Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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role of the Persian Gulf, became much less important, not reviving until the Fatimids 
were able to police and develop it in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Aksumite 
cultural heritage (now bound firmly with Christianity), though no longer directed by a 
king of Aksum from Aksum itself, but by a hadani or najashi from elsewhere, continued 
its southward expansion, gradually retiring from the north and the coast over the 
centuries. The process seems to have been gradual, since Arab writers long refer to the 
size and wealth of the najashi's realm, and certain regions, though occupied by Muslims, 
still remained tributary. In the later tenth century the state may have almost succumbed to 
`Gudit', enabling the Agaw Zagwé eventually to seize control; but even then the churches 
of Lalibela, attributed to the Zagwé period, still indicate a strong continuity with the 
Aksumite cultural tradition.  
By the mid-seventh century, then, Aksum had lost its political pre-eminence in the region 
of the Ethiopian plateau, the coastal plains, and the Red Sea. The Ethiopian monarchy 
had left Aksum and undoubtedly the nobility and the merchant community were also 
departing. The city's monuments were falling into ruin, and, the result of a slow process 
of attrition, the formerly rich agricultural land surrounding the city was now capable of 
only a reduced yield. These were troubled times, and neither invasion nor revolt can be 
ruled out; the undefended former capital would have been easy prey to invaders, as it was 
to Gudit and Ahmad Gragn later. Nevertheless, even the most miserable conditions did 
not deprive Aksum of its legendary heritage, and the departure of the king, the court, the 
abun and all the trappings of a capital still left it pre-eminent in the possession of its 
cathedral and religious tradition. The damage done to the cathedral, and the plunder of its 
riches, did not seem to diminish the reverence of the Ethiopians for the venerable 
structure; the church was rebuilt and coronation at Aksum was reinstituted as the symbol 
of legitimate kingship. Aksum managed to survive the hardships of its declining fortunes, 
and, a political backwater, it became enshrined in Ethiopian tradition as a sacred city, and 
the repository of the national religion and culture.  
16. The British Institute in Eastern Africa's Excavations 
at Aksum 
 
This final chapter is based on a talk given by the author to the Society of Antiquaries of 
London in October 1987, designed more or less to coincide with the publication of the 
report on the excavations undertaken for the BIEA by Dr. Neville Chittick at Aksum 
from 1972-1974. Chittick's untimely death in 1984 prevented him from writing a fuller 
account than his Preliminary Report of 1974, but this task was undertaken by the present 
author, and has now been published (Munro-Hay 1989). Since the last major book on 
Aksumite archaeology appeared before the First World War (Littmann 1913), new 
studies based on archaeological excavation are long overdue. In addition, the 
architectural, numismatic, chronological and general cultural information revealed by 
Chittick's excavations has radically changed the impression gained of Aksum and its 
civilisation through previously published material, and it is evidently useful to 


recapitulate some of the main points here. Some of this material has been mentioned in 
previous chapters, but is here described all together within the context of the two main 
archaeological campaigns of 1973 and 1974.  
The BIEA excavations which Chittick directed were on a large scale, and there was a 
great deal of information to sift through. The result is that we have not only a much 
clearer picture of many facets of Aksumite life, but also valuable indications towards a 
chronology, one of the perennial problems in Aksumite studies. As usual, more 
information produces more problems; we cannot claim to have more than begun to solve 
them, but a good deal of progress has been made, and the general schema of Aksumite 
history presented by this book has greatly benefited from Chittick's work.  
The excavations explored a large number of sites in and around present-day Aksum. The 
archaeology of these is fully described in Munro-Hay 1989. The location of the most 
important sites was as follows.  
The easternmost sites excavated were those flanking or near to the superstructure 
covering the so-called Tombs of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal. Next to the west were a 
number of stele sites, called Geza `Agmai (GA), `Enda Yesus (EY), and Ghele Emmi 
(GE). In the eastern central part of the town the site DA revealed the Tomb of the Brick 
Arches, and many trenches were laid out around the Stele Park (ST) to investigate and to 
try to date the stelae. Among these trenches many tombs were discovered, including 
Shaft Tombs labelled A-C, and the Mausoleum and East Tomb near the largest stele. 
Certain other large tombs were also cleared; the Nefas Mawcha (NM) south of the great 
terrace wall above which the three largest stelae stood, and, to the west of the main stelae 
group, the Brick Vaulted Structure and the Tomb of the False Door (the THA and THC 
trenches). In the ancient residential centre of the city, two sites revealed what were almost 
certainly small parts of large mansions; they were labelled IW and ES. Fina lly, apart from 
a number of relatively unimportant exploratory trenches around the Stele Park 
(designated HAW, PW, WC, and ML), some trenches were laid out in a stelae field west 
of the modern town, opposite the Dungur villa excavated by Anfray (1972); these were 
called GT after the traditional identification of the area with the legendary queen Gudit.  
An important, and previously unknown, feature found at Aksum, among the ST trenches, 
was a series of buried stone-revetted platforms, the earliest of which seem to have been 
constructed in the first century AD, according to radiocarbon readings. The latest seem to 
have been erected, or rather expanded, in the fourth century. Behind their facades, the 
platforms were filled with freshly-quarried stones with almost no admixture of earth, and 
topped, relatively carefully, with layers of white and red soils. These, and considerable 
deposits elsewhere, at such sites as GA, GE, and HAW, lay in levels which yielded no 
coins, and thus seem to precede the first issues in c270-90AD. But in some of the GA and 
ST early levels were glass fragments, including types such as the mosaic or millefiori 
glass generally dated to between the first century BC and AD 100. The Periplus and other 
accounts mention glass of several types among the items imported into Aksum from the 
Roman empire, and these finds not only confirm the Periplus' report, but help to date 
these platforms as the earliest yet known features at Aksum.  


