Aksum was more than I could have imagined. We arrived in the afternoon, got ourselves situated and went out to visit the local church and the famous Stelae of Aksum. We got a personal guided tour of the sites from a friend of a friend who happened to be an archaeology professor at Aksum University. We were surprised when she told us that that former President George W. Bush stopped by in the morning. Evidently, traveling by helicopter and airplane, he was on a historical tour of Ethiopia as well.

First we stopped by the Church of St. Mary built by Haile Selassie in the 1960s. Just adjacent to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which is said to house the Ark of the Covenant, the newer church was build as a site for women and men to pray because the area around Church of Our Lady is restricted to men only. In between the two churches lay the ruins of what is said to be the first church in Sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps the first in all of Africa. Largely overgrown by bushes and weeds, parts of the structures are all that remain. Apparently excavations were conducted in the 1960s or 70s that dated it to the time period of King Ezana—the Ethiopia’s first Christian Emperor. We couldn’t get too close to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion because it was undergoing renovations.

A Bible Written on Lamb skin

The Orthodox Church constructed a small museum adjacent to the ruins. Church artifacts included religious regalia largely donated by the former Emperors and preserved by Church officials over the years. The collection wasn’t in the best shape. Imperial crowns, gowns, and manuscripts were sitting behind thin glass cabinets. In some cases, paintings and artifacts were laying on the ground up against the wall.

Aksum Stelae

The stelae field was just as impressive as the churches. The three large stelae, one of which was recently returned after having been stolen by the Italian government during their World War II invasion of Ethiopia, demarcated the royal burial ground of the pre-Christian Aksum Empire. While the stelae are extraordinary in their own right, the real mystery lays underneath.

In a labyrinth of tunnels and tombs, empty chambers are all that remain of what used to be the burials of the Empires’ rulers. Unfortunately the museum was closed for renovations and we were only able to enter two burial chambers because the others were too precarious. When the government resurrected the stolen stelae, the weight disturbed the foundations of the others and they had to rig a series of cables to help keep them in place. 

We concluded the trip with a visit to the burial tombs of King Kaleb and Gebre Meskel. Less than a kilometer down a dirt road, these buildings were less frequently visited but just as spectacular. Down in the chambers were some remnants of Geez glyphs on the wall although not enough to decipher the complete meaning. We were told that the ground underneath one of the chamber floors used to serve as an escape tunnel although it’s unclear. Since we had an official guide from the University we had the opportunity to go down into one of the vertical shafts. Looking back it probably wasn’t the best idea. One person had to stay at the top to help us out because there weren’t any ropes or ladders. I ventured halfway into one chamber and came across a bat with my flashlight. I quickly made my exit. 

From the trip I was surprised how many building lay in ruins with no signage. There are plenty of sites around that could be excavated and people are still trying to determine their use and function. We were told that Neville Chittick and David Phillipson excavated the Aksum stelae decades ago but it seems there are still many more questions that remain unanswered. Unlike many other large archaeological sites I’ve visited, Aksum is right up against a major street and people can enter and exit almost freely.

Also as a side note I think it’s worth mentioning. I came across a group of students playing Chini skip in Aksum. I’m not sure what the other terms are for it but it’s a game that is also played in Jamaica where students take turns trying to jump over a rope—or a string of rubber bands—as it gets progressively higher. I had to take a picture because I never thought I’d see it in Ethiopia.

Chini skip



We were joking the other day about how our trip has been more of a food tour of Ethiopia than a historical trip. In most cases we’ve only had enough time to travel, eat (sometimes skipping a meal to make it to the next city on time), and sleep. We made it Gondar the other night but weren’t able to tour the Fasil Ghebbi or any other historical sites because we were behind schedule and had to go straight to the Semien Mountains.

We arrived in the Semiens a day late. It was good being out a city for once and the air in the mountains was much fresher. Situated on the top of one of the mountain peaks, the Semien Lodge offered a clear view for miles around. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to go hiking but we did run into a troop of Gelada Monkeys.

 

The next day we continued on to Axum. The roads were undergoing heavy construction and although they were bad, we were told they used to be a lot worse. It took us 3 hours to travel 70 kilometers. In one case we had to wait for a backhoe to push a huge pile of rocks out of the way so that we could connect to a road under construction.

 

Driving at night was nearly impossible. Many cars don’t have working headlights or taillights, cows and goats cross the road (and sometimes sit in the middle of the road) and it becomes difficult to dodge the potholes. After 8 hours of driving we stopped in Shire (pronounced she-ray) where we had some great food and a nice cheap hotel. It cost us about $5/room and, since I reserved the rooms in Amharic, I was able to convince the receptionist that I was Habesha (Ethiopian) so I got a discounted rate on my room. The next morning we continued to Axum.

