Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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The stelae appear to have been extracted several kilometres away at the quarries of 
Wuchate Golo to the west of Aksum, and dragged from there into the city. At the quarry 
the rows of holes cut into the rock to delineate the line of the desired cut can still be seen; 
wooden wedges, rammed into these holes and swollen with water would have eventually 
caused the rock to split. In some cases, traces of these wedge-holes remain on the stelae 
themselves.  
The stelae were probably erected with the aid of earthen ramps and tremendous human 
effort. Very likely each stele was hauled into position, perhaps using wooden rollers, until 
its base lay beside a pit dug ready to receive it (or possibly sometimes a tomb shaft, only 
partly refilled, was utilised). Then it was slowly levered up, and as it rose, stones and 
earth were placed as a ramp beneath it. Eventually, when it had slid into the pit and been 
levered completely upright, the pit, after being sometimes lined with larger stones, was 
packed with rubble and the base-plates installed. It must have been a tense moment when 
the stele reached the point of perpendicularity, and also when, once erect, the first steps 
were taken to remove the supporting ramp. Whether the rather unreliable African 
elephant could have been utilised in helping to manoeuvre these giant stones is not 
known, but makes an interesting speculation.  
No Egyptian obelisks could equal the size of the largest of the Aksumite stelae (though 
the unfinished one in the quarry at Aswan comes quite close). This enormous stone must 
surely represent the apogee of the manifestation of personal power in monumental 
structures in the ancient world. The five others are more modest in size, but are still very 
large. We have no accounts of these stelae from ancient visitors to the city, but they must 
have been an awe- inspiring sight rising in a row on their terraces overlooking the capital. 
Now all but one lie smashed or partly buried in the stream-bed, save for the second 
largest, which, transported to Italy as loot during the period of the Italian occupation of 
Ethiopia, now rises, repaired and restored but deteriorating in the polluted air, near the 
site of the Circus Maximus in Rome.  
Illustration 37. View (from below) of part of the Ionic capital and shrine on stele no. 7; 
the plain stele no. 36 now lies beneath it.  
Prior to these very few stelae were decorated. There is one roughly-shaped specimen with 
very rudimentary representations of beams and `monkey-heads', and another with an 
Ionic pillar and some sort of shrine rather elegantly depicted on it. A third has a circular 
object, perhaps a shield, topped with an angled and pointed line, carved on it. Finally, one 
has, carved near its base, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, the `ankh' (Anfray 1974).  
Illustration 38. Two of the plain round-topped stelae at Aksum. (Photo R. Brereton).  
A common type of stelae comprises those plain dressed ones with rounded tops. In some 
cases these preceded the great carved monuments, but in others the differentiation was 
probably caused by respective wealth; they were probably erected by contemporaries 
who could not hope to raise anything of the order of the decorated monoliths. These plain 
dressed stelae range in size from very large (more or less equal in height to all the 


decorated ones save the very largest examples) to comparatively modest dimensions. 
From the archaeological evidence, it can be said that in broad terms the development was 
from the smaller and rougher completely undressed type to the dressed and then 
decorated types. Some allowance, however, must be made for the relative prosperity of 
those who erected stelae, and their social grouping. Even after the development of the 
dressed stelae, some people could doubtless still only aspire to a rough-hewn memorial 
for their tombs; very likely the larger plain dressed stelae belonged to persons of very 
high rank, and the decorated ones only to the rulers.  
Illustration 39. In the eucalyptus groves now planted over the northern Stele Field at 
Aksum, two of the smaller unworked stelae. Photo BIEA.  
However, we remain completely uninformed as to who was buried beneath or near these 
memorials, though it is a natural inference that only the kings could have mobilised the 
necessary labour and skill to quarry, carve, decorate, and erect the giant stelae or build 
the larger tombs. At the other end of the scale a simple rough-cut tomb marked by a 
rough stele proved to contain sets of glass goblets and beakers, large numbers of iron 
tools, around eighty pottery vessels of excellent quality and many shapes (some certainly 
not for basic domestic use). This tomb, in the `Gudit' stelae field, probably dates to the 
third century AD and in spite of its unimpressive appearance it clearly belonged to a 
person of some affluence (Chittick 1974: 192 and pls. XII, XIIIa, XIVa).  
Some of the burials found in the Stele Park were of a different nature. In one shaft 
(Chittick 1974: pl. VIIIa) bodies were found in layers, with few grave goods beside 
personal ornaments. These, from coins found among them, seem to have been later 
Christian-period burials of simple type, and there seems to be no stele associated with the 
tomb.  
One or two bodies found may have been human sacrifices, offered as dedications or on 
celebratory occasions. King Ezana, for example, mentions offering 100 bulls and 50 
captives in an inscription (see 
Ch. 11: 5
); these captives may, of course, have only been 
dedicated to the gods as slaves. The stelae base-plates furnished with carved goblets 
resembling the Greek kylix could have acted as offering bowls; but these may rather have 
been used for wine or the like instead of blood, as noted above. A Yeha stele has a similar 
offering-cup in its base-plate (Littmann 1913: II, 2), and perhaps the custom was an old 
one. However, one rough stele (no. 137) was found to have the bones of perhaps two 
individuals seemingly thrown down into the pit in which it was erected, and there are 
other examples of human and animal bones, often burnt, among the fill and capping 
material of the platform complex (Munro-Hay 1989). Such rituals in pre-Christian 
Aksum call to mind contemporary sacrifices in the neighbouring Meroitic kingdom, 
where the kings are often depicted slaughtering captives en masse in an imagery which 
descends from the pharaonic art of very early times. In the vast and rich graves found 
under the mounds at Ballana and Qustul in Nubia, the so-called X-Group rulers 
contemporary with the later Aksumite kings were buried with human and animal 
sacrifices, and, though not in Africa, there is also the example of the Romans, who 
sometimes sacrificed victims at their triumphs.  



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