There are further indications that there was a considerable period of occupation at the site 
before the `Classical Aksumite' period of the third and fourth centuries. Some stelae, 
found standing upright in pits which had been dug into the earlier platforms, had been 
completely buried by subsequent deposits. All were of a rough undressed type which 
preceded the later carefully shaped and sometimes elaborately carved examples, some of 
which could be dated to the later third and the fourth century AD by accompanying 
material.  
The stelae at Aksum have never been properly dated. During his excavations Chittick was 
surprised to find that, according to his estimate, `the coins indicate that the deposits on 
which the stelae were erected accumulated in the Christian Aksumite period'. This 
certainly seemed a little unlikely, in view of the mounting evidence as the excavations 
progressed that the stelae were closely connected to tombs and were probably memorials 
to the deceased Aksumite kings; but, as usual, the key to his dating was the coinage, 
which has since been radically re-dated (Munro-Hay 1978 et seq.). The particular coin-
type which led Chittick to assume that he had found stelae of Christian date was an issue 
attributed by earlier numismatists (Anzani 1926) to the sixth century king Kaleb or his 
immediate successors. But the type can now be re-dated to a considerable time before 
Kaleb, on the basis of overstriking on coins of king MHDYS, probably a close successor 
of Ezana. Further, study of the stratigraphy in the trenches concerned has resulted in a 
different interpretation of the sequence of events, and no longer supports the idea that 
stelae were a late phenomenon at Aksum.  
The French archaeologist Henri de Contenson, working at Aksum in the 1950's, found 
that fragments of the broken summit of the largest stele of all (no. 1) lay below an 
occupation level containing coins of the late fourth century king Ouazebas (de Contenson 
1959: 29). The stele, according to the coin evidence, fell most probably in the late fourth 
or early fifth century; that is, after the official conversion of king Ezana in c330AD, but 
at a period sufficiently close to this event to make it likely that certain burial traditions 
such as the erection of stelae had not yet lapsed. Other structures in the Stele Park area 
are also dated to the later fourth century, and confirm that the cemetery was in use after 
the advent of Christianity, but probably for decades rather than centuries.  
The stelae seem to have all been associated with tombs, but as yet the direct pairing of 
certain tombs with certain stelae remains difficult. Almost every trench opened in the 
central (ST) area of Aksum yielded either a fallen stele, broken fragments, buried upright 
stelae, or shafts leading to tombs and tunnels, and it is certainly premature to assume that 
we know the lay-out of the necropolis. Two of the tombs were of quite unforeseen 
dimensions and sophisticated architecture. One, possibly associated with the largest stele, 
was dubbed the `Mausoleum', and consisted of a 15 × 15 metre complex of rooms off a 
central passage. Included in its construction were drystone walling, a brick arch, three 
shafts, dressed or rough granite roof-blocks, and a magnificent granite doorway in typical 
Aksumite style. The second, called by the Tigrinya name `Nefas Mawcha', a name 
meaning something like `the place where the winds go out', consisted of two outer 
corridors roofed with dressed granite slabs, built around a central room which was 
covered with a single slab measuring some 17m × 7m × 1½m. By a curious chance this 


