Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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came from Sasu and Barbaria, roughly the western Sudan and south-eastern Ethiopia or 
Somalia (Wolska-Conus 1968: 378). Such unskilled basic tasks as field work and rough 
quarry work, hauling, and domestic work could be expected for them. Exceptions would 
be prisoners of some special quality, like Frumentius and Aedesius, destined for tasks of 
greater responsibility, who probably were not actually considered as slaves. Procopius 
speaks of `slaves' (d?????) in the Aksumite army in Arabia, but these seem to have been 
allowed to remain in Arabia, and were included among those who later rebelled against 
Sumyafa` Ashwa` (Esimiphaios), which leaves their actual status unclear (Procopius, ed. 
Dewing 1914: 189).  
Ultimately, life in Aksumite times, as today, was based on the work of the peasant toiling 
in the fields. Ploughing with oxen, sowing, clearing, reaping, and threshing would have 
occupied his day, and very likely the land he worked was part of another's estate from 
which he could take only basic subsistence products for himself. Shepherding the flocks 
and herds, and tending vegetable and fruit gardens, would have been other countryside 
occupations. We have no informatio n about land-tenure systems in Aksumite times, 
though gifts of land by the king to the gods or to the church are mentioned, the former in 
inscriptions, and the latter in both inscriptions and land-charters. Those of the latter 
which claim to be of Aksumite times are all in reality much later, but may preserve some 
genuine information (Huntingford 1965). Possibly the prisoners offered to the gods were 
destined, if not as human sacrifices, to work on such lands? It is also not known whether 
the peasants were free, or tied to the land. Probably the houses of such people, as today, 
were constructed of perishable materials, and contained little besides essential tools, skins 
for clothing and bedding, a few storage vessels, (including wooden or basketwork ones?) 
and perhaps one or two extras for the richer peasant. Such houses may have been round, 
like a clay house- model from Hawelti, or perhaps, in more prosperous circumstances, of 
the type found by de Contenson at Mazaber in the Hawelti-Melazo region (de Contenson 
1963ii, pl. XXXVIIb-c; 1961iii: 44). The latter was a stone dry-walled house with the 
typical Aksumite steps or rebates in the wall, consisting of two rooms only, altogether 
about 9 m in length by about 4 m wide. Its only remaining contents were sherds from a 
few pottery vessels and fragments of household objects in bronze (a pin- head and a 
hook).  
The specialist potter, metalworker, leather-worker or other artisan, in the urban setting, 
may similarly have lived in a relatively humble house, and exchanged his work for food 
or money at one or other of the markets, or he may have travelled, doing work where 
needed. The only excavated urban areas which could give an idea about the dwellings of 
such people are at Matara, but they have not yet been fully published. However, a certain 
idea can be gained from published plans (Anfray 1974: 756 and fig. 7), which show a 
sharp contrast to the neighbouring mansions. The symmetrical arrangement of the former 
is replaced by an irregular series of square or rectangular rooms, entered by twisting 
streets and through courts. The impression given is of an organic process, the residents 
building, rebuilding, adding, or removing rooms and walls as their needs required. 
Hearths, ovens, and abandoned pottery indicate living floors in these simple two- or 
three-room dwellings. Complete publication of these quarters of Matara may eventually 
give us an idea as to the sort of people, and the way of life, to be found in the humbler 


echelons of an Aksumite urban population. Whether those peasants or artisans who lived 
and worked in defined areas were obliged to join the armies when required is not known, 
but seems very likely. Certain specialists, smiths and so on, must have been necessary to 
minister to the armies on campaign, and staff such as cooks, porters, and grooms or 
herdsmen to tend the animals would also have been taken along. The local trader in the 
market towns was probably not much better off. But the merchant in the larger centres, 
the larger independent farmer (if such existed), and the various civil officials may have 
constituted something of a middle class, dwelling in rather better houses, perhaps like 
those illustrated by the clay models found at Aksum. These were apparently equipped 
with wooden doorways and window surrounds, and layered thatch roofs (de Contenson 
1959i: pl. XIX, fig. 8; Chittick 1974: fig. 21a). A greater quantity of tools and fittings, 
with some occasional luxuries, can be imagined among their possessions. Good quality 
pottery, some glassware and decorative metalwork, jewellery, perhaps an Indian or 
Egyptian cloth robe or cloak, and meat and wine on the table are the sort of extras to be 
expected. They may have employed artisans and servants, or been able to afford a few 
slaves. Possibly the burial goods found in a tomb in the Gudit Stele Field (see below) 
belonged to someone from this level of society.  
In the central area of the towns, and in country mansions, the landowners and rulers of 
the dominant class would have led a rather more pleasant way of life, surrounded by 
households comprising slaves and servants living in the outer wings of their houses 
where the domestic offices probably were. The great distinction among the élite 
residences appears to have been one of size, and, as one might expect, the largest were 
the metropolitan palaces. We can approximately divide the buildings into two groups, the 
very large `palaces' and the lesser `villas' or `mansions', and these may reflect two 
echelons of the Aksumite élite; the rulers themselves, and the nobility and great officials.  
Those we may term palaces were at Aksum, with the length of the four sides of their 
central pavilions ranging from 24-35 m; the smallest of these, Ta`akha Maryam, was 
surrounded by outbuildings measuring 80 × 120. After an intermediate structure, the 21 
m sq pavilion at Dungur (Anfray 1972: pl. I), where the outbuildings measured c. 64 m 
sq, measurements of the pavilions of the next size of building down (`villa' or `mansion') 
varied as follows; 17.50 m, Tertre B at Matara (Anfray and Annequin 1965); the 
outbuildings measured 59.50 × 49 m; 15.20 m, Tertre C at Matara (Anfray and Annequin 
1965); 15 m, `Addi Kilte villa (Puglisi 1941); 12.60 × 11.20 m, Tertre A at Matara 
(Anfray 1963); the outbuildings, if symmetrically arranged, were about 17 × 15.50 m.  
In the central pavilions of these structures we might expect to find the reception rooms, 
and, upstairs perhaps (Buxton and Matthews 1974), the main living quarters. The quality 
of the fittings would have varied with the rank of  the owners, from the monarchs to 
perhaps different grades of noble or official. From tomb finds we can furnish these with 
gilded and decorated furniture, with vessels and other equipment of gold, silver, bronze, 
glass, and stoneware. To this we can probably add certain more costly furs and fabrics, 
perfumes and incense, carved wood and ivory work, and luxuries of the table both local 
and imported. Such establishments may have employed a number of specially-skilled 
retainers, such as musicians and singers, artisans of various sorts, clerks, accountants, 



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