After our fieldwork, the students went horseback riding through the Bale Mountains for a three-day excursion. When they returned to Addis, we rested a day then began our historical tour through the North. The plan was to travel to Bahr Dar, Semien Mountains, Gondar, Axum, and Lalibela, before returning to Addis. In total the trip was scheduled to take two weeks with some destinations two-days driving distance from others.

The drive to Bahr Dar took two-days to complete but was well worth the effort. The bustling city is situated adjacent to Lake Tana, the main source of the Blue Nile. We hired a small boat and visited a couple of monasteries on the islands in the lake. It’s currently the off-season so the tour guides and merchants were eager to welcome us. We took a brief tour of the first and most recent monastery which featured full floor-to-ceiling paintings recounting the major stories of the bible in chronological order. The small museum also housed a number of historic manuscripts.

The second church was much older and more interesting from a historical perspective. The small island had a local association and we hired a young guide to show us around. The church followed the traditional cyclical model of the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and the paintings were explained to us in much greater detail. The paintings again told biblical stories but there were some additional aspects that were specific to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. For one, it is said that Jesus’ first miracle was sculpting birds of clay and giving them life.

Additionally we were told that in traditional orthodox paintings, bad individuals were depicted with one-eye or half faced. Each church is said to carry of a replica of the Ark of the Covenant in its center vestibule. Only visible to the local priest, the entrance to the central room is guarded by the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

The church itself was dedicated to Gebre Mariam who is said to have planted the first coffee seeds. The introduction of lemon and hops are also attributed to him.

After our stay in Bahr Dar we made our way to the Semiens stopping to see the Nile waterfall. Unfortunately what we thought would be a short stop along the way, turned out to be 3-hours out of way and postponed our arrival to the Semien Lodge by one day. The falls were very low, in part because it was dry season and possibly also because of the dam projects further upstream.

Our work day was broken up with a customary tea/coffee break around 10:30am which helped us push through until lunch at 12:30pm. The days always seemed short and there was never enough time to get everything we wanted done.

Tea Break in the Rockshelter

As excavations continued, my unit revealed a thick layer of ash that left me looking like a powered donut by the end of the day. I amassed my fair share of dirty clothes and some nice headgear for digging in the dark crevasses of our unit.

Powered Donut

We also had visitors from the local Sodo-Walayita University. They were students of Cultural Heritage and for some of them, it was their first time visiting a live archaeological site. The took plenty of photos and videos and some of them were interested in digging with us in the future. Our last day of excavations was about two weeks ago. We took our final wall profiles and soil samples before finishing our artifact cataloging.

Student Tour

To celebrate, we played one final game of Flunky Ball. The game was first introduced to us by our German colleagues who explained it to us as a drinking game that involves running (generally not a good combination).

The pitch is divided into two teams lined up side-by-side across from each other. In front of each player is their drink of choice and a large water bottle is placed in the middle of the pitch. The teams take turns tossing a ball at the water bottle. If the water bottle falls, the bowler’s team drinks while the other team gets the ball, replaces the water bottle, and returns to their spot. When a player finishes their drink, they turn their bottle upside down to show that it’s empty and leave the pitch (below is a sample diagram).

Flunky Ball

The teams were initially divided American vs. German, and although we won the first game, we got demolished every game after. Thorben was the clear MVP taking on the herculean task of consuming two beers, instead of one, and still leading his team to victory. Those who didn’t drink alcohol substituted in bottles of Coca-Cola.

Flunky Ball 2

The next day we broke down the camp, said farewell to the community, and headed into town for one last night before making the 8-hour drive from Sodo to Addis Ababa.

Sorry for the delay in blog posts. While the vast majority of hotels we are staying at offer “free wifi” it’s either nonexistent or so slow it might as well be nonexistent. To maintain some sense of order I’ll post a couple of days behind schedule and cover some of the earlier highlights.

We finished at our Baantu camp soon after the last blog post and went to Mochena Borago to continue excavations at the rockshelter. To make up for lost time, we only took one weekend vacation day. Being at higher elevation the weather is much different here. The mornings are cool and the afternoons heat up. By 8:00pm the temperature drops to the 60s and the nights produce strong winds and sometimes rain. One tent blew away the other night and I almost lost the top to my tent as well. We camped on the side of the road just a short two-minute walk from the rockshelter and I had a nice view of the landscape from my tent.

The Hills of Mochena

Our first visit to the rockshelter was amazing, there is a steady stream of water that flows down the lip of the rockshelter, spraying a light mist over those excavating near the edge.

Mochena Borago Waterfall

Inside the rockshelter, the weather is cool with sunlight filling in by 4:00pm. We had an international team of about 10 archaeologists and geologists from the University of Florida, University of Cologne, John Hopkin’s University, and Addis Ababa University all trying to make sense of this complex microenviroment.