tomb, roofed by the second largest stone known to have been employed in Aksumite 
construction work, was severely damaged when the largest stone of all, the great carved 
stele, crashed down and struck the tomb's north-west corner. This upset the complicated 
balance of roofing blocks and the entire tomb subsided. However, enough has remained 
intact for the excavators to be able to propose a restoration of its original design.  
Though the stelae may not have been objected to for religious reasons (it has even been 
suggested that some of them bore crosses at the top, where nail- holes indicate some 
applied decoration; van Beek 1967), the collapse of the largest one, and possibly of the 
second largest too, may have been sufficient reason for the Aksumites to turn to a simpler 
but essentially similar memorial, the house-tomb.  
The most accomplished monument of this type at Aksum, the Tomb of the False Door, 
was a surprising discovery. It is entirely made of dressed granite blocks, in the form of a 
house-superstructure with a magnificent carved granite door over a tomb chamber and a 
surrounding corridor, reached by a separate staircase from a paved courtyard. It was 
dated by Chittick to the pre-Christian period, since it was overlain by deposits containing 
glass attributed to the third century. However, it was later found that a stratum running 
beneath the stones of its courtyard abutted against an earlier stone wall, part of a building 
called the Brick Vaulted Structure. This latter, though incompletely excavated, appears to 
have consisted of a series of burnt-brick vaults, with horse-shoe shaped arches and 
granite relieving lintels, closely resembling the architecture of yet another tomb, the 
Tomb of the Brick Arches, so-called from its three horse-shoe shaped arches. This latter 
tomb cont ained material of probably mid-fourth century date. It therefore seems that the 
Tomb of the False Door is later than the arched structures, and probably of late fourth or 
early fifth century date. Very likely it was the next stage in the development of the 
necropolis architecture, since the fall of the great stele would probably have discouraged 
further such attempts, and the house-tomb type is a logical successor. A very close 
stylistic link between tomb and stelae is provided by the doorway and lintel of the tomb, 
carved in exactly the same manner as the doors depicted on the two largest, and latest, 
stelae. The early material found over the tomb, which was one reason for Chittick's 
assumption that it was of pre-Christian Aksumite date, appears to have been washed 
down from the higher slopes of the Beta Giyorgis hill which dominates the necropolis; it 
included a large number of stone scrapers also found in quantity on the top of the hill. 
Two other house-tombs, the double tomb building locally attributed to the sixth-century 
kings Kaleb and Gabra Masqal, and another found at the Eritrean site of Matara, are 
comparable.  
The picture we have of the town is not all taken from the necropolis. At the same time the 
excavations cleared a number of domestic structures, particularly at two sites which were 
designated IW and ES. These revealed rough stone-built walls, strengthened by two 
techniques, wooden interlacing or the use of granite corner blocks. In addition the walls 
were arranged in a series of recesses, so that there were no long stretches of wall, and 
each wall rose in rebated steps, each lined with slate. This is, as we have noted (
Ch. 5: 4
), 
typical Aksumite `mansion' architecture. Only a few rooms were cleared in each place, 
but it was evident from the finds that these dwellings were the houses of prosperous 


Aksumites in possession of a high standard of living. Objects found included the 
fragments of many polished breccia bowls, glassware and elegant pottery, metalwork, 
coins, and other items. Temples or churches were not found by the BIEA expedition, nor 
were examples of the more humble dwellings which were probably built with perishable 
materials such as wood and mud plaster with thatched roofs.  
The tombs, though only one was completely cleared, yielded rich grave-goods. The 
cleared one, marked by a rough stone stele, was not found in the main necropolis, but in 
the Gudit Stele Field west of the town (GT II). It appears to date from the mid-third 
century, and was merely a small chamber cut into the earth, with no built elements at all. 
It contained particularly fine pottery, two sets of glasses (stem goblets and beakers), and a 
large number of iron tools such as tweezers, saws, knives, and a sickle. The stele marking 
the grave, and the pottery, are `Aksumite' elements; the glassware and tools could as well 
be from a Roman site as an African one.  
Tombs in the main necropolis were evidently much richer, and the excavation of only one 
room in the 4th century Tomb of the Brick Arches revealed piles of grave-goods 
(mentioned above, 
Ch. 12
), including glassware, pottery vessels in a multitude of shapes, 
some painted and decorated, all sorts of metalwork, including glass- inlaid bronze 
plaques, fittings for what was probably a wooden chest, gold fragments, a silver amulet-
case, a bronze belt-buckle inlaid with silver and enamel crosses, iron knives with bone or 
ivory handles, and even leather and wood. In a number of small inner loculi, constructed 
by dividing the interior of the simply cut tomb by built stone walls, stone coffins could be 
seen behind a partly broken blocking wall. This tomb was also a surprise from the 
archit ectural point of view, since it was the first of those excavated which revealed the 
burnt brick horseshoe arches later found in even more elaborate styles in the Brick 
Vaulted Building. These must be among the earliest horse-shoe arches known, and were 
quite unexpected elements in Aksumite architecture, not being repeated in the later rock-
cut churches of Tigray and Lasta. Other tombs consisted of carefully cut shafts leading 
beneath the stelae into vast roughly cut chambers (Shaft Tombs A, B, and C), or into long 
winding corridors (the Tunnel Complex), which may have belonged to tombs, or perhaps 
more likely were robber tunnels. Though pottery, cut stone, skulls and so forth could be 
seen lying in the rooms and corridors, little clearing could be done in the time available. 
Much more work is necessary in the tombs found by the British Institute expedition, but 
political events have precluded a return as yet.  
Nothing significant was found in the tombs or buildings at Aksum which can be certainly 
attributed to a later date than the sixth or early seventh century AD. The archaeological 
record shows that the large residences were occupied or built around by squatters, even, 
apparently, in the time of the last coin- issuing kings, then gradually covered by material 
brought down by run-off from the deforested hills. The excavations thus confirm the 
theory suggested above that by about 630AD the town had been abandoned as a capital, 
although it continued on a much reduced scale as a religious centre and occasional 
coronation place until the present.  
 


.  
 
 


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