Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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possibly among the imported garments mentioned by the Periplus (Huntingford 1980), as 
was also perhaps the gold-worked linen kilt worn by Kaleb in Malalas' description (ed. 
Migne 1860; see 
Ch. 7: 2
 above). Cotton may have come from Meroë (see p. 228), or 
perhaps from other areas within Aksumite control.  
The many stone implements found at Aksum were probably made for leather-working or 
for ivory and bone carving; ivory, bone, or wood handles have been found in certain 
tombs (Munro-Hay 1989). An interesting ethnographic parallel for the use of obsidian 
tools, apparently limited to the scraping of animal hides among the Gurage, Sidamo, and 
Arussi peoples of present-day Southern Ethiopia, is supplied by Gallagher (1974).  
There must also have been local workshops for metal objects, many examples of which 
have been found during excavations in Ethiopia. Some objects might have been imported. 
But such items as the statues of gold, silver, and bronze which inscriptions mention as 
raised to the gods in celebration of victories (
Ch. 11: 5

DAE 4, 6 & 7

Geza `Agmai

would very likely have been of Aksumite manufacture and style. A bronze belt buckle, 
with inlaid glass and silver decoration including crosses of typical Aksumite style as seen 
on the coins, may also have been a local product (Chittick 1974); if so, this confirms that 
there was probably a local glass industry as well. Helen Morrison, who catalogued and 
studied the glass from Aksum (Morrison in Munro-Hay 1989), found that a considerable 
number of unusual colours of glass came from the Aksum excavations, and that some 
painted designs on glass were, so far, unattested elsewhere; features which may go 
towards confirming that the Aksumites set up their own glass workshops. A glass-kiln 
has in fact been reported from Aksum, but the find has not yet been confirmed or 
published.  
Illustration 45. A bronze belt buckle decorated with silver crosses and inlay of dark-blue 
glass, from the Tomb of the Brick Arches at Aksum. Photo BIEA.  
If local workers succeeded to imported mint- masters in the making of dies for the 
coinage, as seems probable, this may account for the gradual decline of standards of die-
cutting; but the Aksumites compensated to some extent for the less skilled work by the 
inlaying of gold on the bronze and silver using mercury-gilding.  
Stone-working was very highly developed, as the stelae and other carved objects show, 
and the mason's yards must have been continually busy shaping the blocks needed for 
corners, doorways, paving and so on. Carved stone capitals, bases and water-spouts were 
among the more common categories of decorated stonework found during excavations 
(see 
Ch. 13: 3
). Bricks, too, used in tombs and certain special installations, were surely 
made and fired nearby.  
6. Food 
 


The Aksumites would doubtless have served their food in some of their large range of 
pottery vessels, after preparing it in the coarse-ware cooking vessels on open fires, in 
ovens or on charcoal- fed stoves. Much of their diet would have consisted of products of 
the local environment. Beef or mutton, bread, beer (sewa), honey wine or mead (tej), with 
various sorts of vegetables and fruits are to be expected locally, while imported wines of 
Laodicea and Italy, spices, and olive oil added to the luxury of the tables of the richer 
citizens. Archaeological evidence for the importation of wines and oils is supplied by the 
amphorae used to transport them; Paribeni even suggested that tar found in one amphora 
may have been used as a preservative, as in Greek resinated wines. It is unknown whether 
the Aksumites themselves cultivated the vine. Honey may have been used as a sweetener 
as well as a drink. Many of these foodstuffs are mentioned by the Safra inscription 
(Drewes 1962: 41, 48-9) or by the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 22).  
From the numerous medium-sized bowls found, it may be deduced that a part of the diet 
consisted of something like a cereal porridge or gruel. Wheat or barley-cakes and bread 
were also probably made, and the importance of the grain is illustrated by its depiction in 
a prominent position as a frame for the king's head on many Aksumite coins. Large 
numbers of grindstones testify to the preparation of flour for bread at, for example, 
Matara and Adulis. Anfray (1974: 752) noted that they are of the round, turning, type at 
Adulis, but oblong on the plateau sites. Anfray (1963: pl. CXLVI and 1965: pl. LXXIII, 
4) also mentions small mortars from the pre-Aksumite period, perhaps for use in the 
preparation of cosmetics rather than food. Dairy products would certainly have been part 
of the diet, and doubtless eggs were eaten. For meat, there was beef or mutton, and also 
any wild animals which might have been considered edible. By one hearth in Adulis, the 
French excavator Francis Anfray  found a cooking-pot still containing the mutton bones of 
a meal never cleared away (Anfray 1974: 753). Pork was not eaten in later times and 
possibly this abstention, observed by the Jews and Muslims as well as the Orthodox 
Ethiopians for practical health  reasons, was of early origin as domestic pigs are not 
attested. Dietary prohibitions are later reiterated in the Kebra Nagast (Budge 1922: 159). 
Fishing may have been practised. The turtles which produced the `tortoise-shell' may also 
have added to the coastal Aksumites' diet, though creatures without fins and scales are 
among those included in the later list of prohibited foods. Those who brought the 
tortoise-shell to the market are referred to by the author of the Periplus as Ikhthuophagoi, 
or fish-eaters. The excavations at Adulis produced both fish-bones and bronze fish-hooks 
(Paribeni 1907: 483, 540). Shell- fish were also later prohibited, again possibly an old 
custom. No early visitor has said whether the Aksumites liked raw beef, cut from the 
living animal, as Bruce (1790) reported (to the horrified disbelief of his eighteenth 
century English readers) about the Ethiopians of his day.  
Almost certainly some foodstuffs would have been eaten from wooden or basketwork 
vessels (the typical Ethiopian `table' today, the mesob, is of basketwork). Wooden 
cooking or eating utensils, and basketwork storage bins can also be presumed with some 
likelihood. In the lowest building level at the Maryam Tseyon site in Aksum, an 
exceptional find was a row of large pithoi or storage pots, probably for bulk storage of 
some sort of dry grain (de Contenson 1963i: pl. XII).  



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