At the Rockshelter

During the course of our excavations we had up to four units open at one time. We’ve come across several obsidian bifaces and pieces of ochre and some smaller pieces of red chert. Charcoal gets special treatment as we are able to radiocarbon date it. The site is unique because it’s earlier occupations sit somewhere between 40-50 kya, which is the limit of radiocarbon dating. Many laboratories can only give you dates up to 40 kya but some have been able to provide more exact numbers up to 50kya. There is still a margin of error but approximate dates are better than none.

Wireless in the Field

The coordinators have taken great strides to go paperless in the field which means that our level, photo, and stratigraphy forms are all completed on a tablet through fillable PDF forms. The artifacts that we find are shot in with a Total Data Station so they are mapped with specific X,Y, and Z coordinates that can be uploaded to create a 3D map of each excavation unit. The placement is accurate up to a millimeter. On average we’ve been able to plot somewhere around 800 artifacts each day.

We made it to our campsite about a week ago and set up our tents inside of an old World Vision compound. We are located 45-minutes away from the nearest town on a road that is requires some complex maneuvering to avoid large rocks and ditches. A phone signal is hard to come by, although we managed to find a spot in an plowed field that temporarily gets reception from time to time. Upon arriving to the compound we soon discovered water was a scare commodity in the community. We still aren’t sure how the town lacked water considering it has rained almost every night we’ve been here but every other day I’ve had to take the 45-minute trip each way to Sodo to fill up 15 jerry cans with water, in addition to running other errands. Water was restored two days ago and everyone was happy at the prospects of laundry and longer showers.

The excavations and survey have been going well over the last week. We’ve located about 10 potential archaeological sites with a variety of lithic artifacts that fit the general typology for Middle Stone Age. We also opened up a 2-meter by 2-meter excavation unit to try and determine the extent of the subterranean lithic layer. There are literally hundred of lithic artifacts on the surface ranging from Levallois Cores and Flakes to Achulian handaxes; we even located a couple of hammerstones.

This weekend we are moving our base of operation to the Mochena Borego rock shelter to continue excavations at a site believed to be a point of refugium for early humans just before the major out-of-Africa migration. We have an international, interdisciplinary team of Ethiopian, German, and American archaeologists and geologists attempting to recreate the paleoenvironment and the get a better overall understanding of early human behavior.

After spending a week in Addis Ababa preparing the equipment and the cars, our truck broke down 4 hours into our drive to Sodo. We got a flat tire which required two hydraulic jacks to repair, only to discover that we had an oil leak in our engine. We spent 4 hours waiting at the car while the Professor drove ahead to the nearest town and came back. We parked the truck at a house nearby and are trying to figure our how to get it repaired. Hopefully we’ll make to Sodo tonight and start survey and excavations this weekend.

Smithsonian Awards $275,000 to Howard University’s Fine Arts Division

WASHINGTON, DC (January 10, 2014) — Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts has been awarded $275,000 for a new dance commission by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art as part of a multiyear series of programming, Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa.

The dance commission, celebrating the cross-cultural influences of Oman and East Africa, will showcase the choreography of Ray Mercer, esteemed principal dancer from Broadway’s “The Lion King.” Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa will make its world premier at Howard University, Cramton Auditorium, April 11 – 12, 2014, at 7:30 p.m.

The dance commission will feature Howard University students, faculty and professional dancers (to include Howard University alumni dance majors) from the Washington area. Additional programming for Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean will include:

Traditional and newly commissioned dance and music performances based on contemporary and historical connections between Oman and East Africa. An art educators’ exchange program between the National Museum of African Art, Bait Al Zubair Museum Bait Al Baranda Museum, Sultan Qaboos University and the National Museum of Oman. A lecture series presenting lectures by Omani artists and cultural scholars, virtual exhibition, cross-cultural exchange and hands-on art workshops that will allow local U.S. teachers to broaden their students’ knowledge of Omani art. A video documentary on the collaborative work in Oman that will feature the influences connecting Oman and East Africa. Hands-on public workshops on calligraphy and Majmar craft painting, which is popular in Oman. A virtual exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century Omani postcards held in the museum’s Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. A celebratory look at Swahili traditions, including the art of spoken word and history and a performing arts program with several U.S. partners, including the Kennedy Center. A fully illustrated catalog, Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa, that will be available in 2015. It will include essays and photographs about the project.

Read More…

urbanflowerchild:

Greetings All,

The Society of Black Archaeologists Oral History Project is proud to present an interview with Dr. Alexandra Jones.

At this year’s Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Quebec, Canada, Ayana Flewellen sat down with Dr. Alexandra Jones. Dr. Jones discussed her…

urbanflowerchild:

Greetings All,

The Society of Black Archaeologists Oral History Project is proud to present an interview with Dr. Alexandra Jones.

At this year’s Society for Historical Archaeology conference in Quebec, Canada, Ayana Flewellen sat down with Dr. Alexandra Jones. Dr. Jones discussed her…