Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Hay 1978), and Vavilov (1931: 10), from coins brought from Ethiopia, identified it as a 
wheat, triticum turgidum, subspecies abyssinicum Vavilov. But the two coins he 
illustrates as `Abyssinian coins' in his fig. 4 are, oddly enough, not Aksumite, but are 
bronze issues of early to mid 1st century Judaea, one dating to the time of Coponius (6-
6AD) or Ambibulus (9-12AD), the other to the time of Agrippa I, c42AD. Such coins 
have not otherwise been found in Ethiopia.  
A number of different animals are attested from the Aksumite period in Ethiopia. 
Inscriptions and literary references to Aksum mention cattle, sheep, camels, and 
elephants. The latter were apparently not usually trained by the Ethiopians, according to 
Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1973: 354; see Pankhurst 1974: 219-220). When the king 
wanted some for show he had young ones taken to be brought up in captivity. Elephant 
tusks, adds Kosmas, were sent by ship to India, Persia, Himyar and the Roman empire. 
The `pack animals' captured from the Tsarane of Afan (
Ch. 11: 5; DAE 10
) may have 
been donkeys or camels; camel bones and teeth were found at Adulis (Paribeni 1907: 
451). Yoked (humpless) oxen are modelled in clay standing in the base of bowls found in 
some of the tombs at Aksum, possibly fashioned for some sort of religious purpose
humped cattle (zebu) figures come from Matara (Anfray 1967: 44-45), from the 
excavator's second Aksumite period (which he dates to the sixth-eighth centuries). Cattle 
on the hoof, with iron and salt, were used to barter with western neighbours for gold, 
according to Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 360), and most inscriptions tell of the seizure 
of large numbers of animals as plunder from defeated enemies (
Ch. 11: 5
). Inscriptions 
also note that some animals were used for sacrificial purposes, or at least presented to the 
gods (
Ch. 11: 5; DAE 10
). One or two pottery figures of birds exist from Aksumite times, 
and (with a little imagination) we can perhaps identify chickens and pigeons or doves 
(Chittick 1974: pl. XIIc; Paribeni 1907: fig. 48; Wilding in Munro-Hay 1989). Among 
wild animals the giraffe, taurelaphus (buffalo) and rhinoceros are mentioned by Kosmas 
(Wolska-Conus 1973: 314-321), the former being sometimes tamed and kept in the 
palace to amuse the king. The Ethiopian buffalo was wild, in contrast to that of India, 
where it was used as a beast of burden and supplier of milk. The rhinoceros was called 
the aroue harisi, apparently from Ethiopian words meaning wild beast and plough 
(Wolska-Conus 1973: 317 n. 2.1). The latter designation apparently referred both to the 
shape of its snout and the use to which its thick skin was put. Kosmas saw a wild one at a 
distance, and the stuffed skin of another in the royal palace. The monoceros or unicorn 
Kosmas admitted not having actually seen, but he did see four brass figures of him set up 
in the king's palace. The ibex, lion, and perhaps some species of deer or gazelle are 
depicted in Aksumite art forms (
Ch. 13: 3
). Two small bronze figures from Aksum are 
possibly dogs (Chittick 1974: fig. 23). A number of agricultural tools, notably a sickle, 
also came from tomb finds (Munro-Hay 1989). The pottery and glass beakers and goblets 
found in the tombs might have been used for the local beer, sewa, or the honey wine, mes 
or tej, which are mentioned in the ancient inscriptions dealing with the issue of rations. 
Oil (vegetable) and butter are also mentioned and wines and oils were noted in the lists of 
imports (see below). Local oils were probably derived from linseed and nug, and olive oil 
was imported. Wine or oil presses, with basins, channels and spouts carved in the rock, 
are known, which date to Aksumite times (Littmann 1913), but vines are only mentioned 
by the Portuguese in later centuries (Pankhurst 1961: 213).  


3. Metal Resources 
 
Local exploitation of mineral resources is not well documented, but gold seems to have 
come from the Sudan (Sasu), some southern Ethiopian regions and possibly Gojjam, 
Eritrea, and the Beja country, and iron ore, silver, lead and tin are also mentioned, though 
mostly from Portuguese sources (Connah 1987: 72; Pankhurst 1961: 224-9).  
The gold trade from the south is known from the sixth century (Kosmas, ed. Wolska-
Conus 1968: 360-1), and reports about Ethiopia's wealth in gold reached ludicrous 
heights in later times (Pankhurst 1961: 224-7). Kosmas' story about the exchange of gold 
for iron, salt and cattle is supported by de Almeida's account (Beckingham and 
Huntingford 1954: 149) of gold obtained in his day from Cafraria (a general name for the 
lands extending from the southern kingdom of Enarya east to Malindi and west to 
Angola), where the Cafres exchanged it for clothing, cows, salt and other goods. Even 
when Bruce was in Ethiopia, gold from the south was exchanged for similar products, 
iron and copper, skins and hides, and beads (Pankhurst 1961: 227). Alvares (Beckingham 
and Huntingford 1961: 159-60, 457) was tempted to try his own experiments at gold-
washing in Aksum, inspired by reports that much gold was found after storms. His 
attempts may have been doomed to failure through a misunderstanding; doubtless his 
informants referred to the finding of small gold objects, such as coins, rather than actual 
gold in the soil as occurred in Damot or Enarya far to the southwest (Pankhurst 1961: 
224-7). Even now the people of Aksum find considerable quantities of ancient coins after 
the rains have washed the soil away. Some gold has also been reported from Gojjam, 
much closer to Aksum (Pankhurst 1961: 224; Kirwan 1972: 171; Crawford 1958) and 
ancient gold workings are claimed in Eritrea (Tringali 1965: 151-2; see also the brief note 
on material from the Museum of Mankind appended to the account of the Adulis 
excavations of 1868, Munro-Hay 1989i) and in the Beja territory (Kobishchanov 1979: 
134), where there was much activity from the ninth century when the Arabs became 
interested (Hasan 1973: 50). The greater part of the gold, that from the south, was found 
by panning or by searching river beds, and was not from mines.  
Silver seems not to have been common, but some reports of mines exist from the 
Portuguese period (Pankhurst 1961: 227-8). Possibly the considerable issues of silver 
coins, over some 300 years, depended on imported silver, but this seems very unlikely in 
view of the amounts used and the fact that many silver issues were adorned with gold 
overlay, scarcely necessary if the metal itself were already a rarity. It seems probable that 
the Aksumites had local silver sources, possibly including some of those mentioned by 
the Portuguese in later centuries. Doubtless the exploitation of precious metals was kept 
as much as possible under state control.  
Sources of iron ore were apparently fairly common in Tigray (Pankhurst 1961: 228-9; Fr. 
Raffaello Francescano in Monneret de Villard 1938: 60). Copper and bronze do not seem 
to be noted except as an import in the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 21-2), though tin was 
apparently available in later times (Pankhurst 1961: 229).  



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