am impressed by the wealth of knowledge you collected during your brief stay in Eritrea/Ethiopia. Please post more

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